“You’ve Been to Tanzania?! Did you go experience Ngorongoro safari?”
A traveler to Tanzania is guaranteed to get this question from any fellow visitor—or from anyone eagerly anticipating a journey there. Your inquirer’s success in smoothly pronouncing “Ngorongoro” will indicate whether or not they’ve seen this wonder firsthand; what looks like a mouthful on the page is, properly said, a calming earful—the name is an onomatopoeic word from the Maasai evoking the gentle tolling of a cowbell.
The Ngorongoro Conservation area has been getting ringing endorsements for a longer time than you might imagine—but has, at the very least, been UNESCO-recognized since 1979, making it one of the very first places to earn the honor. Comprising soaring escarpments and flowing hillsides, waving grasslands and patient marshes—and the occasional volcano—the entire Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers a grand total of 8,292 square kilometers. And while the area at-large holds a number of significant draws for tourists of all stripes, the Ngorongoro crater safari your friend is asking about is probably the massive, metropolis-sized depression dominating the landscape: Ngorongoro Crater.
Formed when a massive volcano once the size of Mount Kilimanjaro collapsed in upon itself some two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro safari Crater is the world’s largest intact and unfilled caldera. The whole of the scene presents as an enormous geological bowl: 19 kilometers wide at its broadest, with forested walls rising up nearly 200 stories from the grasslands covering the base of the depression. The crater floor spans a whopping 260 square kilometers—big enough to hold the city of Baltimore, with some wiggle room to spare—and sports only a few minimalist features. A pair of streams snake through the crater wall to feed a central salt lake, and two consolidations of acacia trees create casual forests in what is otherwise a panoramic painting of grasslands within a mountainous frame.
In the last few million years since the cataclysmic eruption of Ngorongoro’s volcano, life on this grand stage has been relatively peaceful, allowing a full cast of characters to develop in its wake. Nearly 25,000 large game animals call the crater home, the majority of them living out the entirety of their lives within the rough circle of the rim. Between the resultant wildlife density and the protective envelope of the crater walls, conditions are ideal for rewarding safari game drives throughout the calendar year.
Excluding a few common players—giraffes can’t quite climb the crater walls, and the waters here are crocodile-free—Ngorongoro safari hosts just about all the key wildlife figures of Tanzania. Bush elephants and endangered black rhinos enjoy the shade by Lerai forest, and lurking hippos ply the murky waters of Gorigor and Mandusi swamps. Blue wildebeest number in the thousands here, and graze alongside gazelles, waterbucks, zebra, and cape buffalo on the open plains. Their presence does not go unnoticed—hungry predators lurk in the fringes and slink swiftly through the short grass to catch their prey. Rare African leopards make their home among the tree-lined Munge and Layana rivers, cheetahs flash across open fields, and lions enjoy more than their share of the action—nowhere else in the world is their population more concentrated.
All of this means that if you’re looking to spot the “big five,” you’re in a superb place—everybody’s here, and your safari scorecard runneth over with jackals, warthogs, elands, and more. Bird watchers will find their fill here as well, with more than 500 species inhabiting the crater. Rare raptors like the Verreaux’s eagle join more common kites and harriers, and avid birders have a chance to spot endemic locals like the rufous-tailed weaver. Wet-season months bring migratory species to visit from all over, and as Lake Magadi floods with rainfall, it flushes pink with flamingos by the thousands.
While certainly the dominating feature of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Ngorongoro Crater is by no means the only item of interest in the area—heck, it’s not even the only crater to be found nearby. Just a short distance north and east rest the calderas of Olmoti and Empakaai, known respectively for cascading waterfalls and a shimmering soda lake. Just a little further (and technically a few steps outside the park), the still-active volcano of Ol Doinyo Lengai smolders quietly, having erupted with its unique black lava as recently as 2013.
Montane forests and prairie plains cover much of the rest of the Ngorongoro Highlands, punctuated by dramatic uprisings like the rose-hued Gol Mountains in the northwest. In December through March, this is the place to catch the Ngorongoro portion of the Serengeti’s famed Great Migration, as two million wildebeest and friends squeeze their masses through the Angata Kiti pass en route to Lake Ndutu. Year-round residents of the highland forests include elephants and hartebeest, while spotted hyenas and servals make appearances in the western plains.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area also boasts a storied history of humanity. Present-day settlements like Karatu, on the edge of the park’s border, offer visitors a welcoming base for tours of the area and support robust industries like brick-making and coffee-growing. Coffee plantations like Karatu’s own Kifaru are particularly productive around Ngorongoro, benefiting from high altitudes and rich volcanic soils that allow internationally respected bean varieties like Blue Mountain and Geisha to thrive. Within the park itself, Maasai pastoralists live a centuries-old traditional lifestyle alongside their livestock, making Ngorongoro unique among protected areas in Africa for allowing permanent human habitation.
For the origin of the story, simply head west to the rolling countryside surrounding ancient Olduvai Gorge, where the earliest known evidence of hominid presence has slept silent under volcanic ash for millennia—most of it coming epochs ago from Olmoti. Found within the craggy ravines of Olduvai and embedded in the plains of nearby Laetoli, fossilized relics and prehistoric bipedal footprints dating back two to four million years ago have been studied fervently since their discovery by Mary Leakey in the years around 1960. Among heavier conclusions of scientific import, it’s worth noting here that for all the visitors Ngorongoro receives—some half a million or more annually—our gracious host never makes an issue of the elephant in the room: everybody’s REALLY late to the party.
Eager to be next on Ngorongoro’s time-worn guest list? We’ll have you rolling on in and out of ancient volcanoes and preserving your own memories in no time.
Come join us on safari at Penwell—let’s take up a quill together and write the next chapter in your history.