Friday, May 23, 2014

Flamingos at Empakai Crater Lake

We wished to experience a little more than wildlife in Tanzania. Hikes in the Ngorongoro area are sometimes discussed in travel forums, but not a lot is known, since these activities don't seem to be very popular. I decided to take the 'risk', and planned a non-wildlife trip for a day. The second activity was hiking in the Lake Natron area, which is reserved for another post. 

From pictures available on the 'net, the Empakai Crater Lake seemed very tempting. The opportunity to hike down the crater rim through dense forests, escorted by an armed ranger seemed too exciting an opportunity to let go. The lack of a whole lot of information and the consequent uncertainty of it all added to the mystery. We just had to do it! 

We stopped off at the Conservancy office at about 08:15 AM. We had a date with the Ranger. We were informed that another couple would be coming along shortly, and that we could share one Ranger between the four of us. Government offices in Tanzania open at 08:00 AM. The office staff were already there when we reached. 

The obligatory photograph was clicked at the southern viewpoint. This area had been completely fogged out into a sea of white during our drive from Tarangire to Serengeti. It was a lot clearer today.

Junior then got busy with his attempts at adding to his Crater-Cloud-Sun collection. 

We headed towards the Empakai mountain. 
We would be circling the crater towards the east and then drive further north-east. 

A layer of fog continued to cover the crater rim. 

A Ranger slinging a mean looking gun was waiting for us at the small office at the end of the ascent road on the eastern side of the Ngorongoro Crater. It's all very well organized. Good opportunity for a rest room break. It was freezing cold, as well! The second group arrived shortly, consisting of two Dutch doctors. They would also be hiking down the Empakai Crater that day. We passed Massai villages and meadows nestled in the mountains, painted a brilliant green by the early morning sun.

The scenery gradually changed from lush green to brown as the grassy meadows gave way to barren tracts of land with bits of dried grass. 

The road was sometimes winding and sometimes very straight as we ascended from the Ngorongoro area to the Empakai mountain, leaving a dust trail behind us. 

We paused for a minute to say hello to a Kori Bustard that was warming itself in the sun. It is reputed to be Africa's heaviest bird. Our collective will power was not adequate to pursuade it to turn around and return our hello greetings. 

The approx 80 km drive from the Conservancy office to Empakai Crater, including the rest room stop and the Ranger pickup stop, was close to two hours. We passed a variety of landscapes along the way, mostly mountainous, ranging from the green to the brown. 

The sight of Empakai Crater with the lake suddenly appeared through the trees as we reached. Amazingly, the rim of the Crater and the Lake form neat concentric circles.We parked the 4x4 in a little clearing and headed to the trail that leads down. Ah, here we are, at last. It's been months of confusion, debating, planning and anticipation. To do or not to do? 

Any activity that is uncommon does raise questions in the mind. Am I doing the right thing? Is it going to be worth setting aside a valuable day for? Is it safe? Is the hike going to be easy or difficult? We had bought light hiking shoes, as well. Be responsible. I had been told back home, very sternly. 

The trail is steep and leads to the Lake through thick vegetation. Some portions are extremely slippery, though it was dry that day. Lots of loose pebbles and loose mud at a steep gradient. Some "slip slidin away", minor adjustments were needed, like occasionally going down sideways or holding a rock for momentary support. We descend rapidly, sweating, and it felt warm soon enough. Time to take off or loosen the outer layer.

The Ranger points out interesting things along the way. Like a large Strangler Fig tree from where a Leopard jumped out one time. Wild Buffalo may also occasionally appear. Maybe the troop that was to go Snort-chomp-chomp-chomp later that night at the Campsite. Those were some of the reasons we needed to be escorted by a Ranger. Who knows what else may be out there! Oh, the mystery and fun of it all!

We learnt about poisonous plants that we should not be touching. Look, don't touch!

We get our first views of the Crater Lake from the level of the Lake. We made it down in a little less than 30 minutes, a ground  distance of about 1 kilometer (according to Junior's Nike app), descending a vertical height of about 300 metres (1,000 feet).   

Time to look around, catch our breath and wonder which way to head. It's very, very quiet down there. Not surprisingly, because it felt like we were the only people out there. I don't recall hearing bird calls either. 

We pose for a few group photographs. Amos had realized that we did not have photos together, so he had insisted that we do so at the Ngorongoro Crater viewpoint. He insisted here once again. Say cheese! Seriously, though, such moments are worth treasuring, and feeling grateful that we have had the opportunity to experience some incredibly beautiful spots that the world has put on display for us.

Junior gazes up the rim and wonders about the 300 metres vertical distance, and the creatures that may be lurking there. 

A penny for your thoughts. The ground near the lake goes crack-crack as we walk, feels like the outer crust of a deep baked dish. 

It turns out that we aren't the only people there. Maasai shepherds quietly graze their cattle at the far end of the crater. I'm sure they do this up and down trip everyday without a care in the world. 

Time to relax a while, and look around. It was nice to be doing nothing, or strolling along slowly by the bank of the lake. The ground got softer nearer the Lake, so we could not walk beyond a point. I wondered what it would feel like to dip my fingers into a high pH level soda water lake. 

I try to capture a panoramic view manually. Using a wide angle setting, I needed several shots to capture the entire breadth of the Lake. The Lake is about 6 km in diameter. The lake looked deceptively small until I tried the wide angle views. 

We spotted a small group of Lesser Flamingo at the far end. They kept flying away and settling further ahead. I hear the Lake would be covered with Flamingos during the months of July and August. Lake Natron is the breeding ground for most of the Flamingo population. We would be going there shortly! So our trip was also a get-to-know-the Flamingo trip.

While the descent stressed the knees, it had close to no impact on the respiratory system. The ascent was the reverse, it barely impacted the knees, but can get hard on the respiratory system if you rush up. Being at an altitude of about 3,300 metres (11,000 feet), we took it easy, taking about an hour to get back, looking back now and then to appreciate the views. 

A group of Maasai folks had gathered by then, offering us a range of handicrafts. Amos became the intermediary and helped us buy a couple of small things. Predictably, there were smiles all around.

The Ol Doinyo Lengai is an active volcano in Tanzania that rises up 2,000 metres (6,600 feet) above the Rift Valley. The steep mountain is located north-east of the Empakai Crater. We would be heading to Lake Natron in a few days, located on the other side of the mountain. 

The drive back from Empakai to Ngorongoro took us back through several changes in landscapes and a 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) drop in altitude. Clouds played with the sun over barren, brown fields.

The road meandered through the mountains, and the landscape gradually turned green. 

Massai shepherds and cattle appeared soon enough near the village of Nainokanoka as we passed the Olmoti Mountain. Our plan for the day had included the the Olmoti Crater, however, we could not do so due to lack of time. The hike involves a long walk from the parking spot to the mountain rim. There were not many hours of daylight left. 

Maasai women chat using mobile phones. I guessed they were not calling each other.

Amos had to buy a few things at the village, so we stopped for a while. The men at the store chatted with us, asking us what would we like to buy that day. The slanting rays of the sun painted the landscape a lovely green. Massai folks were sitting around dressed in a variety of traditional hand made jewelry. For privacy reasons, we did not take any photographs.

The m-Pesa mode of fund transfer via the mobile phone works wonderfully well, for individual to individual and individual to business transactions, like buying vegetables and fuel. 

The Tanzanian flag flies at the Conservancy office where we stopped to refuel.

We got back to Simba Campsite. It's been a lovely day. The armed ranger would be staying at the campsite that night to keep an eye on any wild creatures that may come romping by. And Wild Buffalo did show up, described in the 'Camping under African skies' post.

Thanks for joining us as we drove to Empakai Crater and hiked down to the Crater Lake. I hope you enjoyed the journey and the views as much as I did putting this piece together. It brought back wonderful memories. The months of planning, questioning and anticipation were really worth every kilometer of the drive and every step of the hike down to the Crater Lake! 

-=-=-=-= Please click below for posts in this series:

Namanga Border Crossing

The Gentle Giants of Tarangire

Tarangire revisited

Endless Serengeti Plains

Migrating herds, Crocodiles and Vultures at Kirawira

Big Cats of Central Serengeti

Camping under African skies

Flamingos at Empakai Crater Lake

Ngorongoro Crater - Wildlife, Maasais and Flowers

Campsite food and Nyama Choma in Mto Wa Mbu

From green to gray, the stark beauty of Lake Natron

Videos - Tarangire, Central Serengeti

Videos - Central Serengeti, Western Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Natron

Two nights in Arusha


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