Located in northern Tanzania, the Ngorongoro Crater is one of Africa’s most famous parks. Part of the larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Big Five viewing is very good here, in a setting that is jaw-droppingly beautiful. ‘Ngorongoro’, or ‘the Crater’ as it is well known, is one of the most beautiful places to be on safari in the whole of Africa!
Two to three million years ago, this ancient volcano, supposedly as high as Kilimanjaro, imploded, leaving the world’s largest intact caldera, complete with 600m-high walls. Over the years, the fertility of the volcanic soil and year-round water supply has attracted one of the highest concentrations of game in Africa.
Today Ngorongoro is a truly stunning site. Dropping down its 600m-high walls onto the Crater floor is one of Africa’s most unique game-driving experiences. The views here are some of the best of anywhere we operate safaris. Where else can you go on safari in an extinct volcano?!
Ngorongoro is a self-contained ecosystem that is packed with Africa’s Big Five. Large herds roam the Crater floor, while prides of lion and packs of hyena live alongside some of Africa’s largest tusker elephants. There are over thirty endangered black rhino here.
There is a scattering of large hotels on the Crater rim, as well as two tented camps, but we tend to prefer the smaller properties in the nearby village of Karatu – they have far more charm and character. Unfortunately the large hotels on the Crater rim are not much to write home about and have a tendency to overbook themselves – you have been warned!
The Ngorongoro Crater: Where to stay?
The main decision to be made when choosing lodge options at the Ngorongoro Crater is whether to stay on the Crater rim or in one of the nearby villages such as Karatu. The options on the Crater rim are limited to a couple of small tented camps and a number of large and somewhat dated hotels. The Serena, Sopa and the Wildlife hotels (in order of preference!) all leave something to be desired – they are the face of mass-market safari tourism and a style of safari that we try to avoid. Occasionally we will break that rule – the hotels cater well for families with young kids, for example – but on the whole we avoid these large properties.
The only property in our Adventure bracket on the Crater rim is Rhino Lodge. Rhino has an enviable location and although the property may leave a few creature comforts aside, for good clean accommodation at a reasonable price you really cannot go wrong here.
Step up a level and you have the two tented camps on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater – Lemala Ngorongoro and Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp. Both properties fit into our Classic price bracket and offer significantly more charm than the larger hotel options. They are very similar camps, but due to the competitive pricing of Sanctuary Ngorongoro and the fact it has better views of the Crater itself, we favour this property and rarely use Lemala. In fact, we often combine Sanctuary Ngorongoro with its sister properties elsewhere (such as Swala in Tarangire specifically) as this sees long-stay discounts and is another very good reason for choosing this property over Lemala.
The final place to mention on the Crater rim is the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge – one of Africa’s most famous (and most expensive) properties. Needless to say, this lodge is in our Premier category. With one of the best viewpoints on the Crater rim, this is the ultimate honeymoon hotel – a flamboyant offering where butler service and rooms strewn with rose petals come as standard. People come to Tanzania to visit the ‘Crater Lodge’, leaving with great memories but also heavy dents in their wallets! In our opinion, the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is an amazing option if it can be afforded, but not one to push the boat out for!
Away from the Ngorongoro Crater rim sees properties with significantly more charm and character. The village of Karatu especially has some fantastic accommodation. The best in our Adventure bracket are Isoitok and Rhotia Valley Tented Camp – two great camps that focus on great value and a commitment to supporting their local communities. Step up to our Classic level and you have a number of great properties, the most famous being Plantation Lodge and Gibbs Farm. Every client seems to love these lodges – their beautiful gardens and highly personal levels of service set them apart from others in the same price bracket. The Manor is also well worth a look – a very luxurious property sitting comfortably between our Classic and Premier price brackets.
There are a large number of properties around the Karatu area – too many to write up here! The above write-up focusses only on our favourite properties at Ngorongoro. By all means contact us if you have heard of any others and would appreciate our opinion.
Ngorongoro Crater Safaris: The Big Five and general game viewing
The Crater was formed when an immense volcano quite literally blew its top, erupting and collapsing two to three million years ago. Its walls are 610m deep and its floor spreads over 260 sq. km. With its sprawling plains, soda lake and acacia woodland, it is well able to support a wealth of wildlife. For good reason, it is known as ‘the garden of Eden’ and ‘the cradle of life’!
The Big Five
The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the best places in Africa to see the Big Five (buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant and rhino). With approximately 70 lion, huge buffalo herds, 40 rhino and some of the largest tusker elephants left in Africa today, the only somewhat tricky Big Five sighting is leopard. As elusive as ever, nevertheless leopards can be found in the Lerai Forest and even seen openly on the Crater rim.
As the Crater has 600m-high walls on all sides, it has created its own self-contained ecosystem. The vast majority of animals live in the Ngorongoro throughout the year, choosing not to migrate but to rely on the Crater’s remarkably fertile grazing grounds and water supply. As a result, game viewing is reliably brilliant throughout the year.
General game in the Ngorongoro Crater
Cats that roam the Crater floor include plentiful prides of lion and leopard as mentioned, benefiting from the influx into the area of wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra and further game species throughout the winter months. In fact, the Crater boasts the highest density of lion worldwide! As mentioned above, leopard like to spend their days around the rim and can often be seen around the Lerai Forest. Cheetah numbers are very low, but the small population can often be sighted. The real prizes for cat lovers, however, are serval, caracal and golden cat. The last two are very rarely in evidence, but serval are often seen on game drives.
An abundance of mammals, large and small, inhabits the plains. In addition to wildebeest and zebra, the Crater is home to 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. The elephant numbers are not overwhelming, but some of the oldest and largest tuskers have taken up residency here. With tusks hitting the floor, it is well worth looking out for these exceptional creatures.
The birdlife is excellent in the Crater, with over 200 species to keep avid birdwatchers busy! A particularly spectacular sight is the congregation of vast numbers of common and dwarf flamingo in the Crater’s soda lake, feasting upon crustaceans and algae. The area has many raptors, such as marsh harrier, augur buzzard, black kite, tawny eagle and white-backed vulture. Other feathered beauties comprise 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. Make sure you pack your binoculars!
Wildlife sightings in the Crater are first rate all year round! We recommend the dry season for increased viewing opportunities, but due to the massive concentrations of loads of species you are guaranteed a wonderful show at any time of year.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area itself
In 1959, the Conservation Area including Ngorongoro Crater received protection under the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Ordinance. The site was allocated for multiple use and wildlife roamed the floor adjacent to the livestock of the semi-nomadic Maasai farmers. To this day, protection continues under the Ordinance, with the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority in charge of wildlife conservation. Its concerns include measures to prevent poaching, monitoring of invasive species, management of tourism and infrastructure control.
The Ngorongoro Crater is only a part of a much larger eco-system – the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Stretching from the shores of Lake Eyasi to southern Loliondo and from Kakesio across the Ngorongoro Crater to Empakai (virtually to the shores of Lake Natron and the bottom of Oldoinyo Lengai), this is one of Africa’s most beautiful areas. Considering how famous the Ngorongoro is, it is remarkable that the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a wonderful area that is explored by so few.
The magical Ngorongoro Crater is obviously the major attraction, but the Conservation Area is also home to off-the-beaten-track areas such as Empakai Crater (a smaller and water-filled Ngorongoro) and the forests that lead towards the active volcano of Oldoinyo Lengai (see our Lake Natron page for this remarkable area). These remote areas are without doubt among Tanzania’s hidden gems.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is Maasai land. It is a stunning area that has a wide diversity of habitats ranging from the highlands of Ngorongoro itself to the Serengeti’s short grass plains around Ndutu. Aside from the obvious trips to the Ngorongoro Crater and also to Ndutu when the herds move this far south (January to March), we also arrange some fantastic walking safaris to the area. There is a very good argument that the walk from Empakai down to Lake Natron is Africa’s finest walk!
When to go for game?
The Ngorongoro Crater is a year-round exceptional destination for game viewing. Mainly due to the fact that the animals here do not leave the Crater floor, you can have outstanding game drives at any time of year. The only problem with Ngorongoro is how busy the park can become, which has an adverse effect on the quality of game viewing on offer. July and August are incredibly busy months, as is Christmas and much of February. But the reality of Ngorongoro is that game viewing should be seen as a bonus – it is the sheer beauty of being on safari in an extinct volcano that should be your reason to travel here.
When to go for value?
Ngorongoro’s recent raise in its park fees have meant that this is Africa’s most expensive destination to be on safari. The cost of taking a vehicle onto the floor of the Ngorongoro is $300, whereas the park fee itself is $60 – and this is before you pay for your accommodation for the night! In summary, this really is not a cheap place to be on safari – far from it. Travel in November, however, as well as April and May, and the standard low season rates apply to all the properties in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This is the most affordable time of year to be in the park.
Activities in the Ngorongoro Crater
Activities in the Ngorongoro Crater are limited to game drives only. Walking safari as well as night safari is 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.
The accommodations off 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.
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 (take a look at Plantation Lodge or The Manor as examples). Crater Lodge is the only exception to this rule – a wonderfully flamboyant honeymoon property that costs as much as most countries’ GDP!
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 the Ngorongoro’s 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 traveller 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.