Day 2 begins with a stunning sunrise game drive, fiery clouds behind silhouetted baobabs, and as a bonus, a short, plump rainbow above Mount Tangire. Back at the lodge, we eat a five-star breakfast alone, refill coffee mugs, then set out on another long drive, twisting and winding our way toward the parkâ€™s exit, plenty of animals and the weather shifting between sunny, drizzly, and fantastic shows of light in between; box lunch is eaten at an overlook above the river, lightly raining as we watch some of the parkâ€™s 3,500 elephants graze below.
The highlight, however, is just beyond the park gates, at a Masai womenâ€™s group craft stand, where a lively group of tribeswomen celebrate our visit with song and dance and ululations of joy. Tay, a world craftwork connoisseur, is overwhelmed by the beadwork and basket options and rates the next forty minutes or so as one of the climaxes of her entire shopping career (a bold statement, considering some of the places she has been).
The women are inflexible with their prices, but they are fair, and the purchase is direct, with no middlemen (or any men, for that matter) involved. The one woman with some English assists the perma-smiling customer, while the rest line up to serenade us and, as Tay hands over the money, they all erupt in shrill cries and handshakes and smiles and another celebratory dance, in which my wife is made to wear a wide neck adornment which bounces in unison with the othersâ€™ as she jumps with the women’s dance.
Then we are rolling, dodging rainstorms as Freddy fights a flu and carries us to the agricultural village of Mto Wa Mbu, before climbing the escarpment of the great Rift Valley and checking into the Lake Manyara Wildlife lodge. This hotel is a massive, worn-down affair, older and rougher than the previous night, and after being the only diners in a hall with over 100 tables, we are the sole guests at a â€œcultural performance,â€ by a group of teens from the village; they are long on heart and spirit but short on practice and talent and we wish hope they get it together before the high season begins in July.
Day 3: We roll through the rain across the Karatu Highlands, then up the rim of the worldâ€™s largest complete volcanic caldera: the Ngorongoro Crater, whoâ€™s diameter of 18 km (11 miles) is mind-blowing and whose height of 2,285 m (7,500 feet) is pleasantly cool. But first, the ascent, a harrowing, sloppy ride up a sheet of mud, as Freddy weaves in and out of disabled trucks, who have been stuck for days; I look down out the window and see one truck 20 meters down the embankment, freshly wrapped around a great tree trunk.
At the top, we emerge from the clouds and enter the crater itself, which is considered by many to be the real-live Garden of Eden. Not only is it lush and chock full of crazy wildlife (we see rhinos, flamingoes, lions, hippos, etc!), but the oldest traces of humankindâ€”3.6 million-year-old footprints of an upright-walking missing linkâ€”were found only a few miles away in the Olduvai Gorge, so the prospect that Ngorongoro is the cradle of humankind is very real indeed (unless, of course, you are an Intelligent Design theorist who believes that it is all SO beautiful and SO complex, that it must have been plopped down by a Creator, all in one shot, footprints, scientific clues, flamingoes and all; to each their own, but I prefer the infinite and mysterious reaches of time).
Our lodgeon the rim is nicer than the last, with expansive views of the crater and about a dozen guests. The next morning, we are off for the Serengeti.