Expert Reviews – Ngorongoro

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More than a Crater
Overall rating
4/5

For most safari tourists in northern Tanzania the Ngorongoro Conservation Area essentially means the Ngorongoro Crater. This world renowned extinct volcanic crater covers a simply enormous 260km sq and is the largest intact volcanic caldera on the planet, but visitors don’t come here merely for the geology (although first views of this crater, from one of the viewpoints as you drive into the park, will leave you speechless) but for what has to be, alongside the nearby Serengeti, the greatest wildlife show in Africa. The floor of the crater is a flat carpet of lush grasses and eternal pools of fresh water and this has attracted animals in their thousands including all of the Big Five. It’s been said before but driving down the tightly forested crater walls onto the floor of the crater itself really is like entering a lost world and while you’re driving around down here the animal action comes on pretty much non-stop.
But there’s so much more to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area than the crater and, sadly, most visitors, dazzled with wonder at the wildlife show of the crater floor never really notice or take advantage of the rest of the conservation area. In total the conservation area covers over 8000km sq and takes in a number of other volcanic calderas as well as soaring volcanic peaks some of which are still hissing, steaming and bubbling away, there are large areas of tangled forest through which monkeys swing and colourful forest birds flit, there are high altitude grasslands grazed by zebra and the cattle owned by the local Maasai communities and, at its western end the conservation area slopes gently down to the golden grass seas of the Serengeti. It’s here, on the borders of the conservation area and the Serengeti National Park, that life begins in earnest. In the Olduvai Gorge half the history of ancient human-kind has been uncovered. Fossilised remains and stone tools from some of our earliest hominoid ancestors have been discovered littering the ground here and the gorge and surrounding areas can rightly claim to be one of the birthplaces of humanity. Other births also take place close to here because this is the wildebeest calving grounds and every year between about January and March tens of thousands of wildebeest move into this region to give birth while a stream of predators take advantage of the seasonal glut of food. To see these calving grounds crowded with wildebeest is a spectacle that, in my opinion, even exceeds the action on the crater floor.
For me another huge feather in the bow of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is that long hikes can be made through the cold and spectacular crater highlands and, because the Maasai still live here in a fairly traditional manner, there’re lots of possibilities for cultural interaction. All up the Ngorongoro Conservation Area offers an almost unsurpassed combination of wildlife viewing, scenic beauty, adventurous walking and human interest.

Tanzania’s Highland Fling
Overall rating
4/5

STAMPED like a giant hoofprint in the green mountains of Masailand, Ngorongoro Crater is a must-see destination, and that first view from its rim will take your breath away. Looking down into the void 500 ft below you see the crater floor mapped with sunlight and shadow, a lost world measuring 11 miles across. Down there live thousands of wildebeest, zebras, buffaloes and lions, along with some of Africa’s biggest tuskers and a handful of black rhinos.

Sadly, Ngorongoro has become too popular for its own good and a day is all you’ll need here. Even then, it’s a good idea to avoid the lunchtime picnic spots, and ask your driver to take you across the Munge River. It’s usually quieter on the other side. For guaranteed solitude, take a trip to Empakaai or Olmoti craters in the conservation area. Better still is a mobile safari starting in the Ndutu woodlands and heading out towards the Gol Mountains. The plains and kopjes around Lemuta Hill are stunningly beautiful and there is nowhere I would rather camp than at the foot of Nasera Rock. From here you can drive down the valley of Angata Kiti to look for cheetahs on the Salei Plains in the shadow of Ol Donyo Lengai – the Masai holy mountain.

Nature’s own Eden
Overall rating
4/5

At times it may appear that tourists outnumber the animals, but nonetheless Ngorongoro is an essential stop on Tanzania’s northern circuit and one I certainly wouldn’t miss. With its steep crater walls forming a natural barrier it is quite literally a veritable Garden of Eden jam-packed with just about every species of African wildlife you can imagine including all of the big five and the elusive endangered black rhino. This makes wildlife viewing ever-so-easy, but it of course also means you’ll rarely escape the tourist herds. My best advice is to plan your trip very early in the morning so you can get some private game viewing in before the crowds arrive. The vista from the crater rim is simply stunning, so make sure you stop en route to soak it all in. When you arrive down on the crater floor not only will you be gobsmacked by the sheer mass of wildlife, but with the volcanic landscape so rich and fertile, you’ll be amazed to see the Maasai still herd their cattle while prides of lion roam close by.

Africa’s Garden of Eden
Overall rating
4/5

Over-touristed or not, the Ngorongoro crater should be on the itinerary of every first time visitor to Tanzania. This is one of the most amazing wildlife places in Africa and, yes, you’re not the only one who wants to experience it. The extinct volcano is a scenic delight with grassy plains, lakes and a fever tree forest. The forested crater walls are a great backdrop for photographing wildlife inside the crater. The volume of wildlife is amazing and this is one of the best places in Africa to see black rhino. My tip to avoid the crowds is to get to the gate as it opens, to get down the crater as early as possible. Most people only leave after breakfast as it isn’t practical to return to the lodge on the crater rim for lunch. Therefore, most people will take a packed lunch and thus have breakfast in the lodge. So, take packed breakfast and packed lunch and you’ll find you’ll almost have the crater to yourself for that magical time during sunrise. Ngorongoro crater is only one of several extinct volcanoes in the conservation area. It is worthwhile to stay another day and explore the whole area. Accompanied by a park ranger, you can explore the scenic Empekaai crater with its flocks of flamingoes on foot.

Nature’s greatest natural stage
Overall rating
4/5

The centrepiece of this reserve is the Ngorongoro Crater, arguably Tanzania’s ultimate safari destination. This is the world’s largest intact caldera, and one of the most scenic places anywhere in the region. Coming from Arusha, as almost all safaris do, I always stop as I reach the forested crater rim to absorb the spectacular view over its 260 sq km floor, which supports a cover of open grassland interspersed with fever tree woodland, marshes and the saline Lake Magadi, which usually supports large flocks of flamingo. Wildlife highlights include the heavy-tusked elephant bulls that haunt the swamps, and a small population of the rare black rhino, which is regularly seen in open terrain. There are also astonishing densities of spotted hyena, lion and other predators. The most common criticism of Ngorongoro is the dense tourist traffic, particularly straight after breakfast, and there is no getting around the fact that the high volume of tourists in a relatively confined area diminishes the crater’s wilderness feel. On the plus side, it also means that the wildlife is exceptionally habituated, which makes it an excellent place to watch uninhibited animal behaviour at close range.

Crowded crater, empty highlands
Overall rating
4/5

On my most recent visit to Ngorongoro Crater, two decades after the last, I found that this extraordinary natural phenomenon still presents the same paradox. On the one hand, it is enormous. The extinct volcanic caldera comprises some 269km2/104mi2 of savanna within its looming crater walls. On the other hand, it can feel very cramped. There is an almost unnatural profusion of game, plus a density of safari vehicles crisscrossing the crater floor to gawp at it. The wildlife is literally wall-to-wall: zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, gazelle and other grazers munching the grasslands in every direction and Africa’s highest concentration of large predators stalking them. We found lions a-plenty, though had to join a convoy of vehicles when we followed a pride on the hunt. This convoy became even more jam-packed when we jostled among other road-users to catch a glimpse of a distant black rhino.

For the wilderness aficionado, such crowds will feel too much. But for the first timer, it’s a jaw-dropping wildlife bonanza. I still believe that if you had just one day in your life in which to experience African wildlife – indeed even a single afternoon – then this would be the place to go. There are also hippos in the lakes and elephants in the forest. Leopard and cheetah are sometimes seen. And there are often surprises. My highlights this time included a large python swimming across a lake, a martial eagle swooping on (but missing) a Thompson’s gazelle foal and a serval trotting down one quiet back road. The bird life was prolific, with an area of flooded marsh producing a pageant of migrant waders and terns, plus a frenetic feeding party of white pelicans.

What made this recent trip most special, however, was an opportunity to explore the Ngorongoro Highlands beyond the crater rim. This area is neglected by most whistle-stop tours, which head straight for the crater. Up on the cool plateau, we followed secretary birds, and African golden wolves hunting mole rats (the wolves were once known as golden jackals but have been recently reclassified). We surprised a shy herd of eland and watched Maasai herders leading their cattle through herds of zebra against a breath-taking backdrop. We also visited another crater, Empekai, where we took a guided walk to the bottom. This was a welcome chance to stretch our legs. It also produced some of the more unusual afro-montane forest wildlife, including blue monkey, tree hyrax, red duiker and crowned eagle. There were flamingos on the lake and, best of all, not another tourist in sight. This area is well worth an extra day or so. But bring a fleece.

Jewel of the Northern Circuit
Overall rating
4/5

Set at the foot of the Great Rift Escarpment, Lake Manyara is small enough to see in a day but deserves a longer stay. The park itself is a long, narrow strip with the escarpment on one side and the lake on the other, and begins with a beautiful expanse of ground water forest frequented by bushbuck, blue monkeys and swallowtail butterflies. Elephant are common – this is where Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton lived and wrote their African wildlife classic: Among the Elephants.

But Manyara’s top attractions are its flamingo flocks and tree-climbing lions. Flamingos and pelicans you should see for sure. This is altogether a terrific park for birding. But in six visits, although I have seen plenty of lions, I have never seen one reclining in the big overhanging acacias. The farther you drive the more the quieter the park becomes. A lot of visitors don’t even make it as far as the Endabash River, so it’s well worth pushing on to Maji Moto Kubwa Hot Springs, even though you have to come back along the same route.

As close to guaranteed big 5 sightings as you can get outside a zoo!
Overall rating
4/5

The first view of the great Ngorongoro Conservation Area from the edge of the crater is one of those African experiences you will never forget. And from the drive down into the crater onwards the experience just seems to keep getting better. By 11am we had already seen lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo (a herd of close to a thousand!)...and shortly after lunch we saw a leopard resting in a tree. The big five within about 5 hours has to be some sort of record!

Guaranteed sightings
Overall rating
4/5

Sometimes, a place is popular because of hype and a visit proves to be a disappointment when compared to the expectation. And sometimes a place is popular because it deserves to be. Ngorongoro undoubtedly fits into the second category. Sure it can get busy, and a lion is easy to locate thanks to the jeeps that inevitably line up for a viewing, but the wildlife watching opportunities, the knowledgeable guides and the sweeping views of the ancient volcanic crater make this an unforgettable animal encounter. Vistas are unbroken by trees or undergrowth and for me, the clear sight of a trio of elephants gently plodding towards a water hole hundreds of metres away will always be the lasting image of my visit.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

Rating Breakdown

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