31 December 2009 by Duncan Mills
Standing on the rim of a once giant volcano, you might not expect to find one of the world’s most luxurious hotels. And yet the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is exactly that. Described as ’Maasai meets Versailles’, the lodge is an intriguing mix of African design and European opulence.
At first sight, it looks like a village that hobbits might inhabit, a collection of stilted and thatched huts positioned for optimum views down into the Crater below. These are the guest rooms, each of which is based upon the traditional Maasai mud-and-stick manyatta (homestead). But open the door to your room and you’re in for quite an astonishing surprise - like walking into Dr Who’s Tardis and seeing the glorious secrets within. Hobbit burrows these certainly are not.
There are antique furnishings, flowing purple curtains, beaded chandeliers, large gilt mirrors, a four-poster bed and an en suite bathroom complete with a bathtub that your very own private butler will fill while you’re out on a game drive, sprinkling rose petals around the edge and on the surface of the bathwater. Private butlers are on call throughout your stay. They can bring you tea in bed. Or light a fire to keep the chill at bay on a starless night. Mine was called Patrick, consistently charming from the early morning wake-up call to serving dinner at night.
To my eternal gratitude, he somehow found a means of charging my camera batteries - where I cannot imagine - allowing me to go out on a game drive in the Crater fully equipped for the incredible wildlife viewing. That, of course, is the main reason for the Crater’s worldwide fame.
If you’ve watched any television wildlife documentary on East Africa, you’ve probably been there already in your mind. Part of the wider Ngorongoro Conservation Area this bowl of plenty is home to an estimated 25,000 large mammals. Resident wildebeest and zebras are joined by greater numbers of their kind passing through the gigantic caldera as part of the wider movement of the annual Great Migration, which sees them journey south into the Serengeti and then north to the plains of the Maasai Mara in Kenya, before returning south a year later.
But many of the animals are permanent residents. Elephants wander the forests. Hippos and flamingos bide their time in small pools. Eland and hartebeest graze on the plain. Lions stalk and sleep. Hyenas and other scavengers linger for spoils. Heading out with the knowledgeable and experienced rangers in four-wheel-drive vehicles, you may even be lucky enough, as I was, to see one the 16 rare black rhinos, wandering close to the edge of Lake Magadi, a vast soda lake in the centre of the Crater.
Another memorable sighting was of a female cheetah, inching slowly in the direction of a group of impala, with her three young cubs scampering behind in grasses just tall enough to conceal them from the eyes of hungry predators. But it’s not just animals that live here. More than 40,000 Maasai pastoralists inhabit the Conservation Area, and you will likely also see groups of herdsmen down on the Crater floor, grazing their cattle beside predators and prey, as they have done since time immemorial.
It was close to here, at the famous archaeological site of Olduvai Gorge - the so-called ’cradle of mankind’- that Louis and Mary Leakey undertook studies into the origins of early man. And trips to the site can be arranged for Lodge guests. Game drives in the Crater last for most of the day, stopping for a hearty lunch beside the lake while kites keep watch for spilt crumbs.
Then it’s back up the winding track for the 600- metre ascent to the Lodge for refreshments and a well-earned bath. From the bumpy road, you may even see elephants plodding slowly up the steep tracks that wind through the creepers and trees of the Crater wall.
At the Lodge, resident buffaloes graze on the lawns, while guests prepare for their own evening meal in the dining halls - each caters to about 20 or so guests. As with every other aspect of the Lodge, dinner is an exquisite event, a three-course meal served on porcelain plates, eaten with shining silver cutlery and accompanied by fine wines.
But as with all CC Africa properties, the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is not just about bringing luxury to the bush, but also about giving back to local people - investing in community projects supporting local schools, training up guides, butlers, porters and administration staff. Because of this each member of staff has a vested interest in the Lodge’s success, and it’s clear that they’re all very proud of what they’re doing - something that shines through in beaming smiles and friendly greetings of ’jambo’, or ’how did you sleep?’
On one evening during my stay, with roaring braziers shedding light and warmth onto the veranda of the dining hall, the male Maasai members of staff sang and danced for the guests, bouncing high off their bare feet and singing with shrill and enthusiastic voices. Their enjoyment, humour and jumping skills will live long in my memory.