The most frequent question I get from friends and family is “What is the most fabulous place you have ever been?” My stock answer is that I’ve enjoyed them all—exactly the cop-out reply you get from any parent when asked which of their children they love the most. However, if you were to insist I not weasel out my response would be the Ngorongoro Crater National Park in Tanzania, a hundred-square-mile volcanic caldera encircled by mountains rising two thousand feet above the valley floor. (Readers: I would love to receive comments on what you think is the most beautiful place on Earth!) My wife and I arranged for a tour from a local travel agent, drove 120 miles from Nairobi to the border city of Namanga (in our ancient Nissan), walked through customs, and were met on the Tanzanian side by our tour guide and van.
The Ngorongoro Crater contains more than twenty-five thousand animals, including herds of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest, large flocks of flamingos, and the important “big five” of all safari goers—rhino, lion, elephant, leopard, and cape buffalo. We stayed at a lovely hotel perched on the crater’s edge with stunning veranda views of the landscape a half-mile below.
As we descended into the park each morning via a dirt track dropping at a stomach-wrenching 17 percent incline, the feeling was reminiscent of the undiscovered plateau in The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this case, however, it is not a plateau keeping the animals in but a half-mile high mountain range. Within its small area, the sunken crater includes a number of environments–lakes, swamps, highland forest, open grassland–that support an enormous range of wildlife. Although the animals are generally free to migrate in and out of the crater, the area has the feeling of an unfenced enclosure in which the animals have been placed for your viewing pleasure. In Ngorongoro it would not be uncommon to sit in your vehicle enjoying the sight of a large black rhino while directly behind you a pride of lions is stalking its next meal. In virtually every direction you gaze you experience a diversity of animal life found nowhere else on earth.
That four-day Tanzanian safari was an unforgettable experience, especially as it was not a long-planned, carefully researched expedition but rather an impromptu “let’s get out of town” jaunt taken during school vacation, much as you might impulsively head to the beach or a lake cabin on a three-day holiday weekend. Rather than having to pre-plan and pre-book your entire holiday, which can be difficult in an unfamiliar country, a two- or three-month working vacation affords you the time to settle in to a new residence, talk to locals, learn about those special out-of-the-way places that you really must see, and book a tour from a local travel agent at your convenience and at a fraction of the cost. The end result is that your holiday becomes much more like life back home where you may read about an event or see a travel deal advertised in the newspaper and, on a whim, give it a try. It is a wonderfully spontaneous way to travel.