A Safari Tour in the Ngorongoro Crater

A visit to Tanzania is not complete without a safari tour in the Ngorongoro Crater. The Ngorongoro Crater is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The crater is home to over 25,000 large animals, including the Big 5 – lions, elephants, black rhinos, buffalo and leopards. So your chances of seeing some local wildlife is practically guaranteed. The only wildlife you won’t see in the crater are giraffes, due to the steep descent. But giraffes are present elsewhere in the conservation area.

giraffes in Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact volcanic caldera. 2-3 million years ago, a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself, forming this crater. It’s 2000 feet deep and covers approximately 260 square kilometers of land. Maasai pastoralists gave the crater its name. Ngorongoro is an onomatopoeia – a word that mimics the sound of the object or action it refers to – in this case, a cowbell (ngoro ngoro. You can hear cowbells making that sound in your head now, can’t you?).

The crater was named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa in 2013, alongside the Sahara Desert, the Serengeti Migration, and the Okavango Delta.

Ngorongoro Crater view

So are the stories true, that once animals enter the crater they become trapped and can’t escape?

Well, it depends on what source you read. But the truth of the matter is that some animals are simply more adept at climbing the steep sides of the crater than others. Some of the wildebeests and zebras, for example, leave the crater during the rainy season. Overall though, it seems that the healthy balance of sufficient rain and sun make the crater a pleasant home for many species of wildlife.

That’s Lake Magadi in the center of the photo below. Flocks of flamingos like to congregate there, but it also provides much-needed water for all the wildlife in the area.

Ngorongoro Crater panoramic view

We saw several flamingos in and around the lake, but not the flocks of thousands you often see on wildlife documentaries. The crater draws over 500 species of birds to the area, including buzzards, spoonbills, weavers, starlings and more. So if you like bird watching, this is a great spot.

flamingos in the Ngorongoro Crater

Just look at this awesome line of ostriches. They may not be able to fly, but they can run really fast – as fast as 55 kilometers to 70 kilometers per hour! You can tell the difference between the males and females pretty easily – adult males are mostly black, with a white tail and primary feathers, while females and juvenile ostriches are grayish-brown and white.

group of ostriches in Tanzania

We saw this spotted hyena walking all by itself, but they actually live in large groups called clans. In fact, eight hyena clans inhabit the Ngorongoro Crater. They have complex hierarchical social groups, each led by an alpha-female. Each matrilineal clan can have up to 130 members.

spotted hyena standing in dry grass

Hyenas are rather ruthless in their hunting methods. They don’t just stalk their prey – they’ll chase it to the point of exhaustion before attacking. And they don’t just go for small rodents or birds either – groups of 2 to 30 can take down wildebeests, zebras and buffaloes.

We did see one hyena in the midst of eating a flamingo it had freshly killed, which was rather gruesome. But such is the way of nature.

Hyenas are one of those animals that I can’t decide if they’re ugly or cute – they’re sort of somewhere in between. I really don’t want to get closer than this to make up my mind one way or the other.

Another animal that I personally think is way cuter, but just as vicious, is the mighty hippo. And we did get to see a few from a safe distance. Although hippos are primarily herbivores, they are very territorial and aggressive:

hippos in Tanzania lake

Did you know that a group of hippos is called a bloat? There were actually quite a few in this pond, we counted at least 20. This was the only spot in the crater that our safari group were allowed to get out and walk around a bit. The hippo pool is on the north eastern end of Gorigor swamp.

These magnificent creatures are blue wildebeests. They’re related to antelopes, cattle, goats, and sheep. They’re one of the most common big-game animals in Africa. During the Great Migration each year you can often see them travelling with zebra herds. This gives them a heightened awareness to any potential predators. There are approximately 700 blue wildebeests living in the crater.

blue wildebeests in Tanzania

It may be surprising to note that we didn’t see any elephants during our Ngorongoro safari tour. But there are only about 30 elephants inhabiting the crater, so they could have been hanging out anywhere.

It’s not just about spotting wildlife though – the landscape itself is just beautiful to behold:

Ngorongoro Crater vista

As serene and calm as these photos may appear, the reality is that the Ngorongoro Crater is a very popular tourist attraction. This is the flip side of what a safari tour really looks like – dozens of jeeps lined up on the roads. In this case, it was to view a lion:

Safari jeeps llined up in the Ngorongoro Crater

The crater has one of the densest known lion populations, so your chances of seeing at least one are excellent. Unfortunately, due to the natural enclosure of the crater, the lions are quite inbred, causing a variety of health problems. They’re also more susceptible to disease, such as canine distemper and tick-borne diseases.

a lion in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

This poor lion just wanted to seek some shade from the relentless afternoon sun. So he found a patch of shade in the shadow of a safari jeep:

lion lying in the shade of a safari jeep

So while we didn’t see all of the big 5 in the crater, we did get to view a lot of different and amazing wildlife. The Ngorongoro Crater is a wonderful and picturesque addition to your safari adventures in Tanzania.

Best Time to Visit:

There’s really no bad time of year to visit the Ngorongoro Crater. Wildlife viewing is great all year long thanks to the lack of tall ground cover or heavily forested areas. Dry season (June through September) is the best for weather, as well as having shorter grass, making animal spotting ideal. There’s really no low season here, but July to March are the busiest months. April and May are the quietest in terms of visitors, while March and April are typically wet and rainy. 

Where to Stay:

There are several nice hotels and lodges in the area, some of which are right along the crater’s rim. This list isn’t exhaustive, but gives you a few options depending on your price range and comfort level:

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