Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater
Imagine a natural version of Noah’s Ark—an enormous container resulting from a cataclysmic event that holds and protects a huge number of animals. Well, that’s what Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is like, and its nickname, Africa’s Garden of Eden, hints at the magnificent beauty you’re in for if you visit.
Tanzania, a developing country in eastern Africa, has several claims to fame, among them priceless mineral deposits, a diverse population that includes over one hundred native tribes, and Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. But it’s the wildlife-rich Serengeti National Park, Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro Crater that draw travelers from all over the world. Their main objective: to go on safari in the country’s breathtaking savannahs and plains to see wild beasts like lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hyenas, gazelles and Cape buffalo in their natural habitat.
While all Tanzania’s safari destinations inspire endless awe, the Ngorongoro Crater, the main feature of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the north part of the country, tops them all for game-spotting. Formed two to three million years ago when a huge volcano exploded and collapsed, this 2,000-feet-deep, flat-bottomed caldera—the world’s largest intact and unfilled example—is perched 5,900 feet above sea level. The crater’s height and enclosed, rimmed plains afford spectacular views of the inner habitats and house the densest concentration of wild animals in all of Africa (about 30,000).
The area is also an archeological treasure trove that contains evidence of the long trail of human evolution, dating back almost 4 million years. The earliest known relics of the human species were found here, and they show that prehistoric hominoids emerged from this spot; many more discoveries are expected.
Inside the Ngorongoro Crater
The descent into the crater (an early morning guided 4 x 4 Jeep trip is recommended) takes you down steep winding roads through a lush mountain forest. The vistas seem to go on forever once you reach the floor of the crater, but it actually provides a more concentrated and digestible viewing experience than the adjacent, much larger Serengeti. In fact, the crater is the best place in Tanzania to see the Big Five (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and African buffalos) and it’s the starting point of the indescribably amazing wildebeest, zebra and gazelle migrations. To see these herds move in long lines across vast expanses of land, searching for food and water as predators await, is beyond thrilling. Roughly 1.7 million wildebeest take part in the Great Migration; 7,000 live in the crater area year-round.
Many trails cross the crater and they’re guarded by rangers who protect the area’s very rare black rhinos, prized for spiked horns, from poachers. A typical route will take you around central Lake Magadi where thousands of migratory lesser flamingos wade; through the Lerai Forest where you’re likely to spot elephants and, if you’re lucky, a leopard or two hanging out in a tree; along the misty tropical forests of the rim’s South East slopes, which are home to a variety of small mammals and reptiles; across the grasslands toward Ngoitokitock Springs and its population of rhinos, buffalo and Tokitok lions and the Gorigo Swamp, where spotted hyenas cool down in murky puddles and hippos wallow. Over 500 bird species also inhabit the crater—you’re likely to spot lumbering ostriches, kori bustards and hildebrandt’s francolin, among many others.
Rolling through the crater’s short and tall grass plains, highland catchment forests, savanna woodlands and high open moorlands, you’ll feel as if you’re in a dream. The crater’s like a gigantic amphitheater featuring nonstop animal shows where you can watch hundreds of predators and prey interacting, mating and grazing to a soundtrack of their own thundering footsteps, roars, laughs, grunts and trumpets.
The People of the Ngorongoro Area
But animals aren’t the only residents of the crater. The Maasai people, who are semi-nomadic and gauge their wealth by their cattle and children, have been grazing their livestock here for thousands of years. More recently, governmental policies designed to protect the area’s fragile ecosystems restricted the Maasai’s roaming habits. They’re still allowed to graze their livestock in the conservation area to some degree, but the restrictions have forced them to turn to other ways of supporting themselves. This includes welcoming visitors to their villages, sharing their music, dance and craft traditions with them, providing insight into their daily routines, rituals and garb, and selling their handcrafts. They’re warm, gracious and happy hosts, and their lifestyles and traditions are fascinating.
Tanzanians in general are extremely friendly and even if you limit your travels in the country to a safari trip, you’ll encounter many locals in Arusha, the gateway city. You’ll likely be flying into Kilimanjaro International Airport and then transferring to Arusha (pop. 416, 442) by air or car (45-minute trip) for an overnight stay before starting your safari tour. It’s about a 3.5-hour drive to the crater from Arusha.
Arusha provides a fascinating window into contemporary Tanzanian lifestyle and culture. The national language is Swahili, but many residents here and throughout Tanzania also speak and understand English. You’ll see some modern buildings sprinkled among the many sprawling open air markets and chaotic, dusty roads, as well as many pedestrians among the cars and public minibuses (daladala).
The city’s population comprises over 100 different nationalities, not to mention dozens of indigenous tribes and that diversity is apparent everywhere. It’s represented in the vibrant outfits the people wear, the music they make, the city’s vibrant café culture and foods, and several cool museums. Stop by the Arusha Declaration Museum to learn about the country’s political, cultural and social history, and the Natural History Museum to immerse yourself in human evolution (remember, discoveries in the crater helped unlock the whole trajectory).
If you’re on the hunt for great local souvenirs, head to The Arusha Cultural Heritage Centre, which displays carvings, sculptures, paintings, semi-precious and fine jewelry, gemstones (chief among them is the indigenous violet-hued tanzanite), books and various artifacts. Also explore the Central Market’s Maasai craftworks and the stalls piled high with exotic fruits, coffee, nuts and spices. Beware though—sensory overload is inevitable. The Mt. Meru Curios & Crafts Market (aka the Maasai Market) is another great place to shop for souvenirs—be prepared to barter.
The food scene here is incredibly multi-faceted: You can sample snacks through roadside vendors (don’t miss the peanut brittle) and visit the monthly Arusha Farmers Market for other Tanzanian delicacies like Nyama Choma (roast meat and maize) and Indian foods like biryani, naan and chutneys. If you’re a coffee fan, there are plenty of cafes to get your fix—and some of the local lodges offer plantation tours. Coffee growing and production is huge here and you’ll want to take some coffee back with you.
When to Travel
The best time to go on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater is during the dry months, June to Sept. and Dec. to February, when the animals come out in search of water and the roads, which are quite bumpy under the best of circumstances, are easier to deal with. There is a broad range of accommodations nearby—from luxurious lodges to more basic accommodations. And tour operators provide many kinds of guided safari experiences—research carefully to find one that meets your interests and budget.
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