It has been said that travel literature is dead, made obsolete by the likes of Google Earth and the internet more generally and the plethora of travel books that do seemingly cover every square inch of the globe. But the great travel writer Paul Theroux, in a recent piece in the Financial Times (“The places in between” May 28/29 2011) reminds us that there are still plenty of places, and plenty of experiences, that are well worth description. It helps to have had a miserable experience, a close call with death, or some other disaster or mishap, or so he argues. Perhaps so. Just to prove the point, go to the National Geographic’s “Extreme Classics: the 100 greatest adventure books of all time.” Number one on the list? The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922). But I am no Richard Burton traveling in disguise to Mecca, or Apsley Cherry-Garrard describing Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic.
And I am afraid that my experiences in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater traced a well worn path, and were far too pleasant. So I will not remotely come close to the standards that Theroux suggested should characterize good, literary travel narrative. On the other hand, I have more modest aims. What I hope, following Theroux’s broader view, is that my descriptions of Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, evoke a sense of place. That’s what really counts.
Mountain climbing, and travel generally, changes you. The two are in some ways opposed, climbing, or trekking, focuses the mind, in my case, fairly fully, on the task at hand. Bad weather on Kili meant that the week was literally spent thinking about putting one foot in front of the other most of the time, whether your socks really stank as bad as you thought they did (in my case….they did), would you have to get out of the tent at 3 AM for a nature call (and where the hell was your headlamp!), and so on. The week’s safari, on the other hand, offered the possibility of a more expansive frame of mind, set on seeing vistas far and near, and simply experiencing a new, and vast, landscape. I have come back from Tanzania much the richer for the experiences and for the memories. I learned a lot about myself, and about Tanzania.
The safari drive for three days surprised me at just about every turn. From the Serengeti, we headed eastward, and spent an hour visiting Olduvai Gorge and the small museum there along the way.
Next we drove up to and into the Ngorongoro Crater. Here was an even more surprising day than the Serengeti was and it turned out to be a real joy. I thought that it might simply be an interesting place geologically. We had a long drive up to the crater rim and then we drove down into the crater. From a hawk’s perspective, we reached the crater’s floor from the animal’s perspective.
The Crater floor was teeming. The crater itself is something like 120 square miles. A big place.
We spent an entire day cross-crossing the crater, encountering another wide assortment of animals, from the ubiquitous zebra and wildebeest to the rare black rhino.
At the end of the day we drove up out of the crater and arrived at a spectacular hotel on the crater rim at about 8,ooo feet. We hit the veranda just in time for a sunset.
I cannot think of a better way to end the two weeks of travel in northern Tanzania than our sitting quietly, almost in wonder, looking out over the crater. Watching the sunset below the crater rim, having a nice chat with Alan about Kili and future climbs, put a lot of things in perspective for me. It was nice to encounter, on the long drive back to Arusha, a cycling team climbing up the steep mountain road that we were descending to get back to the plateau. I have no idea what they were doing there but it was a perfect mix for me of mountains and cycling. I did not make it to Lake Victoria on this trip (and had no plans to do so). That was a bit of a shame since the sources of the Nile River were so close. So I am hoping to get back to Tanzania. More mountains are certainly on the horizon for me, first in New Hampshire, then Colorado and Mt Rainier next Summer. I do hope, I confess, to encounter not too much trouble, so I am afraid Paul Theorux will not be reading me. What I am hoping for instead is more challenges in the mountains, as always more cycling, and many more memories of wonderful places.