| 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 crater floor altitude is 1,6001,700 m/5,2505,600 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
The crater rim
The road from Arusha to Serengeti passes on the crater rim, at 2,2002,300 m/7,2007,500
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
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 4,0005,000 m/13,00016,400 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 23).
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.
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.
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.
More about Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
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
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
Web site: www.ngorongoro.cc
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: www.kensingtoncamps.com
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
Web site: www.lemalacamp.com
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
Web site: www.ndutu.com
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: www.tanganyikawildernesscamps.com
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
Web site: www.kirurumu.net
Karatu and surroundings
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: www.plantation-lodge.com
Guesthouse offers budget accommodation and meals in Karatu Town. The rooms
are basic, and have private toilets and showers.
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: www.moivaro.com
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.
Web site: www.tanganyikawildernesscamps.com
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.
Web site: www.tanganyikawildernesscamps.com
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.
Web site: www.gibbsfarm.net
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: www.bougainvillealodge.net
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: www.octagonlodge.com