Instead of flying home to Texas, Steve & Suzanne invited their kids to join them in East Africa for the Christmas Holidays.
On day two of our Safari, Frank takes us to Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where most hunting has been outlawed since the late 1920s a fact made believable by the way the animals completely ignore us or see us as no threat. This Crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera (think a huge sinkhole that collapsed into space where the lava erupted from some 2-3 million years ago).
It takes us an hour to drive over the rim and onto the crater floor after entering the park. It is vast and understandably one of Africa’s premier attractions (according to Lonely Planet). On the crater floor, we are greeted by a huge obstinacy of cape buffalo. I’m getting such a kick out of these collective terms for African wildlife.
Our ears hear Frank using lots of Lion King language, pointing to lions and saying simba (which I later learn means lion in Kiswahili), pumba, meaning slow-witted for warthogs, jambo, hello, asanti sana thank you very much ploy, ploy, slowly, slowly, and our favorite hakuna matata.
I think he is accommodating us, playing to our inner Disney. It’s not a bad thing, but it does amuse me how well our guides understand American culture. For example, one night at the Tented Camp, Ben asks to be exempt from the soup course, and our waiter makes a big show of taking his bowl, announcing “No soup for you!” and in perfectly accented Seinfeld Soup Nazi. Just how does he know this I wonder?
It takes me a day before I realize Frank isn’t using Disney Lion King language, but it is the Lion King that adopted his native tongue, and I feel somewhere between relieved, and embarrassed. Even though we left the states four years, I am still through and through American in my worldview.
As promised the crater is thick with wildlife. The books talk about the 62 lions in the pride of this crater, and some of see as many as 12 of them. They are majestic and oblivious to our presence, not that anyone got that close, they are lions after all.
I take a ridiculous number of pictures. I have the big camera, and Suzanne uses the point and shoot. She is the better photographer but likes to be more in the moment than the recording of it. I wonder why bother taking pictures at all, especially in this digital age when I take too many (4000 on this trip alone), and don’t know what to do with them at the end. I tend toward taking pictures of what we are doing, over who we are doing it with, which is Suzanne’s forte. We make a good team, but after I wonder what to do with them now? It turns out my Canon 70d has a focusing issue, so having lots of pictures to choose from works in my favor, as 70% were out of focus.
We have good friends who make photo-story books. She will spend months carefully curating her digitals and composing the story of their adventure. They have a shelf of beautifully bound books of their family adventures. Like digital scrapbooking, the prose and pictures make an excellent evening activity when we stay at their house. Neither Suzanne and I are that dedicated; a blog is the best we can do.
The highlight was seeing, and I use that verb lightly, a rare black rhino. It was more of a black smudge in the distance that Frank pointed us to. With the field glasses (binoculars) we could make out it familiar rhino outline, one of 26 of this park. We feel blessed to have “seen” one, but sad there are so few left. Frank tells the story of “John,” the oldest of Ngorongoro’s rhinos, who went missing a year ago this month. He is clearly emotional about it, and the story is hard to follow, but he believes it was sold dubiously by some park officials for $50,000. “I am struggling to pay my children’s school fees,” he says, “who could say no to that kind of money?”
He is not implicating himself, its more of a statement that reminds me of something Dr. Spong said in my seminary pastoral care course, “You want to know the truth about humanity?” he said and paused, “…everyone has their price. Everyone.” He went on to tell us we may think ourselves different, but in the end, you have a price, and its good to know that about yourself.
Toward sunset, we see a family of lions and lion cubs. They are ours alone, we’re not sharing them with any other Land Cruisers. Frank turns off the engine, and we just watch, awestruck. Its quiet, the air has the smell of rain, and we’re not in a hurry. It feels like dessert lingering over a fine cup of coffee, the beautiful end to a remarkable day.
When we lose the lions to the bush, and start to move, we ask to go back home to the Tented Camp. We’ve seen enough, and want to relish the experience, not try to stuff more in it. We are satisfied, deeply.
Besides the concentration of wildlife, what struck me was how often they shared the same landscape. I think the only time I saw our presence noticed was when an obstinacy of cape buffaloes was on the move and had stopped, waiting to cross the road we were on, us and some number of other vehicles. This herd just stood there, pacing around in their cape buffalo way, looking anxious to cross, but not willing to engage the two-legged creatures. Frank said that as long as we stayed in the land cruiser, we were invisible to the animals. All they saw was a moving metal box, not the people inside.
Both Lake Manyara, and Ngorongoro Crater were thoughtful parks. The experience was structured around seeing the animals, but not at the cost of their dignity, or ours. It was something to be experienced together, not measured in big-five check marks, but in watching these exotic animals live, in their everyday way. There was no excitement, no chaise of a lion, or stampeding wildebeest, just watching them graze, sleep, sport around like teenagers or play with their cubs.
On the way back to our Tents, we are snapping pictures and jubilant. Frank is a little embarrassed because today we saw so many animals: four out of the big five, lion, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo, but no leopards. It is not supposed to be this easy. When Suzanne had started the conversation with his tour company, they initially proposed a much more ambitious schedule. We’re not that kind of travelers; we try to stay balanced between what we see and do, and the experience.
Tomorrow we leave for Zanzibar and a completely different experience.