The Road to Ngorongoro Crater

Tanzania Travel
by Cara Giaimo Nov 19, 2011

This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

Half of the signs along the tarmac road are crossed out.  Driving by, I can make out the names of businesses – Kudu Lodge, Zebra Handicrafts, Njake Oil – only faintly under a casually spray-painted red X.

“The road’s getting wider, and the signs are just too close to it now,” my professor explains from the driver’s seat.  “They mark them before they tear them down.” 

The road snakes from Arusha, one of Tanzania’s busiest urban centers, all the way to Ngorongoro Crater, which the country’s former president, Benjamin Mkapa, called “the crown jewel” of Tanzania’s protected areas.

Since the last segment cooled in 2005, it has birthed an entire tourist industry, complete with an art district, over fifty curio shops, endless tour companies, and a brand new national park gate.  It’s grown local infrastructure, too – hospitals, schools, electricity for the whole district.  The signs are its doing: why shouldn’t it be able to swallow them back up?

The road interests me because in Kimana, the Maasai group ranch in Kenya where I spent my first six East African weeks, there isn’t anything like it.  Car rides around there involve as much vertical movement as horizontal; my friends and I used to sit in the back seat of our school’s Land Cruiser and pretend we were rattling around in a World War I-era aircraft.  After a while, the bouncing became soothing, and we all got more sleep in transit than we did in the campsite, which soon housed twenty-three newly nocturnal humans on top of its regular cast of night creatures.

When, halfway through the semester and ten hours into the drive from Kenya to our new Tanzanian campsite, I was jolted awake, it took me a while to realize that what woke me was actually an un-jolt.  The wheels were humming gently.  My head hadn’t hit the window for several minutes.  I looked out and down and saw the road, smoothly leading the way through the banana trees.  It seemed out of place, like something from the future, sent back by accident and biding its time until the rest of the world catches up.

Of course, now that the road is here, the future is arriving on it, for Tanzania as a whole and for the individual citizens who requested it.

“We asked our president for a road and he gave it to us,” shrugs Visent John, a hawker who moves between the towns of Mto wa Mbu and Karatu.  He pulls his black knit cap down over his eyes when I ask him what his life was like before the road.  He’s sold banana leaf art and batiks on this stretch for years, and sees the road, and the money and opportunities it leads past him, as his ticket up.  He wants to be a tour driver, snug behind the wheel of one of the cruisers that pass him by every day on their way to and from the national parks.

For now, he settles for transportation by bicycle or bus, or one of the little three-wheeled Indian taxis that scurry around within the main towns.  Anything on a tarmac road is a lot better than even a Hummer on a dirt one – you used to need six hours minimum to get to Arusha from Mto wa Mbu, and now, on a good day, a bus can take you there in one.  Visent knows this well – he once made it in a little under that for an impromptu job interview.

“I told them I was staying with my brother in Arusha and that I’d be right there,” he remembers, smiling, “and I left my house in Mto wa Mbu, got on a bus, and got there in as much time as it would have taken to walk from my brother’s house.” 

A friend of Visent’s who works as a tour driver did something similar in order to catch the end of a town-wide viewing of a televised soccer game.  The game went into double overtime and then penalty kicks, and the tour driver got to watch his team win and celebrate with his neighbors before taking an early morning bus to his company base in Arusha, picking up his clients, and driving them to Lake Manyara National Park, straight through Mto wa Mbu, carefully steering around empty lawn chairs and Fanta bottles from the night before.

Visent tells me this story from around a mouthful of roadside-stand fish.  He tries to get me to take a piece, telling me it’s the freshest I’ll ever find – it was swimming around this morning in the river the town was named after, which is now close enough that people can bring whole hauls in, fry them up, and sell them on the street.  Fishermen keep bicycling by us, their handlebars hung with Visent’s future snacks.  Some stop to set up temporary shop in between the painting shops that have turned a small section of the road into an unassuming and brightly colored art district. 

“What did you even do when the road was dirt?” I ask him.  He shrugs again.  “Me and the other hawkers and the banana sellers and the painters – we sat by the side of it and made mud pies.”

Some of the tourists that buy from Visent (or drive by him) keep going through the farmlands of Kilima Moja, past the fifty-four curio shops, between the rows of crossed out signs, and all the way to the main gate of Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.  Some of them go into the women’s restroom, and then into the third stall on the left, and sign the door.  One of these people was from San Jose, California (she drew stars all around her name) and one was from Santa Cruz (she drew hearts).  Another one, Maireed Wozere, was there on honeymoon from Ireland. Shang Do was from Vietnam by way of Norway, and Nyambana Kiare is “Proud 2 B Kenyan”.

Presumably they came to Ngorongoro to see the rhinoceroses, or the earliest known human footprint, or the Maasai who have obtained permission from the Tanzanian government to live and work in the crater.  Odds are they wouldn’t have come at all if it weren’t for the road, which stays smooth safe tarmac all the way up through the parking lot before switching to dirt exactly at the entrance to the park.  You could say the switch itself marks the gate.  That’s where I am today, looking for tourists to survey for a class project.  It’s also where Mick works as a park ranger, checking vehicle permits and protecting the wildlife in the park from nearby villagers, who sneak in and kill bushmeat or cut down trees.

He’s also been trying, recently, to think of ways to protect the wildlife from tourists.  In his thirteen years as an Ngorongoro ranger, he’s never seen so many.  It’s a dilemma for him – the park is making more money than ever before, and now that people can travel quickly from Arusha, more Tanzanians can come and experience the parts of their own country that draw so many foreigners.  Today he has already checked in a family from the Kilimanjaro area, there for a day trip.  A few years before this would have been much too adventurous of a day trip for most families, especially during this, the rainy season – that family would have ended up with their wheels spinning in a pit of mud and gravel.

Instead, they’ve probably already made a circuit of the crater by now, which is one of the things Mick is worried about. 

“The people who come for day trips drive fast,” he explains.  So do the buses stuffed with passengers that use the road through the crater as a shortcut to Kusoma or Serengeti.  Sometimes the vehicles hit animals, generally antelope or baboons, an offense that’s enough to get most drivers fired (“which just means the drivers don’t report it,” Mick points out). 

Now that residents of the crater can get to the main towns, they can buy soap and toothpaste and other products that get into the groundwater – during a recent trip into the park, our car accidentally disturbed a group of young Maasai bathing in one of the streams that feed the swamp.  If chemical concentrations get high enough, they can kill birds and disrupt migration timetables. 

The rough road through the park has to be repaired on a regular basis, which requires special dirt, which requires mining, which hurts the surrounding areas – the cascade has enough of an effect that park officials are considering paving the road through the crater, too, which would just exacerbate speeding problems. 

All in all, Mick says, the cost-benefit analysis for wildlife is a toss-up.  I can’t help thinking of the crossed-out signs – Njake Oil’s namesake (“njake” means “dinosaur”) is already a goner; will Zebra Handicrafts and Kudu Lodge lose their mascots too?  Does the success of the businesses, and of the people, come at the cost of the survival of the wildlife?

During a break in tourist traffic, Mick and I watch the olive baboons patrol the parking lot.  Baboon troops use the road, too, and most days I see them walking along it, picking garbage out of the bushes or perched on different levels of the enormous baobab that guards the Lake Manyara overlook, presumably plotting how to further cement their reputation as crop-stealing capital-V Vermin, a title officially given to them by the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 2002. 

They also hang out at Ngorongoro Gate, waiting for tourists to leave their car windows open (sometimes they don’t even wait – one once slapped a juicebox out of my friend’s hand).  Some of the researchers I study with have taken to calling one of them Hominid.  He lives near the village, and his shoulder was injured, likely by a car, so he walks around on two legs, slumped over.  Sometimes he carries a baby baboon cradled in his good arm, a baby who will never know what it’s like to be without human food or human noises.

The baboons scatter when the afternoon rush starts – people are, after all, bigger primates.  Tourists start coming through again, and many stop for a while on the gate steps to listen to Reinhard “Leo” Kunkel, a filmmaker and author who lived in Ngorongoro Crater for several years.  I’d been reading one of his books earlier in the brand new Ngorongoro Gift Shop, and the shopkeeper introduces us.  I take the opportunity to ask him what he thinks – what’s the road going to do to Tanzania?  Is the future it brings going to be bright for everyone, or just some?

Kunkel has a ready answer.  His experiences with the local people and wildlife have convinced him that what’s good for people is, in the end, good for animals as well.

“Conservation has to go hand in hand with tourism,” he explains.  “The tourist industry creates jobs, brings infrastructure, and raises the quality of life throughout the whole country.”

The per capita income of Tanzania is $1.25 a day – Tanzanians want to develop, to be able to support themselves without foreign aid.  Conservation is wrapped up in this, too – Visent’s banana leaf prints are all of wild animals, and no one will come by to buy them at all if the wildlife is gone.  No one will need to be driven on a safari tour, either.  Without the wildlife, the road would be deserted.  “Once people know that,” Kunkel is sure, “the problems will stop.”  Until then, though, there might be more cases like Hominid, or like the ones Mick thinks about every day.

That evening, about an hour before sunset, I venture through the camp gate and down the hill, to where our rocky offshoot road meets the main one, to see what I can see.  Camp is in Kilima Moja, or “First Hill,” and the village’s namesake stands in the distance, a small rise smoothing down into a flat horizon of endless farmland, so that the tarmac at my feet seems like a logical extension, an element of the landscape that stays smooth close up.  The fields are spiced with tall yellow flowers. 

At night, I’ve heard hyenas, baboons and elephants calling from the slopes of the hill, but I don’t see any right now.  I start to get embarrassed by my notebook and binoculars.  A car goes by; there’s a large moving thing, at least.  I write it down.

Half an hour later, the tally is at: four small cars, three motorcycles, seven pickup trucks, three matatus (blowtorch-fast public transport vans), five big trucks (carrying petrol, gravel, crates of soda, bags of long sisal grass, and nothing), seventeen people, eight bicycles (ferrying a total of eleven people), one cow, and one little triangle-eared dog. 

Five more people walk by, kids in blue and orange school uniforms.  They slow down when they see me and start leaning on each other, the girls elbow-daring the boys to come say something.  One of them does.

“What are you doing?” he asks.  “I’m counting cars,” I say.  He laughs, and I get self-conscious.  What if someone was counting cars on my street at home?  For no reason?  I make up a reason. 

“It’s for school.  I go to school on the hill.”  The boy becomes serious and ducks his head.  “Data?  Statistics?”  “Yes.”  He nods in response.  The left side of his orange shirt collar sticks to his neck.

“My name is Daniel.  I go to school too.”  I ask him if he likes it.  “Yes, but I am failing English.”  I tell him his English is very good. 

“I need to get better, because I want to go to America in the future, to get rich.”  I ask him what he’ll do if he’s rich.  “I want to buy that whole hill” – he leans his head back towards Kilima Moja – “and put a house on top.” 

“You want to live on top of the hill?” 

“It is the most beautiful place.”  He smiles.  “And I could count cars all day if I wanted.”

Daniel corrects his collar and rejoins his friends, who have been throwing big chunks of dirt into the road.  I’ve been doing this, too, in between data-taking; the clods explode and there’s no shortage of them.  We’ve given the road a rough-looking red splotch, like a rash.  The kids all walk on.  Most of the people I’ve seen today have been walking, I realize.  Does this road even make any difference to them? 

But then I remember that without it, they likely wouldn’t have anywhere to go – it’s grown schools, hospitals, jobs.  And there’s no point throwing dirt clods onto dirt roads, it’s just not nearly as satisfying.  I launch one more and then start back up the hill on my side of the road, newly colonized by the tourist camp I’m currently staying in.

If Daniel ever makes it to America, odds are the road will have helped bring him there.  But if he returns, and wants to live in his most beautiful place, will he still be able to?  Or will something else – a lodge, a bulldozer, a chemical cloud – have gotten there first?

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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