A Most Interesting Adventure

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(Sorry, no photos for today’s blog)

Ngorongoro Crater is one of the highlights of the safari circuit here in Tanzania. Though the Serengeti certainly has more name recognition, and perhaps rightly so due its vast size and diversity along with it being the home of the Great Migration, the crater is an amazingly compact ecosystem and so unique in its topography. A collapsed volcano that is ten miles across at its widest with a rim 2000 feet high, it is perhaps the crown jewel of the parks and is always the most fun for me to drive. It has three roads in – one for descent, one for ascent and one that is both. From a viewpoint looking into the crater you can see the entire park with all it’s roads, lakes and forests. When you are down on the crater floor you feel the vastness of the place and become lost in it’s different regions and forget that it would be like a dot placed on a map of the Serengeti. You drive minutes here and change the scenery, in the Serengeti you drive for hours and still haven’t reached your destination.

We all awakened early that day to leave at 6 a.m. as getting to the crater floor will take at least an hour drive having to travel up to the rim on the windy road, half way around the rim to reach the descent road and then the trip down. Joyce, Hannah, Christyn and Payal were accompanying me and we left in the dark to watch a gorgeous sunrise albeit a bit cloudy ascending the Ngorongoro Conservation Area gate. We had paid in advance to go to the crater which means depositing our fees ($200 for the vehicle and $50 per person to visit the floor) into Exim Bank and then traveling to the other side of town to the NCA office with the paperwork so they could then issue me to microchip encoded cards for entry. I had down that on Friday, not wishing to leave anything up to chance. They take no cash at the entrance gate because there had been an issue of it disappearing in the past. With the cards, it was surprisingly easy to gain our entry and leaving the gate behind us we excitedly began our final ascent to the rim.

I think I’ve mentioned before that driving in Tanzania can be a challenge at times aside from the fact that the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car as are the cars on the road. There are few gas stations except for in town and there is no AAA to call and bail you out of trouble should anything occur along the way. I’ve shared a photo in the past of when, a few years ago during a terrible rain, my Land Rover slid off the road into the mud and muck that is the Tanzania clay and buried itself up to its axles. Thankfully, we weren’t far off the tarmac on our way to a mobile clinic and Ema, the main driver at FAME, came to our rescue. It still took three hours to raise each wheel, dig it out, support in with rocks and essentially build a small runway to get us out. We obviously never made it to our scheduled clinic that day.

Less than two kilometers in from the gate, while coming around a turn on the bumpy road we suddenly lost forward momentum. No problem I thought, we must have just popped out of gear. I put us back into second while still moving forward and there was s very sick sounding and free spinning noise coming from the gearbox. I could not get any gear, forward or reverse, to engage, but I still had plenty of clutch pedal so I knew the hydraulics were still working. This wasn’t good at all. I rolled the vehicle back several feet to move it off the road and placed a large rock behind the rear tire and there we sat. It was not quite 7 a.m. and the clouds about continued to roll by eventually giving way to bright blue patches followed by another elegant Tanzanian day that we had come to expect despite the fact it was still approaching the rainy season.

There may have been no Auto Club to call, and luckily we had cell reception to even consider it, but we called Susan back at FAME and thankfully reached her given the early hour on a Sunday morning. She would call Moshi who would contact Ema (who has rescued me several times in the past) and Suja, the fundi (expert) who works on all of the FAME vehicles along with doing all the metal fabrication for the construction at FAME. We waited an excruciatingly long time to hear something back to confirm that we would indeed be rescued. It wasn’t until almost 9 a.m. that we heard they were on their way and during that time we slept, ate what was supposed to be our picnic lunches for the crater floor, and Hannah, Payal and Christyn played three handed gin rummy. We had practically been the first ones through the gate that morning, but as we sat safari vehicles carrying guests both in and out of the crater cruised by along with work vehicles often loaded with Tanzanians all in varying states of gawkiness as they came around the curve to spy our wounded vehicle.

Eventually, Ema and Soja pulled up driving a FAME Land Rover and equipment to tow our vehicle back to town. Soja quickly assessed that our vehicle’s problem was terminal and couldn’t be fixed on the road and that it was very likely the clutch plate. The first piece of business, though, was to get our vehicle turned around without any power and on a very narrow mountain road with other vehicles whizzing by in both directions. Not an easy task as Soja had to back it down a good ways just to find s spot to turn around facing the right direction. He was able to do so and was then on his way rolling down the hill in the proper direction and through the gate. We stopped for a time so I could argue with the officials there about at least getting a credit for our fees, but in the end they stuck to their guns and insisted that it’s a single day fee and we were more than welcome to get another vehicle and go on our way to the crater. By then it was close to 11 a.m. and I think we all felt a bit deflated by the who experience not to mention that we also all felt as though things happen for a reason and going to the crater would be bad karma.

We towed the wounded Land Rover back to Karatu (not a small task) and to Soja’s home where they immediately began working on it. Aside from being rescued from the crater, we had to leave the following morning for Arusha and our flight home which meant that we had little wiggle room as far as getting the Rover back on the road. Amazingly, later that evening at about 5:30 p.m. Soja called to tell me he had changed the clutch plate (the teeth on ours were completely stripped) and road tested the vehicle and it was ready to go. The total cost to fix it had been 370,000 TSh, or about $205, which was amazing considering it was Sunday and had to be towed. The parts were over $100 which meant that almost six hours of labor and the tow cost about $100!

We spent the afternoon relaxing and both Payal and Christyn finished all of the data collection on the patient charts we had seen, both for our visit in general as well as the new epilepsy project that we received the Linked In grant for. This will be on ongoing project and in October, Danielle Becker and Lindsay Ferraro will be coming to do more work on it.

That evening a group of us went out for our last Tanzanian dinner at the Plantation Lodge. I had never been there before, but it is a truly amazing resort that is very different from Gibb’s Farm as it is more open and would look equally at home in Southern California as it does here in Tanzania. We ate outside on the veranda along with only one other couple as it is the low season now, listening to the sounds of Ngorongoro Highlands and watching the stars rise. It is so beautiful here wherever you look and whenever you look. There is just not an unpleasant moment that I can recall – even being stuck on the crater road. Things could have been far worse had we made it to the crater floor and broken down. We might still be there!

It is clear that things happen for a reason – my visit to FAME in 2009 was a chance visit that would have never happened if Leonard hadn’t brought me here and Frank hadn’t walked out of his office at that moment. Looking back, it is very clear to me that there is some plan for us all going through life, and had we not had the experiences we do, good or bad, we wouldn’t be who we are today. Each time I awaken I look forward to what the day will bring.

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