The Ngorongoro Crater is perhaps the greatest self-contained wildlife sanctuary in the world. A huge, fully intact caldera (collapsed volcano), the crater stretches for some 18 kilometres between precipitous slopes—the 2,000ft high walls at the crater’s rim. On its floor – a landscape of golden savannah plains and shimmering soda lakes fed by freshwater springs – is found a huge diversity of wildlife, including species not present in the neighbouring Serengeti plains. This combination of dramatic scenery and prolific wildlife creates in Ngorongoro a spectacle unlike anything else in Africa.
Ngorongoro Crater is over 100,000 square miles in size (it is thought that the volcano whose collapse precipitated its formation was taller than Kilimanjaro, which should give you some indication of just how gargantuan it is). But in truth it’s hard to capture the sheer scale of Ngorongoro in words or pictures; you have to visit the site and look down from the crater rim to the floor in order to really appreciate its magnitude.
Ngorongoro forms a natural sanctuary. The animals that populate the Crater have survived in it for many millions of years, protected by the high crater walls and the moderate climate. With plentiful water and grass for grazers to feed on and ample game for the lion, leopard and hyena to hunt, the crater provides the perfect conditions for life—and for game-viewing.
On the flat floor of the crater, your view extends for miles, meaning you never have to look hard to spot the wildlife. Gazelle and zebra graze on the open plains, while hyena and jackal lope by, ready to prey on any stragglers. Buffalo can be seen from miles away, stampeding in their brazen herds. Elephant, altogether more discrete, nestled in the forests at the crater’s rim, where they feed on the bark of the acacia trees. Lion lolls aimlessly in the mid-day sun, while cheetah, ever-alert, are often sighted on the rocky kopjes, surveying the landscape. 4×4 safaris here are always rewarding.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the defining feature of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a vast region that spans highland plains, golden savannah, dense woodland, and tall volcanic peaks. Though the Crater is the region’s most famous landmark, it is not the only site of interest. Olduvai Gorge, at the foot of the Crater Highlands, a remote spot that is now world-famous as an archaeological site where many of the most important discoveries about the early man were made. Until not long ago, the oldest known human remains were thought to be at Olduvai (recent digs in Ethiopia and Kenya have unearthed older bones).
The Crater Highlands has all the hallmarks of a lost world, though they have in fact been inhabited by the local Maasai tribespeople for many years (the Maasai are the only people allowed to live within the conservation area, in respect of their long association with the region). Many of the region’s natural landmarks, including Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Ndutu, and Ol Doinyo Lengai (the ‘Mountain of God’), are cultural and spiritual landmarks for the Maasai people, and any journey into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area can be treated as an opportunity to learn more about the land’s people, as well as its wildlife and geography.
In and around Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with the famous Crater at its centre, is among the most beautiful regions of Tanzania, steeped in early human history and teeming with wildlife. 4×4 safaris into the Crater are of course the main attraction. Note that visitor numbers are restricted – you can enter the Crater once daily for up to six hours. Typically you’ll depart mid-morning, descend into the Crater for game-viewing and a picnic lunch on the plains, and then return to your camp/lodge late afternoon. There are a number of marvellous hotels/lodges on or close to the Crater’s rim, as well as quieter guest houses in the remote highlands. Ask us for suggestions.
Olduvai Gorge is almost as popular a tourist attraction as the Crater, as it’s very easy to access from the main road between Manyara and the Serengeti, meaning most private and group safaris end up making a stop here. The Gorge, remote and desolate, is not impressive in and of itself, but there’s a fascinating museum at the site where you can learn more about the discoveries made in the early 20th-century, and the light they shed on our very distant ancestors.