Ngorongoro Crater (and Highlands)
The Ngorongoro Crater itself lies within the 8,000 sq. km Ngorongoro Conservation Area and it is one of the natural scenic wonders of the world. The magnificent crater is a ‘caldera’ or collapsed crater which is 16-19 km in diameter with an unbroken rim and has a floor area of 168 sq. kms. The altitude of the crater rim is around 7,000ft, the floor some 2000ft below. It forms part of a chain of volcanoes stretching along the western side of the Great Rift Valley which creates the Ngorongoro Highlands. The only active volcano now is Oldonyo L’Engai, at the southern end of Lake Natron which lies to the north of the highlands.
The Crater contains a large animal population throughout the year, with many impressive black-maned lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, black rhino, buffalo, hippo, hyaena, eland, zebra, gazelle, ostrich and wildebeest (wildebeest calving occurs around January). The birdlife is prolific too, with flocks of flamingos on the crater lake. Maasai people are encountered here too – some 12,000 pastoralists with 100,000 head of cattle co-existing with the resident game, some of which will descend into the Crater each morning to graze.
Although the Crater should be visited at least once in ones life, game-viewing on the crater floor is no longer an exclusive experience. Whilst there are several commercial lodges on the crater rim, which afford excellent views of the crater, it is not necessary to stay on the rim and there are some lovely accommodation options in the nearby highlands. The market town of Karatu, some 30 minutes drive from the Crater rim, offers a wider range of lodges and an insight into rural life in Tanzania. Cultural interaction with the Hadza hunter gatherers, walking (including fairly tough trails between the Crater and Lake Natron), and horse riding are available in the region too.
To the north-east of Ngorongoro is the beautiful but rarely visited Empakai Crater, with flamingos and other birdlife but little big game, and beyond that the a huge escarpment leads down to the harsh Rift Valley floor around Lake Natron, a major breeding site for lesser flamingo.