Eight reasons to Visit Ngorongoro Conservation Area
By Philip Briggs | Updated October 23, 2021
Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) ranks among Africa’s most celebrated and rewarding safari destinations. An eastward extension of the world-famous Serengeti National Park, it is named after the Ngorongoro Crater, a lush volcanic caldera whose scenic beauty, prolific wildlife and association with early human evolution has led to it being described as Africa’s very own Garden of Eden. Inscribed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Ngorongoro demands to be included on any safari itinerary to northern Tanzania, and here are some of the reasons why.
Ngorongoro Crater is geological marvel. The relict of a volcano that once stood taller than Kilimanjaro does today, this is the world’s largest intact caldera, with a 100-square-mile floor enclosed by an unbroken circle of 2,000ft-high cliffs. Most visitors catch their first spectacular view into the crater at Heroes Point, which is where the main access road to the NCA reaches the thickly forested rim. But there are literally dozens of other equally impressive viewpoints to explore as you drive around the rim, ideally staying overnight at one of the lodges perched on its edge.
Bountiful Big Five viewing
Ngorongoro Crater is the most reliable quick-fix Big Five destination in Tanzania, if not anywhere in East Africa. The crater floor harbors the world’s densest lion population, and it’s highly unusual to go a whole drive without encountering a pride of these magnificent big cats. The crater also serves as retirement home for old elephant bulls, which means you’re likely to get close to some seriously impressive tuskers. Large herds of buffalo sweep across the grassland, while black rhinos – horns implanted with tracking devices to monitor their movements and deter poachers – are more often seen in solitary contemplation. The most elusive of the Big Five is the leopard, which is more common on the forested crater rim than on the grassy floor.
Ngorongoro Crater includes a variety of wetland habitats. Lake Magadi is a shallow saline pan whose edges are usually tinged pink by flocks of several thousand flamingo. There are also several hippo pools, the most regularly visited being Ngoitokitok Springs, which is overlooked by a popular picnic site. Elsewhere, Gorigor and Mandusi Swamps are a favored haunt of elephants and also host a wide variety of aquatic birds.
Lions inevitably hog the limelight, but Ngorongoro is exceptional when it comes other carnivores too. The crater hosts the world’s densest population of spotted hyenas, and diurnal sightings of these oft-reviled but fascinating creatures are commonplace, especially around Lake Magadi, where – like haplessly optimistic dogs – they might be seen trying to snatch a flamingo in the hope of a feathery snack. Over the years we’ve had many great sightings of jackals and bat-eared foxes, especially during denning season. Historically, the crater has never been that great for cheetahs, but numbers have increased in recent years, and sightings are now quite common – indeed, on our most recent visit, we saw a large female chase down a young gazelle.
Although large mammals dominate the safari experience, Ngorongoro offers some exceptional birdwatching. You don’t need to be a birder to appreciate the likes of ostrich, Kori bustard (the world’s heaviest flying bird), the garish grey crowned crane, or the flocks of migrant storks that descend on the crater floor during the rains.
For dedicated birders, the crater floor is a good place to look for the endemic rufous-tailed weaver and lovely rosy-throated longclaw and Hildebrandt’s starling, while the forested rim is home to several conspicuous dazzlers, including Hartlaub’s turaco, tacazze sunbird and golden-winged sunbird.
Less welcome, but truly spectacular in their own pilfering way, are the black kites that swoop down to snatch food from the hands of startled picnickers at Ngoitokitok Springs.
Offbeat Olmoti and Empakaai
Although the NCA extends across 3,200 square miles, almost all tourist activity is focused on Ngorongoro Crater or along the rutted main road that continues westward towards the Serengeti. But the highlands of the NCA are studded with other volcanic craters, at least two of which are thoroughly worth a diversion.
My favorite is Empakaai, which is five miles in diameter, almost as deep as Ngorongoro Crater, and hosts a sparkling soda lake that supports plentiful flamingos and other aquatic birds. Majestic views from Empakaai’s rim extend east to the ashy slopes of the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai and, on very clear days, to Kilimanjaro. For energetic travelers, a wonderful guided hike leads through steep forest – where you might see elephant, buffalo, bushbuck and blue monkey – to the crater floor.
Easily combined with a visit to Empakaai, the smaller Olmoti Crater has a grassy floor where Maasai herders graze their cattle, and you’re bound to see pairs of augur buzzard cartwheeling high in the sky from the rim.
Precious paleontological treasures
Oldupai Gorge holds a special place in paleontological history. Carved by a river on the western plains of the NCA, the 300-ft deep gorge exposes a succession of strata that provide a near-continuous fossil record of life on the plains over the past two million years.
The renowned paleontologist Louis Leakey recognized the potential significance of Oldupai in 1931, and his wife Mary hit the jackpot in 1959, when she unearthed the robust jawbone of an early hominid they nicknamed ‘Nutcracker Man’. Although older hominid fossils have since been found, not only here but elsewhere in East Africa, Nutcracker Man made global headlines for providing the first conclusive evidence that human evolution stretched back more than a million years and had been enacted on the plains of East Africa.
The Leakeys’ diggings can be explored on a guided tour, but the highlight of Oldupai is a museum that displays replicas of several important hominid finds, as well as the original fossils of the many bizarre long-extinct creatures that lived alongside them.