10 What are your crater walls?

One of the benefits of involving my friend Jonathan in the trip was the way in which he expanded my original idea. My first plan had been to climb Kilimanjaro as part of a group from a national charity. We would sign up to one of their scheduled trips, which would see us climb the mountain in a relatively short time, and then come home. Jonathan suggested that we look into the matter more deeply, and consider the possibility of including some additional time in Tanzania. The country has a fine array of National Parks within fairly easy reach of the mountain. If we were going all that way it would be a shame to come back without seeing the wonderful wildlife.

So, that is what we did. After some research we arranged our trip through a travel company called Gane and Marshall, and included a few days in the National Parks as part of the trip. We also included a day of trekking up another mountain in the area as well. This was to give us some time to acclimatise to altitude, which would be our main challenge when we came to climb the ‘real mountain’. The trek up this mountain (Ol Deani) saw us ascend about 1,000m – roughly the height of Scafell Pike or of Snowdon (the tallest mountains in England and Wales). But the altitude we reached was nearly 3,200m – about 2 and a half times the height of Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain. And quite high enough for us to start feeling the effects of the altitude!

However, whilst Ol Deani was good, the time we had in the National Parks was even better. We flew in to Kilimanjaro International Airport on Tuesday 27th January, arriving at about 9.30 in the morning. We were met by our driver and guide for the next few days, a lovely chap called Miraj. He drove us straight over to the Tarangire National Park. Before entering the park proper, we sat in the car park, eating our lunch. We were joined by a small family of monkeys, who also showed great interest in eating our lunch. And then we drove into the park (but without the monkeys).

Fantastic. My first experience of anything like this, and it was a great one. Within minutes we were stopping and taking pictures of a warthog. Then impala. Then big, improbable-looking birds. And then, far in the distance we spotted elephants. Miraj duly stopped, letting us enjoy the excitement of our first spot of big game. We took a dozen or so long-distance photos, not wanting to find that these were the only elephants we were to see and to miss the opportunity of capturing them ‘on camera’. Little did we know that the park was teeming with elephants! Within a few minutes we had seen more small groups, and then larger groups, and then a whole herd of elephants. And not just at long distance. Over the next few days we found ourselves up close and personal with elephants on at least half a dozen occasions.

We also came across a rare group of ‘lesser-spotted French’. They were of particular interest as their jeep had become stuck in the mud as it tried to drive up the bank after it had crossed a shallow river. The jeep had to be pushed backwards into the river, and went back to the far side, leaving our slightly flustered european cousins on the near side. Much mirth as they were invited to walk across the river, on the assurance that there were no crocodiles in this part!

The next day we went to another National Park, and this was the most interesting. It is called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and within it lies the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater (technically a caldera for all you geography buffs) is all that remains of a large volcano that was originally higher than Mount Kilimanjaro. The volcano blew long ago, but it left behind an area of approx. 100 square miles within the walls of the circling crater, which stand some 600m above the crater floor. Nowhere else in the world is there a caldera of this size on the land.

The sides of the crater are fairly steep. They vary in their terrain, from very steep and tree-covered to more gentle and grass-covered. But they make a fairly impressive barrier. And within the crater live a profusion of wild animals.

I will mention that the area is not without its controversy. For much of the last 200 years the Maasai, one of the local (and best known) tribes have lived in and around the crater. They are pastoral farmers, deriving most of their livelihood from their herds of cattle. However, they are now banned from much of the area and their traditional way of life is under threat.

This we learned a little later. Our main focus on the day was the wildlife. And what wildlife! From a vantage point on the rim we looked down and saw little, although a ranger did point out a couple of small, light-coloured blobs who were slowly moving away from us. It turns out that these were rhinos, some of the relatively few that live in the crater. It was only when we got down to the floor of the crater we realised how many animals lived there.

The first animals we saw in any number were zebra. Beautiful beasts. And then we encountered wildebeest. Not quite so beautiful, but still very impressive. Impala and other antelope. And a few herd of wild buffalo. And where there is game, there are predators. We saw a few jackals and hyenas, but most impressive were the lions. Fortunately for the other animals, the carnivores all seemed to have had their fill for the day, so no dramatic David Attenborough hunt scenes for us to watch at close hand.

So, a magnificent set of animals in a magnificent setting. And it was this that got me thinking.

For some of the animals in the crater, the crater would have been their whole world. And in fact, not just their whole world, but the whole world. They would never have known life outside of the crater. Now, I don’t want to get into arguments as to how much animals think or are aware of the bigger world (although with stories of migration and of the memory of elephants it is probably more than we often believe). What I do want to do is to think about humans. And the view they have of the world.

For some, the world is a big place, with news coming in to their life from much of it. Some are lucky enough to travel to other parts of their own country, or to other countries. They have an appreciation of what goes on ‘over there’. For some, the world is a far smaller place. There may be restrictions as to the news they can receive, and for some the cost of travel is prohibitive. However, for others the world is a small place because they put up their own barriers. They chose to live in their own crater, without ever venturing to see what is on the other side of the walls.

What barriers am I putting up in my life? What am I choosing to exclude; to put beyond the barriers? When am I staying within the comfort zone of my own barriers, rather than to expand my knowledge and capabilities?

For many (although not all) of the animals in the Ngorongoro Crater, the walls of the crater are the things that hold them in. My lesson this time is more of a question than a lesson – Lesson No.10 – What are your crater walls? Can you take the chance to move beyond them?

Next week my blog will move us on to the mountainside. I hope you will be there with me.


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