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Black rhino in the Ngorongoro Crater.
  Ngorongoro CA
Size: 8,300 km2/3,200 sq mi.
Best time to visit: Good all year round. September to October and December to March are the best seasons.
Wildlife & attractions: The crater is very rich in wildlife. Many species, including black rhinoceros. Stunning views. Volcanoes. Olduvai museum. Maasai villages.
Getting there: 3–4 hours by road from Arusha to the Ngorongoro Crater, most of the distance on good tarmac road, followed by poor dirt road.
4WD is required to descend into the Ngorongoro crater; the descent and ascent roads are very poor.
Ngorongoro CA map
Map of Ngorongoro Conservation Area .
Ngorongoro Crater map
Map of the Ngorongoro crater.
Tanzania map
Tanzania map.
  More web sites
Ngorongoro - Africa's Cradle of Life
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Safari glossary
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Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is a large park in northern Tanzania, situated between the Great Rift Valley to the east and Serengeti National Park to the west.

Eastern highlands
The Ngorongoro Crater is the most known part of NCA, and one of the main destinations on many safaris in the area. The crater is found in eastern NCA, where some ten extinct volcanoes form a highland, featuring peaks up to 3,648 m/11,968 ft, montane forests and three craters: Ngorongoro, Olmoti and Empakaai.

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Just north of NCA stands Oldoinyo Lengai, an active volcano of great interest to researchers. In the south, the highland borders Lake Eyasi, where the click-language Hadza tribe still lives in its traditional way of hunting and collecting.

Zebras in the  Ngorongoro crater.

Western plains
The western half of NCA is dry, open and mainly flat. In fact, this is where the Serengeti plains begin; Serengeti National Park borders western NCA. Parts of the migration, i.e. the large migrating herds of wildebeest and zebras found in the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem, graze the boundary grasslands between Serengeti and NCA from December/January to April/May every year.

Travelling from the Ngorongoro crater towards Serengeti, you pass Olduvai Gorge, where paleo-archeologists have unearthed fossils from some of our pre-human ancestors, as old as 2 million years, buried in layers of volcanic ash and sediments. Many safari-goers stop here to visit the Olduvai museum. Another popular stop is to visit one of the Maasai villages along the route.

'Conservation Area'
Ngorongoro Conservation Area has its own special kind of nature protection status. Unlike for example Serengeti and Lake Manyara, it's not a national park; activities in national parks are restricted to research and tourism in vehicles. In NCA, escorted walks are allowed in addition, and, mainly, the Maasai and their cattle are allowed to live there in traditional ways.

The Ngorongoro Crater has stricter rules than the rest of NCA, only allowing tourists to visit in vehicles.

The Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania.

The Ngorongoro Crater
Visiting the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the highlights to many safari-goers. The crater is roughly 20 km/12 mi wide and 600 m/2,000 ft deep, and its floor is home to a rich and highly concentrated wildlife. Some 20,000 mammals of size live there, including about 20 black rhinoceros, making the crater the best place in Tanzania to see the rhino. The crater floor also has one of the highest carnivore densities in the world. Lions, cheetahs, hyaenas and jackals are commonly seen, while leopards, servals and bat-eared foxes may be seen with some good luck.

Apart from the rhinoceros, the herbivores are represented by species such as wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, elephant (normally bulls only), hippopotamus, gazelles, antelopes and warthog. Birding can be rewarding, too, especially during the northern hemisphere winter, when migrant birds, for example abdim storks, come to stay in the area. During this time, the population of wildebeest and zebras also increases, as herds out of the migration are added to the resident herds.

The animals can move into and out of the crater using trails from the crater rim, but most stay on the crater floor, making the crater well worth visiting all year round.

One-day visits
Most safari-goers come for a one-day visit in the crater, and that is quite the right thing to do. On a shorter visit, you may not have time enough to see all the best parts of the area, or to find for example rhinos. On visits longer than one day, you may have to drive the same game drive routes over and over, and you will probably not find the second day as fun as the first. We suggest that you do a one-day visit in the crater, and then travel on to spend more time in much larger Serengeti.

Huge elephant bull and safari jeeps. Almost all elephants in the crater are bulls.

Descent and ascent roads
Three roads connect the crater rim (where the main road from Arusha to Serengeti passes) with the crater floor. One road down the western wall is descent only, and one up the southern wall is ascent only. An eastern road is both descent and ascent, and is mainly used by visitors staying at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, which lies away from the other lodges and the main road. This eastern ascent and decent road is fair, while the two others are very steep and poor. Four-wheel drive is necessary to enter the crater.

Access to the crater floor may be difficult during heavy rains.

The landscape
The crater floor altitude is 1,600–1,700 m/5,250–5,600 ft above sea level, and is a mainly flat and open area, broken by a few rounded hills. There is one decently sized forest, a soda lake (which may be close to dry during dry seasons), two marshes, a few creeks and some scattered pools. The rest of the crater floor is open grassland. The crater walls are forested; the eastern walls more so, due to more rainfall. On the drier western walls, different species of euphorbia are common, for example the tree euphorbia (Euphorbia candelabrum).

A male lion. The crater is more densely populated by carnivore than any other place in the world.

The crater rim
The road from Arusha to Serengeti passes on the crater rim, at 2,200–2,300 m/7,200–7,500 ft altitude. Five lodges are also found on the rim, four of them facing the crater and offering truly marvellous views. Due to wind and the altitude, the rim climate can be quite cool. Bring a sweater or a wind-proof jacket for your stay in these lodges.

Some animals can be found on the rim, too, although not at all as many as down in the crater. Buffalos and waterbucks are often seen, while elephants and bush pigs are seen on occasion. Even hyaenas and lions are sometimes observed. The montane forests that surround the lodges offer nice birding, for example for sunbirds, turacos and birds of prey.

Many visitors
The Ngorongoro Crater is a popular safari destination, which means that you may see a number of safari vehicles around.

The black kites (a big bird of prey) of the Ngoitokitok Springs picnic site, situated in the eastern part of the crater, have seen enough visitors to learn how to steal food, sometimes out of the hands of people.

A caldera, not a true crater
Ngorongoro is a former volcano, but the crater is not a true volcano crater, where lava has been ejected. Instead, it is a caldera, i.e. the crater-shaped remains of a collapsed mountain. Ngorongoro was once an impressive mountain, believed to have had five peaks, the highest reaching 4,000–5,000 m/13,000–16,400 ft over sea level. Eventually it collapsed, leaving only the crater. Some researchers believe that the flat Engitati Hill on the crater floor used to be the top of that mountain.

The soda lake on the crater floor, Lake Magadi, attracts different kinds of birds, including flamingos.

The Olmoti and Empakaai craters
The Olmoti and Empakaai craters are two other calderas in the Ngorongoro highlands. They are situated north and north-east of Ngorongoro, off the main routes. Both can be visited (you need to hire a park ranger for an escort), but they are rarely included in packaged safari tours; you may have to tailor an itinerary to go there.

Olmoti and Empakaai lack the rich wildlife found in the Ngorongoro crater, but some animals may still be found there, such as zebras, buffalos and monkeys. Their main attraction is the scenery. Few visitors come there, so the experience is quite different from game driving in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Olmoti has a shallow crater covered in grass, but getting there takes some steep walking, and as the rim altitude is 3,000 m/9,800 ft, the air is noticeably thinner up there. A waterfall cuts through the southern wall, and continues as a creek all the way into the Ngorongoro Crater.

Empakaai offers wide views towards Oldoinyo Lengai and Lake Natron to the north, and over the Great Rift Valley to the east. On clear days, Kilimanjaro may be seen in the far distance. In the crater, where half of the floor is covered by a deep soda lake, buffalos and antelopes may be seen, as may monkeys in the forest on the rim.

Oldoinyo Lengai.

Other volcanoes
When travelling through NCA from Arusha, you can't avoid noticing the high mountain on your left (south-west of the Ngorongoro Crater). This is Oldeani, an extinct volcano, peaking at 3,216 m/10,551 ft. North-east of the crater stands the now highest mountain in these highlands, Loolmalassin (3,648 m/11,968 ft), but it's too far from the main roads to be seen well.

Two other volcanoes are impossible not to see when travelling on the western side of the Ngorongoro crater, on your way to the western descent road or towards Serengeti. You can't avoid noticing the mountain on your left, on the other side of the wide valley called the Malania depression. This mountain is Lemagurut (3 132 m/10,275 ft). Just east of it is another but lower volcano peak, Sadiman, which in an eruption 3,6 million years ago covered the ground in ash, thus sealing and preserving footprints left by our hominid ancestor Australopithecus afarensis (the same species as Lucy, found in Ethiopia). These footprints were discovered in the 1970's, and are now covered again, to preserve them. They cannot be visited, but a cast can be seen in the little museum in Olduvai, situated further ahead towards Serengeti, not very far off the main road.

Oldoinyo Lengai
In clear weather, you may be able to see Oldoinyo Lengai in the distance from the main road or from the Olduvai museum. Oldoinyo Lengai, meaning The mountain of God in the language of the Maasai, is an active volcano, rising about 1,000 m over the plains. It is a place of interest to researchers, as Oldoinyo Lengai is the only volcano in the world erupting carbonate lava, not silicate lava like other volcanoes.

The volcano has recently been erupting, following a series of earthquakes during 2007, and local pastoralists have been forced to leave the areas surrounding Oldoinyo Lengai. Much smoke and ash has been emitted. The eruptions have subsided since early 2008.

Smoke from erupting Oldoinyo Lengai seen from western NCA early in 2008.

Lake Ndutu
Lake Ndutu is a soda lake to the west, where NCA borders Serengeti National Park. The lake is situated in an area of shrub- and woodland, surrounded by vast short-grass plains. The Ndutu area is often a good place for game driving during January to March, when the migration is roaming these plains. The woodland is also home to antelopes and giraffes, and the big cats are regularly seen.

Grant's gazelles at Lake Ndutu in western NCA.

The Big Five
The mammal species elephant, rhinoceros, African buffalo, lion and leopard are often referred to as the Big Five, and are popular observations to safari-goers. They can all be seen in the Ngorongoro Crater, even though your chances of seeing the leopard are small. The leopards in the crater are few, as there are few good leopard habitats. Your best chances are in the Lerai Forest in the south, or along the Munge River in the north-eastern part of the crater. Leopards are also seen now and then in the vegetation covering the crater walls.

To improve your chances of seeing leopards, you may combine the crater and Serengeti, where leopards are seen regularly.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area offers a variety of habitats, not only for mammals, but also for birds. Some species that you may spot during normal game driving in the crater are crowned lapwing, abdim stork, white stork, marabou stork, yellow-billed stork, sacred ibis, hammerkop, flamingo, ostrich, red-billed duck, African black crake, Kittlitz's plover, black-winged stilt, northern anteater chat, Cape rook and black kite. In the montane forests, you may see turacos, red-winged starling, grey-headed negrofinch and golden-winged sunbird.

Olduvai Gorge.

Olduvai Gorge
The excavation site in Olduvai Gorge is not far from the main road from Ngorongoro to Serengeti. Here, paleo-archeologists have found fossil remains from several of human's ancestors, including Australopithecus boisei, Homo habilis and Homo erectus, as well as from early (400,000 years old) and close to contemporary (17,000 years old) Homo sapiens. The oldest hominid fossils found are 2 million year old.

Such fossils, together with fossils from pre-historic animals now extinct, can be seen in the little museum, which is situated next to the excavation site. The museum also has a cast made from 3.6 million year old footprints, found in nearby Laetoli and made by one of the oldest hominids known, Australopithecus afarensis. This is the same species as famous Lucy, whose fossilized remains were found in Ethiopia.

Many safari-goers stop to visit the museum on their way to Serengeti National Park. The entrance fee is TZS 3,000 (USD 2–3).

The Maasai
NCA was originally part of Serengeti National Park, but was separated from today's Serengeti in the late 1950's and declared a conservation area, where the Maasai tribe was allowed to live and herd their cattle (which they were not allowed to in Serengeti, from where they were expelled). Today, Maasai family settlements (often referred to as Maasai villages) are found throughout NCA, and it's not uncommon to see the Maasai watering their cattle in the springs in the western part of the Ngorongoro Crater.

Many safari-goers visit a Maasai village along the road to Serengeti. Such a visit costs USD 50 per vehicle (February 2008), and gives you a brief introduction to Maasai life, in a touristy way.

Maasai men singing.

There is a handful of lodges, a few tented camps (and a camping site) on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, but no accommodation on the crater floor, i.e. down in the crater. It is also possible to stay in or around Karatu Town south-east of the crater, and visit the crater on a day tour. Some other lodges and tented camps are situated in western Ngorongoro Conservation Area, i.e. in areas bordering Serengeti National Park.
Ngorongoro crater

Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge.Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge is a tourist class lodge situated on the southern crater rim and has great views of the crater from the terrace and the rooms. There are 75 rooms, restaurant, bar and lounge.

More about Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge

Web site:

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is an exclusive lodge situated on the southern crater rim, offering great views of the crater and a quiet and relaxing atmosphere. It has 60 beds in bungalows, restaurant, bar and lounge. The service is first class.

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Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge.Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge is a very good lodge on the south-western crater rim. It has 75 rooms, restaurant, gift shop, exchange bureau etc, and a great crater view.

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Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge.Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge is a good lodge situated on the eastern crater rim. The location is especially good for visitors to the Olmoti and Empakaai craters. For game viewing in the Ngorongoro crater, the lodge has its own ascent and descent road.

More about Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge

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Rhino Lodge.Rhino Lodge re-opened in 2007, after being closed for many years. It is smaller than the other lodges on the crater rim, offers basic accommodation (i.e. is a budget option), and doesn't offer a crater view. The lodge has 24 rooms with private bathrooms and verandas. There is a restaurant, a lounge and a four-wheel drive rental.

Web site:

Kensington Ngorongoro Crater Lodge.Kensington Ngorongoro Crater Camp is a small tented camp with seven tents, situated on the outside slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater, i.e. away from the crater itself.

Web site:

Lemala Luxury Camp Ngorongoro is a tented camp on the north-eastern rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, which is the more quiet part of the rim. The camp has eight guest tents, i.e. capacity for 16 guests, with ensuite bathrooms, and have pleasant safari style interiors. The tents have heaters and warm duvets, as the temperatures may be quite cool because of altitude and winds.

Web site:
Western NCA

Ndutu Safari Lodge.Ndutu Safari Lodge is situated close to soda lake Lake Ndutu on the border between south-eastern Serengeti National Park and western Ngorongoro Conservation Area (the lodge is on the NCA side of the border). The area can be very good for game viewing from December to March, when vast numbers of animals may be present. The Ndutu area is generally good for cats.

More about Ndutu Safari Lodge

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Lake Masek Tented Camp.Lake Masek Tented Camp is a new tented camp close to Lake Masek in western Ngorongoro Conservation Area, i.e. in the Lake Ndutu area. The camp has 20 tents and a restaurant. The activities offered include game drives, bush walks and night game drives.

Web site:

Mobile camps
Ngorongoro Camp (or Kirurumu Ngorongoro Camp) is a small semi-mobile tented camp that is seasonally moved between different areas of NCA. The standard is tourist class, and the camp area is private and right in the bush. The activities are focused on game viewing in the Ngorongoro Crater and bush walks in the Ngorongoro Highlands.

Web site:
Karatu and surroundings

Plantation Lodge.Plantation Lodge is a tourist class lodge just outside Karatu Town south-east of Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The food is good, and the lodge has a pleasant garden.

Web site:

Lutheran Guesthouse.Lutheran Guesthouse offers budget accommodation and meals in Karatu Town. The rooms are basic, and have private toilets and showers.

Crater Forest Tented Camp.Crater Forest Tented Camp lies in a coffee farm just outside NCA, off the main road from Karatu to NCA. It's a fairly small lodge with 15 tented rooms with ensuite bathrooms and verandas with views. The lodge offers cultural tours to surrounding villages, tours in the coffee farm and escorted bush walks into the nearby forest of NCA.

Web site:

Ngorongoro Farm House. Ngorongoro Farm House is a 50-room lodge between Karatu Town and the Lodoare gate into Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The rooms are in chalets, and include doubles, twins and triples. All rooms have ensuite bathrooms and mosquito nets. The lodge has a swimming pool and Internet, and offers for example guided walks in the surroundings and into NCA.

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Tloma Lodge. Tloma Lodge is outside Karatu and has a main building and 20 cottages. The rooms have private bathrooms and verandas. There is a restaurant, a swimming pool and Internet.

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Gibb's Farm is another nice farmhouse lodge near Karatu, and is similar to Plantation Lodge. The rooms are basic but well kept. The lodge, which is really a coffee farm, is known for its good food.

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Bougainvillea Safari Lodge is a 24-cottage lodge between Karatu Town and the Lodoare gate into Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The cottages are self-contained doubles, but also triples and family rooms are available. The lodge has a restaurant and a bar, and offers activities such as bird watching, nature walks and cultural visits to Karatu or local villages.

Web site:

Octagon Safari Lodge is a small lodge built in an old colonial farm house. The rooms are set in a garden, and have a four-poster beds, mosquito nets, veranda, ensuite bathroom and terrace. There is a restaurant, an Irish bar and a garden with kitchen garden.

Web site:

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Page updated 27 April 2013