- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

Life is full of roses at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, from a pink as pale as dawn’s early light to a red deeper than an African sunset. Roses for romance.

Roses on the tables in the dining room. Rose petals strewn on the floor from an elegant suite’s doorway to tub-side in the bathroom. More petals on the edge of the bathtub and floating on the water drawn for a hot bath.

Roses on napkins at a tented lunch on the crater floor; an earthenware wine cooler filled with roses beside the iced wine. The chairs are covered in red Masai fabrics; the tablecloth is a black-and-white check.

The lodge’s main building, containing the dining room, continues the romantic but spare opulence. This is life on the cutting edge — the edge of the crater, the top of this ancient caldera in northern Tanzania.

Modern luxuries are adapted skillfully to the buildings at this lodge and at Conservation Corps Africa’s 29 other lodges and camps in Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Credit this Xanadu-like fantasy to Chris Browne, the CC Africa group designer. His work could please a potentate as easily as it works romantic wonders for lesser travelers.

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is a timeless setting for a wedding, honeymoon, anniversary or birthday. It turns a visit into an occasion, many notches above the usual safari lodge.

Besides roses — supplied by a grower in the area — the lodge has six cottages that look like vaulted Masai huts of stone and thatch resting on stilts. Inside the huts are dark teak walls and floors, chandeliers, a fireplace — and air conditioning — large windows overlooking the crater, white linens and blankets, comfortable leather chairs, and lamps for reading. Each hut or suite is a special place for an equally special occasion.

Each suite has a personal butler who serves morning tea and coffee. Masai women, I was told, are experts at beads, and they strung the chandeliers.

An added treat is talking with Mr. Browne, the creator of fantasies, who is visiting the lodge that day. He and Debra Fox, who is director of all CC Africa’s lodges outside South Africa, were married at the lodge in a ceremony with a Masai theme, an event she recalls fondly and as vividly as the Masais’ dress.

The caldera setting itself is magical, and the staff can plan a wedding for as many guests as desired, including a small affair with several guests on the deck of the lodge’s North, South or Tree camps, all with fabulous views.

The wedding packages include accommodations, dinner, local spirits, beer, wine and soft drinks and two game drives a day. Fees are additional for legal documentation.

A sample wedding package for two — $985 — includes a private ceremony by clergy on the deck of the couple’s suite; a set wedding fee and a private vehicle and wedding coordinator; the clergyperson’s transfer and accommodations plus a donation to the church; a bouquet for the bride; and a bottle of sparkling wine ($70 more if real champagne is required). With more add-ons and larger groups, the cost increases up to $3,140 for a maximum of 24 people and the booking of the entire South Camp; this includes a church choir, a photographer and other necessities, such as an opera singer, violinist, string quartet or disco music.

For last-minute wedding shoppers, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge has a well-stocked gift-and-crafts shop, probably the best I saw at five CC Africa properties.

Some people call Ngorongoro Crater Lodge over the top; I think of it as the top — in style and in elevation — 7,000 feet above sea level.

The caldera is what remains of the mountain that virtually blew itself into oblivion in a fit of volcanic eruption about 3 million years ago. Ngorongoro may have been larger than its neighbor Kilimanjaro. The crater floor is reached by a one-way road — of sorts — that bumps and curves down 500 feet to the flat bottom.

The crater is 12 miles wide and is the world’s largest intact caldera, completely surrounded by its cone wall; the only escape for water is for it to be evaporated, absorbed or drunk. The lake in the crater floor contains so much soda that it is not potable and seems of interest only to thousands of flamingos; a jackal stalking the flamingos shows no concern about the water, but the pink birds are well aware of the scrawny jackal.

Springs and rain bring fresh water to the 30,000 animals living in the crater. The animals are free to migrate, but life is good there, with abundant grasses and other food, including other animals in the food chain. The caldera is steep and not easy for some animals to negotiate, especially elephants, although they do at times come and go. The lions could do with more coming and going, for they look tired and are suffering from a distemperlike illness. Otherwise, life is good for a lion.

Spectators can be numerous during summer, the high season, but in other months, there are fewer travelers, creating a time in which less really is more.

After our second night at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, we continue by sport utility vehicle on the Serengeti. We pass lions and zebras and are rather blase about them, but suddenly an expansive herd of wildebeests works itself out of a blurred distance and takes over the horizon. As we drive closer, we can see how erratically the wildebeests behave, running in one direction, turning and running back to where they were earlier, crossing and recrossing the gravel road, drinking from a stream, leaving and returning.

At Olduvai Gorge, we are given a tour by one of the antiquities officers who knew the late anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey when they were searching for the remains of prehistoric humans in digs at the gorge. This is where Mrs. Leakey in 1959 discovered the skull of the hominid now known as Australopithecus afarensis. A bronze tablet marks the site where Mrs. Leakey glanced at the bank of earth and rock and saw part of the skull exposed. The skull, millions of years old, perhaps was hidden in the earth after a volcanic eruption, maybe concealed during silting.

Still in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we continue to the Shifting Sands, a large dune of volcanic ash that each year is being blown about 16 feet westward by the winds on the Serengeti. As the dune moves, it keeps the same crescent shape.

The dune has religious significance for the Masai, some of whom come to see it; I see a German fall on his knees, extend his arms and bow his head in apparent meditation. The ash may be from Oldonyo Lengai, an 11,000-foot active volcano on the southern shore of Tanzania’s Lake Natron in the Great Rift Valley.

Then it is onward over the plain to a grass landing strip where a single-engine plane is waiting to fly us to Grumeti River Camp, another property of CC Africa. The river drains into Lake Victoria. It turns out that the pilot once took her late mother on a nostalgic visit to the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. Her mother once lived on the crater floor — way before there was a lodge of romance on the top of the caldera.

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