There’s no question that visiting Tanzania’s world-renowned national parks is an expensive proposition. While budget travelers like me can camp and cook our own food, there’s no escaping the high cost of park fees. At fifty dollars for each twenty-four hour period or faction thereof, it’s easy to rack up a couple hundred dollars in park fees before paying for petrol, camp fees, food or beer. Even worse is the vehicle fee charged by the National Parks to descend into the Ngorogoro Crater: $200 per vehicle. Now if I had convinced Tom or the other motorcyclists to join me, this fee would have been divided by the number of passengers in the Land Cruiser. Instead, as a solo traveler with my piki-piki (motorcycle in Swahili) I’ve got to carry the entire cost of this fee. Sure, I could opt to just enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Ngorogoro Conservation (NCA) area, which spans for 8,300 square kilometers encompassing the crater, Olduvai Gorge, Lakes Ndutu and Masek all the way to the border of the Serengeti. But to visit Tanzania and not visit this fascinating volcanic crater where perhaps the most dense population of wildlife coexist including lions, leopards, black rhinos, zebras, wildebeest, hyenas, flamingoes and more, would be a travesty. Thanks to many of my generous and vicarious armchair riding companions who’ve contributed to my WorldRider gas can/tip jar, I’m able to bite the bullet and cough up the exorbitant fees.
Though I understand to a point why these fees are charged. There’s park maintenance, of course, but at the same time the need to control tourism population and its impact on the land and its inhabitants can’t be underestimated. The theory is with higher fees, less people visit. But somehow, I’m not sure if this works. Sure, locals and resident ex-pats are given a break, but where’s the money going? Given the condition of some of the facilities in the parks, I wonder if the money is being spent well or just lining the pockets of ministers and park managers.
Take the Simba campsite, for example, on the rim of the Ngorogoro Crater. It’s the only developed campsite in close proximity to the crater, but its facilities are old and worn and the bathrooms and showers unpleasant, dirty and ignored from a maintenance point of view. Yet the number of 4 and 5 star resorts scattered throughout the NCA command anywhere from $200-$1,000 per night is evident that Tanzania has little interest in maintaining its basic facilities in favor of attracting the well-healed Safari adventure wannabes. Not that I wouldn’t mind spending nights in these plush lodges, there’s something genuine about sleeping under the stars to the music of hippos, hyenas and others while waking to the tune of dozens of exotic birds.
But sometimes you can get just a little to close to nature. After another one of Ben’s excellent bush meals, and watching the sun set over the rim of the crater I decided one last trip to the bathroom would be wise before slipping into my sleeping bag. Without the benefit of much moonlight, I made my trek past a few other tents to the cinder-block and corrugated metal roofed bathroom sitting at the edge of the grass area under a few trees about 100 meters from my tent. Thinking nothing but how much I enjoyed the half-day Simon and I spent tracking lions, hippos, rhinos and flamingoes down in the legendary crater when I heard a guttural grunt coming from the direction of the bathroom.
Zebra and Marabou Storks cruising around Simba campsite on the rim of the Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania
View from the rim of the crater at sunset.
Then a thump and a thud. Then more snorting sounds of syncopated grunts.
Waking myself up from my lax state I looked up and in the light of the latrine caught the glint and shape of sharp ivory colored horns moving toward me at a fast rate. It took only a fraction of second to recognize the distinctive shape of the skull and horns running toward me. Then the buffalo’s eyes locked onto mine and I ran. And ran I did. I almost dove into the smelly bathroom and slammed the door shut in the fastest smoothest yet most frightening single move I’d made since trying to forró dance in Brazil so many months ago.
My heart beating faster than the dust and dirt flying from the tires of a safari land rover, I stood in the corner and counted. First my blessings. Then my pulse. What just happened? I was alive. And no horn pierced my pale white skin. The smell of the latrine started nauseating me more than the fear or heartbeat could hold me in there and I cracked the door opened and looked out, then bolted out of the bathroom and in a frenetic pace that would make many power-walkers jealous I quickly skirted the first 50 meters of grass to he safety of the first tent, a guard and human activity. When passing the guard, a local Masai charged with security for the evening, I just shook my head and said, “Damn buffaloes” and then negotiated the zipper on my tent and before falling face down on my foam mattress. Heart still beating, I rolled over and stared at the sky. And I relived in my mind my encounter with true wildlife. Who would have thought there’d be buffalo just grazing next to the bathrooms. I thought. No one will ever believe this. I was almost impaled the horns of a wild buffalo.
The next morning while wondering if I dreamed the incident the night before a german guy eating at the table next to mine started the conversation.
“I saw you last night,” he quipped, thinking to myself I didn’t drink that much wine and made myself present while in search of a corkscrew.
“Yeah, I should never leave home without a corkscrew,” being polite while offering a little self-deprecation.
“No, going to the bathroom,” it was an odd statement but then I knew he saw my near death run-in with the buffalo.”
“You saw that!” I was happy to learn that it wasn’t a bad dream and witnesses lived to tell the story.
“Yeah. I started for the bathroom a few minutes before you,” he explained, ” when I saw the two buffalo. I think I might have agitated them.”
“There were two of them?” I asked thinking, good god this was scarier than I thought.
“Yeah. I think they had enough when you came too close,” he reasoned while gleaming with a huge smile. “But the best part was seeing your eyes when you barely open the door of the bathroom and peeked out.”
Happy to provide entertainment for this Deutchlander, but that was enough. “I coulda been killed,” I explained.
“I know. You shoulda seen yourself run, you’re lucky.” Great. So this guy sees the buffalo, retreats yet sits by his tent puffing on a cigarette while I run right into the center of danger. He didn’t think of warning me.
You really don’t want to be close to these beasts. I think the egrets and the buffalo have a mutual agreement. Yes. This is what I saw coming at me just a few feet away when all I wanted was to go to the bathroom.
This was about how close and big he looked. I’m much bolder when the animal is disembodied, huh?
I grabbed my video camera as I wanted him to retell the incident for posterity and for one day to be included on the WorldRider DVD.
Ben and Simon packed up the Land Cruisers, hooked up the trailer with Doc and we headed out toward the endless plains of Serengeti National Park, while Ngorogoro, its crater and menacing buffalo faded away in the dusty rearview mirror.
Wildebeest going to join the flamingoes in the lake inside Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania
Lions get out of the way!
Awfully tiring day hanging out in the crater chomping on Zebra and Gazelles.
Crested cranes with elephants against the backdrop of the wall of the crater.