The spectacular 8288-square-kilometer Ngorongoro Conservation Area occupies the highlands between the Great Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plains. It’s the product of the volcanic upheavals that accompanied the formation of the Rift Valley, and its varied habitats virtually guarantee sightings of “the big five” – elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and buffalo. For animals, this is a haven; for visitors, the Ngorongoro Crater safari is something close to a heaven visit.
Coming from the east, your Ngorongoro safari magic begins the instant you pass through Lodoare Gate. The road begins to climb up through the tall and liana-festooned Oldeani Forest, giving way to an unforgettable view of Ngorongoro Crater, an everchanging patchwork of green and yellow hues streaked with shadows and mist. At its center Lake Magadi reflects the silvery sky, while on the western horizon, there’s the seemingly endless shimmer of the Serengeti Plains.
The 19km-wide crater is Ngorongoro’s incomparable highlight, a vast, unbroken caldera left behind when an enormous volcano collapsed. Its grasslands, swamps, glades, lakes and forests contain vast numbers of herbivores, together with Africa’s highest density of predators. Game viewing, needless to say, is phenomenal, as
is the abundance of photo opportunities, Ngorongoro crater’s deep, bluish-purple sides provide a spectacular backdrop to any shot. The crater also contains a few highly endangered black rhino, which despite their disastrously reduced population (now about twenty) are easily seen.
Birdlife in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is pretty decent, too, and includes ostriches, Verreaux’s eagles, Egyptian vultures, kori bustards and lesser flamingos, the latter feeding on soda lakes occupying Ngorongoro and Empakaai craters, and at Lake Ndutu on the border with Serengeti. Although the crater is often all that most Ngorongoro safaris include of Ngorongoro, there’s much more besides. In the west, the rolling hills give way to the expansive grassland of the Salei Plains, which receive a good part of the Serengeti’s annual wildlife migration between December and April. Both hyena and cheetah are frequently seen here, though in the dry season the plains resemble a desert.
Right on the edge of the plains is a remarkable geological fissure, Oldupai Gorge, famous among paleontologists as the site of important hominid finds dating back millions of years. To the northeast, close to the edge of the Great Rift Valley’s escarpment, are two smaller craters, Olmoti and Empakaai, which are also rich in wildlife yet see very few visitors. The craters form part of the so-called Crater Highlands, which can be visited on foot if accompanied by an armed ranger. For those with more time, and sturdy legs, it’s also possible to walk across the highlands from Ngorongoro to Lake Natron via Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, a journey that can take anything from two to seven days.
Ngorongoro Crater Highland Safari Treks
The Ngorongoro Crater Highlands occupy the eastern section of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, roughly between Ngorongoro Crater and the Rift Valley. Much of the area is lushly forested and includes several volcanic peaks, including the active Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano just outside the conservation area. Ngorongoro walking safaris here are best experienced with an armed ranger on a Crater Highlands trek, which can be arranged with the help of a Reputable Tour Operator in Tanzania or any of the accommodations nearing the Area. Treks can be as short as half a day, or as long as a week, giving you ample time to get to Lake Natron, and perhaps climb Ol Doinyo Lengai along the way, while Olmoti and Empakaai craters can also be worked into the itinerary.
Costs vary according to the level of service and backup: count on anything from $200–500 a day. Your operator is capable of offering up to something close to bush luxury, where a full camp attended by plenty of staff is set up ahead of your arrival, including mess tents, furniture, chemical toilets, and ingenious bucket showers. Cheaper, more adventurous, and definitely more “authentic” are humbler trips where the gear (dome tents, usually) is carried by donkey, which will also carry you if you’re tired.
Some 2.5 million years ago, the reservoir of magma under an enormous volcano towering over the western flank of the Great Rift Valley emptied itself in an enormous explosion, leaving a vacuum that caused the mountain to implode under its own weight. In its wake, it left an enormous 600-meter deep crater (caldera), its 19-kilometer diameter now making it the world’s largest unbroken and unflooded caldera. This is Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania, one of Tanzania’s wonders, covering approximately three hundred square kilometers and providing a natural amphitheater for the wildlife spectacle on its floor. The crater contains 25,000 to 30,000 large mammals, which when viewed from the rim on one of our crafted Ngorongoro crater safaris, are a blur of pulsating specks arranged in fluid formations, while above the crater, eagles, buzzards, hawks and vultures circle.
The main feature on the crater floor is the shallow and alkaline Lake Magadi, whose extent varies according to the rains – flocks of flamingos feed here in the dry season. On the western shore is an enigmatic scattering of stone burial mounds, believed to have been left by the Datooga (Tatoga), ancestors of Barbaig cattle herders who occupied the crater until the Maasai pushed them out. At the lake’s southern edge is Lerai Forest, a large patch of acacia woodland that takes its Maasai name from the dominant yellow-barked acacia, and is a good place for seeing waterbuck and flitting sunbirds.
Swamp, thorn scrub and grassland fill the rest of the crater, and provide the bulk of the game viewing. The majority of the animals are herbivores, supported by year-round supplies of water and fodder, and include vast herds of wildebeest (up to 14,000), zebra, buffalo, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, eland, hartebeest and mountain reedbuck, warthog and hippo, and two of Africa’s giants: elephants, of which a handful of bulls are always present, and a small population of black rhino. Once rhinos where common across all of eastern and southern Africa, but poaching in the 1970s and 1980s took a terrible toll on this magnificent creature, decimating the population from 108 in the 1960s to only fourteen in 1995. There are now 26. Apart from rhino, the big draw is the transfixing sight of Africa’s densest population of predators in action. Lions are very common and easily seen (best in the dry season), as are hyenas and jackals. Cheetahs are also sometimes present, as are leopards, which require some patience to spot, as they rest up in trees or thick bush by day.
Olmoti and Empakaai craters
North of Ngorongoro Crater are two smaller craters, Olmoti and Empakaai. The shallow and grassy Olmoti Crater, accessed from Nanokanoka village (there’s a special campsite there), contains several antelope species, and there are waterfalls nearby on the Munge River. Accompanied by an armed ranger (the post is in the village), the crater rim and its fringing forest can be explored on foot, taking anything from two to seven hours. Northeast of here is the stunningly beautiful, 6km-wide Empakaai Crater, much of which is filled with a forest-fringed soda lake. This is better for wildlife than Olmoti, and resident species include bushbuck, reedbuck and waterbuck, buffalo, monkeys, and an abundance of birds, including flamingos. You can walk along the rim (again, if accompanied by an armed ranger – the post is about 5km southeast) and into the crater itself (at least 7hr). There are two special campsites on the rim.
30km west of Ngorongoro Crater, 7km north of the road to Serengeti is a steep-sided gorge, a 48km-long ravine with depths reaching 150m in places. Furrowed out of the volcanic land by the capricious Oldupai River, the eroded rock strata on either side of the gorge have exposed the fossilized remains of animals and over fifty hominids dating back almost two million years – an archeological trove of inestimable importance for understanding the origins of humankind. Oldupai Gorge can be seen on foot or by vehicle, and even if old bones and stones don’t appeal, the gorge itself is a pleasant diversion off the road to Serengeti, and there’s also a range of fast-moving black sand dunes to explore
Oldupai Museum On the right before the entrance to Oldupai Gorge is the small but fascinating Oldupai Museum which documents the findings excavated in the region. Despite its modest size, the museum packs in a bewildering amount of information, with three rooms full of well-documented bones, tools and skillful reproductions of skulls, including that of Nutcracker Man.
How to Get There
It is less than three hour’s drive from Arusha to Ngorongoro. Self-drive is possible as everything is signposted, but you won’t be allowed into the crater without an officially licensed guide or driver-guide; they can be hired at the park gate for a fee a day. Open-topped vehicles are not admitted.
There’s an airstrip on the crater rim, but scheduled flights use Ndutu on the border with Serengeti, 90km northwest of the crater. There’s also an airstrip at Manyara, 55km southeast, near Mto wa Mbu. The main airlines are: Air Excel (AE; airexcelonline.com); Auric Air (AA; auricair.com); Coastal Aviation (CA; coastal.co.tz); Regional Air (RA; regionaltanzania.com); and Safari Airlink (SA; flysal.com).
The following is for Ngorongoro flights to and from Ndutu; the quickest airlines are listed first.
- Arusha (CA AA AE SA: 5 daily; 50min–2hr 10min)
- Dar (AE SA: 2 daily 4hr 35min–5hr 25min)
- Kilimanjaro (CA SA AE: 4 daily; 1hr 10min–2hr 45min)
- Mafia (SA: 1 daily; 6hr 30min)
- Manyara (CA AA AE SA: 5 daily; 25min–45min)
- Mwanza (CA: 1 daily; 2hr 40min)
- Pangani (SA: 1 daily; 6hr 10min)
- Ruaha (SA CA: 2 daily; 2hr 20min–3hr)
- Saadani (SA: 1 daily; 6hr 20min)
- Serengeti (CA AA AE RA SA: 6 daily; 15min–1hr 45min)
- Zanzibar (CA AE: 2 daily; 3hr 10min–4hr)