Ngorongoro Crater – The Ultimate Safari Guide

As the world’s largest inactive volcanic caldera, the Ngorongoro Crater offers the safari experience of a lifetime. With its unparalleled density of wildlife and breathtaking landscapes, this natural wonder is known as Africa’s Garden of Eden

Nestled below a heavily forested 600-metre volcanic rim is a wildlife wonderland that makes the three-hour drive from the town of Arusha worth your while. 

In this article:

Why is the Ngorongoro Crater Famous?

To be able to grasp the sheer might of the Ngorongoro Crater, let’s see what a caldera is. Before the iconic volcano erupted, it stood taller than the mighty Mt Kilimanjaro itself. The top of the ancient volcanic cone collapsed after the loss of its underlying body of magma and ultimately formed what is now known as the largest inactive caldera on earth.

Covering a total area of 264 sq km, the Ngorongoro Crater stretches between 16-19 km in diameter, formed 2.5 million years ago. For first-time Ngorongoro Crater visitors, words fail to adequately describe the sight of open grasslands set against the backdrop of the heavily forested volcanic rim. 

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Larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area – The World’s Largest Caldera

The crater was incorporated into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 1959 and was established as a multiple land-use area. In 1979, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To allow traditional Maasai pastoralists to coexist with wildlife, the Ngorongoro Crater was not established as a national park but rather as a conservation area. However, the recent implementation of certain conservation acts has placed restrictions on human settlement and pastoral practices within the crater.

Baby-leopard-on-a-tree
Baby leopard on a tree

The Ngorongoro Crater is a Wildlife Wonderland

The Ngorongoro Crater is home to some 25,000 large animals and is the most densely populated area of mammalian predators in Africa. The enclosed caldera floor is rich in minerals and teeming with life, making it one of Africa’s top safari destinations. 

Most of the Crater floor consists of open grasslands where the vast majority of wildlife can be spotted. Other iconic areas in the Crater for wildlife sightings include the Lerai Forest, the shallow Lake Magadi, the Gorigor Swamp and the Ngoitokitok Springs

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Big Five Animals: Rhino, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, Leopard

The extraordinary compact area of the Ngorongoro Crater allows you to spot the Big Five animals all year round. A resident population of endangered Black Rhino is one of the most highly sought-after sightings on the crater floor. The opportunity to encounter rare species has greatly impacted tourism in the area. 

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The crater floor is also home to old elephant bulls that boast some of Africa’s largest tusks. The giant creatures are often found flaunting their ivory tusks near the Lerai Forest. Breeding herds are spotted less frequently than the bulls and only pass through the crater occasionally.  

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A common sighting is large herds of buffalo, particularly in the dry season as they roam the grasslands in search of water. On the other hand, Leopards are far more difficult to find and tend to shy away from crowds of people. 

Baby-leopard-on-a-tree
Baby leopard on a tree

As one of the most densely populated areas of the lion in Africa, these predators are often spotted in the Ngorongoro Crater and are fairly comfortable around safari vehicles. 

More Great Wildlife to See 

With a variety of other animals ranging from hyena, jackal and cheetah, to roaming herds of wildebeest, zebra, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle – a safari in this area will always be action-packed. 

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The water-dense areas of the Crater make for exciting wildlife sightings too. The Ngoitokitok Springs and Gorigor Swamp, for example, are renowned for their pods of hippos.

Hippos-in-water

The only animals you might want to scratch off your checklist are giraffes, impalas and crocodiles. While you may encounter these animals in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, they are absent from the Crater.

Jackal

Birds and Lake Magadi

Over 500 bird species are found within the Ngorongoro highlands and Crater. In the middle of the crater is Lake Magadi, a shallow soda (sodium carbonate) lake that is home to large flocks of flamingos. While migratory birds make the Crater their seasonal home from November till April, the Crater’s highland forests and grasslands have an abundance of resident birds. 

Common sightings include the Black kite, black-winged lapwing, Hildebrandt’s spurfowl, Kenya rufous sparrow and lesser flamingo. 

Weather in the Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area has a temperate climate. A noticeable temperature drop takes place on the Crater’s rim as the altitude increases, so it’s important to prepare for early morning and late evening safaris accordingly. 

The greatest climate change is the vast contrast between the dry and wet seasons of the Crater.

Dry season

June-October: Average afternoon temperatures of around 19°C (66°F) on the crater floor. The morning and evenings are cold, especially on the crater rim where it can even freeze. 

*January-February: While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact months, there is usually a dry spell between the short and long rains during this time. 

Wet Season

November-May: Usually warmer than the dry season with average afternoon temperatures around 23°C (73°F) on the crater floor. Mornings and evenings on the crater rim warm up slightly too with an average of 6°C (43°F).

The wet season has two types of rainy periods: 

Short rains (November-December): This type of rainfall occurs in short bursts, usually as afternoon showers that rarely affect safaris. 

Long rains (March-May): This marks the highest rainfall season, but it seldom rains throughout the whole day. This period may bring the occasional cold front. 

Best Time to Visit the Ngorongoro Crater

Although June-October is considered the best time to visit Ngorongoro Crater, you’ll get a greener landscape and lesser crowds during wetter months of November till May.

Fortunately, the enclosed nature of the Crater makes wildlife viewings spectacular all year round. The general high season of the Ngorongoro Crater takes place for most of the year from July until March. While the dry season is generally regarded as the best time to visit the Ngorongoro Crater, each season comes with its pros and cons: 

Dry season (June-October): Generally considered the best time of year to visit the Ngorongoro Crater. The grass is shorter, which makes wildlife easier to spot. The predictable weather is also ideal for safaris. Another benefit to consider is a smaller malaria risk with fewer mosquitos during this time of year. 

The downside of this season is undoubtedly the large crowds. The magical wildlife experience of the Ngorongoro Crater can be tainted by the reality of the sheer number of tourists and safari vehicles in the area. 

Wet season (November-May): The grass is longer during the wet season, which could make it more difficult to spot animals. Greater malaria precautions should also be taken during this time. 

Spectacular scenery is a major perk of the wet season. The rains transform the Crater into a lush, green landscape. This is also the peak season for birdwatching as migratory birds make the Crater their seasonal home. Higher water levels at Lake Magadi also draw more flamingos to the area.

Avoiding the overwhelming peak season crowds is another major bonus, resulting in off-season rates at certain lodges.

Safaris are not likely to be impacted by the short rainy season and can be timed around afternoon showers. The long rainy season, however, could have a greater impact on your trip.

Accommodation Options: Where to Stay in the Ngorongoro Crater

The best places to stay near the Ngorongoro Crater depend on your budget, which ultimately impacts your accessibility to the Crater and the cost of the entire safari experience. There are two things two consider before you book your accommodation:

Most Convenient Crater Access and Best Views 

For the ultimate Ngorongoro Crater experience, the best place to stay is on the Crater rim. Various lodges have been built on the rim that offers spectacular views and the easiest access to the Crater. 

This will be the most expensive option, but there is a collection of lodges and camps with views of the Crater floor to choose from to suit your budget best. Some of these include the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Ngorongoro Crater Serena Lodge, Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge and the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge

There are also lodges and camps in the rim valley of the Crater that do not necessarily overlook the grassland floor but also offer easy access to the Crater. The Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp, for example, provides unrivalled road access into the crater. 

Budget-Friendly Options

For budget-friendly accommodation, it’s a good option to stay in the Rift Valley Escarpment – an area referred to as Karatu. Only 20 km outside of the Crater, Karatu is set against the backdrop of scenic coffee plantations. The short, easy trip to the Crater from here could be worth the money saved.

How to Get to the Ngorongoro Crater

In most cases, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the starting point of larger Northern Tanzania safari packages. There are several options for travellers making their way to the Crater specifically. 

Fly to Arusha: A daily flight can be taken in a light aircraft to the town of Arusha from Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) or other airstrips. It can then be organised that a guide / the lodge picks you up for the 3-4 hour drive to the Crater, depending on where you have booked to stay. 

Fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO): This is a 46km/29mi trip from Arusha, where you can be picked up by a driver.

Fly to Manyara: The Manyara airstrip is an hour away from the Crater. Again, it can be organised that a guide / the lodge picks you up depending on where you have booked to stay.

Fly to the Serengeti first: Some tourists choose to fly to the Serengeti first and then slowly drive their way down to the Crater as part of a larger safari trip.

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