Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro Conservation Area ranks well among Africa’s must-visit safari destinations like Serengeti, Masai Mara, Kruger Park, Etosha, and the Okavango Delta. Together with Serengeti and Selous Game Reserve, Ngorongoro is Tanzania’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site and undoubtedly the eighth Wonder of the World. Here, we will provide you the most accurate information for planning your first safari to Ngorongoro Crator and the surrounding attractions.
The outstanding feature that gives the conservation area its monstrous Ngorongoro Crator, lying in the Biosphere Reserve in northern Tanzania. The crator covers 8,300 square kilometres (3,204 square miles). The conservation area was planned to accommodate traditional Maasai communities and sustainable tourism. You’ll see Maasai villagers grazing their sheep, goats, and cattle all over the plains.
Ngorongoro Crater lies in a nest of other ominously smoking volcanoes that border the north and west of the conservation area with the Serengeti National Park. The crator is a collapsed volcano whose original volcano, probably higher than Kilimanjaro, collapsed in on itself and now forms a perfect basin.
Once you drive into the Crater’s vastness, you’ll feel at the bottom of a soup bowl with vertically steep sides. The 18 km (11 miles) diameter basin lies 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the rim that towers about 2,200 meters (7,217 feet) above sea level.
The crator is believed to have formed some 2 million years ago. It harbours an astonishing variety of landscapes and natural features, including forests, peaks, craters, valleys, rivers, lakes, and plains. You’ll also find Africa’s most important archaeological site, Olduvai (Oldupai) Gorge, within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a few kilometres north of the Crater.
The steep and bumpy drive into the Crater begins high up in the forest. What kills the experience down the crator for many first-time travellers is the sheer number of safari vehicles that clamber into the Crater at opening hours, creating often dusty drives. But once you’ve driven from the masses, the charm of this site slowly showers you with awe.
The conservation area has a lush highland forest that looks like a rainforest. It’s a mist forest relying on the regular and abundant mist and drizzle from the crator. Looking closely enough, you’ll see mist particles swirling like raindrops among the ancient trees.
Pillar wood trees stand sentinel over the figs, the croton trees, evergreen highland Bersama, and wild tobacco purple flowers. The tree trunks and branches support thousands of epiphytes, including specialized plants such as arboreal orchids and ferns. These plants cling to their hosts and absorb moisture with their aerial roots. Even orchids hide among the curtains of tree moss or Old Man’s Beard (as they are locally known).
Monkeys, bushbuck, bushpigs, and elephants frequent the forest, although you’ll unlikely see them. A common site is the hardworking gardeners but zebras and buffaloes beautifully mowing the lawns at some crator lodge compounds. After dark, the ungulates seek sanctuary from predators by hanging out here, and it’s not the dogs you will hear barking after sundown but the warning calls of vigilant zebras and baboons.
On the Crater’s floor spreads a vast flamingo-filled alkaline lake. The shores hold the highest concentration of predators worldwide, including lions, hyenas, jackals, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, and enormous herds of ungulates.
Big-time predators in Ngorongoro Conservation Area expend very little energy in hunting massive herds of prey like Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, impalas, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeests. Prides of bloated lions lying on their backs, paws in the air, fully stuffed and embarrassingly damaging their noble Kingly image, are a common sight.
Ngorongoro also has endangered rhinos among its abundant wildlife; a real prize to see one in the wild. You may spot the black and white rhino species on a game drive, but they are not easy to spot. Ngorongoro Crator is also a great place to take a boat safari down one of the hippo-dense rivers.
Birdlife is also spectacular, with some endemic species: the Rufous-tailed weaver, Schalow’s wheatear, and large flocks of the magnificent crowned cranes. If you’re a birder, let your tour operator know beforehand so that 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 4×4 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.
The best 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.