Ngorongoro Crater is a breathtaking natural wonder in the Eastern (Great) Rift Valley in northern Tanzania and is the world’s largest inactive and unfilled volcanic caldera. The caldera, part of the larger Ngorongoro Conservation area lying adjacent to the world-famous Serengeti National Park, is 600 metres deep and measures between 16 kilometres across and 19 km long with an area of approximately 264 square km.
A game drive into the Ngorongoro Crater is one of Tanzania’s premiere experiences as the Crater is home to over 25,000 animals, including the “big 5” game (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalos, and rhinos). In addition to the Big 5, you will also see a good number of zebra, wildebeest, hyenas, jackals, warthogs, and different members of the antelope family such as, topi, eland, gazelles, impalas as well as many types of birds.
What is it like to Safari into the Ngorongoro Crater?
Driving from Lake Manyara towards our camp, our local guide Nathoo, stopped at a lookout high above the crater and explained how it was formed over two and a half million years ago when a volcano erupted and then collapsed. From that vantage point, we were able to see the vastness of the crater and the sheer number of animals grazing in the distance.
We started our days early in the morning when the animals are the most active, although many animals can be seen throughout the day. We saw most of the big 5, however the ever-elusive Black rhinos could only be seen at a distance as they keep to the edges of the crater which is not accessible by road.
Drive around the crater to the “hippo pools” where you can hear the hippos grunt as they slide in and around the water, then along the plains where you’ll see jackals running as they hunt for their meal, hyenas crunching on the bones left by larger animals who’ve already consumed theirs, and the wildebeest and many, many zebras grazing as they keep a cautious eye on any predator who happens nearby.
The highlight for us was being able to get up close and personal to a male lion, who, with his belly full, sat by the side of the road, seemingly unfazed by the jeeps stopped beside him.
Driving towards the exit of the Ngorongoro crater, you will most likely come across a Maasai tribe member as he keeps a cautious eye on his grazing livestock. While the Maasai are not allowed to graze their cattle in the crater, many do just inside the gates but take them home before the park gates close in the evening.
The semi-nomadic Maasai people, dressed in their strikingly bright robes are known for their reputation as fierce warriors and were at one time one of the dominant native tribes in Tanzania. The Maasai of East Africa live in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya in the Rift Valley.
Today they are one of the few tribes that honour much of their traditions and lifestyles; you can still see them moving with their prized cattle herds to different areas to prevent any one area from becoming overgrazed. While they are keeping to their traditional way of life, we did see a few tending their cattle with a cellphone in hand and a few huts with a solar panel and satellite dish on the roof. Apparently, they are great fans of soccer!
Their stick and mud houses are arranged inside Kraals, which is a group of houses. The kraals are arranged in a circle surrounded by a fence made of acacia thorns where they keep the cattle at night to protect them from the predatory lions.
Some customs may seem patriarchal to many westerners. For eg. a woman can only be married to one man, while the man can take up to five wives, but he must treat them all equally. If he gives something to one wife, he must give the same to the others, and he must be able to support them all. The wives each live in separate huts with their children.
Another custom is that they eat only two meals a day; in the morning they drink the milk from their cows, with nursing mothers drinking a mixture of cow blood and milk to help with lactation, and then eat meat for the evening meal.
The children are required to go to school and along with the Tanzanian government and tour companies, donate resources to build schools and medical facilities for the Maasai people. As we drove by, the children smiled broadly and waved, however the older people do not like to have their picture taken unless you are willing to pay them.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Ngorongoro Crater?
Wildlife viewing inside the Ngorongoro Crater is superb at all times, but that being said, during the dry season which runs June through September/October, the grass on the crater floor is short which makes animal spotting easier. During the dry season there are more travellers to Ngorongoro so that might be a consideration for some.
Where to Stay
There are permanent lodges as well as tent and mobile camps that serve different categories of travellers from budget travellers to mid-range to luxury travellers which can cost over a $1,000 per person per night. While on safari, you will return and relax at camp after their day’s activities, so where you are staying can play a significant role in your overall experience.
We stayed at The Highlands by Asilia, located on the edge of the mountain’s forest at the Olmoti volcano, some 2,700 meters above sea level, north of the Ngorongoro Crater.
The camp has just a handful of dome-shaped safari suites; each very large and beautifully decorated room came with an ensuite, a king size bed, an extra bed on the 2nd level, and huge windows to take in the jaw-dropping views. The nights can be chilly in the highland region, so each tent has a wood-burning stove which the staff light while you are at dinner, along with soft throws, and even hot water bottles put under the covers, to keep you warm at night. In the main lounge, the seating area is based around a huge wood-burning stove, providing a really cozy setting in which to enjoy a drink or two before dinner.
After dark, guests are not allowed to walk on their own in the camp area given the presence of wildlife, but it is very easy to get in contact with the hotel staff using a walkie talkie system to be safely escorted by a Maasai staff member. Several early mornings we woke up to the sounds of cape buffalo outside our door. Unlike the Water Buffalo, Cape Buffalo are extremely dangerous and rival hippos as being the deadliest animal in Africa. They are very antagonistic and kill more humans than any other African animal.
The staff at The Highlands were incredible people, extremely warm and helpful; really lovely people. We really can’t say enough about how much we appreciated the entire staff for their friendliness and constant attention to our needs which make our stay with them that much more unforgettable. One evening after dinner the entire staff, including the chef, entertained us with traditional dancing and singing, even making us a “Happy Safari” cake! It was an absolutely amazing experience and one we will never forget.
Getting to the Ngorongoro
The closest international airport to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha, Tanzania, located about 120 kilometres east of Ngorongoro.
Arusha has a population of a little over 400,000 and sits at the base of Mount Meru, a massive volcano and Tanzania’s second-highest peak after Mount Kilimanjaro. Arusha is also often a starting point for people setting out on safari, or for climbers preparing to summit the formidable Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world.
From Arusha you can drive the approximately three-hour drive to Ngorongoro, or the fastest, but more costly way, is to hop around the parks of the northern circuit by small aircraft on chartered or scheduled flights from a regional airport such as Arusha Airport, to one of the several small airstrips located directly inside the park. We chose to fly from Arusha Airport by a chartered plane to the Lake Manyara Airstrip where we were met by our private driver/guide, Nathoo, who drove us through the Lake Manyara region on route to The Highlands camp in Ngorongoro on the southern side of the Serengeti Plains. The 80-kilometer drive from Lake Manyara to the Ngorongoro Crater takes about two hours but allows you to explore Lake Manyara on the way which in our estimation was a true bonus.