One of Africa’s premier attractions, the Ngorongoro Crater is a world-renowned wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This breathtakingly beautiful area was created two to three million years ago when a large volcano exploded and collapsed into itself, creating a natural amphitheatre.
Today, it’s home to over 30,000 animals, and is the best place in Tanzania to see the big five in their natural habitat.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest unbroken crater, stretching over an area of 100 square miles (260 square kilometres) with walls 2,000 feet (610 metres) deep. It’s a geological marvel, and has a very strong case for inclusion on any list of the top natural wonders in the world.
Seeing the crater for the first time is an unforgettable experience. After climbing through the surrounding forest, you suddenly break into the open where you’re rewarded with ethereal blue-green vistas stretching before you. But the view is only a minor part of this experience as the real magic takes place below.
The enclosed nature of the crater means it’s formed its own ecosystem. Deep in the caldera there are rich grasslands, swamps, springs, an acacia forest, and Lake Makat, a soda lake. Together they form one of the most beautiful wildlife havens on the planet; a place often referred to as ‘Africa’s Garden of Eden’.
People are drawn to the Ngorongoro Crater to witness the geological splendour of this astonishing landscape, and experience a wildlife encounter like little else.
A healthy population of endangered black rhino roam the plains near the Lereal Forest, along with a scattering of old bull elephants – some of the largest tuskers alive in Africa today. They’re drawn to the shade of the Lereal Forest, although breeding herds of elephants rarely venture here, the cows and calves preferring the forested highlands.
The Ngoitoktok Springs is frequented by wallowing hippos who come here to sun bake, while the salt-whitened shores of Lake Makat turn a beautiful shade of pastel pink during the rainy season as flamingos flock to its shallows to sift algae and shrimps from its waters.
The mineral-rich floor of the caldera is largely open and covered with nutritious grasses, to the delight of herds of zebras, wildebeest, buffalo, and gazelles that graze here.
The high number of herbivores present supports the predators – the Crater is home to the highest number of predators found anywhere in Africa. Black-maned lions stalk the grasslands and display a complete indifference to the game vehicles, often hunting next to them and flopping in their shade when exhausted. They compete for food with hundreds of hyenas as well as cheetah and jackals and, if you’re lucky leopards will venture down, preferring to stick to the shady Lereal Forest.
The entire area is a conservation area, and visitors are only welcome during the daytime – at night, the crater floor belongs solely to the wildlife. Game viewing vehicles descend the steep crater walls every morning, and must leave again by sunset. The only downside to the Ngorongoro Crater is that its popularity means it can sometimes get crowded, so although the wildlife is spectacular the number of vehicles can disrupt the overall sense of wilderness many people seek on safari.
Summer in Tanzania runs between September and April and temperatures range from 20°C (68°F) to 30°C (86°F). Winter runs from May to August with temperatures an average of 19°C (66°F) to 25°C (77°F).
The temperature on the rim of the caldera is always cooler because of its location at 333 feet (2,235 metres) above sea level, and during the dry season, June to October, it can feel quite chilly.
There are two rainy periods during the year. The heavy monsoon rains fall in April and May, while shorter periods of rain fall between November and mid-December when it can get quite hot and humid in the crater.
Game is present in the Ngorongoro Crater throughout the year, meaning you’re always guaranteed excellent game viewing. Because of the high density of visitors, it can be a nicer experience during the low season and, as an added bonus, if you visit at this time you’ll have spectacular views of the flamingos that gather here to feed.
There are no accommodation options in the Ngorongoro Crater itself – it belongs to the wildlife alone during the night – so you have two main options: to stay on the rim of the crater or in the nearby Ngorongoro Highlands.
The lodges on the rim have astonishing views over the Crater and offer easy access to it, although prices do reflect this.
The world class Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is by far the most luxurious option – in fact it’s one of the most opulent lodges in Africa. It’s a quirky-looking property, combining the architecture of Maasai manyattas (homesteads) with the opulent interiors of grand stately homes.
The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is split into 3 separate camps – North, South and Tree – and each feels completely independent of the others. They blend perfectly with their surroundings from the outside, but inside they are the epitome of luxury, with chandelier-lit bathrooms, a glamorous interior with ruby, gold and silver colours, cosy log fires and massive windows to take advantage of the magnificent view.
Service here is similarly high-class, with each room having its own personal butler who provides a discreet though attentive service, ensuring your fire is lit at the end of the day and your bath drawn ready for a long soak.
The Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge is a 75-room hotel, built into the western rim of the Crater. Being a fairly large hotel, it doesn’t have quite as much charm as some African lodges, but it does offer great value accommodation in a stunning location.
Set over two storeys, the lodge is long and low and built from local river stone. Each room has a rock-encrusted balcony that faces over the Crater, and the building is camouflaged with indigenous vines so it blends with the landscape.
The en-suite rooms are relatively small but adequately furnished with central heating to combat the chill due to the altitude. Prehistoric cave murals on the walls give the rooms a little character.
The real draw of this hotel is its location – so close to the Crater you can watch the game below with the hotel’s binoculars – its warmth, and its affordability.
Away from the crater rim in the Rift Valley Escarpment – an area known as Karatu – there are a number of small coffee plantations, lodges and guesthouses that offer better value. While they don’t have the stunning views of the accommodation on the Crater rim, they do offer much more character.
The best of these is Gibbs Farm, one of the first guesthouses in northern Tanzania. It started life as a coffee farm in the 1920s, was refurbished as a rustic, luxury inn, and it still affords wonderful views over the nearby coffee plantations. It’s a magical place that’s still a working farm and, if they wish, guests can wake up early to milk the cattle and make bread in the kitchen with local chefs.
The main farmhouse and 20 guest cottages are tastefully decorated, warm and charming but with all the modern amenities. The property has a very colonial feel to it, with wooden beams on the ceiling and polished-stone floors, and there’s usually a resident artist whose work decorates the property. Each has its own private garden or veranda.
The grounds of Gibbs Farm are extensive, comprising a number of different gardens, such as a herb garden, rose garden and medicine garden. There’s also a vegetable garden, ensuring all meals are made from organic, homegrown veg. The gardens are home to an array of tropical birds, which you can see and hear as you wander around.
The Ngorongoro Crater is part of a larger conversation area, encompassing vast expanses of highland plains, savannah and savannah woodlands and forest, the Ngorongoro Highlands – a range of ancient volcanoes that are largely extinct – and the Crater itself. It’s one of Africa’s most stunning regions, with a blend of wildlife, landscapes, people and archaeological sites that’s arguably the best in the continent.
Extensive archaeological research in the area has uncovered evidence of a long sequence of human evolution, including some early hominid footprints dating back 3.6 million years.
Today the Maasai have colonised the area and over 42,000 Maasai pastoralists live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), along with their animals – cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats. Their traditional way of life sees them living in harmony with wildlife and the environment. In the dry season, they live under the shelter of the woodlands and mountains slopes, and in the rainy season they move to the vast plains. They have permission to take their livestock into the Ngorongoro Crater for water and grazing, but they’re not allowed to live there or cultivate the land. Elsewhere, they can move freely around the entire conservation area.
The Oldupai Gorge is a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley that stretches for 30 miles. It’s the most famous archaeological site in East Africa, and one of the most important prehistoric sites anywhere in the world because the discoveries here have been instrumental in understanding human evolution.
At Laetoli, hominid footprints were discovered in volcanic rock dating back 3.6 million years. There are three separate tracks of an upright-walking early hominid, and their imprints are in the Oldupai Museum. They’re the most ancient footprint ever found, and represent one of the earliest signs of mankind in the world, hence Africa’s reputation as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’.
Later descendants of the Laetoli hominids have been found in excavations in the gorge itself, with four different kinds of hominid discovered, each demonstrating a gradual increase in brain size and greater complexity of tools. The skull of Zinjanthropus, known as the ‘Nutcracker Man’, who lived approximately 1.75 million years ago was found here.
The excavation sites have been preserved for public viewing and the small museum contains many finds along with good explanations of human evolution. There are also fossils of extinct animals that used to live in this area.
The lake-filled Empakaai Crater is only 90 minutes drive from the Ngorongoro Crater, and while it’s not as famous as its larger neighbour it’s considered more than a match in terms of beauty.
This collapsed volcanic caldera is 6 kilometres wide and surrounded by steep-sided forested cliffs at a height of 300 metres. The crater is filled with a deep alkaline lake that’s about 85 metres deep and, depending on the time of day and weather conditions, its colour ranges from sparkling marine to vivid turquoise or pewter. The shallows sometimes have a distinct pink tinge as thousands of flamingos are drawn to the shallows to feed.
The crater rim offers magnificent views and visitors can hike down a steep, well-kept trail through lush forests teeming with exotic birdlife. Elephants, buffalo and hyenas can be spotted here, along with an array of wonderful birdlife including the Bearded Vulture and Augur Buzzard. It’s a great day trip for visitors staying more than one night in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
If you’re heading to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, don’t miss a visit to one of the Maasai villages. The Maasai are undoubtedly the most famous indigenous tribe in East Africa and certainly the most photographed, but it’s a fascinating encounter nonetheless.
Visitors are greeted by a son of the village chief, then invited to watch a traditional Maasai welcome dance, performed by the Maasai men wearing brightly coloured cloaks. During the visit, you can learn more about their unique culture, take photographs and buy mementos of your visit.
To find out more about a safari trip to the Ngorongoro Crater, or to book your dream holiday, contact Signature Safaris today.