Day 1: The Highlands
Today we arrived at The Highlands in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Situated on the side of the Olmoti Crater, the forest surrounded us on all sides, lush and full. It was a beautiful afternoon, and after placing our belongings inside our domed tents, we spent some time taking in the views of the Maasai land, stretched out and rolling in shades of green as far as we could see. The birds perched unseen in the treetops above, but called out in a loud trill in all directions.
A few of us walked down to one of the local Maasai villages not too far from camp with our guide, and were warmly welcomed by the local community. Dressed in coral reds and royal blues, the villagers gave us a tour of their homes. The huts they lived in were arranged in a neat circle, built and thatched low to the ground. A thin fence of tall sticks made up the border, and beyond it were a herd of goats grazing in the long grass.
A couple of us were ushered towards them by villagers, urging us to have a go at herding them. Others were led to cattle and shown the methods for milking. Laughter quickly filled the village as we attempted (read: failed) to do a good job.
With the sun beginning to set, we headed back to our camp. Gathering around a campfire, settling on low benches with bowls of food in our hands, our guide met with us to discuss the plan over the next few days. Ahead of us awaited mountains, plains, gorges and impossible amounts of wildlife.
Day 2: The First Fly Camp
The sun had barely risen over the horizon before breakfast had been eaten, bags had been packed, and we were on our way down Olmoti Crater. The hike was relatively easy, only a slight decline. Pausing for breath here and there, we turned in a circle where we stood, taking in the panoramic views. Below we could see a river, a ribbon of blue snaking through the bush. Behind us, the side of the crater loomed, looking steeper than it felt on our legs.
We were headed east, toward the Serengeti plains. It was quickly noted that there were no real roads or pathways here - we were off the grid, forging our own way one step at a time. Our route was punctuated here and there with more Maasai settlements and cattle herdsmen hiking across the highlands. Each time we passed someone new, we would nod in greeting, wave slightly, and continue on our way.
We abruptly stop, bumping into each other slightly. Spotted to our left were buffalo, a small herd of them mingling in the thicket. One raised its head towards us, acknowledging us for a moment, before turning its back and walking slowly away. Taking note, the remaining buffalo filtered out of our sight, one by one.
Morning quickly turned into afternoon as we arrived at our first fly camp. The morning - although it went quickly - had been tiring on my feet and I longed to just rest for a while. Tents arrived by donkey, and we quickly made camp before setting up for dinner as darkness settled.
After eating, we filtered back to our tents. I took a moment to appreciate the night sky, I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen the stars so clearly.
Day 3: Salei Plains
I woke up to the first rays of sun leaking through the tent and the morning alarm of birdsong from all around. After a group breakfast around the campfire, we packed up camp and set off once more into the Ngorongoro wilderness. Still heading east, we edged ever downwards towards the flatlands.
Eventually we emerged at our destination - the Salei Plains. The area plateaued into vast flatlands before us, with nothing breaking the line where the earth met the sky. Once a year, wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles all migrate through here, sweeping clockwise over miles to reach the rain-ripened grass further north.
Our next fly camp was all set up on the outskirts of the plains - it was only mid-afternoon, so we had plenty of time to rest up at the camp, enjoy the stunning views and appreciate the exclusivity - and utter beauty - of where we were.
Day 4: Towards Olkarien Gorge
Another early morning - these are quickly becoming some of my favourite parts of the day. We grouped around the now charcoaled campfire for breakfast, admiring the tranquillity of our surroundings.
Walking across the Salei Plains, I was struck by how unspoilt it is. It felt as though we were the first people to ever set foot here. Like so much of Ngorongoro, there were no clear paths, and so we manoeuvred carefully through the grass, careful to leave this wilderness just as we found it. To our left and right, we often spotted jackals and gazelles darting this way and that, always keeping a wide berth from us.
The end of the walking day brought with it the entrance of Olkerein Gorge, where another camp awaited us. Tomorrow we push ourselves further, heading through the gorge.
Day 5: Into Olkarien Gorge
Olkarien Gorge is situated to the east of the Gol Mountains, and is a key nesting site for the critically endangered Ruppell’s Griffon vultures.
At its mouth, we could clearly see the volcanic Ol Doinyo Lengai rising from the horizon. It was almost symmetrical in stature, and clouds settled around its peak giving the impression of pooling smoke pouring out of the crater rim. It was immense compared to the much flatter landscape that surrounded it, and I soon learn the translation of its name is ‘Mountain of God’.
The gorge is met at its entrance by a small sand river decorated with small shrubs at its banks. Its rock face is jagged and sharp to the eye. Here and there, thin trees and small plants pushed persistently through the cracks, providing splashes of green to an otherwise brown and beige scene. The path through was uneven and loose underfoot, and so we were careful not to twist our ankles as we walked, always looking upwards and around us at the impressive terrain or for the glimpse of a griffon.
It was clear that this land belongs to the elusive birds. Our guide pointed intermittently at proof they’d been nearby - scraps of food over there, evidence of nesting up here. No one talked, listening for the flap of wings or a call from the sky. Nothing.
Day 6: Nasera Rock
This morning's walk began by crossing open land along a large floodplain. We hadn’t seen another person in days, and so passing the Maasai cattle herders on their way to take the cattle to water was an unusual and welcome sight.
We sat here for some time, talking about what we had seen, and what we had yet to. Across from us, a lone warthog trotted along towards nowhere in particular, but with great purpose. We sat, watching after him until he was just a dark spot among the grass; as he vanished, we said our goodbyes to the cattle herders and set off towards Nasera Rock.
Nasera Rock was hard to miss - it sat large and proud in the middle of the plain, so oddly situated in comparison to the rest of the scenery. The rock seemed familiar in some way, but I'd never been here before. Another in my group said it before I could - it bore a striking resemblance to the Pride Rock from The Lion King.
Day 7: Barafu Kopjes
We started off our day bundling into a 4x4 to cover some distance on the approach to the Serengeti National Park, and it was a welcome change for our aching legs. We took this time for extra rest, placing foreheads onto bags for a quick snooze, waking up here and there to look for animals spotted around us.
Eventually we reached the Barafu Kopjes, a cluster of seven granite outcrops near the gorge that crossed through the most eastern part of the Serengeti. Like so much of the terrain here, it reached on out of view, seemingly endless, impossibly huge.
This was cheetah country now, and we slowly scanned our eyes over the rocky ledges around the area, hoping to be the first to spot one. The guide beside me passed me his binoculars and gestures to a rocky outcrop to our left. Raising them to my eyes, I could immediately see two cheetahs that I had previously mistaken for dry grassland. They lay there, sunbathing in the late afternoon heat, one half-heartedly turned its neck to begin bathing itself, but soon decided to just rest his head on the rock again. By now, everyone was watching them in a thrilled silence, passing binoculars back and forth.
This was undeniably the perfect last night of fly camping in the wild before arriving at our safari camp tomorrow. Everyone is tired, but happily so. Around the campfire, we reflected on our days here - happy to have seen the cheetahs, amazed at the gorge, lamenting about not having seen a griffon - they’re all unique memories we get to keep, and I don't know if I'll ever find a place quite this beautiful again.
Day 8: Namiri Plains
The morning began with the view of the Barafu Kopjes in the morning light. The trees were still, the plains completely barren of any sign of movement. There were no cheetahs to be seen anymore, but that didn’t make the view any less breathtaking.
After packing for the last time, we headed westward towards the beautiful Namiri Plains. The camp here is nestled among trees that sit stout to the ground. The leaves on every branch sit well apart from each other, as if meticulously placed on by one, and I watch as the light catches between them and spills to the dry floor in delicate cracks.
The horizon is dotted with the same trees, and below them zebras graze in the cool early evening light. I am currently watching them, sitting alone for the first time in a while.
In the morning, we will all head towards the airstrip and away from the Ngorongoro Highlands and Serengeti National Park, but towards our next adventures.