Birding Without Borders

Day 234: Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge

Like a Vegas hotel — but in a real place.

August 22, 2015: Arusha, Tanzania — For the past couple of nights on safari, our group stayed at two big lodges in the Serengeti and at the Ngorongoro Crater. This morning I stood for a few minutes at the front entrance of the magnificent Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge and watched safari trucks endlessly line up. One by one, khaki-painted Land Cruisers paused at the door, filled with people, and rolled out for the day’s adventures. It was an impeccable demonstration of hospitality and efficiency, and I went away impressed.

I don’t often stay at resorts, so maybe I’m just not used to tourism on this scale, but these big safari resorts reminded me of a trip I took a couple of years ago to Las Vegas (of all places!). Hear me out, now: If you’ve never been to Vegas, it’s worth going for the spectacle of high-volume efficiency. From the moment you arrive there, you’re in a seamless machine of good service and constant motion, designed to fulfill whatever it is you came to do. Vegas knows that happy and relaxed customers will return with friends, and these Serengeti safari lodges have evidently embraced the same logic.

At Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, someone hands you a drink as you walk in the door while someone else spirits away your bags. The lodge has its own 15-person choir! Rooms are turned down multiple times a day, and, when it’s time to get tucked in for the night, you’ll discover a hot water bottle warming your sheets. The breakfast bar, set for hundreds, includes a chef and the option of cold, hot, or soy milk for your cereal, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the swimming pool and crater below. The adjoining lounge full of artifacts, according to Sopa’s material, is “a true masterpiece of African heritage.” Wait, are we still in Africa?

The difference between the Serengeti and Las Vegas, of course, is that the Serengeti is real: It may feel like a theme park, but that’s getting it backwards. Someone recently told me that Kenya (a hop to the north) is one of the world’s only countries without a zoo, which makes sense. No point in recreating what’s already there. So, Vegas is an elaborate mirage in the desert, constructed for the sake of entertainment, while a safari in East Africa is raw in tooth and claw. Never mind if both have rooms with enclosed solariums.

Our safari ended today and I’m back in big-city Arusha, poised for a several-day transect of the northeast Tanzania mountains. That does it for my safari experiences this yearfrom Ghana to South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania, I’ve had my fill of big animals and wide-open savannas. The big year rolls on.

New birds today: 5

Year list: 4,035

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