Ngorongoro Conservation Area is in northern Tanzania. It’s home to the vast, volcanic Ngorongoro Crater and “big 5” game (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino). Huge herds of wildebeests and zebras traverse its plains during their annual migration. Livestock belonging to the semi-nomadic Maasai tribe graze alongside wild animals. Hominin fossils found in the Olduvai Gorge date back millions of years. There have been 115 species of mammal recorded in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The two main areas for game-viewing, apart from the crater, are the short-grass plains west of the Gol Mountains, northwest of Ngorongoro Crater, and the surroundings of Lake Ndutu close to the border with Serengeti National Park. The two areas become the feeding and breeding ground for over 2 million animals during the rainy season as they support the great annual wildebeest migration that spans the Serengeti ecosystem. From around December to May (depending on the rains), over one million wildebeests and thousands of zebras and gazelles move south to calve in the short-grass plains around Ndutu that straddle the Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. Elephants, elands, hartebeests, and the endangered rhinos are among the residents of the crater. There are also resident zebras and wildebeests in the crater that do not take part in the annual migration. Hippos are found in the permanent fresh water pools and the swamps in the crater. Other non-migratory herbivorous mammals that are found in the Conservation Area include buffalos, waterbucks, warthogs, and kudus and other species of antelope. Giraffes live in the surroundings of Lake Ndutu, where acacia trees are abundant.
The carnivores found in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area include lions, cheetahs, hyenas, leopards, jackals, serval cats, and the endangered wild hunting dogs. There are over 550 recorded species of birds in the Conservation Area, of which some are resident and others are migratory. Lake Magadi, a salt lake on the floor of the crater, is often inhabited by thousands of lesser flamingos and other water birds. These birds can also be observed around Lake Ndutu and in the Empakaai Crater Lake.
Ngorongoro Crater; is the world’s largest intact and unfilled volcanic caldera, and is indeed the flagship tourism attraction of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Measuring an area of 260 square kilometers and extending about 20km in diameter, the crater is actually a huge caldera of a volcano that collapsed to a depth of 610m about three million years ago. Over the course of time, streams of water made their way down the crater to form little ponds, and vegetation developed all over, attracting a wide range of wild animals. The crater is host to over 25,000 animals including populations of large mammals such as elephants, buffaloes, elands, wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, hippos, and rhinos, as well as such carnivores as lions, hyenas, jackals, and cheetahs. The ponds, or rather small lakes on the floor of the crater also host a wide-range of water birds including flamingoes and pelicans. Away from the crater floor, the forests on the crater rim is home to leopards, reedbuck, warthogs, and forest birds to complete a natural zoo, and Africa’s ultimate destination to see the “Big Five” (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo). Many animals stay in the crater for large proportion of their lives, but others move out and may move back again.
There are nine craters in the Conservation Area, of which Ngorongoro Crater is the biggest and most stunning. Before it collapsed, geologists estimate, its height was about 4,587m above sea level. The stunning landscape of Ngorongoro Crater combined with its spectacular concentration of wildlife is one of the greatest natural wonders of the planet. The crater was voted one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa in February 2013, by the organization Seven Natural Wonders, based in the United States, which had conducted a campaign since 2008 to determine the most phenomenal natural features of Africa.
Empakaai Crater: Empakaai Crater may not be as famous as Ngorongoro, but many travelers consider it to be its match in beauty. Empakaai is about 8km in diameter, and holds a beautiful; round lake that occupies nearly half its floor. The lake draws flamingos and other water birds and is surrounded by steep-sided, forested cliffs at least 300m high. When flamingos are there, from the rim it looks like pink beaches around the lake. On the outside, the elevation of Empakaai on the western side is 3,200m above sea level and on the eastern side, 2,590m above sea level. Because of this high altitude Empakaai is almost always shrouded in mist, and the lake appears emerald or deep blue in color.
Visitors to Empakaai can walk to the rim to catch the appealing scenery or hike down into the crater. From the rim, visitors can view the volcanic cone of Oldonyo Lengai to the northeast, and even the alkaline Lake Natron shimmering in the distance. A trail descends from the rim to the floor of the crater through the mountain forest hosting birds and monkeys. The descent to the bottom of the crater takes between 30 and 50 minutes, and might take twice that time to climb back up. Visitors hiking down Empakaai are required to be accompanied by an armed ranger. There are special campsites on the rim of Empakaai crater available in booking in advance. Campers at Empakaai should bring their own drinking water as well as camping gears.
Olmoti Crater: Olmoti Crater is to the North of Ngorongoro Crater and south of Empakaai Crater. The floor of Olmoti is shallow and grassy, and it is the source of the Munge River, which feeds the Ngorongoro Crater. Though not as famous as Ngorongoro and Empakaai, Olmoti Crater is worth visiting when travelling north into the highlands. Trekkers can start a two-day walking safari from Olmoti to Empakaai. It is also possible to climb to the rim and descend down the floor of Olmoti. The highest point at Olmoti is 3,080m and the crater is about 6.5km in diameter. There is a short trail that leads to the Munge Waterfall. Beware of dangerous games along the way and visitor should be accompanied by an armed ranger.
OTHER NATURAL ATTRACTIONS
Shifting Sand: North of Olduvai Gorge on the plains is a spectacular moving ash dune, famously known as Shifting Sands. It is a remarkable crescent-shaped, black dune, composed of volcanic ash from the active Oldonyo Lengai, reaching about 9 meters high and stretching about 100 meters at the curves. The dune is being blown slowly westward across the plains, at the rate of about 17 metres per year.
Olkarien Gorge: The Olkarien Gorge (also written Ol Karien) is famous as a vital nesting site of the Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture. It is a place to see vultures soaring, circling and gliding down to their nests. The best time to visit the gorge is from March to April when the vultures are breeding. The Olkarien Gorge is located in the northern end of Ngorongoro Conservation Area, just below the border with Loliondo Open Game Controlled Area, and to the east of the Gol Mountains. The gorge is deep and narrow and extends to a length of 8km.
Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek: Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek are close to the border with Serengeti National Park on the western side of Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The two lakes form shallow basins where water accumulates from the nearby areas of slightly higher altitude. The water in both lakes is extremely saline, and most of it evaporates during the dry season.
The area around the lakes is the staging ground and take off point for the migration because it is surrounded by woodlands and the short grass plains, which provide ample cover and food.
Mounts Lolmalasin and Losirua: Mount Lolmalasin is the highest crater mountain in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and indeed, it is the third tallest mountain in Tanzania, reaching a height of 3,700m above sea level. Attached to Lolmalasin, but rising as an independent mountain, is Mount Losirua (3,260m). The two mountains are located near the eastern border of the Conservation Area, opposite the Olmoti Crater on the way to Empakaai Crater. Mount Lolmalasin can be climbed by first driving to the Maasai villages of Olturotowas or Nainokanoka near their base, and hiking from there towards its peak. Climbing the mountain normally requires a game ranger, and the whole trip takes a day. The peak of Lolmalasin provides attractive views of the surrounding features of the conservation area.
Gol Mountains: The Gol Mountains lie in the remote northern end of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, rising from the open short-grass plains to a height of 915m. The mountains are a series of ridges described by geologists as some of the oldest geological formations in the area: they were formed millions of years before the formation of Ngorongoro Crater. The surroundings of the Gol Mountains are lush green during the rainy season, from March to early June, hosting thousands of herbivores, and in the next dry months, the vegetation turns dusty brown.
The Maasai: In addition to the beautiful scenery, archaeological wealth and abundant wildlife, Ngorongoro Conservation Area is also blessed with a proud people – the Maasai – a pastoral tribe that has maintained their traditional culture a great deal. Before the Maasai, there were other tribes that also occupied Ngorongoro, some as cattle herders, like the Datoga, and others as hunters, like the Hadzabe; and then moved on, sometimes forced out by other groups. The Maasai colonized the area in substantial numbers, their traditional way of life allowing them to live in harmony with the wildlife and the environment. Approximately 100,000 Maasai live in the conservation area today tending their livestock without harming wildlife.
Visitors to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area can learn about the culture of the Maasai and take photographs or buy original Maasai handicraft at designated areas known as cultural bomas. In order to safeguard the livelihood of these people and at the same time conserve the flora and fauna of the area, Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority supports and initiates community-based projects, such as ecotourism in the form of these cultural bomas. In partnership with the Maasai council known as Ngorongoro Pastoral Council, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority oversees the progress of these cultural bomas, and also enables Maasai guides to conduct walking safaris and other part-time work at the lodges and at the headquarters of the Conservation Area.
Best time to Visit:
With Ngorongoro’s wildlife remaining in the steep-walled crater all year round, the question of when to go on a Ngorongoro Crater safari is less about optimizing your game viewing experience and more about how many other people and vehicles you want to share the crater with. High visitor numbers can be expected during the dry July to September peak season and again during the December to February calving season that follows the November rains.
With this in mind, the main April to May rainy season is often considered the best time to visit the Ngorongoro Crater as there are far fewer visitors and the crater is wonderfully lush and green compared to the dusty dry-season landscape.