The rugged four-wheel drive bounces along the dirt road, dust billowing in its wake as it wends its way to Asilia Africa The Highlands, set an elevation of 8,900 feet. This relative newcomer to Tanzania’s safari scene is said to be the highest property in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and as we gaze at the valley through the swirling dust motes, it feels like we’re travelling to the top of the world.
On arrival, we are greeted by the two Maasai staff, their faces split into broad grins of welcome as they hand us fruity welcome drinks and guide us into the domed lounge, where a fireplace is encircled by a comfortable lounge. A crackling fire may seem like a misnomer in Africa, known for its scorching heat, but we’ve been warned that at this altitude it gets chilly after dark.
Now though, it’s late afternoon and everything has that golden glow of perfection. I’ve scored the honeymoon suite, the furthest down a narrow winding track, ensuring seclusion. My private deck overlooks bushland and the deep outdoor hot tub is calling my name, but it’s going to have to wait. Entering the domed pod to freshen up, my eye are drawn straight to the triangulated window design covering around a third of the dome, which affords spectacular views and allows the sunlight to stream in and warm the space. The interior is simple yet chic, with clean-cut lines, wooden floors and black and white prints of local Maasai people. A large partition separates the bedroom from the contemporary bathroom and a wood-burning stove sits in the corner, waiting for evening.
Entering the domed pod to freshen up, my eye are drawn straight to the triangulated window design covering around a third of the dome, which affords spectacular views and allows the sunlight to stream in and warm the space. The interior is simple yet chic, with clean-cut lines, wooden floors and black and white prints of local Maasai people. A large partition separates the bedroom from the contemporary bathroom and a wood-burning stove sits in the corner, waiting for evening.
After a quick rinse, it’s time to meet my fellow travellers again for a visit to a local Maasai village, where a coming-of-age ceremony is taking place. Two circles of young men chant as they take turns jumping to incredible heights. Children wander through the proceedings, fascinated by our cameras and phones, posing and giggling shyly when they see the own images. Many of the adults are the same and my phone is soon coated in fingerprints as they delight in learning to swipe.
Before we leave, I stop to talk to a group of women adorned in ornately beaded necklaces, huddled by the edge of a livestock enclosure. Most have toddlers clinging to their legs. “How old are you?” asks one of the women through a translator. We are similar ages. “I have five children,” she announces. “How many do you have?” She looks sorry for me when I say I don’t have children. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I don’t have a husband either.
By the time we return to The Highlands, the night has set in and as warned, the air has cooled. Bundled up in warm sweaters, we alternate between fire-gazing in the lounge and star-gazing on the deck as we sip our pre-dinner drinks, eagerly anticipating dinner. It’s not long before we’re seated at a long table, trading stories with other guests as we dine, enjoying the conviviality of the evening.
In the morning, we rise early for a game drive in the Ngorongoro Crater. The 260-square-kilometre expanse, the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera, was created by an eruption more than two million years ago, and is now home to a plethora of wildlife, including the Big Five. Within minutes of trundling into the fertile grazing grounds we’ve seen herds of Cape Buffalo, gazelles and wildebeest. Zebras graze in clusters, Grey Crowned Cranes strut past on long, spindly legs and baboons frolic in a patch of trees by a waterway. A pair of comical-looking warthogs trot across the road in front of our vehicle and it isn’t long before we spot our first lion, nonchalantly strolling past a herd of zebras. We stop at a waterhole, where hippos bob to the surface with a yawn, and spy hyenas ambling in the undergrowth. Later, we pull up behind another safari vehicle to admire a lioness as she slinks over to rest in the shade cast by the rear wheel. The sheer volume and variety of wildlife is mind-boggling.
When the sun reaches its zenith, we pull up to a private picnic spot to find a beautifully laid table under a tree. A handful of the Highlands staff waits for our arrival, doling out refreshments from a fully stocked bar and preparing lunch on site. Sitting in the dappled shade with full bellies, every face at the table is smiling at the memories we are making. It’s a precious moment, far-removed from the bustle of big-city life.
Ngorongoro is a highlight for many visitors to the area, and it’s easy to see why, but The Highlands goes beyond the standard safari experience, offering the opportunity to take in more of this beautiful part of the country. Tomorrow, we’re hiking into Empakaai Crater, the Ngorongoro Crater’s stunning, yet relatively unknown neighbour. The crater lake offers superb birding and the chance to see the multitude of flamingos that form a salmon-pink band around the lakeshore. And it doesn’t end there. After all, I still have that hot tub to look forward to.
For more information about The Highlands or Asilia Africa click here.