Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater is best thought of as a 250-square-kilometre bowl of wildlife. A generous dish for adventurous travellers to tuck into, a hearty stew of drama, natural beauty and visceral wonder. Formed when an extinct volcano collapsed on itself, the Ngorongoro Crater has been no slacker in the intervening 2.5 million years, developing into a wildlife-rich basin, a unique ecoystem that sustains 25,000 large animals within a 20-kilometre wide, 600-metre deep and 300-square- kilometre space. Against the backdrop of two years of lockdowns, restrictions and boredom, this was the experiential travel feast I'd been waiting for.
One small silver lining of the past two years is the supercharged thrill of finally arriving somewhere spectacularly, dramatically, cathartically different to one's own surroundings. I'll not forget the joy of unzipping my safari tent at Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp, on the edge of this UNESCO World Heritage site, the largest unbroken caldera in the world. The name "Ngorongoro" is onomatopoeic, resembling the rolling tinkle of the cowbells of Maasai cattle. We see the distinctive red-cloaked Maasai warriors herding their cattle and goats along the rim, although many villages are relocating to smaller volcanic craters nearby.
In Tanzania, most safari guides are recruited from the Maasai community, which is reassuring, because the Maasai are legendary hard nuts with superhuman tracking skills, which comes in handy when you're in one of the best places on the planet to glimpse an endangered black rhino, or black-maned lion. Or simply when you're being escorted back to your tent after dinner around the fire pit at Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp. This cluster of 10 classic safari tents is a low-impact camp within the rim valley, which gives us quick and easy access to the crater floor for early morning safaris. Facing south into a verdant, fern-rich forest canopy, this camp feels truly off-grid and thrillingly old-school, a classic adventure safari lodge where we sleep right in the thick of things.
And by "things", yes, I mean wild animals.
The park itself is densely populated with wildebeest, zebras, buffalo, eland, warthogs, hippos, elephants and even endangered black rhinos, but it is the predator count that raises the eyebrows of even the most jaded of safari snobs, with a high concentration of lions, hyenas, jackals, cheetahs and ever-elusive leopards. It was Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, who said, "You know you are truly alive when you're living among lions," and outrageously alive is exactly how I wanted to feel when I booked this trip. So it's nice to know there's a healthy population of some 80 lions in the crater, the highest population density of lions on the planet.
Speaking of feeling alive, I ask one of our guides, Dominic Mbise, if he reckons I could survive a night alone in the crater. "Don't be fooled by how calm things are during the day – no lion is going to waste his energy on you in the heat of the afternoon," he says. "At night, it's a different story. Every watering hole comes alive and becomes a hunting ground. Stay away from water, and pray."
An African safari has always been decadent travel daydream material – a honeymoon, a retirement celebration, a multi-generational birthday gathering – and I think we can now add "post-lockdown blowout" to the list of excuses for a trip of a lifetime. Back in the early 1980s, my mum worked at a hospital in Moshi – before I was born and ruined everything – and I loved hearing her stories about Tanzania growing up, and learning a smattering of Swahili. When I was 12, my parents brought us to Tanzania for a sort of DIY safari with her friends, and this was the experience that made me want to be a travel journalist. I noted down every single animal I saw, in a very boring travel journal, in which I also whinged about my sister. But throughout my teens and even early twenties, the experience of being on a safari stayed with me, as the most impressive travel story I could whip out at parties, or retreat to in my imagination when life at Glasgow University got too grey and gloomy.
All travel is a privilege, but a safari feels like the sort of honour that demands a tearful acceptance speech at an awards ceremony. We go on safari to be awestruck by amazing animals, edified by the kindness and wisdom of the local guides and staff, and dazzled by the beauty of natural surroundings unlike our own. Tanzania, more than any other African nation, is the classic safari destination…although wildlife encounters in Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Tarangire can be combined with the white powdery beaches of the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak and the world's highest free-standing volcano.
Another decadent delight of the safari holiday is the joy of moving from lodge to lodge, a buffet of different tented lodgings, natural surroundings and animal sightings. The word "safari" denotes a journey, and even though we might not be shooting the animals anymore, a safari still demands more than one stop. I've chosen to stay three nights at two different camps, so we make the four-hour drive from Ngorongoro to Sanctuary Swala in Tarangire National Park. Tarangire is one of the least-visited parks in Tanzania, a less obvious choice than the Serengeti, and the camp is perfectly positioned overlooking the only permanent water source in the area, drawing large herds of wildebeest, zebra, eland, elephant, hartebeest, buffalo and fringe-eared oryx.
If Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp is the classic low-impact tented camp, Sanctuary Swala brings in a bit of bling, with 12 elegant canvas pavilions decorated with contemporary Tanzanian textiles, found artefacts and local artworks. Despite the snazzy interior design, nature inevitably steals the show, as it should on a safari holiday, with spectacular 180-degree views over the savannah, dotted with acacia and baobab trees.The game drives at Tarangire are a delight, yielding yet more lions, zebra, wildebeest and giraffes – I had missed giraffes at Ngorongoro. There are no giraffes to be found in the crater, because the sides of the crater are too steep for them to walk down, bless them and their awkward proportions. I love these goofy, gargantuan critters, and I laugh with delight to see them again, silhouetted against a fiery sunset, nibbling contentedly on acacia trees. But what really sets Sanctuary Swala apart is that some of our most memorable wildlife sightings take place from the comfort of the camp itself, not on a bumpy game drive. The communal deck is set on stilts overlooking a watering hole that has swollen into a lake, and a major attraction for all animals in the region. I'm fortunate enough to have been on a number of safaris, in Kenya, Namibia and South Africa, but the elephant count I notch up while sipping a G&T on the deck is off the charts. Unlike the travel writer I was aged 12, I lose count. I stop seeing the elephants as the oddities, because I realise it's humans that are the visitors in this environment; it's people that deserve to be carefully counted.
It's a philosophy I've absorbed from Joseph, our amazing guide. Safari guides, as you can imagine, are some of the most fascinating people on the planet, and if I was asked who I would like to sit next to at some sort of heavenly, rhetorical dinner party in heaven, I would choose a safari guide over John Lennon, Neil Armstrong or Cleopatra any day of the week. On our first day at Sanctuary Swala, Joseph takes us out on foot, for a walking safari. (Walking safaris are more about seeing animal poo than actual animals, but personally speaking, when I'm on foot I'd prefer to encounter the poo than the actual animals.) One guest panics at a fly, alarmed that they might be a tsetse fly or mosquito. "Actually, the flies do a lot of good out here," he says, and then a wry grin spreads across his face. "By keeping us away." He's not wrong: humans are the problem here, the ultimate threat to wildlife. Humans are why rhino, elephant and lion numbers are down. But that doesn't mean we aren't welcome.
In fact, I've been heartened by how warmly we've been greeted in Tanzania; it's plain that tourism has been very much missed these past two years. Remote, rural, tourism-dependent communities have been hard hit by the pandemic, and although it's heartbreaking to think of the uncertainty and hardship of the past few years, it's also gratifying to feel like I'm visiting a destination that is really, really in need of visitors. All the staff I encounter are fully vaccinated, there are little sinks and hygiene stations everywhere, and the basic practicalities of a safari holiday – wide open spaces, outdoor dining, open-sided vehicles, standalone tented or lodge accommodation, small groups – make my trip feel Covid-anxiety-free. Africa has fully opened up to international travellers again, and it's a tourism industry desperately in need of a boost, and it has been both a personal pleasure and a professional privilege to be one of the first international journalists touring reopened safari lodges and game parks.
On our final morning, we wave goodbye to Tanzania from the sky, on a sunrise hot-air balloon trip over Tarangire National Park. Now, animals don't exactly expect to be spied on by a basketful of humans transported across the sky by a bonkers French fiery balloon contraption invented in 1783. Which means they're blissfully unaware of our presence, and we get to see elephants, zebra, lion and even a rare black rhino from above. With my trip coming to an end, I feel on top of the world. I've seen such life, and yes, I feel so alive.