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Ngorongoro Crater | Travel Guide, Map & More

A visit to the Ngorongoro Crater is an experience of a lifetime. As the world’s only intact caldera, the crater is the top attraction of the 8,292km²/3,202mi² Ngorongoro Conservation Area. There are few places that have comparable wildlife densities. It is not unusual to see the Big Five in one day here. And all this is in the most amazing setting with a backdrop of the 600m-/1,968ft-high crater wall.

The Ngorongoro Crater offers some of the best wildlife viewing in Africa. The main predators are lion and spotted hyena, but leopard is regularly seen as well. The resident population of black rhinos is a very big attraction, as rhinos are more difficult to spot elsewhere in Tanzania. The crater is also home to a good number of old elephant bulls with massive tusks. These lone giants tend to be super relaxed around vehicles, which can result in very special sightings.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is stunningly beautiful. Aside from the well-known Ngorongoro Crater, the Empakaai and Olmoti Craters are scenic gems worth visiting too. 

The forested rim of the Ngorongoro Crater is in stark contrast to the grassland and marsh on the crater floor, where saline Lake Magadi is home to large flocks of pink-hued flamingos.

How to get to Ngorongoro Crater

Most people visit the Ngorongoro Crater as part of a Northern circuit safari. Conveniently, Ngorongoro lies en route to Serengeti National Park and is only a 3-hour drive* (180km/112mi) on tarred road from the town of Arusha, which is the starting point of all safaris in northern Tanzania.

From Arusha, you can hop around the parks of the Northern circuit by small aircraft on chartered or scheduled flights. Alternatively, you can drive and do the whole circuit, or parts of it, by safari vehicle. A popular option is to fly into Serengeti and make your way back by safari vehicle via the Ngorongoro Crater, or the other way around. In most cases, your tour operator will pick you up from the airport and make all further arrangements for you.

Coming from the Seronera area in Serengeti, the distance to the crater is about 140km/90mi and the driving time is about 3 hours*. This can obviously take much longer allowing for wildlife viewing along the way. The 80km/50mi drive from Lake Manyara National Park to the crater takes about 2 hours*, and the 180km/110mi drive from Tarangire National Park takes about 4 hours*.

The best option to get to Arusha is to fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), which is situated about 50km/31mi from Arusha. It is also possible to fly into Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam and fly on to Arusha Airport (ARK) or Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO).

Reasons to Visit Ngorongoro Crater

  • The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is one of Tanzania’s most popular safari destinations. This 829,200 hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site forms part of the wider Serengeti ecosystem. The region takes its name from the Ngorongoro Crater. Formed 2-3 millions years ago, it is one of the world’s oldest inactive volcanic calderas.
  • What once was a fiery, lava strewn, inhospitable area is now home to 25,000 large animals, including lion, black rhino, elephant, and giraffes.
  • The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the best places for hiking in Tanzania, with one of the most popular routes taking you up the Olmoti volcano and down towards the Empakaai Crater Lake. Here, thousands of flamingos flock in the shallows, and the views from the trail are almost unimaginable.
  • The site is of significant archaeological and palaeontological significance, and you can visit these sites at Oldupai Gorge and at Alaitole in the Ngarusi area. 

Safari in Ngorongoro Crater

Access to the crater for safaris is limited to between 7am and 4pm. For photographers, consider getting down to the crater at sunrise, beating the crowds, so no other vehicles obstruct your shots.  

Safaris in Ngorongoro are game drives. The small area of the park combined with its popularity means that it can get busy during peak season.  

The Southern Highlands, unlike the rest of the crater, are less frequented by travellers. This is in part because there is less wildlife in the area as the Maasai lead their cattle through here. If you’ve got a bit of extra time, it’s worth passing through here to meet some of the local Maasai people.

You can also take a walking safari with an experienced ranger up to the rim of the Western Great Rift Valley. There are few predators in this region, so it allows you to see animals like ungulates and antelope up close.

The Crater Descent

The crown jewel of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the Ngorongoro Crater. This ancient, forest-laced caldera is home to over 25,000 large mammals, and it has some of the largest wildlife densities in the world. 

If you were given the chance to discover elephants, buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhino inside the caldera of a 3 million year old volcano – would you take it?

After a 40-minute drive, you’ll arrive at the Ngorongoro Crater rim. It’s an early start, you want to get to the crater early for the best wildlife and photography opportunities. En route, you’ll spot zebra and other plains game. 

Soon, the grasslands turn to mountain forest as you being the descent from the crater rim. Once you reach the bottom, you spend the day on a game drive around the 300km crater floor. You have the opportunity see the Big 5 and many roaming predators. 

Wildlife at Ngorongoro

Variations in climate, landforms, and altitude produce a range of habitats that can support a variety of wildlife, and has led to a network of overlapping ecosystems.

The crater basin is covered with fresh water and alkaline lakes, marshes and swamps. These alkaline lakes attract flamingos, which number in their thousands during the wet season.

The crater is home to some 30,000 animals, some of which migrate here during the Great Migration, and others that stay here year-round.

The rich, volcanic, fertile soil of the crater hosts plenty of wildlife in the dry season, including warthog, impala, and buffalo. These prey in turn attract predators, including lions, hyena, cheetah, leopard, wild hunting dog and golden cat. Honey badgers, jackals, foxes, and ostrich can be found here year-round. A high population of cheetahs and lions can be found in the Lake Ndutu region west of the crater. 

The crater is also home to over 500 species of bird, including the Rüppell’s Griffon vulture.

The rarest animals found here are the black male lion and the black rhino. Interestingly, there are no giraffes in the crater; it is thought that they cannot get up the steep sides.

Accommodation in the Ngorongoro

There are 6 lodges along the crater rim, and 16 campsites. If you stay closer to the crater, you can often be the first to arrive at the crater the following morning, allowing for the best wildlife sightings and photo opportunities. 

The Highlands is the one of the best accommodation options in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. With its stunning design, exceptional service, and beautiful views over the Ngorongoro plains, The Highlands has a tendency to over-deliver. 

The Lemala Ngorongoro is a new camp on the rim of the crater. This area is known as Acacia camp because there are so many Acacia trees here. Each tent has a toilet and a traditional safari bucket shower with a dressing room. Thanks to its location on the rim of the crater, the camp is excellent for those wanting to get a head start the following morning.  

The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, built in 1939, has topped many ‘best hotels in the world’ lists over the years. The hotel describes itself as ‘Maasai meets Versaille’, and can be reached by aircraft via the Manyara airstrip. The communal areas are adorned with huge fireplaces and chandeliers.

The Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge is the only lodge on the eastern rim of the crater, and offers stunning views. The lodge retains a traditional African house style. 

A more affordable option is the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, which sits on the crater but is not quite as expensive as the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. 

The Kirurumu Ngorongoro Camp is an example of a mobile camp that sets down in some of the most beautiful and strategic locations in the Ngorongoro highlands. The camp has 7 customised camping tents with solar panelled lighting and a campsite area. The camp organises day trips to Empakai to see the flamingos, and it is a great base for hiking. 

The Maasai at Ngorongoro Crater

Today, around 40,000 indigenous Maasai pastoralists live in the conservation area. Only the Maasai are granted permission to live on these lands.

Archaeological sites reveal that cattle-herding people have lived in the area for thousands of years, but the Maasai only arrived in this area 200 years ago. During the rains, these semi-nomads move out onto the open plain, while in the dry season they move their cattle up into the woodlands and mountains. 

In order to understand more about their history and culture, you can visit the Maasai bomas (huts). One sits on the road to the Serengeti, the other is close to Sopa Lodge. This is a chance to learn more about the culture, take photos, and buy the famous Maasai beads. 

Maasai Village:

It’s well worth including a visit to a local Maasai community whilst at Ngorongoro. Many of the guides and rangers we work with were born and raised in the surrounding communities, and they have an infectious passion for the region and its history.

A wonderful morning or afternoon activity, you’ll be invited into a Maasai boma and get an insight into the traditional cattle-herding practices.  

The visits can be made daily at 4pm, and involve around 30 minutes of walking (there’s an option to drive if you prefer). 

The Human History of Ngorongoro

Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the Ngorongoro Crater is its role in our understanding of human evolutionary development.

In the Olduvai Gorge, archaeological findings revealed the remains of a Zinjanthropus, the world’s first humans. The footprints are not visible to safari-goers – they have been covered to protect them from atmospheric agents and corrosion.

Then, at Laetoli, specimens of the human genus Homohabilis and early hominids like the Paranthropus boisei have been found. At the same site, archaeologists have found evidence of the use of stone technology, and the transition to the use of iron. These incredible findings have given the crater the nickname ‘the cradle of mankind’. 

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