So where exactly is the Ngorongoro Crater?
East Africa has a few gems. Tanzania, south of Kenya and north of Mozambique, manages to boast; Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, the Serengeti, the Mara and the Ngorongoro Crater. Located about 180km west of Arusha, in the Crater Highlands, the Ngorongoro Crater is a must-stop on the Northern Tanzania safari circuit.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The Crater itself is part of a larger conservation area called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area or NCA. The 8,300 square metre NCA comprises three spectacular volcanic craters, the Olduvai Gorge, seemingly endless expanses of iconic savannah – part of the Serengeti Plains, bush and surprisingly, lush forest.
“my personal favourite is how beautiful it is as you descend, lush and tropical even… which you don't really expect” Claire, ABS consultant
This protected area is unique because of its efforts to preserve a way of life for both mankind and animals. Within the NCA, the Masai people are free to graze their cattle alongside the likes of antelope, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra.
Interestingly, the name ‘Ngorongoro’ is onomatopoeic in origin. Masai cattle herders reportedly gave the crater its name inspired by the sound of their cow-bells ‘ngoro ngoro’. Due to the nature of the NCA, these cows and their Masai herdsman can still be seen making their descent to greener pastures or grazing amongst the herds of wildlife in the crater proper.
How was the Ngorongoro Crater formed?
The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera.
Estimates say that about 3 million years ago, the intact volcano was almost as high as Kilimanjaro, between 4,500 and 5,800 metres. That is until the then active volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself forming the caldera or volcanic crater that is visible today.
“The high altitude means that you usually experience cold temperatures at night, so it’s worth packing something that will keep you toasty in the evenings” Ingrid, ABS consultant
The Ngorongoro Crater is about 610 metres deep and covers an area of almost 260 square kilometres. The crater floor is about 1,800 metres above sea level which translates into often rather chilly evenings.
In 2013, along with Kilimanjaro, the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls, the Ngorongoro Crater was voted as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
What are some of the top activities at the Ngorongoro Crater?
When you visit the Ngorongoro Crater, you are spoiled for choice. The good news is that the area is relatively small and so you get to sample everything. From craters, wildlife, people and culture to walking safaris and the cradle of humankind, this area is astounding!
Crater and Wildlife
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area used to be linked with the Serengeti National Park. That means that you have access to an incredibly dense concentration of wildlife in a relatively small area. Over 25000 large animals to be exact. These include the critically endangered black rhino, wildebeest in abundance, zebra, eland, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles… Leopard, buffalo, elephants, hyenas, painted wolves, cheetahs and the densest known population of lions. Last, but by no means least, there are over 500 recorded bird species in the area. These include ostrich, white pelican and a vast population of flamingos.
The list as you can see just keeps growing.
The other boon for the NCA is that the legendary great migration traverses Ngorongoro. That means that in December, 1.7 million wildebeest, 260,000 zebra, and 470,000 gazelles move south into the area and then move out again come June.
“watch out for the Thieving Birds at lunch stops in the Crater, lots of them swooping down on you if you have a picnic outside” Chris, ABS consultant.
When you stop to think about it, the sheer volume and abundance of wildlife found in Ngorongoro is enough to tempt any safari enthusiast. Add to this the gobsmacking beauty that is the result of craters, lakes and open plains and this really is a veritable Eden to any intrepid explorer..
But wait! There is even more…
People and Culture
While Ngorongoro’s past stretches back to the prehistoric, the history of the Maasai dates back about 200 years when these African pastoralists colonized the area in substantial numbers. Their traditional lifestyle of subsistence farming and cattle farming allows them to live alongside wildlife and in harmony with nature.
“people often ask to do the longer trip down and into the crater, but it really is only a small area and half day is enough” Ingrid, ABS consultant
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is currently home to about 42,200 Maasai. With these pastoralists come an assortment of cows, chickens, donkeys, goats and sheep. They remain relatively nomadic, moving around the NCA according to the seasons and favourable grazing for their cattle.
The terms of the NCA allow them access to the grazing areas and water of the crater, and within the conservancy, they can roam freely. However, while they can graze and water their cattle within the Ngorongoro crater, they are neither allowed to live nor cultivate the land.
While you are in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area it is important to remember that the Masaai that you encounter along the roads consider it bad manners to take photographs without consent. To this end, there are two designated Maasai cultural bomas, one on the road to the Serengeti, and the other at Irkeepusi village. Here visitors are welcomed to explore the traditional way of life and to closely engage with these fascinating people.
Beyond the Crater…
The Ngorongoro Crater is marvellous. Dense with wildlife and magical with sweeping vistas of Savannah, crowned by towering volcano rims and dotted with still lakes. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area offers even more.
Olduvai Gorge stands at the far end of the NCA. It is home to an archaeological site that is regarded as the cradle of humankind. It is considered the most important prehistoric site in the world. Over 50 years ago, renowned archaeological couple Dr Louis and Mary Leakey, discovered the remains of what are believed to be the earliest humans, Zinjanthropus.
About 30 miles long, the Olduvai Gorge is part of the Great Rift Valley and lies within the rain shadow of the Ngorongoro highlands. 500000 years ago, water began carving through the seven layers of deposits, revealing the gorge that we see today. Fossils suggest that various hominid species have occupied the crater continuously for about 3 million years!
Visiting the gorge is like travelling through time, and it is a little overwhelming to realise just how long humans have been here, and just how far we have come.
The unique confluence of human history and the harmonious balance of human and wildlife interactions resulted in the NCA becoming a World heritage Site and listed as an International Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Reserve Programme.
When is the best time to visit this area?
Like every safari destination, the Ngorongoro Crater has something to offer all year round. The thing to keep in mind are the rains, around which the pendulum of all life swings. There are two distinctive seasons, the rainy season (November to April) and the dry season (May to October).
November to April, let the rain fall
There are two distinctive rainfall patterns. The short rains are from November to December and the long rains from February to April. February to April, generally considered to be the off season – read quieter with fewer tourists, is an exciting time to visit as the herds gather to have their young on the Short Grass Plains.
Late February and early March are considered to be a good time to see the migration when the great herds gather which in turn attracts the predators. The result is a spectacular show of life and death in all its drama, heart-ache and jubilation.
May to October, dry season
Though short of the elixir of life, the dry season holds its own unique beauty. This is the best time to view game as the animals congregate around permanent watering holes. The short grass plains, so alive with life in the rainy season, appear as a barren wasteland. Lakes Empakaai and Ndutu have resident game that remains here all year round.
What accommodation is on offer?
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area has an abundance of accommodation options from camping and budget to the lap of luxury. Bearing in mind that there is no accommodation in the Crater, the best way to split them up is by proximity to the Crater. There are, as always, pros and cons, and it all depends on what you want and are willing to spend.
On the Rim of the Ngorongoro Crater
The lodge accommodation on the edge of the Crater is a little more expensive. It comes with all the standard comforts and offers stunning views. The main perk however, is that these lodges allow the quickest and easiest access to the Crater. This means not much queueing and the added bonus of a full day to soak up the game.
“if you have the funds, its best to stay at one of the lodges that are on the crater rim. Especially if they are spending two nights at one of these lodges as it allows you do to a full day inside the crater, and as there is always a bottle neck in the morning to get down into the crater, if you stay at one of these lodges you are closest to the gate and would be the first down” Harriet, ABS consultant
The alternative is to stay further away from the Crater. This accommodation is often more affordable but the end result is that your time in the Crater is cut short. The distance from the crater means you get caught in the bottle-neck going down and have to depart earlier in order to get back to the lodge before dark. These excursions are therefore usually limited to a morning game drive.
While many consider the Crater small enough to do in half a day, others prefer the option of a leisurely drive that allows you to feel less like a freight train and more like a Sunday morning. Pros and cons.
What are you waiting for?
With so much to offer, the Ngorongoro Crater is a must do. And why not combine it with a longer trip to see the Serengeti, the Mara and Mount Kilimanjaro? Have you spoken to an African Budget Safari consultant today? You may just be surprised to see how far they can take you!