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Spin Cycle: Out of the Land Cruiser and Onto a Bike

By Alisa Alano
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dark clouds loomed above the acacia forest about a mile behind us. But despite the threat of rain, no one made a move to leave the lakeshore, the destination of our afternoon bicycle safari. We were too busy gazing east, toward the seemingly infinite lake, and to the west, where the majestic Rift Valley escarpment rose above the water. Cameras whirred and clicked as our group of five took our last pictures of the lake's gray-blue waters, the flamingos soaring overhead and the herd of zebras and wildebeests grazing in the floodplain between the lake and the forest.

It was the third day of our four-day safari in northern Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Lake Manyara National Park. Our bicycle adventure was one of the unique excursions that allowed us to leave the confines of the Toyota Land Cruiser that had become our second home and to set foot on the same ground as the animals we had watched from inside the car. Having been on other wildlife trips in Africa where you spend all day driving, I was determined on this trip to do more than sit and watch from a car window.

Our trip started in Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam, where my friends and I boarded a plane to Arusha, roughly 400 miles north. Our safari driver and guide, Reggie, met us there and drove us 118 miles to the Ngorongoro Crater, within the Ngorongoro Highlands, a mountain range created by volcanoes -- all extinct except for Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Masai Mountain of God. The highlands form part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a 3,200-square-mile area whose easternmost section melds into the Serengeti Plains.

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We arrived in the early afternoon and drove down to the crater floor, first stopping at the top to catch our breath and capture the stunning view on camera. The floor features a shallow lake and a forest of yellow fever trees, where I craned my neck and strained my eyes in hopes of catching a glimpse of a leopard's tail hanging from the branches. Though it hosts a wide variety of animals, Ngorongoro Crater is known for its dense population of predators. Indeed, in one afternoon there we saw a few cheetahs, several lions (including a cub) and hyenas.

We stayed that night at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, on the eastern rim. The next morning, we set out with our guide for Empakaai Crater, a 1 1/2 -hour drive along a dirt track past Masai communes and spectacular views of the Lolmalasin mountain over the plains. The crater is home to a variety of wildlife, best seen on foot. With an armed park ranger, of course.

We visited in October at the end of the dry season, and it showed in the landscape around us. The only hint of color came from the red, blue and sometimes purple shukas, checkered cloths worn by the ubiquitous Masai cattle herders. Our views were sometimes obscured by the swirling ocher sand churned up by our tires. At one point, we almost ran over a goat in labor in the middle of the road, hidden in a storm of dust. (Luckily, she and her about-to-be-born kid were unharmed.)

At the top of the crater, the narrow ridge supported a dirt road wide enough for only one car. From that vantage point, we were told, on cloudless days one could see the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to the east. The skies were overcast that day, but that turned out to be a blessing: Although it was cool at the rim, the temperature rose as we hiked down to the crater floor.

Seen from above, the translucent greenish-blue lake was rimmed with what looked like hundreds of pink cotton balls. Two hours, several hundred dusty steps and a descent of about 980 feet later, the puff balls materialized into hundreds of flamingos.

An armed park ranger (mandatory) accompanied us on the hike down, as did two European tourists. As we ducked and weaved around bushes, vines and stems, small clearings emerged, allowing us to take in a view of the luminous lake below and the walls surrounding the sunken caldera, or volcanic depression.

The park ranger told us that the crater hosts leopards, but because it was the middle of the day, the animals were hiding in dark, cool places to escape the heat. That was great news, since flesh-eating animals were at the bottom of my list of things to see up close. For me, the hike wasn't about seeing predators but about treading the ground that was once a raging volcano.

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Next stop: Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge, on the western edge of the crater rim, with a terrific view of the crater floor from the dining room and patio. Using a telescope affixed to the patio, I zoomed in on a family of elephants roaming the forest below.

After a morning drive around the crater, we drove to Lake Manyara for our bicycle safari. About an hour and a half southeast of Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara is set dramatically at the base of the Rift Valley escarpment. The lake is about 31 miles long, and when water levels are high, it covers an area of about 77 square miles.

Bordering Lake Manyara National Park and surrounded by thick vegetation, the village of Mto wa Mbu (River of Mosquitoes) is a tropical oasis compared with the dry bush land that stretches for miles around it. Reggie dropped us off in the center of town. Our bike safari guide met us there with bikes and helmets, then led us along the village's main (and only) thoroughfare.

Passing rows of stores, kiosks selling cellphone vouchers, sidewalk vendors and people on bicycles and on foot, we pedaled down a fairly flat dirt path for about two miles. Along the way, as we passed banana groves and dozens of mud huts, children waved and shouted "Mzungu!" (foreigner).

For the first mile or so the ride had been effortless. But as we approached the forest, our guide stopped and directed us to go single file. The path to the lake was littered with thorns that could puncture our tires. We followed our guide through the trees, cautiously eyeing the ground for potential tire deflators.

We emerged from the forest, greeted by the wide-open flood plain, the lake and the Western Rift Valley escarpment towering some 1,900 feet above the lake.

We never did beat the rainstorm, and we rode back to town in a downpour. Midway back, we ran into a hut for cover. We huddled inside the small space, conversing in our broken Swahili with the occupants, a teenage girl and two young children. It was a small, intimate moment -- and as thrilling as any other throughout our driving, hiking and biking tour of Tanzania.

Alisa Alano lives and works in Tanzania.

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