Ngorongoro Crater travel guide

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Ngorongoro Crater overview

Ngorongoro Crater one of Unesco’s world heritage sites, is an extinct volcanic caldera in the Eastern (Great) Rift Valley and forms part of the Serengeti national park ecosystem. Besides its outstanding natural attributes, the area has made an exceptional contribution to our understanding of human evolution. Fossil evidence from various locations within the Conservation Area, notably Olduvai Gorge, provides a remarkably complete picture spanning a period of almost four million years.

The caldera measures between 10 and 12 miles (16 and 19 km) across and has an area of 102 square miles (264 square km). Its heavily forested rim rises 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the caldera’s floor to an elevation of 7,500 feet (2,286 meters). Ngorongoro is thought to have formed about 2.5 million years ago from a large active volcano whose cone collapsed inward after a major eruption, leaving the present vast, unbroken caldera as its chief remnant.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to a wide variety of wildlife, stunning scenery, and important historical sites. The area covers 8288 square kilometers and includes the eastern half of the Serengeti Plains, highland plateaus, volcanic mountains, craters, and gorges. The centerpiece of the conservation area is Ngorongoro Crater, a large volcanic crater that is a popular tourist destination.

The Maasai people continue to herd their cattle and goats on the highland hills outside the crater, as they have done for years. People in a traditional dress can be seen walking alongside zebra and wildebeest, with donkeys carrying burdens. The presence of human habitation in the highlands is what makes the Ngorongoro Conservation Area different from other national parks, and is a key reason why people enjoy hiking in the area.

Ngorongoro Crater wildlife

The Ngorongoro Crater is the star attraction of the Conservation Area. It is an extinct volcano teeming with wildlife. All major animals are easily seen, with the exception of a giraffe but not in the crater because of the steep descent. Elephants are common, including some very big tuskers, and all the big cats are prominent as well.

The Crater is known as ‘the garden of Eden’ and ‘the cradle of life’ because of its sprawling plains, soda lake, and acacia woodland, which support a wealth of wildlife. This includes plenty of lions and leopards, which benefit from the influx of wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra, and other game species into the area during the winter months. In fact, the Crater has the highest lion population in the world.

leopard-like to spend their days around the rim and can often be seen around the Lerai Forest. Cheetahs are often seen too, but their numbers are very low. Servals are much more common and can often be seen on game drives. Caracals and golden cats are very rare, but they are the real prizes for cat lovers.

The Crater is home to wildebeest, zebra, black rhino, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles, eland, topi, spotted hyena, hartebeest, jackal, black-faced vervet, baboon, and warthog! The lake and its tributaries attract hippopotamus, waterbuck, and many other species, while the higher regions are populated by mountain reedbuck, Cape buffalo, and elephant.

There are over 200 bird species in the Crater, making it a great destination for birdwatchers. You can see common and dwarf flamingos in the soda lake, as well as raptors like marsh harrier, augur buzzard, black kite, tawny eagle, and white-backed vulture. Other bird species in the area include avocet, hoopoe, black-bellied bustard, cattle egret, ostrich, fan-tailed widow-bird, grey-rumped swallow, little grebe, red-billed firefinch, speckled pigeon, and wattled starling.

Activities in the Ngorongoro Crater

Activities in the Ngorongoro Crater are limited to game drives only. Walking safari as well as night safari are not permitted. There are picnic areas on the Crater floor, but the main activity is daytime game driving. There are lodges on the Crater rim that offer short walks, but you have to move farther afield into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to find any proper walking areas or villages to visit.

Hikes in the highlands northeast of Ngorongoro Crater go to Olmoti and empakaai craters and can continue on to active volcano Oldonyo Lengai and Lake Natron. Most of the hiking is done on cattle trails with the warriors and their herds, and nights are spent camping with the Maasai, allowing visitors to learn about their culture.

The accommodations of the Crater rim (in nearby Karatu especially) can offer a significantly wider diversity of activities. Here lodges have access to the village of Mto wa Mbu, where Maasai villages are open for visits, walking areas are endless, and there is a real buzz of tribal life. The properties here can also offer game drives in Lake Manyara or up and down the Great Rift Valley. Horse riding is an option from some of these properties.

Activities in the Ngorongoro Crater

​Wildlife viewing inside the Ngorongoro Crater is superb at all times. However, grass on the crater floor is short in the Dry season (June through September) and this makes animal spotting easier. The scenery is lush and spectacular in the Wet season months (from November to May).

Weather & Climate – Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro CA has two Wet seasons: the ‘short’ rains from October to November, followed by the ‘long rains’ from March to May. Usually, rainfall is in the form of short showers. The crater rim gets cold at night and can freeze, so warm clothing is necessary for early morning game drives.

Dry season–June to October

  • June, July, August, September & October – The average afternoon temperature on the crater floor is 19°C/66°F. However, if the ‘short rains’ come early, they may start in October. It gets cold at night, and can even freeze on the crater rim.

Wet season–November to May

The temperature is colder in the morning and gets warmer during the day, but is still cold at night. The average afternoon temperature on the crater floor is 23°C/73°F, while the average night temperature on the crater rim is 6°C/43°F.

  • November & December – ‘Short rains’ – There is a low chance that the rain will impact your safari, as it usually only showers in the afternoon. The ‘short rains’ last around one month and can happen anytime between October and December.
  • January & February –There is usually a time of dry weather between the Wet seasons, but it isn’t possible to guess when it will happen with accuracy.
  • March, April & May – ‘Long rains’ – It often rains, but the rain usually doesn’t last all day. April and May can be very cold because of cold fronts.

​Getting There – Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a three-hour drive on a tarred road from Arusha, a starting point for safaris in northern Tanzania. Most people visit the area as part of a larger package that includes the Serengeti.

You can visit the parks of the northern circuit by small aircraft or safari vehicle. A popular option is to fly into the Serengeti and make your way back by safari vehicle via the Ngorongoro Crater, or the other way around.

Coming from the Seronera area in the Serengeti, the distance to the crater is about 140km/90mi and the driving time is about three hours. This can obviously take much longer allowing for wildlife viewing along the way. The 80km/50mi drive from Lake Manyara to the Ngorongoro Crater takes about two hours, and the 180km/110mi drive from Tarangire takes about four hours.

The best option to get to Arusha is to fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), which is situated about 46km/29mi from Arusha. It is also possible to fly into Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR), near Dar es Salaam and fly on to Arusha Airport (ARK) or Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO).

Top tips for the Ngorongoro Crater

  • Stay off the Crater rim unless you can afford Crater Lodge! Nearby Karatu is only an hour’s drive away and is home to lodges that are significantly more charming and affordable than the properties on the Crater rim.
  • The Ngorongoro Crater is no zoo, but it can be VERY busy. As with so many of the planet’s exceptional destinations, you will not be the only person visiting Ngorongoro!
  • There is no denying the fact that Ngorongoro’s Tanzania safari is not as authentic as elsewhere – there are simply too many visitors – but consider the fact that all the animals are there of their own free will, and that you are on safari in an extinct volcano! Nowhere else in Africa can say the same – this is an amazing safari destination.
  • Be clever with the time of day that you visit Ngorongoro. If you can be first on the Crater floor, the experience is quite simply out of this world – but be 30 minutes late and it can be a nightmare. We would advise any traveler to try to be on the floor first – be committed to getting up early so that you really are there first! Alternatively, relax and go in later than everyone else.