The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is an awe-inspiring destination that ranks among the top safari destinations in Africa, alongside iconic locations such as Serengeti, Masai Mara, Kruger Park, Etosha, and the Okavango Delta. Recognized as Tanzania's third UNESCO World Heritage Site and the eighth Wonder of the World, it offers a rich cultural heritage, fascinating wildlife, and stunning landscapes. You can find accurate information to plan your first safari adventure to this incredible destination right here.
The Wonders of Ngorongoro
Exploring Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, located in the north of Tanzania, is home to the impressive Ngorongoro Crater, the main attraction. The area spans 8,300 square kilometers (3,204 square miles), supports traditional Maasai communities, and promotes sustainable tourism. Visitors can witness the Maasai people grazing their livestock on the plains.
The Ngorongoro Crater is surrounded by smoking volcanoes and borders the north and west of the conservation area, connecting it to the Serengeti National Park. The Crater, which collapsed in on itself, was once a volcano that was likely taller than Kilimanjaro. Now, it forms a perfect basin.
Upon entering the Crater, visitors will feel like they are in a soup bowl with steep sides. The basin, with a diameter of 18 kilometers (11 miles), sits 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the rim, which towers about 2,200 meters (7,217 feet) above sea level. The Crater is estimated to have formed two million years ago and features various landscapes and natural features, including forests, peaks, craters, valleys, rivers, lakes, and plains. The Olduvai (Oldupai) Gorge, Africa's most significant archaeological site, is also located within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a few kilometers north of the Crater.
The journey down into the Crater begins in the forest, which looks like a rainforest and relies on the abundant mist and drizzle from the Crater. However, the experience can be marred by the number of safari vehicles that enter the Crater at opening hours, creating dusty conditions. Nevertheless, once visitors have passed the crowds, the beauty of the site gradually reveals itself.
The conservation area is also home to a lush highland forest that appears to be a rainforest, depending on the regular and abundant mist and drizzle from the Crater. Upon closer inspection, the mist particles can be observed swirling like raindrops among the ancient trees.
What to see, where to go
The forest has various trees, including pillar wood, figs, croton trees, evergreen highland Bersama, and wild tobacco purple flowers. The branches of these trees are covered in thousands of epiphytes, such as arboreal orchids and ferns, which cling to their hosts and absorb moisture with their aerial roots. The forest is also home to various animals, including monkeys, bushbuck, bushpigs, and elephants, but they are rarely seen. Gardeners can be seen working; sometimes zebras and buffaloes can be seen mowing the lawns at some crator lodge compounds. After dark, ungulates seek refuge from predators here, and the sounds of vigilant zebras and baboons can be heard.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to a vast flamingo-filled alkaline lake that is surrounded by the highest concentration of predators in the world, including lions, hyenas, jackals, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, and enormous herds of ungulates. The predators in the area expend very little energy in hunting the massive herds of prey like Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, impalas, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeests. It is common to see bloated lions lying on their backs, paws in the air, fully stuffed and damaging their noble Kingly image.
Endangered rhinos are also found in the area, and spotting one in the wild is a real prize. The black and white rhino species can be seen on a game drive but are not easy to spot. The Ngorongoro Crator is also an excellent place to take a boat safari down one of the hippo-dense rivers. In addition to the various animals, the area is also home to some endemic bird species, including the Rufous-tailed weaver, Schalow's wheatear, and large flocks of the magnificent crowned cranes. If you are a bird enthusiast, let your tour operator know beforehand so they can assign you a guide that understands birds and where to spot them.
- All the major safari animals occur in great numbers; expect incredible wildlife viewing year-round.
- Spotting the famous predators is relatively easy.
- The resident population of endangered black rhinos is a real treat, as they're difficult to spot elsewhere in Tanzania.
- The crater is also home to some impressive elephant bulls with huge tusks.
- Aside from the Ngorongoro Crater, Empakaai and Olmoti craters are also scenic highlights. Both the Ngorongoro and Empakaai craters regularly have flocks of flamingos that quintessentially paint the scenery.
- Excellent camps and lodges ranging from mid to high-end nestled on the crater rim
- Crater rim accommodations offer great views into the vast crater.
- The Masai villages offer incredible cultural experiences.
- The crater area gets very crowded during the peak season.
Getting There & Around
Most travellers to Tanzania will visit the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as part of a more extended safari package, including the Serengeti National Park further northwest. The conservation area lies conveniently on the northern safari circuit. It is only a three-hour drive on a tarred road from Arusha, the starting point for most Tanzania safari holidays.
From Arusha, you can hop around the northern circuit parks by small aircraft on chartered or scheduled flights, or you can drive 180 km (112 miles) from Arusha and do the whole safari circuit by 4x4 car. A popular way to get to Ngorongoro is to fly into the Serengeti and drive back via the Ngorongoro Crater or the other way around. Usually, your tour operator will pick you up from the airport.
When To Go
Avoid April and May as these months are particularly wet in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Because the reserve has no restriction on the number of vehicles, there can be far more than a hundred at one time in the high season (January to the end of September).
It's amazing to have a close-up encounter with some of Africa's finest game, but not if you're surrounded by other vehicles and often very noisy, boisterous tourists. It's best to go down as early as possible (the gates open at 6 am) but be aware that many others might have the same plan. Regardless, the Crater is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so grit your teeth, ignore other tourists, and enjoy one of the world's most spectacular destinations.
Ngorongoro entrance fees are US$70.8 per person for foreigners above sixteen, while kids aged 5-16 pay $23.6. Resident foreigners pay $35.4 while their children pay $11.8. East African nationals pay 11,800 Tanzania shillings, and their kids pay 2,360 shillings.
To enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, cars pay a 24-hour pass of US$250, excluding V.A.T. These fees do not cater for activities inside the Crater like meals, walking safaris, etc. Your tour operator will include those in your package, or your accommodation will charge you accordingly.
If you're doing a self-drive, you'll need to pay for everything at either the tourism office in Ngorongoro, Lodare visitor centre or the tourism board office in Arusha. You will receive a Ngorongoro card, which you present as you enter the crater entrance. T.I.P. → You can pay in both USD and Tsh, but USD is preferred, and you will need to be accompanied by a licensed guide for this and Oldupai Gorge.
Ensure you pack layered clothing for thick early-morning mist all year round; it gets chilly in the crater rim.
If you are interested in evolution and human origins, Olduvai Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world's most important paleoanthropology sites, is a must-visit. It's a 90-minute drive from Ngorongoro Crater on a dirt road.
The 48-kilometre-long Gorge is part of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches through East Africa. Its hominid fossils have contributed hugely to palaeoanthropologists' understanding of humanity's history dating back 2.5 million years. You can visit the quaint little museum at the Gorge, which doesn't really do justice to the magnitude of fossil discoveries made here.
Move on to the shifting sands, a remarkable dune of volcanic ash appearing utterly out of place on the short grassy plains. Constantly drifting dunes move across the landscape at the prevailing winds, and it's an intriguing phenomenon to watch.
BEST SAFARI LODGES & CAMPS IN NGORONGORO
Rooms from: $420, all meals
With the feel of an English country house, this working organic coffee farm sits midway between Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater.
Pros: locally produced food served up daily from their gardens; rooms are spacious and uniquely decorated; some of the prettiest outdoor showers around.
Cons: a rather bumpy hour-long ride out to the Crater; you can end up paying for all the little extras; it is a working farm, so bear in mind there will be farm smells around some of the rooms.
Rooms from: $846, all-inclusive
North of the Ngorongoro Crater, situated along the forested slopes of the Olmoti volcano, sits The Highlands Lodge, a low-impact high-luxury camp that overlooks the valley below.
Pros: breathtaking views in a unique, remote setting; uniquely-styled rooms unlike anything on the safari circuit; activities include guided walks, hikes up the summit, and cultural visits.
Cons: rooms can get quite chilly in the early morning if the fire goes out; might be a problem for those with mobility issues; 45-minute drive from the Crater.
The Manor House.
Rooms from: $693 pp, all-inclusive
A charming mix of Afro-European Architecture from a bygone era greets you after a bumpy, dusty drive from the Crater.
Pros: drawn baths after a long day of safari will make your day; classical, stylish living and lounge areas; plenty of activities like horse riding, billiards, a movie theatre, and hiking trails.
Cons: 1-hour, 30-minute drive from the Crater on winding, bumpy roads; chilly in the evenings, bring something warm; space and luxury come at a price.
Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
Room price: $1165, all-inclusive
Imagine walking into a Hollywood film set where the spectacular setting is literally "Great Zimbabwe ruins meets SS Titanic baroque." Clusters of stilted rooms with woven conical banana-leaf domes and fancifully carved stone chimneys cling to the Crater's rim and in some way blend in with the natural environment.
Pros: Expect spectacular views over the Crater, unique rooms with views in every direction, and expensive but exceptional service.
Cons: Crater can be jam-packed with vehicles in peak season; high altitude means it's not easy to walk uphill; it gets incredibly cold here in the mornings; bring warm clothes.
Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge
Room Price: $434, all meals
Sticking out from indigenous vines of the western rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serena Safari Lodge is home to one of the most enchanting views on a Tanzania Safari.
Pros: Expect amazing views of the Crater rim from each room, and the lodge is close to the Crater entrance; free Wi-Fi.
Cons: It's a hotel in the wilderness that gets crowded like a city brand hotel; rooms have that dated look and smell; there are lots of stairs across the lodge.
Bougainvillea Safari Lodge
Rooms from: $231, no meals
Bougainvillaea is a typical budget choice to start or end the first safari packages on the northern Tanzania circuit. The lodge is located halfway between Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyana; very convenient access to both.
Pros: The best budget choice we can recommend; it has a big swimming pool, the food is decent and enough.
Cons: The lodge is in Karatu Town with not much in the way of views; Wi-Fi is spotty; service can be a bit on the slow, glacial side.
Ngorongoro Farm House.
Rooms from: $120, all meals
This farmhouse has a series of thatched cottages scattered through the winding pathways of a 750-acre coffee plantation once owned by a 19th-century German settler. The cabins are beautifully nestled around a pleasant main farmhouse.
Pros: working farm with walking tours and coffee-making experience; garden-fresh produce used in the cooking; beautiful, rustic setting with plenty of activities.
Cons: rooms can be very dim and dark; slightly large and impersonal dining and lounge areas; some rooms are far from the main lodge for those with mobility issues.
Rooms from $643, all meals
Open spaces are at every turn here, from the hidden swimming pool to the stylish cottages with soft, earth-tone linens, accents of rich African wood, and large en suite bathrooms.
Pros: This is a small lodge, so expect tranquil, quiet, lovely views over the countryside; the staff are conscious and helpful.
Cons: a bumpy drive from the Crater; cold in the evenings, so bring warm clothes; mainly used for private safari guests with private drivers.
Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp
Rooms from $540 pp, all meals
Camp is set in the dappled shade of an ancient acacia forest, right on the edge of the majestic Ngorongoro Crater. Guests can gather around a blazing campfire to enjoy their favourite sundowner and swap stories of the day’s adventures before making their way to a lavish chandelier-lit dinner hosted by the camp manager. Grand couches and filled-to-the-brim book cabinets tempts guests to steal a few quiet hours between game viewing adventures.
Pros: Quick and easy access into the Crater; spacious tents boast comfortable beds; gas heaters for the cool evenings, 24-hour solar lighting and lovely ensuite bathrooms with a dressing area and al fresco showers.