Dave on a walk from Asilia's The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Africa

A Night in the Highlands

25/03/2021

Dave on a walk from Asilia's The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

© DLock

Firstly, to clarify, Tribes hasn’t branched out into trips to Scotland. This blog is about a night I had at Asilia’s ‘The Highlands’ lodge deep within the Ngorongoro highlands in Tanzania.

I am writing this on the back of nine days solid safari in northern Tanzania, and a question has been running through my mind all the way through this trip.

Is there more to northern Tanzania than the wildlife?

Wildlife viewing with The Highlands, Ngorongoror Crater, Tanzania
Wildlife viewing with The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
© DLock

Wildlife will always be the main draw to this area and rightly so, and I personally take my game viewing very seriously, often standing for entire game drives if there is the slightest hint of seeing a leopard or martial eagle in its natural habitat.

Those that have been on safari will know that it can be a very full-on, immersive experience. You generally wake up early and go for a game drive when the wildlife is at its most active, then following a break back at camp for lunch you might head off again on a game drive when it gets cool again. So, you get that downtime to relax between game activities.

Vulture in the Ngorongoro highlands, Tanzania
Vulture in the Ngorongoro highlands, Tanzania
© DLock

Northern Tanzania however is not always like this, especially in the green season when the rains have taken their toll on the already poor conditioned roads. Most days involve an early start, followed by a full day out searching for wildlife, who of course don’t always want to be found! You return to camp with forty-five minutes to freshen up before dinner and turning in for the night, ready to start the day again.

So, after nine days of bumpy ‘African massage’ roads, some insect bites and an acacia thorn snapped in my foot I am well and truly ready for something different. My ideal place would be a lodge removed from the world of wildlife, in a cooler climate to the national parks, with no tsetse flies and the chance to do some walking.

This is where The Highlands comes in. I purposely didn’t do a lot of research on the property before coming but knew about its reputation and colleagues who have been working on trips to Africa for years were very envious that I was going.

The Highlands, Ngorongoro, Tanzania
The Highlands, Ngorongoro, Tanzania
© Asilia

This feat of creativity and engineering sits around two hours from the Ngorongoro crater rim, halfway between the lesser-known calderas of Olmoti and Empakai. This is real rural countryside with the rolling hills taking you deep into the Maasai heartlands. As you drive by the many Bomas, it was intriguing to see the blend of cultures as children came out of primary and secondary schools and were waving to me, whilst the old hands were just making sure their prized donkeys behaved.

Asilia, who runs the camp, are a company with amazing sustainability/ethical travel credentials which is also at the heart of Tribes Travel’s travelling with respect ethos. They have camps in Tanzania and Kenya which are often strategically placed to give people the best possible game viewing experience. For example, Asilia’s Dunia Camp in the western area of Serengeti is the first safari camp in Tanzania to be run completely by women, including the game rangers, which is simply incredible in a world normally dominated by men and they do a great deal of work for the local communities where their lodges are situated.

I was made to feel incredibly welcome from the moment I arrived at Highlands, with a big smile from the Maasai Askari (security guard) on duty and most of the staff coming out to personally greet me, and if first impressions are something to go by then The Highlands nailed it. I was led into the main lounge ‘Dome’ with the fire roaring and within seconds had a hot towel and refreshing drink in hand.

Main sitting room in The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Main sitting room in The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
© DLock

After a quick orientation and safety briefing which mainly included keep an eye out for buffalo and leopards, I was shown to my own geodesic dome. Pictures don’t really do them justice as they are so spacious, and the high ceilings really create a unique environment to stay in. I have to say I did hum the Crystal Maze theme a few times (The manager had never heard of Richard O’Brien oddly enough). Each dome has its own log burning stove, huge bed, plenty of seating area and then like working through the Aztec zone (last Crystal Maze reference, I promise…) you find the huge shower area and double sinks.

There are maisonette domes as well with a second bed up a ladder for small families and the Honeymoon dome even has a wood-fired hot tub overlooking the countryside! The natural light that comes through the Perspex dome is illuminating and all in all makes for a space you don’t really want to leave!

Dave's geodesic dome room at The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Dave’s geodesic dome room at The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
© DLock

As I was only staying one night though I wanted to try out some of the activities on offer, but first it was lunchtime. An amazing spread was produced for me with the chef explaining what everything was. He was so enthusiastic and excited that he even went for a high five, I didn’t leave him hanging, and it was so nice to see someone take so much pride in their work. So, a bit of advice, if you plan to come to Highlands, then get here for lunchtime!

The plan for the afternoon was to walk up to the rim of Olmoti crater which is only about twenty minutes drive and probably the least challenging of the hikes on offer. However, as per usual just after lunchtime, the heavens opened for the most incredible storm. I have to say this brought mixed emotions as whilst I wanted to do the walk, I could quite easily have sat in my Dome in the warm instead.

In true Maasai style, though, my guide came and fetched me and said the rain had stopped on the crater ‘so we go’. After a few trips to the area I have learned it’s not wise to disagree with a Maasai.

First off, we had to go and collect a game ranger as the lodge and climb itself are still the wildlife conservation area and it isn’t unheard of for Buffalo to roam on the crater rim. The climbing team was the local Asilia Maasai guide called Moilalie, my own guide who had never done the walk so I encouraged him to join us and Steve the ranger with his rifle, and we set off up the hill.

On a guided walk in the Ngorongoro Highlands, Tanzania
On a guided walk in the Ngorongoro Highlands, Tanzania
© DLock

It is a slippery but manageable walk to the top through fairly thick bush following a cattle trail. This was the first exercise I had done in a while and at 2700m altitude it was nice to reach the top and have a breather. Moilalie was excellent in pointing out the flora and fauna of the area and if they have any use in Maasai culture. He had also spotted some shapes in the distance and pointed out some buffalo and Eland in the crater itself. The scenery here is stunning and well worth the forty-minute ascent.

On the way back to the lodge we called in on a Maasai boma to meet a family who are happy to welcome Asilia guests. Unlike commercial Bomas which generally involve some sort of performance and then the pressure to buy something, The Highlands works with a local widow who is now the head of her family. This was a very real experience with there being a clear language barrier and nothing for sale in sight. When the eldest of her grandchildren came back from school (which was great to see) and immediately saw I was wearing a football shirt, he found a little ball to kick to me. Football really is a universal language these days…

There is a financial element to this where the lodge pays the family $25 for every visit and then an additional $50 goes into a communal fund for improvements to the area, all at no cost to guests. Having spent some time with the lady and her grandchildren in her Manyatta we said our farewells and went back to the lodge.

Visiting a Maasai village near The Highlands, Ngorongoro, Tanzania
Visiting a Maasai village near The Highlands, Ngorongoro, Tanzania
© DLock

Back at the lodge, the clouds had descended creating some amazing views.  It was time to freshen up for dinner, and upon returning to my dome I was greeted by a roaring fire ensuring I was warm enough in this cooler climate.

I had been prepped earlier by the barman to get to the bar before dinner to try out some of his cocktails which is something of a Highlands speciality. All drinks are included other than some of the premium single malt whiskeys and he had soon twisted my arm into having a honey and lemon themed ‘Bee Sting’ cocktail, which was of course followed by another two.

Snacks at The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Snacks at The Highlands, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
© DLock

Dinner was another impressive event with platters of meats and vegetables in true African style was presented. Wine pairings were also suggested showing the quality of staff and their gastronomical knowledge.

After dinner, it was finally time to have that rest and finding the fire still roaring away and a hot water bottle in bed soon sent me off. If only I had a second day here, I would have spread the activities out giving more time to relax and really take in everything the lodge has to offer.

It was such a privilege to come here and learn more about Asilia as a company that really does give a lot back to local communities as a matter of principle.

In summary, the wildlife is always the winner in Northern Tanzania. I was so lucky to have seen wild dog hunting in an area they are not supposed to be in and a newborn wildebeest take its first steps on this trip. However, for those looking for that element of relaxation and break from the norm then I can wholeheartedly recommend a few nights in the Highlands before getting back on the bumpy roads in search of that elusive leopard.

Dave at the Ngorongoro Crater lookout point, Tanzania
Dave at the Ngorongoro Crater lookout point, Tanzania
© DLock
Dave Lock
Dave Lock - Author

Dave is a consultant at Tribes Travel and has a passion for travels in all corners of the world.

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