Ngorongoro (Tanzania) – Destination of the Month (Jul ’17)

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Straddling in the middle of the Great Rift Valley sits the Ngorongoro Crater, where a collapsed volcano from 2-3 million years ago had given way to a vibrant wildlife set amidst a spectacular backdrop.

Today, Ngorongoro has climbed the rank among Africa’s premier national parks and it’s easy to see why—safari purists often complain that the high wildlife concentration in Ngorongoro makes it all too easy, and that’s precisely what makes Ngorongoro special.

Forget about the game driving, just pause…

In most national parks, you spend the day hunting for wildlife, pausing in awe of moments and then move in search for the next moment. In Ngorongoro, the wildlife density is so unbelievably strong you don’t even know where to start looking.

When our jeep first descended the caldera, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thousands of wildebeests, zebras and warthogs are scattered across the crater floor, making all sorts of sounds and actions. I could stop in a spot for an entire hour and still have something new to observe.

Flocks of flamingos crowding in the distance by the lake side. Wildebeests locking horns and fighting for dominance before the mating season. Vultures soaring in the sky awaiting the demise of a prey, while the hyenas are sleeping by the river after what likely have been a filling and satisfying lunch.

And speaking of predators, Ngorongoro is famous for having the highest concentration of predator animals in all of Africa! That afternoon alone, we saw at least five adult male lions, including a beautiful black-maned standing proud while scanning the environment for a hunt.

Lions aside, it is not uncommon for visitors to spot all of the Big 5 in one day. We managed to tick at least four of the Big 5 in just about 3-4 hours in the crater, and if we had a little bit more time we could have probably completed the fifth with a leopard sighting (we would see it on another day in Tanzania though).

But instead, we were gifted with the rare sightings of black and white rhinos, which are the hardest to come by among the Big 5. Rhinos are usually nocturnal, but we were lucky to spot them grazing in the daylight from a relatively close distance. And for that special occasion, all the animals around us suddenly decided to go silent and join in the moment, as if they know well that rhinos are sensitive to sounds and they don’t want to scare the rhinos away.

Those were not the only rare sightings we had that day. A couple notable ones were the chicks of grey crowned cranes and a herd of bat-eared foxes.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Beyond the wildlife…

There is no question for the richness in Ngorongoro’s biodiversity, which would convert anybody who thought of doing safari just once to tick off the bucket list, into a full-on safari lover ready to embark on the next game drive.

But that aside, Ngorongoro is located right at the heart of the vibrant Maasai culture. As we drove back up to the crater rim, wild Cape buffaloes faded into the distance and replaced with herds of cows raised by the nomadic Maasai.

A little further we crossed a lush grassland where the Maasai have settled down and built a village of bomas. Draped in red fabrics and decorative ensembles of pierced earlobes, they burst into smiles when they saw our vehicle passing through and began waving their hands at us.

We continued further up North to The Highlands, right at the forested slopes of the Olmoti Crater with views which are no less spectacular but far remote from any crowd. The beauty of the Olmoti region also makes it a great hiking destination. Though we didn’t have enough time to do any hiking, some of the more adventurous travelers would continue further to the rarely-visited Empakaai Crater and Lake Natron—who says you can’t avoid the crowd in Ngorongoro?

And for those who prefer to take it easy, down South in Ngorongoro Karatu is a town of rolling hills, full of farmland cottages, coffee plantations and vegetable gardens—which provides a welcoming retreat and relaxation.

With its unbelievable blend of spectacular wildlife, panoramic scenery, vibrant culture and diverse activities, Ngorongoro proves itself to be far from a one-dimensional safari experience.

Destination Scorecard

1. Uniqueness: 18/20 — The crater essentially becomes a natural confine to a spectacularly high density of wildlife. In other safari parks, you have moments between drives. In Ngorongoro, you don’t even know where to start looking.

2. Aesthetic: 18/20 — Ngorongoro provides arguably the most scenic safari backdrop possible. The fact that Ngorongoro is the world’s largest unbroken caldera with its own plains, savannahs, woodlands and lake does make it a true natural wonder.

3. Integrity: 9/15 — It can get crowded with tourist jeeps during peak season, which gives it a safari park feel. But it is not too bad during shoulder and low season.

4. Significance: 12/15 — Home to over 25,000 large animals and Africa’s highest density of mammalian predators, including rare species like black rhino, wild dog and golden cat.

5. Shelf Life: 11/15 — The vast ecosystem offered here is good enough to keep you occupied for multiple safaris. You can also make side visits to Masaai villages, nearby lakes, adjacent craters or retreat into the farmlands.

6. Access: 15/15 — Both air and land connection are established. This is one of Africa’s most celebrated safari destination after all.

Destination Score: 83/100

Do you agree with the score? Click here to find out how it compares with other destinations and learn how the ranking system works.

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