Going on a Safari in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Going on a Safari in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of Tanzania's most famous and iconic national parks. It includes the Ngorongoro Crater - the largest inactive and intact volcanic caldera in the whole world. The Conservation Area is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Crater was officially named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa in 2015. The term “Ngorongoro” is used interchangeably to refer to the Crater and the larger Conservation Area which also contains two smaller calderas and other territories. Apart from its outstanding and unique natural beauty, Ngorongoro is home to one of the densest concentrations of animal species in Africa, which makes it a truly great safari destination. In this article you will learn more about Ngorongoro and find answers to the following questions: Where is the Ngorongoro Crater located? What kind of animals can see you there? How to prepare for a safari trip to Ngorongoro? What are the accommodation options and how to choose a good tour operator?

What makes Ngorongoro so attractive to visitors?

Ngorongoro is famous as a place of spectacular natural beauty teeming with diverse wildlife. The Ngorongoro Crater caldera was formed after a gigantic explosion of an ancient volcano which happened, according to estimates, two to three million years ago. The vast expanses of the Crater floor (264 sq kilometers / 102 sq miles) are circled by steep walls reaching 610 meters / 2000 feet. The unique geology of Ngorongoro Conservation Area and its volcanic past make it look unlike any other place in the world: the area contains three calderas, forests, swamps, savannah, grasslands, gorges, salt ponds, hot springs, domed cones, and various mountain terrain. Such diversity of biomes is one of the factors that makes Ngorongoro a fantastic safari destination. In the Ngorongoro Crater  you’re sure to see all kinds of wildlife closely living together in a huge natural enclosure that will remind you of Conan Doyle’s legendary novel “The Lost World” filled with a sense of mystery. Booking a Ngorongoro safari tour is likely to give your memories that will last a lifetime.

Where is Ngorongoro located?

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is located 180km (110 mi) west of Arusha Region in the highlands of northern Tanzania. Kilimanjaro International Airport is about 250km away. Ngorongoro also shares borders with the Serengeti National Park which lies to the west of the Conservation Area. All this makes Ngorongoro accessible for travelers who come to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro or explore the country’s great national parks. It’s often recommended to combine a trip to Ngorongoro with visits to Arusha or Tarangire national parks. In addition, there is a more premium option of flying in from various local airports.

There are two entrance points that will lead you into the Ngorongoro Crater and so accessibility is not a problem. However, prepare for an off-road ride down the Crater in one of the equipped safari vehicles.

Ngorongoro zebra

What animals can you see in the Ngorongoro Crater?

The amazing biodiversity of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Ngorongoro Crater in particular is what attracts so many people to this truly iconic site. So, what animals can you encounter there? Ngorongoro is home to the “Big Five”: elephants, lions, buffalos, rhinos, and leopards. The first three of the list are abundant in the Crater, but you would need some luck to see a rhino due to their rarity, or a leopard since they are nocturnal masters of camouflage. Among herbivores, you can also see warthogs, elands, kudus, hartebeests, zebras, wildebeest, and many other species of antelope. Hippos are thriving in the permanent freshwater pools and swamps on the Crater’s territory, while monkeys are enjoying life in the lush tropical forests around the Crater.  Many predators apart from the ones mentioned above can be found in Ngorongoro as well: hyenas, jackals, serval cats, and, more rarely, cheetahs and endangered African wild dogs.

There are over 550(!) recorded species of bird in the Conservation Area, some of which are migratory. In different spots of Ngorongoro, you can see flamingoes, ostriches, hornbills, turacos, and a lot of other birds of all sizes and colors, including birds of prey like goshawks and harriers.

The annual Great Migration - the largest movement of animals on the planet, passes through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, specifically through the region called Ndutu, which is adjacent to the Serengeti. In that spectacular natural event, over 1.5 wildebeest, and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle travel over 1000 kilometers in Tanzania and Kenya pursuing fresh pastures. At the start of the first rainy season, you’re sure to see great herds of animals in the eastern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Great Migration passes through Ndutu in December-February, which is the calving season for wildebeest and zebras.

What to expect from a safari in Ngorongoro?

Whether you come to the Crater and the surrounding area for one day or more, you can expect stunning views and numerous amazing wildlife sightings. Your experience will be even better if you take a little time to plan your journey in advance and choose a good tour operator - I will give some more tips about planning later in the article.

Planning your Ngorongoro safari

Before planning your Ngorongoro safari trip, there are several things you might want to consider. Firstly, choosing a good tour operator can make a big difference. The same goes for arriving at the Crater as early as possible, choosing accommodation that will allow you to do so, as well as packing appropriate clothing.

Moreover, booking well in advance is a good idea, especially if you want to see the Great Migration in Ndutu or stay in one of the popular lodges. Peak/off-peak prices might vary significantly as well - visiting during the rainy season is lighter on the wallet and you will enjoy lots of lush greenery decorating the crater floor, and much fewer crowds of other tourists.

What is the best time to go on a safari in Ngorongoro?

The best time to see the wildlife in the Crater is between 6 am and 9 am - this is the time when the animals are the most active and the majority of other safari vehicles have not arrived yet. By 11 am the animals will start resting from the morning activities and hiding from the heat, and you will see safari vehicles wherever you look. While there is another peak of animal activity close to the afternoon, the several hours after dawn are thought to be the most interesting. So it is crucial to arrive at the Crater as early as possible. Since it is prohibited to drive inside during the dark, you need to be as close to the Crater rim as you can to save time on transfers.

Accommodation options

While you cannot stay on the Crater floor overnight, there is a number of lodges around the rim that offer outstanding views and are close enough for the drive down to be very short. Slightly cheaper lodge options can be found to the west of the Crater just outside the rim - those are good options as well since the drive would only take an extra 10 or 20 minutes compared to the lodges on the rim. A public campsite is also available nearby. Among other good options are lodges close to the Conservation Area entrance, as well as lodges near lake Manyara and Karatu Area. Transfer from the latter two to the entrance will take only about 1 hour but are more budget friendly.

Choosing a good tour operator

Choosing a safari company that will organize your trip is really important. A mediocre one would not be particularly concerned with the quality of your experience beyond the basic service, while a really top-tier safari tour operator will go above and beyond to make your trip outstanding in every way. So choose wisely. Luckily, in this day and age, we can read hundreds of reviews on sites like Tripadvisor and make informed decisions based on the experiences of other people in the past. It might be a very good idea to ask the tour operator about the time you will arrive at the Crater - if they don’t give you a clear time or it’s missing the early morning - you can take it as a bad sign and continue your search.

What to pack for a safari

Firstly, make sure to pack some warm clothes since the nights and early mornings in the highlight get chilly at any time of the year. You wouldn’t need any special equipment unless you’re planning to stay in the public camping spot and choose to bring all the camping gear with you. Essential things include personal medication, insect repellents, sunglasses, and hand sanitizers. Here’s a very detailed list of things you need to take on a safari, which applies to the Ngorongoro safari as well.

Finally, don’t forget to bring your curiosity and the spirit of adventure! This way, you’ll have a magical experience in this marvelous and remarkable place.