Views of the Ngorongoro Crater with a Rhino in the distance

The Ngorongoro Crater: Tanzania’s Unique Ecosystem

written by
Sue van Winsen
Sue van Winsen

In northern Tanzania, in the Eastern portion of the Great Rift Valley you will find the largest intact extinct volcano in the world – the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater. Not only a remarkable geological landmark, but it is also perhaps best known for being a wildlife haven ­– a true sanctuary for the 115 different animal species that are found there.

The caldera, which is a bowl-shaped volcanic cavity, essentially forms a fully contained ecosystem. The encircled grasslands submerged 600 metres down on the crater floor host a staggering array of wildlife, with an abundance of all the great mammals that draw travellers to Africa. It is more than worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status as a biodiversity hotspot, home to almost 30,000 animals, making it a must-see safari destination.

Safari jeep with people parked in the Ngorongoro Crater

History of the Ngorongoro Crater

The origins of the Ngorongoro Crater dates to nearly two to three million years ago, when a gigantic volcano, believed to be a staggering 4,500m to 5,800m high, exploded and collapsed in on itself, forming a mostly flat and open caldera with a floor that covers 260 sqkm. It isn’t just unique in size, but also in that it hasn’t filled with water, despite remaining unbroken. Its staggering steep walls range from 400m to 610m.

The crater is located within the larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), which includes a section of the southern Serengeti, as well as the highlands around the rim of the crater, spanning over 8,000 sqkm. The NCA was formed in 1959 as a multiple land-use area, with pastoralists having rights to graze their cattle alongside the naturally occurring wildlife. In it, you will find an impressive range of ecosystems – everything from grasslands to forests, mountains, lakes and rivers.

Rhino grazing in the Ngorongoro Crater

Along with its geological importance, the Ngorongoro Crater and surrounding Conservation Area has deep archaeological significance and is regarded by many to be the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. In the Olduvai Gorge, prehistoric hominid fossils dating back to about 3.6 million years ago have been discovered and are believed to be the earliest known evidence of human species. Fossils of extinct animal species have also been found, providing scientists with significant insights into human and animal evolution.

Scenic highland view within the Ngorongoro Crater area.

Wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater

What sets Ngorongoro Crater apart is the sheer concentration of wildlife contained within its walls. All of the Big Five are found in abundance, alongside huge numbers of plains game that are drawn to the nutritious grasslands, with herds of zebras and wildebeest numbering in the thousands. The only animals commonly found elsewhere but not present within the crater itself are giraffe and impala, however, you are easily able to see both in the greater NCA.

If you are after rewarding lion sightings, the Ngorongoro Crater is hard to beat. Some experts believe that it is home to the highest density of lion prides in the world and your odds of spotting at least a few during your visit are incredibly high. Other predators regularly sighted include hyenas and jackals, while cheetahs and leopards are present but less easily seen.

Dense mist over the lush Ngorongoro Crater highlands

Another factor that makes Ngorongoro Crater unique from a wildlife perspective, is how habituated the animals are around safari vehicles. With so many animals contained within a relatively small space, the wildlife, and lions in particular, are completely unfazed by the presence of people and will continue to interact with their pride, hunt, eat, and sleep as though no one is watching.

For birders, you can tick off some of the 550 species recorded in the NCA with everything from ostriches to flamingos and soaring raptors found here.

panoramic views of wildlife in Ngorongoro Crater.

The best time to visit the Ngorongoro Crater

With much of the crater’s wildlife remaining there year-round, you can rest assured of a phenomenal safari experience regardless of when you choose to travel there. That said, there are distinct seasons, and with each comes varying concentrations of other travellers, so if you are after a quieter visit it’s best to ensure you travel outside of the peak periods.

December to February is one of the most popular seasons to visit because of the wildebeest calving season that follows the November rains. The mega-herds of the Great Wildebeest Migration will be spread across the landscape to make the most of the sweet fresh grass ­– and this abundance of food makes it the ideal place to give birth to their young.

Within just two to three weeks, over half a million wildebeest calves are born, sometimes as many as 8,000 in a single day. This occurs outside of the crater itself, in the southern Serengeti that forms part of the NCA. Droves of big cats are never far behind, looking for an easy meal, which makes for incredible photographic opportunities as the mothers engage in dramatic stand-offs with the lions, cheetahs and leopards to protect their newborns.

Animals grazing in Ngorongoro Crater

What follows from March through to mid-June is a generally quieter period, perfect for those who want to avoid the crowds and see the crater at its most beautiful, with the March and April rains transforming the grasslands into a verdant green.

Things tend to start to get busier from the end of June until the beginning October, as the weather dries up and wildlife congregates around the waterholes. At this time of the year, you can expect to see multiple species within just a few hours, if not minutes, but space fills up quickly so it’s essential to book well in advance.

Green landscapes of the Ngorongoro Crater.

Best lodges near the Ngorongoro Crater

When choosing where to stay, one of the most important factors to take into consideration is proximity to the Ngorongoro Crater itself – as there are no lodges inside its walls, the closest you can get is on the rim, which is perfect for epic views. Staying on the rim also means you are down on the floor earlier and can stay out later, avoiding some of the crowds during busier seasons.

For others, staying closer to the town of Karatu is the better choice – the views are different, but still breathtaking, and there are some character-filled accommodation choices rich in history and culture that make your experience more diverse and enriching. These are a few of our best places to stay near the Ngorongoro Crater.

The Highlands

Eight unique geodesic suites, inspired by traditional Maasai bomas, are set amidst the forested slopes of the Olmoti Crater, about 20-minutes drive from the Ngorongoro Crater. This high-end camp is contemporary and private, with lovely communal spaces, including a library, whisky bar and specially designed indoor fireplace to replicate the typical East African campfire experience

Unique geodesic dome accommodations near Ngorongoro Crater.

Gibbs Farm

This is a property with bucketloads of charm, perfect for families who want a diverse safari experience that incorporates the wildlife of the crater (which is about a two-hour drive away) with a huge array of other activities, from coffee picking and roasting to village tours and baking classes. Set on a historic family coffee plantation, it has 17 cottages dotted around the property along with two larger farmhouses.

Gibbs farm

&Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

Unbeatable when it comes to proximity to the crater and for heartstopping views, &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge features 30 opulent suites. Looking straight over the Lerai Forest and Lake Magadi, this is the Africa of dreams, complete with a personal butler to make sure that every whim is catered for.

Luxurious suite interior with views of the Ngorongoro Crater’s forest.

A visit to the Ngorongoro Crater combines easily with other destinations in Tanzania, from the Serengeti to some of the less-known safari spots, as well as with Kenya and gorilla trekking in Rwanda. If you are interested in booking a tailor-made, once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Ngorongoro Crater and its surrounds please get in touch with our team on +44 (0) 20 3821 5994 (UK), +1 (833) 215 9353 (US), or at explore@niarratravel.com and we will begin crafting your dream East African safari today.

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