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Southern Tanzania Safari Circuit

Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the largest unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera in the world. It is a scenic showstopper that extends across an astonishing 260 square kilometres. The crater is hemmed in on all sides by sheer craggy walls that rise up to 600m above the floor. The view from the lushly forested rim is utterly stupendous and would justify a visit to Ngorongoro in its own right. 

But this spectacular crater also stands as one of Africa’s most alluring safari destinations, supporting solid populations of all of the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, black rhino and buffalo), plus a host of other iconic large mammals, in a lush and scenic landscape that frequently draws comparisons to the metaphorical “Garden of Eden”. 

Extending eastward from its border with the Serengeti National Park, the 8,292-square-kilometre Ngorongoro Conservation Area forms part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem, and its western plains lie along a migration route followed annually by some 2,5 million wildebeest and other ungulates. The eastern part of the conservation area comprises the Crater Highlands, a geologically spectacular region of volcanic peaks and craters formed by the same tectonic forces that created the Great Rift Valley below. Most of the crater highlands stand above the 2,000m contour, and while the loftiest peak, Lolmalasin, only ranks third among Tanzania’s mountains (after Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru), there is no higher summit in any of the dozen African countries that lie to its south.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is one of only 38 such sites worldwide to be listed on mixed natural and cultural criteria. In addition to its staggering volcanic scenery and profuse wildlife, the conservation area contains many archaeological sites of great international importance. 

Most notable among these is Oldupai Gorge, where Richard and Mary Leakey discovered the game-changing , 1,75 million-year-old fossil jawbone nicknamed Nutcracker Man in 1959. Nearby, the three-million-year-old Laetoli footprints are the most ancient hominid tracks ever found. 

Another striking feature of Ngorongoro Conservation Area is that among African game reserves of comparable stature, it still supports significant human communities, comprised mainly of traditionalist Maasai and Datoga pastoralists and Hadza hunter-gatherers, all of whom co-exist reasonably harmoniously alongside the prodigious wildlife.

  • The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is one of Tanzania’s most popular safari destinations. This 829,200 hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site forms part of the wider Serengeti ecosystem. The region takes its name from the Ngorongoro Crater. Formed 2-3 millions years ago, it is one of the world’s oldest inactive volcanic calderas.
  • What once was a fiery, lava strewn, inhospitable area is now home to 25,000 large animals, including lion, black rhino, elephant, and giraffes.
  • The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the best places for hiking in Tanzania, with one of the most popular routes taking you up the Olmoti volcano and down towards the Empakaai Crater Lake. Here, thousands of flamingos flock in the shallows, and the views from the trail are almost unimaginable.
  • The site is of significant archaeological and palaeontological significance, and you can visit these sites at Oldupai Gorge and at Alaitole in the Ngarusi area. 

Access to the crater for safaris is limited to between 7am and 4pm. For photographers, consider getting down to the crater at sunrise, beating the crowds, so no other vehicles obstruct your shots.  

Safaris in Ngorongoro are game drives. The small area of the park combined with its popularity means that it can get busy during peak season.  

The Southern Highlands, unlike the rest of the crater, are less frequented by travellers. This is in part because there is less wildlife in the area as the Maasai lead their cattle through here. If you’ve got a bit of extra time, it’s worth passing through here to meet some of the local Maasai people.

You can also take a walking safari with an experienced ranger up to the rim of the Western Great Rift Valley. There are few predators in this region, so it allows you to see animals like ungulates and antelope up close.

The crown jewel of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the Ngorongoro Crater. This ancient, forest-laced caldera is home to over 25,000 large mammals, and it has some of the largest wildlife densities in the world. 

If you were given the chance to discover elephants, buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhino inside the caldera of a 3 million year old volcano – would you take it?

After a 40-minute drive, you’ll arrive at the Ngorongoro Crater rim. It’s an early start, you want to get to the crater early for the best wildlife and photography opportunities. En route, you’ll spot zebra and other plains game. 

Soon, the grasslands turn to mountain forest as you being the descent from the crater rim. Once you reach the bottom, you spend the day on a game drive around the 300km crater floor. You have the opportunity see the Big 5 and many roaming predators. 

Variations in climate, landforms, and altitude produce a range of habitats that can support a variety of wildlife, and has led to a network of overlapping ecosystems.

The crater basin is covered with fresh water and alkaline lakes, marshes and swamps. These alkaline lakes attract flamingos, which number in their thousands during the wet season.

The crater is home to some 30,000 animals, some of which migrate here during the Great Migration, and others that stay here year-round.

The rich, volcanic, fertile soil of the crater hosts plenty of wildlife in the dry season, including warthog, impala, and buffalo. These prey in turn attract predators, including lions, hyena, cheetah, leopard, wild hunting dog and golden cat. Honey badgers, jackals, foxes, and ostrich can be found here year-round. A high population of cheetahs and lions can be found in the Lake Ndutu region west of the crater. 

The crater is also home to over 500 species of bird, including the Rüppell’s Griffon vulture.

The rarest animals found here are the black male lion and the black rhino. Interestingly, there are no giraffes in the crater; it is thought that they cannot get up the steep sides.

 

The Ngorongoro Crater offers at least one day’s worth of safari, but those staying for more than a day or two can enjoy some hikes up the wall of the crater.

There are plenty of trekking opportunities up the rim of the crater, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the entire crater region, as far as the OI Doinyo Lengai volcano. On a clear day, you can even see Kilimanjaro and Lake Natron. 

In the southern highlands of the crater you can hike Mount Lemagurut, which reaches 3,147 metres. The climb is difficult, so you will need a decent level of fitness. The climb will take all day and start just after breakfast. At the summit, you’re rewarded with spectacular views of the Serengeti plains, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Eyasi. 

Too often overshadowed by her bigger sister, the Ngorongoro Crater, the stunning Empakaai Crater lies 40km north-east.

If you’re staying at The Highlands lodge, you can drive 1 hour and 15 minutes through the Bulbul Depression, passing by a multitude of wildlife, before arriving at Empakaai. 

From here, you’ve got incredible views of the Empakaai Crater and Oldoinyo Lengai (Tanzania’s most active volcano). 

Accompanied by an NCA ranger, you’ll begin the 30-45 minute descent into the crater through thick, verdant forests towards the crater floor. 

The lake at the base of the crater is full of bird life, including the famous flamingos. From here, it’s a 1-hour 30-minute hike back to the vehicle, with great wildlife viewing en route (buffalo, hyena, and elephant).  

The best time to visit the Ngorongoro Conservation area is from June to February if you are coming for the Great Migration. Wildlife lives at the crater year-round, which means you can visit at any time of year and still get great game viewing.  

March and April see the worst of the rains, so the crater is less busy during these months. One benefit of visiting during the wet season is that the landscapes are beautiful, but wildlife viewing is not as good. The peak season is July to September, and this corresponds with the best wildlife viewing. 

If you are keener on seeing the predators in action, go in January or February when there is a hiatus in the annual rains and the wildebeest calve.

Due to a large number of vehicles during the high season, some prefer to travel to the crater in the low season. This is still a pleasant experience because the water levels in Lake Magadi (in the centre of the crater) results in higher concentrations of flamingos. Plus, most of the predators stay in the basin year round – there are still plenty of animals for them to hunt. The only thing you will miss is the Great Migration, and of course you should be prepared for some rains if travelling in the quieter months!