The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), measuring 8,300 square kilometres, is also the only place on earth where mankind and wild animals co-exist in harmony. The Ngorongoro Crater is a large, unbroken, un-flooded caldera, formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed some three million years ago. The Ngorongoro crater sinks to a depth of 610 metres, with a base area covering 260 square kilometres. The height of the original volcano must have ranged between 4,500 to 5,800 metres high. Apart from the main caldera, Ngorongoro also has two other volcanic craters: Olmoti and Empakai, the former famous for its stunning waterfalls, and the latter holding a deep lake and lush, green walls. On the leeward of the Ngorongoro highlands protrudes the iconic Oldonyo Lengai, an active volcano and Tanzania’s third highest peak after Kilimanjaro and Meru. Known to local people as the Mountain of God, Mount Lengai’s last major eruption occurred in 2007. At the mountain’s foot is Lake Natron, East Africa’s major breeding ground for flamingoes.
History of the Ngorongoro Crater
The NCA became a Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1971 and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. Originally part of the Serengeti National Park when the latter was established by the British in 1951, in 1959 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) was formed, separating NCA from Serengeti. Land within the area is multi-use, providing protection status for wildlife while also permitting human habitation. Its uniqueness lays in the fact that the NCA is where man, livestock and wild animals live in peace: Maasai cattle can sometimes be seen grazing alongside zebras on Ngorongoro’s grassland.
The area contains over 25,000 large animals including 26 black rhinoceros. There are 7,000 wildebeests, 4,000 zebras, 3,000 eland and 3,000 Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles. The crater also has the densest known population of lions, numbering 62. Higher up, in the rainforests of the crater rim, are leopards, about 30 large elephants, mountain reedbuck and more than 4,000 buffalos, spotted hyenas, jackals, rare wild dogs, cheetahs, and other felines.
The legendary annual wildebeest and zebra migration also passes through Ngorongoro, when the 1.7 million ungulates move south into the area in December then move out heading north in June. The migrants passing through the plains of the reserve include 1.7 million wildebeest, 260,000 zebra, and 470,000 gazelles. The Lake Ndutu area to the west has significant cheetah and lion populations. Over 500 species of bird have been recorded within the NCA. These include ostrich, white pelican, and greater and lesser flamingo on Lake Magadi within the crater, Lake Ndutu, and in the Empakaai Crater Lake, where a vast bird population can be observed.
Ngorongoro is home to lush green, rain-watered vegetation, as well as desert plants. The area has uncultivated lowland vegetation, arid and semi-arid plant communities, abundant short grass used for grazing, and highland forests.
The Ngorongoro crater is a spectacular place for a game drive and is done after descending down into the crater through lush forests.
Walking in and around the NCA encouraged, but should be done with guides. Short hikes can be organized with your lodge or the NCAA headquarters. Long walks can be adventurous and rewarding but need some planning.
Suitable walking routes include the area from Olmoti Crater to Embakai Highlands and down to the Great Rift Valley, the Northern Highlands Forest Reserve and the Eastern Plains around Nasera Rock, Gol Mountains and Olkarien Gorge.
Best time to visit
Rainy season (November to April)
The short rains are from November to December and the long rains from February to April, the latter generally being considered the off season. However, the rainy season is a very exciting time of year as this is when animals congregate on the Short Grass Plains to have their young. Late February, early March is usually a good time to see the migration on the plains. In turn, this attracts large number of predators and results in spectacular interactions between predators and prey. Keep in mind that part of the Serengeti Plains fall within the NCA.
Dry season (May to October)
The dry season holds its own beauty. In Africa the dry season is the best time for game viewing because the animals are concentrated along permanent water sources. Within the Crater game viewing is excellent during this time. However, keep in mind that the Short Grass Plains become completely devoid of game during this season. This is the best time of the year to visit Empakaai and Ndutu, which has resident game that remains around the lake all year round.