Ngorongoro Crater & highlands
This famous ancient volcanic crater in northern Tanzania's Great Rift Valley is one of the unmissable wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I had hoped to see a leopard and was rewarded with a fine viewing on the day before I departed. The Ngorongoro Crater was incredibly special and I just felt that the whole experience there was magical.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area forms part of the northern safari circuit. The famous extinct Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley is the largest volcanic caldera on the planet. It offers unique and beautiful scenery of high forested crater walls encircling a 16 km diameter sunken world of grasslands, acacia forest, freshwater and soda lakes. You first get to see it from the rim, from where the animals below look like tiny insects, then you descend to the crater floor to get closer to the action. There’s nowhere quite like this on earth.
Whilst you won’t get an exclusive safari experience in the Crater itself - there will always be other vehicles – other areas of the Ngorongoro Highlands are often remarkably little-visited, so it’s easy to find yourself alone in the fascinating corner of northern Tanzania.
- Ngorongoro wildlife: Ngorongoro offers excellent wildlife viewing all year round with prolific and diverse species including the big five, from cheetahs to rhinos, lions to hippos, elephants, hyenas, zebras and many other plains game as well as good birdlife. About the only species you won't find in the crater are giraffe and impala, though there are plenty to be seen in the greater conservation area surrounding the crater. The wildlife in the crater is so used to safari traffic that you often get very close. It's not uncommon for lions and other creatures to use vehicles as shade, so you might find yourself closer than you expected to the wildlife.
- Origins of man: Olduvai Gorge in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a hotbed for paleoanthropologists including the famous Dr Louis Leakey and his family amongst others. Early hominin remains were discovered here along with mammal fossils and a huge quantity of ancient stone tools.
- Visit Lake Natron: A remote birdwatcher’s delight. The alkaline waters of the 1.5-million-year-old soda lake attract around 2 million lesser flamingos during breeding season (August to October), transforming the dramatic barren landscape to a wash of colour. Eggs are laid in September and October and start to hatch in November. There are many other waterbirds here too such as pelicans, egrets and herons. And you don’t have to miss out on wildlife here - you could spot zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, gazelles and possibly lion or even cheetah.
- Maasai villages: Scattered throughout the Ngorongoro Highlands are many Maasai villages - collections of clay houses and cattle kraals baking in the hot sun. As the young children herd the goats the village elders dressed in their bright red shukas gather under the acacias.
- Hike Ol Donyo Lengai: Not a stroll in the park but a relatively serious hike up what is still an active crater. Hike at night and be rewarded with a beautiful sunrise from the summit. Those not quite up to such an undertaking can enjoy gentler walks in the Rift Valley.
- Empakai Crater: The 6km wide crater is a popular stop for birders and a beautiful breathtaking place for a hike. The lake fills most of the crater floor and is rich in birdlife. From the rim look down to the turquoise waters below, with the backdrop of Ol Donyo Lengai to the northeast. Then set off on foot through verdant forest to the lakeshore. Watch out for waterbucks, buffalo and blue monkeys.
- Sunsets on Lake Eyasi: The scenery rather than the wildlife is the main reason for visiting this huge soda lake. However, you might also be able to say hello to some of the local tribespeople who live here: the Hadzabe and Datoga.
- Places to stay near Ngorongoro Crater: There are just three lodges on the crater rim, but there are also a few gorgeous tented camps we really love. A lot more lodges are found in or close to the nearby town of Karatu, and there are a very few remote camps scattered through the highlands and near Natron.