My Tanzanian Safari: Part Three

A Visit to Ngorongoro Crater, an Eden of Large Mammals

Swala Tommies

If you are like most safari goers on the Northern Circuit of Tanzania, you will visit Serengeti National Park. And like most people, you would probably drive there from Arusha. Situated right next to Serengeti National Park is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Inside the N.C.A. is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ngorongoro Crater.

The crater is, in fact, a caldera. And it is the largest intact caldera in the world. A caldera is formed when a volcano explodes (literally blows it’s top off) or the surrounding walls collapse into an empty magma chamber. But everyone refers to it as the crater. Go figure.

About two and a half million years ago, a volcano that was as big or bigger than Kilimanjaro exploded, leaving this magnificent geological formation.

But you don’t give a shit about geology.

You like animals and birds and nature.

Then you’ll love Ngorongoro Crater (caldera).

Travel advice based on geography: Don’t skip Ngorongoro Crater!

So if you go to all the trouble to fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (between Moshi and Arusha) to you can go on safari in the Serengeti, you just have to stop at Ngorongoro Crater. It is on the friggin’ way!

Or you can swing by on your way out of the Serengeti. Your choice. Just don’t skip it!

Pronunciation Pause: How the f$%k do you say that word?

Good question.

Let’s break it down to the simple parts. Make a small “n” sound first, but not the “in” sound (you want it to be guttural). Then, say goro, like Gore-oh. n-GORE-oh. And repeat. So n-GORE-oh-n-GORE-oh. Perfect. Moving on ….

So the crater floor is 259 square kilometers (that is 100 square miles for you Americans, Burmese, and Liberians out there). The walls that surround this area are around 600 meters high (just think 2,000 feet).

A view of Ngorongoro Crater, both the floor and the interior wall

Down inside the crater, on the lush floor, the animal and bird life numbers range between 30,000 and 40,000 (though I’ve seen an estimate as high as 50,000 animals). It is rightly referred to as a Garden of Eden. Over 50 different species of large mammals can be found here, including rare black rhinos, lions, elephants, leopards, hippos, buffalo, zebra, eland, warthogs and hyenas. (I’m told giraffe and cheetah don’t prefer the crater floor, but could still be found there on occasion.) You could literally see the “Big Five” in one trip down to the crater floor.

A rare sighting of a Bat-Eared Fox early one morning in Ngorongoro Crater.

But there are also many other sights to behold. We were stunned by the beauty of the landscape, all closed in by the caldera walls. It was lush and scenic and changed greatly during our exploration of it.

Plus, we saw one of the rarer sightings on our safari while in the crater. I’m talking about the Bat-Eared Fox.

Sure, you maybe were expecting me to say the Black Rhino, which we did see there. But the thing is, even though you certainly aren’t guaranteed to see a rhino in the crater, that was where I expected to see one if I saw one at all.

I never expected to see a bat-eared fox.

We also saw a leopard’s larder, though no leopard appeared. This is a kill that the leopard has pulled up into a tree to eat later. We seemed to be way too close for comfort to the larder for me.

And birds! Oh my, did we see so many birds in the crater! From thousands of flamingos in the salty lake (eating the crustaceans), to small and colorful birds popping in and around the hippo pond, to large birds of prey like the kori bustard or the secretarybird. (And yes, that is one word.)

The Grumeti Airport Building in the western Serengeti

We’d been told of how some people drive straight into the Serengeti and then drive straight out, skipping Ngorongoro as well as smaller parks like Tarangire or Lake Manyara. Or worse, they fly into and out of the Serengeti on small dirt airstrips, just so they can catch the Great Migration.

I’ve had the privilege to witness the Great Migration. But I’m so glad we took the time to stop in Ngorongoro Crater. Both are safari experiences, but both are very different.

And no, I actually had never heard of the Ngorongoro Crater before I started researching Tanzania as a safari destination. I was gobsmacked. Visiting this incredible natural formation, housing what is probably the densest concentration of large mammals on the planet, was not only a highlight of my family’s trip to Tanzania, but a highlight of my life.

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