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3:50 AM Wed, Dec. 12th

Visiting a lost world at the edge of an ancient crater

Courtesy

Courtesy

Stand at the edge of Ngorongoro Crater (it means 'cold place' in Masai), 10 miles across and 2,000 feet deep, and breathe deeply. Its isolation in the volcanic highlands of Tanzania has kept it untouched, pristine and wonderful. On the edge of this extinct volcano you will gaze down into an immense lost world where giraffes amble and butterflies catch the breeze.

With an estimated 25,000 animals, the crater is home to almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa. It's the Garden of Eden before Man messed it up.

The enormous Ngorongoro Crater is all that remains of a huge and ancient volcano, which collapsed upon itself some two million years ago. The caldera covers 102 square miles with high cliffs that guard and protect it from the rest of the world. Within its walls lie almost every type of East Africa environment - savanna grasslands, swamps, forests and freshwater lakes. Descend into the basin and you can picnic on the crater floor in the middle of Noah's Ark. Elephants browse near the forest and hippos grunt as they drowse through the midday heat. Wildebeest, zebra and Thompson's gazelles wander by, as do ostriches, pure white egrets and flamingos. Black-maned lions, cheetah, hyena, jackal and the elusive leopard prowl for their lunch.

Now, as long as you're in Tanzania, what else is there to do while you're there?

Visit prehistoric Tarangire National Park, which is known for its vast elephant herds. Without crowds, you will feel like an early African explorer, so put on your bush hat and channel your inner Burton. There are herds of zebra, jackal, giraffe, gazelle and buffalo. Spend the night at a tented camp and walk elephant paths to waterholes. Travel on to the Rift Valley escarpment overlooking Lake Manyara and watch the pink flamingos and the lions lazing after lunch in the limbs of the acacia trees.

As you enter the northern plains, you should make a stop at Olduvai Gorge, the "seat of humanity" and the most famous anthropological site in the world, where the doctors Leakey discovered the fossilized remains and tools of the earliest known man. This very deep ravine in the Great Rift Valley is about 30 miles long and 300 feet deep and the exposed layers have yielded finds that stretch back almost 2 million years. I met Dr. Leakey when I was in school at UofA. He looked pretty ordinary but I'm not sure his feet touched the ground.

Olduvai is very dry, inhospitable and quite unremarkable- looking. But when you're there, picture a little ragged band of almost-men, up before dawn to dig roots or getting ready to go kill a gazelle. As the wind whistles through the thorn bushes, use your imagination and you'll see prehistoric ghosts from a million years ago.

Next up is the Serengeti, 5,000 square miles of "far away" (the word comes from the Masai word for "endless plains.") You may have watched Discovery Channel or PBS programs about the vast herds of migrating wildebeest with feline predators prowling the outskirts. Those programs don't do it justice. There are no wide-screen TVs that can begin to give you an idea of the astonishing size and magnitude of the great herds.

It is on the Serengeti that the Great Migration takes place each spring when more than a million wildebeests, zebra and Thomson's gazelle begin their long trek north to the Masai Mara in search of fresh grass and water, following the path of the rain. And quietly stalking them are golden-maned lions, solitary leopards, sniffling hyenas and other predators with healthy appetites.

The sense of space on the Serengeti Plains is as limitless as the game viewing. Across the great expanses of grass, you can see almost to the end of the earth. Wakened at very early morning by the roaring of distant lions (and the camp staff) for the first game drive, you will feel just about as far from Prescott as you can get.

And isn't that what traveling is really all about? To get you out of your rut, to shake up your preconceptions, to let you see the wide world and bring all those memories home.

Go see your travel agent and start planning.

Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel since 1975.