A visit to Ngorongoro Crater in the northern part of Tanzania should be on every traveler’s bucket list. Exploring this unique natural area will most likely be one of the most memorable experiences you will ever have in Africa.
In 2013 it was voted as one of the Seven Natural Wonders in Africa and is one of Africa’s most famous sites to visit. You will find the Ngorongoro Crater between Lake Manyara National Park and Serengeti National Park. Located within the Greater Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a protected area classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
There are a few reasons we would like to share, why the Ngorongoro Crater should be on your list of places to visit.
The uniqueness of the Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Crater is also known as ‘Africa’s Garden of Eden’. With it’s incredible beauty, rich diversity of eco-systems and sheer number of wildlife, it is easy to understand why.
Being the largest inactive and intact caldera in the world, this area is unique in many ways. A caldera is a volcanic feature formed by the eruption and collapse of a volcano into itself. Formed about two to three million years ago, the crater is more than 610 meters deep and covers a floor span of 260 square kilometers.
The views and landscape are simply spectacular
Take a moment to stop at the viewpoint located on the Southern crater rim only a few minutes from the Loduare gate. From here you can enjoy a glorious bird’s eye view of the crater. Simply from a visual point of view the crater is spectacular in itself.
The crater boasts a rich diversity of eco-systems ranging from montane forest, lush grasslands, acacia forests, to wetlands.
Lake Makat (Maasai for ‘salt’) or better known as Lake Magadi (Magadi is soda in Swahili) is a seasonal Salt Lake in the center of the crater. The blue-green algae that thrives in the soda-like water of the lake is a key source of food for flamingos. The neighboring Munge River is the main water source feeding into the lake. The Ngoitokitok spring is situated near the eastern crater wall also supplies water into the lake. There is a beautiful picnic site with a swamp (Gorigor swamp) fed by the spring. You will usually find hippopotamus, elephants, and lions here. The Lerai Stream drains the forests to the south of the Crater, feeding the Lerai Forest on the crater floor. Lerai is a Maasai word referring to the tall yellow-barked acacias. The crater walls in the East are covered in montane forest. In the West you will find Euphorbia trees growing on the steep crater walls.
Over 25 000 wild animals live inside the crater area
Around 25 000 to 30 000 animals can be found inside the crater. It’s a great place to see the massive herds of wildebeest, zebra, eland, Thomson and Grants gazelles. During the rainy season roughly 20% of the Wildebeest population and half of the zebra population leave the crater temporarily. At the same time Buffalo herd numbers increase during this time. The fertile soil of the crater produces lush and nutritious grasses that attracts grazers. This offers the perfect conditions for the endangered Black Rhino to thrive in. They are very closely monitored by the Tanzanian wildlife authority rangers.
A few breeding herds of elephant pass through the crater area, including lone elephant bulls. Giraffe and Impala are not present in the crater, this is possibly due to a lack of open woodland favored by these species. It’s thought giraffe struggle to enter the area because of the high steep side walls found around the crater and not easy for them to come down with their long legs.
The Ngorongoro Crater boasts one of the highest densities of lion prides in the world. With the crater being a natural enclosure, it is interesting to note the lion population struggles with problems of inbreeding. The crater’s male lions can easily deter outside competitors from entering the area successfully.
Other predators like the Spotted Hyaena, Leopard, Serval, Jackal and Bat-Eared Fox can be found in this area. African Wild Dogs and Cheetah are rare sightings although they do frequent the crater.
Finally, if you are an avid birder the crater will be a delight. With more than 500 bird species, you can enjoy sightings of ostrich, Kori Bustards, secretary bird, flamingos and many more. From November to April a variety of migratory birds take up residence in the crater.
The crater is good to visit any time during the year
Due to a year-round supply of water in the crater, you will always be able to find an abundance of wildlife throughout the year. There are however two main seasons – the dry season and the wet season. The dry season is from June to October and generally the best time to visit the Crater. During this time there is less rain and the grass cover is short making wildlife viewing and wildlife photography easier. Clear skies will also enable you to enjoy clear views over the crater.
November to May is the wet season and this includes the short rains (November and December) and the long rains (March to May). A dry spell is typically received in January and February though it can be quite unpredictable. During the short rains, rain typically falls during the evening. Visiting the crater during the long rains is a great idea if you wish to escape the crowds that typically frequent the crater during the dry season. You will have rainy days but rain often does not last the entire day.
The great thing is regardless of when you travel to Ngorongoro, you will always enjoy amazing game-viewing opportunities throughout the year. There is definitely no ‘off season’ in this area.
There is so much more to experience in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Although the Ngorongoro Crater excels as a game-viewing destination, there is so much more to experience in the greater conservation area. Some of the experiences include guided hikes, cultural visits, and visits to archaeological sites. There are numerous opportunities to interact with the local Maasai that reside in this area.
Olduvai Gorge (or Oldupai Gorge) is an important archaeological site in East Africa. It was here some of the earliest evidence of the existence of human ancestors have been found. This includes hundreds of fossilised bones and stone tools. In the 1930’s Louis and Mary Leakey made this area well-known to the world through their many early hominid discoveries. The first skull of Zinjanthropus was discovered and available to view by tourists and scientists. A near perfect preserved set of footprints were found on site and a plaster mould of these can be viewed in the popular Oldupai Gorge Museum. The Olduvai Gorge is quite impressive and with a steep ravine of approximately 48 kilometers long and 90 meters deep.
Near the Olduvai Gorge you can visit the Ngorongoro ‘Shifting Sands’ an extraordinary dune of volcanic ash, technically referred to as barkan. The volcanic dust collects around a rock and continually gathers until it forms a small dune. This process continuous as the wind blows and causes the dune to move westwards. This dune moves around ten meters in a year and is some nine meters high and 100 meters long in its curve. These dunes are believed to be sacred by the Maasai, it’s believed to have originated from nearby Ol Doinyo Lengai or ‘Mountain of God’. The sand is rich in iron and highly magnetised and oddly sticks to itself when thrown in the air.
Lake Ndutu and Masek lies at the top of the Olduvai Gorge. These two lakes are the only source of fresh water during the dry season and subsequently is a popular place for local wildlife to drink at. It is interesting to note the water in both lakes are extremely saline and too saline for humans to consume. You can expect to find giraffe, wildebeest, and zebra in large numbers, especially during calving season. During the Great Wildebeest Migration large herds of wildebeest have their calves in this area.
Olmoti Crater is to the north of Ngorongoro Crater and south of Empakaai Crater. Olmoti is a Masaai name meaning ‘Cooking Pot’ and a sunken caldera. A popular site for both hiking and walking safaris. One can follow an ancient Masai cattle trail into the crater which is shallow and grassy. It is possible to spend between two and seven hours exploring the crater floor. You will need to be accompanied by an armed ranger though as you may come across dangerous animals. Keep an eye out for reedbuck, buffalo and eland. A number of impressive waterfalls can be seen in the area, with the seasonal Munge Waterfall being the most visited.
The Empakaai Crater is one of the most popular areas to hike in and offers stunning views over the nearby Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano, distant Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Great Rift Valley. Like Olmoti, Empakaai can only be explored with an armed ranger. This crater is approximately eight kilometers in diameter with a stunning round lake that fills about half of the crater floor’s area. This lake attracts flamingos and other water birds. It’s surrounded by steep cliffs about 300 meters high. Due to its high altitude Empakaai is almost always covered in mist which makes the lake appear deep blue in colour. To hike to the crater floor from the rim takes between half an hour to an hour, expect to spend about twice that time climbing back up.
Located just outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, to the north-east near Lake Natron, Ol Doinyo Lengai is East Africa’s only active volcano. It’s the only volcano in the world to erupt with carbonatite lava rather than the more common sodium carbonate and potassium. The Maasai name of this mountain means ‘Mountain of God’. It’s a popular hiking destination for more serious climbers. The climb is steep and challenging, it will take you about six hours to summit this volcano. Climbing generally starts at midnight to allow enough time to reach the summit while also allowing one to experience the sunrise over the Rift Valley escarpment. Only attempt this climb if you are fully prepared and equipped. If you do manage to do this, you will be able to say you have hiked one of the most extraordinary volcanoes in the world.
The Conservation Area is kind to its human population
Its carefully managed multiple land use philosophy ensures the peaceful co-existence of the Maasai and the natural environment, with about 42,000 Maasai people still living inside the conservation area.
The Maasai are allowed to freely drive their cattle through the park. Domestic livestock do not pose a threat to the conservation of the area as there is enough land to feed both livestock and wild animals.
To learn more about the Maasai way of life, you can visit one of the many Maasai cultural villages (or Maasai Bomas) in the area. During your visit you will get insights into the day to day workings of a Maasai village, enjoy some traditional Maasai dancing and view some of the locally made jewellery.
There are some orphanages located in the greater Ngorongoro Conservation Area you can support. At Rhino Lodge you will find a box at our reception area where guests are welcome to make a donation. These donations are used to buy food, stationary and other items for an orphanage in the area, called Ebenezer. Rhino lodge keeps close contact with the Principal at the orphanage to purchase items according to their biggest needs and wish list.
Rhino Lodge also supports Shalom Orphanage located in Karatu village. Amongst others Rhino lodge purchases fresh vegetables and herbs, rosemary, chives, thyme, lemongrass and basil, all grown in their local veggie garden. If you would like to get more involved or donate to these worthy causes you are welcome to discuss these options with our Rhino Lodge team.
Where to stay when visiting the Ngorongoro Crater
Rhino Lodge was formerly the home of Ngorongoro’s first conservator, Henry Fosbrooke, Assistant District Officer of the Loliondo district of the Maasai homeland. It was Henry who first attracted popular attention to the area with his book “The Eighth Wonder” and began the movement that eventually led to the status of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rhino Lodge has kept its rustic, old-fashioned charm, and now offers affordable lodging for guests wanting to experience the Ngorongoro Crater and surrounding area.
Situated only a few hundred meters from the crater’s rim, Rhino Lodge offers easy access to the main gate and road descending into the crater. Unpretentiously rustic, the lodge does not overlook the crater itself but enjoys glorious vistas of misty montane forest and distant Mount Oldeani. The well-kept grounds are regularly visited by local wildlife, Elephants, buffalo, waterbuck, zebra, hyena and Marabou storks sometimes wander across the lawns by day.
We invite you to visit this beautiful area in Northern Tanzania. Once you have experienced the beauty and magnificence of Ngorongoro you will understand why it’s known as one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.