A Zebra in the Morning at Ngorongoro Crater, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Travel Tanzania: The Ngorongoro Crater & Ngorongoro Conservation Area

You may have heard of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania before, possibly in the context of the great wildebeest migration. Even without the famous migration, though, the Ngorongoro Crater is spectacular and a sight to behold. Today, I’d like to tell you about this amazing feat of nature. I’ll also tell you about the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that it lies in.

Without further ado, here goes!

The Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania) seen from its rim.
The Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania) seen from its rim

What is the Ngorongoro Crater?

I like to call the Ngorongoro Crater a big hole in the ground.

Of course, it’s a lot more than that, but that is essentially what it is.

The Ngorongoro Crater was formed when a volcano believed to be about the size of Mount Kilimanjaro erupted and then collapsed on itself leaving a ‘a big hole in the ground’ that is about 2,000 feet (610 meters) deep and whose bottom is about 100 square miles (260 square kilometers).

This collapse occurred many, many years ago—2 to 3 million years ago to be more precise.

Today, the Ngorongoro Crater is a lush, scenic, abundant ecosystem. It supports one of the densest populations of large mammals—and predators—in all of Africa.

The Ngorongoro Crater is located in northeastern Tanzania, about 118 miles (190 km) from Arusha, Tanzania’s fourth largest city, not far from the border with Kenya.

What is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area?

You’d imagine that the Ngorongoro Crater would be found within a national park, right?

Well, it isn’t.

Although the Ngorongoro Crater was part of the original Serengeti National Park established in 1951, problems with the Maasai and other indigenous people who had been living in the area for hundreds of years before then led to the division of the original Serengeti National Park into two separate protected areas: 1) the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and 2) the Serengeti National Park as it stands today.

The major difference between these two protected areas is that people are allowed to live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area while they aren’t in the Serengeti National Park. (It’s actually cool to drive across these two protected areas and notice this difference for yourself.)

Maasai Initiates in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Maasai Initiates in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The Ngorongoro Crater is the jewel in the crown of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. But the latter includes more than just the former.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area also contains part of the Serengeti plains, other smaller craters such as the Olmoti and Empakaai craters, as well as important archaeological sites such as Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli, where some of the oldest evidence of man’s ancestors on Earth has been found.

How does one get to Ngorongoro, Tanzania?

The most obvious way to get to Ngorongoro is through the city of Arusha, located 99 miles (160 km) from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s main gate.

Arusha is served by Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA) which itself is 34 miles (55 km) away from Arusha. (A shuttle runs regularly between KIA and Arusha).

Kilimanjaro International Airport, Tanzania
Kilimanjaro International Airport, Tanzania

Once you get to Arusha, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s main gate, the Lodoare Gate, is a 2-3 hours’ drive away on tarmacked road.

A less obvious but still popular way to get to Ngorongoro is from the west, i.e, through the Serengeti National Park.

You can fly into the Serengeti National Park, or to a city further west such as Mwanza, and then drive through the Serengeti into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

The Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area are adjacent to each other.

(Several years ago, I had the pleasure of driving through both protected areas in a single day on my way from Mugumu to Arusha.

We entered the Serengeti National Park at its Ikoma gate around 10 a.m. and exited through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s Lodoare Gate around 2:30 p.m.

Lodoare Gate, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Lodoare Gate, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

This included stopping several times to watch wildlife, have lunch, and take pictures on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater.

You can read all about that trip here.)

How much will it cost to visit Ngorongoro?

If you don’t live in East Africa, then you’ll probably book your entire trip to Ngorongoro through a tour operator. Their prices differ widely.

What will remain the same no matter how you get to Ngorongoro, though, is what you will pay the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority for access to the Conservation Area and Crater. Find the current prices here.

N.B.: You CANNOT pay your park fees in cash at the Conservation Area itself, though you can with a VISA/Mastercard subject to an additional service charge of 1.5%. To avoid the additional charge, pay these fees in advance at NMB, a local bank.

You can find NMB branches all over the country, but the ones in Arusha and Karatu (approximately half an hour away) might be your best bet.

NMB Karatu, Karatu, Tanzania
NMB Karatu, Karatu, Tanzania

Where should you stay while visiting Ngorongoro, Tanzania?

Basically, you have 3 main groups of accommodation to choose from: 1) luxury accommodation on the rim of the crater that offers great views along with a price tag to match, e.g., Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge; 2) accommodation inside the Conservation Area that doesn’t offer a view of the Crater and therefore will be a little cheaper, e.g., Rhino Lodge; and 3) staying outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area altogether in an area known as Karatu, which again would be even cheaper.

Popular choices in Karatu include Gibb’s Farm, Plantation Lodge and Ngorongoro Farmhouse Lodge.

Karatu lies 14 km from the main gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, so close enough to ensure that you can get into the Crater early in the morning.

There is NO accommodation inside the Crater itself nor can you camp there.

Simba Camp Site, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Simba Camp Site, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Speaking of camping, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has only one public campsite: Simba Campsite.

It lies on the rim of the Crater not far from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority headquarters.

When is the best time to visit Ngorongoro?

Because of its permanent water sources and fertile soil, the Ngorongoro Crater supports wildlife all year round.

The dry season, from June to September, is a little better for spotting wildlife. This is because the vegetation is less lush and animals congregate around rivers and water holes.

The Ngorongoro Crater generally attracts lots of crowds during peak season.

Peak season runs from July to September and again from December to February.

I hear the trick around avoiding these crowds is to get to the Crater very early in the morning.

Opening Hours

All gates and barriers in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area open between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., except for the Seneto Descent Gate which closes at 4 p.m.

All vehicles must be out of the Ngorongoro Crater by 6:00 p.m.

What wildlife can you expect to see in the Ngorongoro Crater?

Approximately 25,000 large animals live in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa is present inside the Crater. The two notable exceptions are impala and giraffe.

You will almost definitely see zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest herds. You’ll also have a very good chance of sighting the Big Five: rhino, lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo.

The Ngorongoro Crater has one of East Africa’s most thriving populations of black rhino. It also has the densest known population of lions.

Ok, enough with the facts. What is it like actually being in the Crater?

In one word, divine!

It is no surprise to me that life probably had its beginnings in this part of the world.

I often say: the sun shines differently in the Ngorongoro Crater!

I remember standing out in the wild, in the middle of the Crater, with zebra around me and Maasai sitting on the ground tending to their cattle not far away. It was otherworldly!

(Thank God I didn’t know at the time that the Crater had the densest known population of lions! I don’t think I would have enjoyed the moment quite so much if I did. 😯 )

Honestly, the Crater is just really grand!

Whether it’s standing on the rim and trying to take in the whole Crater from above, or having lunch while sitting on thick tree roots by the Ngoitokok springs, or the crazy drive descending into or ascending out of the Crater, this is not an experience you’ll easily forget.

If you ever have a chance to visit, I cannot recommend it enough!

What else is there to see in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area other than the Ngorongoro Crater?

When I was visiting the Ngorongoro Crater, I remember asking people what else there was to see in the Area.

I got a few responses about this and that but nothing seemed particularly worth spending an extra day to see.

Driving from the Serengeti National Park, through the plains portion of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, all the way to the Crater and having learned a lot about the Conservation Area since then has me thinking differently.

I will be visiting Ngorongoro and Serengeti later this year, and this time I’ll be sure not to miss Olduvai Gorge, where fossils of early man dating up to 1.9 million years ago were found—fossils including those of Homo habilis (“handy man" known for his early use of simple tools), Zinjathropus (“Nutcracker Man" so called because his features suggest a diet that required heavy chewing), and Homo erectus (“upright man")? (Do you remember learning about these species in history class?)

Neither will I forgo Laetoli. Here, two upright early humans walking on two feet left footprints in volcanic ash 3.6 million years ago that are still visible today.

Last but not least, I hope to visit at least one of the other craters in the Conservation Area, namely Empakaai or Olmoti Crater.

If possible, I’d also love to see Ol Doinyo Lengai, which although is not part of the Conservation Area, is right outside it.

Ol Doinyo Lengai, whose name in Maasai means “Mountain of God", is the only active volcano in Tanzania.

I am particularly curious to see it because its eruption in July 2007 was felt for a whole week in Nairobi and was particularly frightening for me. (Does anyone remember this?)

Now, your turn.

That’s it from me today.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the amazing natural phenomenon that is the Ngorongoro Crater and the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

If ever you do visit Ngorongoro, please come back here and leave me a comment telling me what you thought.

If you’ve already been, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Do you have any recommendations for would be travelers to the area? If so, please share them below!

Until the next time,
Biche

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Photo Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, David Berkowitz, Jonathan Gill, Wikimapia.org, SpotiStarehe.com

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