It is truly difficult for me to recall a day here in Tanzania that was more impactful for me than today. I am certain there have been others in the last ten years, and though some may have equaled, none would have exceeded the sheer joy I received today during my visit to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. My Sundays here for the last six or seven years have been spent with my residents on our “safari Sundays” in which I take the group to one of the local game parks or to the Crater for a game drive that I guide. On our last weekend, we usually travel to the Serengeti for several nights and, for that trip, I will typically hire a guide given the size of the park and the possibility of a mechanical breakdown miles from any help. For this Sunday, though, I had mentioned to Kitashu, our neuro clinic coordinator, that it would be special to visit his boma and to bring a number of the FAME employees who work with us closely. Other than Dr. Adam, Revo and Abdulhamid, I left the selection of the other participants up to Kitashu since we would be visiting his home.
Kitashu’s boma is on the Crater Rim just before descending off the backside and towards Olduvai Gorge and the Serengeti. He grew up in the NCA and knows every inch of it as well as the Serengeti, where he has traveled frequently on both drives and grazing his family’s cattle. During our past visits, in addition to sharing some of his culture with the residents, they have roasted a goat for us, a tradition that is bestowed on honored guests to their home and something that is very special indeed. He had planned to do the same today for the group I was bringing.
We had planned to meet at 8:30 am to start our journey to the conservation area and it became immediately apparent to me that the day was going to be special when more and more of my friends from FAME continued to pile into Turtle. In the end, I think we had 11 or 12 of us in the vehicle and I was thankful that I was driving as a I had a guaranteed seat for the affair. Though Turtle has only 9 seats, we have often seated more using soda or beer crates with a cushion on top in the center aisle. That there are not enough seat belts in the vehicle for everyone is quite apparent, though considering much of the transport here can be in a pickup bed or hanging on top of a Land Rover, I felt quite confident that we were being safer than most. We drove to the entrance gate about 15 minutes out of town and, with Kitashu’s help, successfully navigated the paperwork necessary for entrance into the NCA. Some of you may have read of my previous woes at this very same gate, but today, things were thankfully quite smooth.
The road that climbs to the crater rim, with its two thousand foot elevation gain, is made up of numerous switchbacks, most of which are quite tight, and the road is just wide enough for two safari vehicles to pass, most of the time. With each turn, you have to look ahead up the road for a truck coming the other direction as there is often not enough room to pass by each other. I very quickly realized the additional weight of everyone as Turtle struggled a bit to make the sharp turns followed by an uphill climb, though with an occasional shift of the transfer case into low, we were able to continue our uphill climb. This drive has to be one of my very favorite anywhere as with the ascent, there are very steep drop-offs into the ravines below where trees seem to climb forever to reach the sky and the forest here is the pure definition of primordial. If a dinosaur appeared around a turn one day, it would not surprise me in the least.
Sitting in the driver’s seat and focusing on the road did not detour me in the least from hearing all the chatter in Swahili coming from the back of Turtle as everyone’s excitement seemingly increased along with our elevation. For most in the vehicle other than Kitashu, they had been to the NCA perhaps once in their life, when they were on school trip perhaps, but that had been long ago and their memories were faint. For Dr. Adam, this was his very first trip to the NCA. We finally reached the crater rim and the crater overlook which is the very first stop one makes after passing through the gate. The vast expanse of Ngorongoro Crater lays before you, ten miles across and two thousand feet deep, filled with vast herd of wildebeest, Cape buffalo, numerous types of antelope, zebra, hyena, elephants and the rare black rhino. It has one of the densest populations of lions in Tanzania as well as other predators such as leopards, cheetah, serval cats and the very rare caracal. It clearly earns its designation as the eighth wonder of the world and a world heritage site and is one of the crown jewels of Tanzania.
From the overlook, we continued around the crater rim with amazing views of the bottom appearing from time to time in breaks of the roadside vegetation. We eventually reached the turnoff for the Endulan Road and the turn for Kitashu’s boma. We drove into the tiny enclave of mud huts and parked in front of his wife’s hut where I have parked before. His brothers and sisters also live here and there were more children than one could count who came out to greet us as we excited the vehicle. Selina and Jennifer, the two women in our group were immediately taken by Kitashu’s oldest sister to be dressed in fancy traditional Maasai clothing and they emerged from her hut wearing the bright blue shukas that I have seen before being worn by the residents on our previous visits here. I was eventually given a bright shuka to wear over my shoulders, but it eventually proved to be too warm for me and came off at the first opportunity so didn’t overheat in the hot sun of the day.
I had asked Kitashu to pick up some gifts for his mother, a practice I had learned several years ago as one never wants to arrive at a Maasai boma empty handed, even if you are a guest. The gifts consisted of rice, soap, sugar and some other staples. Unfortunately, his mother was not at the boma that day as she had made plans before to be elsewhere before we had announced our trip. His oldest sister accepted the gifts on her behalf, though, and I was happy to have done my part as a welcomed guest to the community. The other tradition, though perhaps more recent, is to bring candy, or pipi in Swahili, for the children. I had been certain to pick up three bags of hard candy as I to make sure that we had enough for all the children as well as the fact that we would be visiting another boma for our goat roast. The kids surrounded me as I pulled out one of the bags and it was difficult to tell whether some of them were coming back for seconds before we had assured that everyone had some, so Kitashu quickly intercepted some of the children and played the “candy cop” for a bit to maintain some semblance of organization to the affair and to keep me from being completely mobbed. In all honesty, though, the children were incredibly polite and reserved, though at times, the littlest ones did require a bit of prompting to hold out their hands.
Having survived the candy give away, we all were served Maasai chai in the hut of his one of his other sisters, a delicious concoction of milk and tea along with some spices that would be impossible to recreate at home given all that goes into making it here. The milk is clearly freshly collected each morning from their cows and it is all boiled together over an open flame in the middle of the hut in an open pot. I am sure that the smokiness of the hut only adds to its flavor. After tea, we all eventually said our goodbyes and loaded back into Turtle for our next part of the journey that would take us almost to Olduvai Gorge.
The view from the backside of the crater rim, looking off into the Eastern Serengeti and down to Lake Ndutu, is one of the most spectacular images that one can imagine. The road initially descends rather gradually, but then makes a steep drop towards the distant plain were you first encounter Olduvai and then on to Ndutu. Giraffes populate this region in large numbers and we weren’t disappointed as we quickly spotted several large families, taking a little detour to visit one group that had several babies among them. We continued to descend until Kitashu pointed out a turn off the main road for me to take and there was a relative of his there to direct us to their boma, a short distance from the turn. We parked in the shade under a large acacia tree and then waked a short distance to a dry stream bed where they were preparing our goat roast.
To say that the Maasai use every single part of the goat is not an exaggeration in the least. We all sat in the shade of some trees a short distance from where they were cooking and preparing our feast and in short order, we were brought a large pot full of small roasted chunks of goat meat that were incredibly delicious. I was given my own cup of meat as their honored guest and even though I didn’t want to be treated any different than anyone else there, I knew it was something quite important to them to be able to do it, so was willing to accept it in that context. As we sat eating finishing our first serving of meat, they then brought over other large parts of the goat that had been on spits and roasting over the open fire. With their knives that every Maasai male carries, they began slicing off chunks of meat and passing them around. I have eaten goat like this a number of times before so was very used to being served in this fashion and it was all incredibly tasty.
I walked over to where they were cooking things as I had seen several of the Maasai working furiously at several pots of liquid and wanted to know more about what they were doing. I learned that this was a meat stock made from boiling and then removing a portion of the goat meat that was later eaten, but the stock was then mixed with local herbs, some blood from the goat along with some fat and then served in cups to drink. I must say that I hadn’t had this before, but was determined to try it regardless of what it sounded like. The taste was like a very hearty meat stock and, though it wasn’t the tastiest thing ever, it was quite edible and given the purpose of the soup, which was to help one’s digestion, I was certainly happy to have drank my full cup of it. Not to make you think that I would try anything that was served to me, I will tell you that I had passed earlier on drinking straight goat’s blood mixed with liquid fat as it was not something that I thought I could get down. That delicacy was shared by only a few of the party and certainly not the majority of us.
We all took a short walk at which point we all gathered back near the cook site for what I was told was round two of our feast that consisted of more roasted meat, and though I did eat a little bit more, I was pretty full from round one and relaxed while the rest of the goat was devoured. Sitting there among the thorny acacia and all my Tanzanian friends, including our newly acquainted Maasai relatives of Kitashu’s, it was quite clear to me that this was not just a simple matter of another mzungu tourist out with his guide visiting a cultural boma, but rather an important event among friends and that as much of an honor it was for Kitashu to be sharing this with me, it was an incredible honor for me to have brought his co-workers here to share this with him. Most of them had never before been to a boma, let alone a goat roast, and I had been able to help make this happen for them. It was an event and opportunity that I will never forget and one that will be remembered by all who participated for its significance.
(I will continue the story of this day in part II of this blog post)