Jaw-dropping, gobsmacking, mind-blowing, breathtaking, spine-tingling – Ngorongoro has a strange affect on pretty much everyone who sees it. An enormous, collapsed volcanic crater, or caldera, into which has been emptied nearly all the celebrities of Tanzania’s animal kingdom. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, the county’s largest surviving population of rhinos, buffalo, zebra… if you want to tick off as many species in one day, Ngorongoro is by far and away the best place to do it. Only the giraffes are missing; apparently, who apparently find the outer slopes of the crater too difficult to conquer.
There’s something of the Jurassic Park, or Conan-Doyle’s Lost World, about Ngorongoro. Even if the 260 square-kilometre caldera was emptied of animals it would still be a must-see. It is, after all, the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled caldera; if the volcano that formed Ngorongoro hadn’t blown up, it is believed it would have dwarfed Kilimanjaro.
Your first sight of it, having climbed up the outer slopes to the crater rim, is just magical. A steep 600m descent then follows through lush forest to get to the caldera floor, where most of Ngorongoro’s 30,000 animals are to be found. The floor is not all uniform, however, for within the caldera you’ll find swampland, open savannah, grassland, forest, waterfall, and lake.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers more than just the caldera itself, however, for it stretches west to an area known as Ndutu that abuts the Serengeti – one of the best places to see the wildebeest migration in January/February, even though it’s not actually in the Serengeti.
To the north and east, the Ngorongoro Highlands are home to Maasai, and a pleasant couple of days can be spent with them if you choose to take a trek around the Highlands, with the Maasai’s donkeys acting as porters.
Back on the caldera floor (which, incidentally, you won’t be allowed to visit on a highland trek), the stars of the park are the twenty-plus rhino, with Ngorongoro the only park that offers you a realistic chance of seeing them in the entire country. But even then, don’t expect to see them up close; rhinos are by nature solitary and shy animals, and for many people a distant view of some indistinct, grey, grass-chewing form is all they get; get close enough to make out the horns and you’re doing well. First thing in the morning is the best time to spot both them and most of the other animals.
For this reason, though you can see Ngorongoro in a day trip from Arusha (and if time restrictions means that this is all you can do, then it’s certainly better than nothing!), we would recommend at least. a two-day safari. This allows you to see either Tarangire or Manyara national parks on the first day, then spend a night on Ngorongoro Crater rim before descending to the caldera floor first thing the next morning.
The rhino’s reticence is in sharp contrast to the other animals in the park, many of which appear pretty well habituated to man’s presence to the point where they are virtually oblivious to us. Buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, gazelle, baboon, warthog, elephant, hippo – an average day in the crater will include encounters with all of these.
It is expensive to visit Ngorongoro (it costs US$200 just to secure a permit for the vehicle to enter the crater floor, with individual park fees on top of that), and you are limited to just 6 hours on the caldera floor itself.
But whatever it costs, it’s worth it. This place is not known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World for nothing. Because Ngorongoro is truly awesome.