Ngorongoro Crater: a Garden of Eden in the remnants of a volcano

There is one safari destination that is a world of its own – a truly unique microcosm encased within towering natural walls crafted by Mother Nature’s own hand.
Written by Melanie du Toit
13 November 2020

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More often than not, overland safaris involve a slow rumble across the landscape in an open-air vehicle, keeping eyes on the horizon and binoculars at the ready in case of any movement around you. Coupled with this, wildlife-viewing destination areas are expansive by nature, with iconic protected regions such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Tanzania’s Serengeti ecosystem encompassing more than 19,000km² and almost 15,000km² respectively. There is one safari destination that is a world of its own, though – a truly unique microcosm encased within towering natural walls crafted by Mother Nature’s own hand.

The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest intact caldera on earth

But what does that mean? Before the crater became what we know today, it was a volcanic mountain whose hotbed of geological activity was a common occurrence in the region and whose peaks are estimated to have rivalled those of Mount Kilimanjaro. Some experts put the volcano’s initial height somewhere between 4,500 – 5,800 metres. Between two and three million years ago, the volcano erupted and its mouth collapsed in on itself, leaving behind the largest intact and unfilled volcanic crater on earth, measuring 610m in depth and 260m². 

Today, the Ngorongoro Crater forms part of the much larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and its natural borders have made it a thriving habitat for more than 30,000 different kinds of animals, from elephant and hyena to buffalo, warthog, and even the fabled black rhino. Cradled by Lake Manyara to the south, Arusha’s coffee plantations to the east and with the Serengeti in the north-west, the crater is a worthy addition to any Tanzanian itinerary. The region is easily explored with Arusha Airport and Kilimanjaro International Airport within easy driving distance, while the main road that leads into the southern reaches of the Serengeti National Park runs straight through the conservation area.

Main viewing platform in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater

The colosseum of the wild

This area is known for its dense lion populations with the crater floor sustaining between 50-70 lions, making it home to more prides per capita (PPC) than anywhere on earth. They compete alongside other predators such as hyena, leopard, and cheetah for predatory dominance, often allowing for thrilling spectator opportunities as they hunt for prey such as the zebra, wildebeest, and other ungulates. 

Ngorongoro’s other claim to fame is its resident black rhino whose population is the focus of a number of conservation efforts. On the verge of extinction in the early 90s following decades of poaching, hunting and habitat loss threats, the black rhino’s repopulation efforts in the crater have had a huge hand in bringing the larger Serengeti ecosystem’s black rhino numbers up to approximately 160 as of 2019. You’ll find them in the southern sector of the caldera, among the open plains and shaded comfort around Lerai Forest.

Ngorongoro has a strong elephant population, with the young and able moving with ease between the crater floor and larger conservation area, while old bulls loiter around Ngorongoro’s many water sources. Here, they spend their twilight years munching on the soft, sweet grasses that are easy to break down and swallow, while remaining careful not to upset any hippo bloats nearby. 

Lion eyeing up zebra in the Ngorongoro Crater

What to expect on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater

Like all game viewing experiences, the best time of day to explore the crater floor is in the early morning and late afternoon, when the heat of the day dissipates and offers some respite. You’ll have some stiff competition, though, with high season encouraging throngs of eager safari-goers into an already packed habitat, making the race to any wildlife sightings thrilling enough on its own, before taking in the scene awaiting you on arrival. That said, you’d be mistaken for thinking that you’d miss out on exceptional viewing based on the other vehicles on the crater floor, with the sheer density of wildlife promising thrilling and near effortless game viewing opportunities wherever you look. The Big 5 are found in Ngorongoro Crater, along with a prolific birding population – most notably during the green season.

Green season at a glance

While some safari hotspots are seasonal, the crater is a superb game-viewing choice throughout the year and a true green season destination with much of the wildlife remaining on the crater floor. With so many animals condensed into such a small habitat, Ngorongoro is a true wildlife arena, promising a surprisingly fulfilling safari experience even during the seasonal rains, typically viewed as low season.

The crater’s natural borders make the Ngorongoro Conservation Area an excellent safari choice whatever time of year you’re choosing to visit, but the green season’s rains hold the promise of fewer tourists, better accommodation rates, and a landscape awash in wildflowers. Migratory birds flock to the area with the crater’s seasonal lesser flamingo population favouring Lake Magadi to the southwest, elephant sightings are guaranteed. You’ll find giraffe loping along the rim and larger conservation area, although they’re amiss on the caldera floor with the crater’s walls proving too steep for them to traverse.

The forested sector of the Ngorongoro Crater, loved by elephants
Source: Michael Wilcox

Meet with the Maasai

Most interestingly, Ngorongoro is also home to the pastoral Maasai community who still herd their cattle in the larger conservation area. The crater’s modern-day moniker is derived from the Maasai name, ‘El-Nkoronkoro’, which loosely translates to ‘gift of life’. A cursory drive along the crater rim will see you pass countless herdsmen in traditional garb, going about their day, while cultural visits to nearby Maasai villages can be organised through your lodge or from Karatu, the last town before the crater and larger Serengeti ecosystem. 

Maasai herdsman

What to know before you go 

While there are plenty of accommodation options in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, there are only a few on the crater rim with many other lodges and camps found outside the crater or just outside the designated conservation area. The journey from the entrance gate to the crater floor can take some time, not least of all because you’ll be spotting wildlife on the way. Staying at a lodge on the rim of the crater (such as andBeyond’s Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and Nomad’s Netamanu Ngorongoro camp) gives you a headstart on fellow spectators racing to the crater floor every morning to get a front-row seat to nature’s arena. 

Because of the density of wildlife in the crater, you can easily have a fulfilling experience here in a two-day stopover. Ngorongoro is a natural addition to a Serengeti itinerary, with a 48-hour spell leaving more than enough time for game viewing on the crater floor, a trip to a nearby Maasai village, and even a walking safari along the rim.

Zebra grazing in the Ngorongoro Crater
Credit: Hendrik Cornelissen

Feeling inspired for an East African adventure? We’d suggest adding Ngorongoro to any itinerary featuring Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, or Mount Kilimanjaro. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more. 

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