March 19, 2017 – Part 2, A visit to Empakai Crater, or Journey to the Center of the Earth

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We left Sokoine’s boma late morning and continued our drive northeast through the highlands towards our final destination of Empakai Crater. Empakai is a smaller version of Ngorongoro, though its floor is occupied nearly entirely by a large, shallow alkaline lake where flocks of flamingo normally make their home, but fly north to Lake Natron during the breeding season. The journey travels across some wide open plains where the Maasai graze their herds of cattle, sheep and goats amongst smaller herds of zebra and Thompson gazelle and an occasional lone wildebeest. Hyena and jackal can often be spotted in this area, but today we see none along the way and are satisfied with the game that we see as we hadn’t come for the wildlife necessarily.

Journey to the Center of the Earth – on the trail descending into the crater

Empakai Crater is also an intact volcanic caldera and today we’ve come to hike to the bottom. Along the way, we’ve picked up our Maasai guide who also serves to protect us should we run into a leopard or lion which in a vehicle is not an issue, but on foot can be a bit problematic. Philipo, our guide, has but one spear and one long knife to protect all of us in the event of an incident with a big cat or Cape buffalo and each of is confident that we will be the one he protects. Either that or we can run at least faster than the slowest in our group.

My three wonderful residents at the lakeside

As you drive along the rim of Empakai, you can often catch views of Kilimanjaro far in the distance, but today there are clouds between us and the roof of Africa so it is not visible. Ol Doinyo Lengai is also in the clouds on our approach, but was thankfully quite visible later as we were leaving. It is a classic active volcano with lava flows occupying much of its slopes. Driving in, the road becomes rougher due to the recent rains whose rivulets have caused such erosion as to bounce our vehicle to and fro. As we approach the trailhead down into the crater there are campsites for the more adventurous and those making the long trek from Ngorongoro to Ol Doinyo Lengai by foot that takes several days and ends with summiting the volcano.

Once parked, preferably in the shade, we get our things together for the hike down to the crater floor which typically takes about 30 minutes and is literally all downhill along a path that switchbacks down the very steep crater rim. The weather was perfect for a hike, but we still brought our rain shells, water bottles and our lunch which we planned to eat by the lake, hopefully not in the company of the lions whose tracks were everywhere lakeside along with the hyenas. With over three-quarters of the hike completed, Abbey unfortunately twisted her ankle on the trail and didn’t feel comfortable descending any further as it only meant that much further to the top, so Sokoine started back up the trail with her to wait for us at the top. The rest of us, including Philipo, continued down to the bottom where you suddenly leave the dense forest and are deposited at the lakeside with tufts of tall grasses mixed with shallow ravines for the water to flow into the lake.

The full Penn neuro team

A selfie on the crater floor – Angel, Philipo, Chris, Jamie, Nan, Me and Glen

We walked along the lake for a short distance spotting several flamingos who hadn’t flown to Lake Natron with the rest of the flock, and then turned back to sit atop a small hill for our lunch break. We had brought our safari staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though this time there was the addition of Nutella to the menu much to the delight of Jamie, Nan, Chris and Glen. I was a stick in the mud and remained conservative instead choosing to eat only the PB&J sandwiches. We relaxed for a time on the small hillock on which we sat, watching for animals and finally seeing to reedbuck meander out of the forest to graze and then make a mad dash to the water, drinking quickly and then turning right around to return to the safety of the trees. There was lots of sounds coming from the forest and it was hard to tell if they were birds or monkeys or some wounded animal, but either way we were not going to check out the situation more closely.

Ol Doinyo Lengai – “Mountain of God”

Ol Doinyo Lengai – “Mountain of God”

Relaxing after a long climb up

It was finally time to begin our trek up the trail and back to the rim which was made a bit more difficult by the fact that Angel’s shoes had literally disintegrated with the soles separating from the tops meaning that they were worthless and that she was going to have to continue the hike barefoot. Chris worked on trying to devise something to tie around her feet, but in the end, she carried on up the hill wearing nothing at all on her feet and did just fine in that regard, though did have some moments of exhaustion from the climb. We all made it to the top safely and without further incident to find Sokoine and Abbey there waiting for us. Abbey had clearly sprained her ankle and would likely need an X-ray of the joint tomorrow to see if it was anything more serious.

A view of the crater from the Sopa Lodge

Looking out over Ngorongoro Crater from Sopa Lodge

We left Empakai traveling on the same road and past Sokoine’s father’s boma, reaching the big crater rim in time for us to stop at the Sopa Lodge that sits high above the rim road with a simply amazing 180° view of the crater. The view was spectacular and it was so incredibly relaxing as we sat having drinks near the pool looking out at one of the most beautiful landscapes that one could ever imagine. Ngorongoro Crater is not to be missed when you visit here, and even if you don’t drive down into the crater, the views are breathtaking. It will always be one of my favorite places on earth. We left the lodge shortly after 5 pm with the sun low on the horizon and began the long drive along the rim back to the viewpoint that we had passed in the morning when we were locked in the clouds. Unfortunately, the main gate at the bottom closes at 6 pm and it’s necessary to be through the gate by then or you risk spending the night on the crater rim with very few exceptions. The NCA is just not very tolerant of wazungu arriving late at the gate and we certainly had no intention of returning the rim. So I allowed everyone a moment to jump out of the vehicle to take a look and a photo and then it was back in to wind down the switchbacks we had taken early in the morning so we could make it in time to the gate with ten minutes to spare.

Relaxing overlooking the big crater from the Sopa Lodge

Quite an assemblage of characters – Mike, Angel, Jamie, Nan, Abbey and Glen. Taken by Sokoine while Chris is often in search of the internet

Dinners are made for us during the week, but not on weekends so we had to stop at the Happy Days Pub to find some food as we hadn’t prepared anything at home nor did we have the groceries to do so. Happy Days is a nice place with one many major downfall, being the fact that it easily takes an hour from the time you order until your dinner is served. Ordering drinks usually means you’ll be on your second long before there is any sign that your dinner is even close to being served. Once served, though, the food is actually very good – pizza, cheesy macaroni, and chicken curry with rice. As we say here often, TIA (This is Africa), and it seems to be a theme here as the Lilac Cafe has about the same lackadaisical pace when it comes to serving food. As I’ve mentioned before, the pace is quite different here and, for the most part, we are quite accepting of that. When hunger has set in, though, for certain members of our party who will go unnamed (read Nan), it can become a more serious matter and, thankfully, we have never seen that side of her. All joking aside, this has been a wonderful trip with everyone getting along great as expected, though we certainly enjoy poking fun at one another here and there. We arrived home rather late from Happy Days this night and after such an incredibly long day in the NCA, I think everyone was more than happy to call it a night. Tomorrow begins our week of mobile clinics in which we get to visit some of the villages in the district.

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