After starting our safari with visits to Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park, we drove about an hour north and west to the next stop on our African safari: our much-anticipated Ngorongoro Crater tour. In this post I’ll share some information about both the Conservation Area and the crater, discuss some of the beautiful wildlife we encountered while here.
A Brief History of Ngorongoro Conservation Area
According to Wikipedia, the main feature of the Conservation Area is Ngorongoro Crater. It is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera (a depressed area left after the eruption of a volcano and the settling and hardening of lava, which creates an inverted dome shape). The volcano erupted and then formed the caldera somewhere between 2M-3M years ago. The crater is approximately 2,000 feet (610 meters) deep, and the floor of the crater covers 100 square miles (260 sq. km.). Because of the relatively steep walls of the crater and its rich micro-ecosystem, many land-based animals tend to live and breed solely within the crater itself. Due to a limited genetic pool, many species living within the crater have evolved differently to the same species located in other parts of the east African wilderness. A Ngorongoro crater tour will show you varieties of wildlife that are seen in no other places on the planet.Ngorongoro Crater is the world's largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera: an inverted dome shaped area left after the eruption of a volcano and the settling and hardening of lava. Click To Tweet
The crater is also both a home and grazing lands for the Maasai people and their ubiquitous cattle. Nearly every day a group makes its way into the crater using winding paths that guide them safely down the steep walls of the crater. The Tanzanian government has reserved part of the crater area strictly for the use of the Maasai so that they will always have lands to help support themselves.
Also found within the Conservation Area is Oldupai Gorge, arguably the most significant paleoanthropoligical site in the world. Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey discovered some of the oldest remains of mankind ever found while exploring the Gorge in the late 1950s. Their discoveries radically changed our understanding of the age and evolution of the human species. Their work showed that the species Homo habilis (one of the first known ancestors of mankind) lived in the area approximately 1.9M years ago. Our species Homo sapiens emerged in the area approximately 300,000 years ago. Because the fossils found here are some of the oldest known specimens, the area is often referred to as “the cradle of life.” Research continues in the area to this day, much of it led by the children and ancestors of Drs. Leakey.
Climates Within Ngorongoro Crater
The crater itself sits at approximately 3 degrees south of the equator, and 35 degrees west of the Greenwich Mean. Because of its close location to the equator, the crater and the surrounding conservation area tend to be warm nearly the entire year around. This meant wearing light clothes during our Ngorongoro crater tour, with just a light cover-up in the early morning to hold off the chill. The shape and depth of the Ngorongoro Crater provide a wide variety of microclimates, each with their own distinctive weather and vegetation patterns.
The crater highlands receive high amounts of rain due to the easterly trade winds. The average rainfall in this area is 31-47 inches (800-12oomm) per year. This area is covered in dense forests and lush green undergrowth. The western wall of the crater is less steep and receives less rain – only about 16-24 inches (400-600mm) per year, and is largely grassland and bushland. The floor of the crater itself is mostly open grassland dominated by dry areas dotted with shallow water pools during the rainy season.
The floor of the crater itself can become dry and dusty, and very windy at times. During our Ngorongoro crater tour, we saw many dust devils or mini-tornados pop up – and these are a common occurrence during the dry season.
The crater also receives water from two main sources. The first is Lake Magadi in the north which drains into the salt lake in the center of the crater. This lake also provides water for lodges within the crater as well as the NCA headquarters. The second source of water is the Ngoitokitok Spring, near the eastern crater wall. This area also contains a large picnic area where visitors to the crater can eat and rest. The spring feeds many water-borne plants and also draws hippopotamus, elephants and lions to drink from its vast water supply.
Flora and Fauna in Ngorongoro Crater
According to the Ngorongoro Crater Area Authority, the crater is filled with over 25,000 animals covering a broad range of species – from birds to land animals. The crater is home to over 7,000 wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and 4,000 Grant’s zebras (Equus quagga boehmi). It also contains the largest concentration of lions in a single national park area in Tanzania.
In addition to land-based animals, the crater contains over 300 species of birds. Herons, egrets and bitterns (family Ardeidae) as well as hawks, eagles and kites (family Accipitridae) are among the most common bird species in the crater as well as in the larger Conservation Area. If you’re a birder or bird photographer, you may want to read my post on Bird Photography in Tanzania where I provide advice for photography in many of Tanzania’s national parks.
With this broad variety of wildlife it wasn’t hard to find subjects worthy of photographing! We identified all of the “big five” game species within the crater except for rhinoceroses. It’s very helpful to keep a notebook to record all the animals you see on your trip. You may think that you’ll remember the name of a bird or animal you really enjoyed seeing – but it doesn’t take much time to get overwhelmed by the number of species and to forget names. Experienced tour guides will have extensive knowledge of the animals you’ll see and also usually carry guides to help you identify various species. That said, you may want to carry your own guidebooks for reference during your trip or for later reading and review.
To see some of my favorite photos from the trip, make sure to visit my gallery of photos from Ngorongoro Crater!
Lodging Near Ngorongoro Crater
We spent two wonderful nights at the Ngorongoro Farm Lodge. The lodge is located a short 2.5 miles (4km) from the nearest entrance to Ngorongoro crater. It has a working coffee plantation as well as a vegetable garden where they grow much of their own supply. The staff are welcoming and warm, and our room was comfortable and well appointed. We had air conditioning which was a rare treat during this trip, and Wi-Fi was also available (although we didn’t make use of it).
Ngorongoro Farmlodge is owned by Tanganyka Wilderness Camps, a hospitality company that owns lodges, tented lodges and mobile camps near and in many national parks in Tanzania. We stayed at TWC properties throughout our stay and very much appreciated their hospitality and the accommodations they provided at all the various locations. Below are some of my favorite photos from the Farmhouse.
Tips for Ngorongoro Crater Tour Photography
You should keep a few things in mind to get the best images during your Ngorongoro Crater tour:
- Consider bringing a wide angle lens (24mm or wider) as well as a telephoto (300mm or longer) to get the best shots. The wide angle lens will help you get broad landscapes, and the telephoto lens will help you get animals farther away from your vehicle.
- Be prepared for a wide variety of lighting conditions – from direct brightness in the grasslands to lots of shadow in the more forested areas.
- Use a circular polarizing filter (CPF) to reduce haze in the distance and to make the colors in your photos pop.
- As noted above, try to write down the names of the animals you encounter – it makes tagging your photos so much easier after your trip!