Tripping on the Ngorongoro

A violent volcanic eruption that blows the top of Mount Ngorongoro, one of the highest freestanding mountains in Africa. Is that dramatic enough?

Hippo pool at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania


A violent volcanic eruption that blows the top of Mount Ngorongoro, one of the highest freestanding mountains in Africa. Is that dramatic enough?

How the Ngorongoro Area was formed:

The boring technical stuff first:
The Ngorongoro Crater finds itself on the coming together of two continental plates along what is called the Great Rift Valley. This fault in the earth extends from the Dead Sea in Israel to Botswana & Zambia where it ends some 6400 kms later. It is the volcanic action of this fault that caused Mt Ngorongoro to erupt and spew lava onto the Serengeti Plains. The Ngorongoro Crater is thought to have formed about 2.5 million years ago from a large active volcano whose cone collapsed inward after a major eruption, leaving the present vast, unbroken caldera (6th largest in the world) as its chief remnant.

These plains are mostly in the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation area

Treeless Serengeti Plains

Why are the Serengeti Plains treeless?

Once the lava had cooled back into rock, the whole of the Serengeti Plains became a huge slab of rock. Over eons, volcanic ash, dust and sand settled over this rock, grass and small bushes started growing. To the soil covering this rock is about 15cm deep. Trees cannot grow as they are unable to penetrate the rock. This is why the Serengeti Plains are almost treeless.

Crucial to our understanding of this area is that the Serengeti Plains are now mostly part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and NOT in the Serengeti National Park. How did this happen?

Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) – the experiment:

The Serengeti National Park was declared in 1951 by the British and by 1959, the experiment that is The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) was started. It was an attempt to conserve and promote the life and interests of the Maasai who are inhabitants of the area. This is a pioneer experiment which attempted to reconcile the interests of wildlife,

Maasai pastoralists and conservation in a natural traditional setting. Land within the area is multi-use, providing protection status for wildlife while also permitting human habitation. Its uniqueness lays in the fact that the NCA is where man, livestock and wild animals live in peace: For the most part they have succeeded!

Maasai cattle can sometimes be seen grazing alongside zebras on Ngorongoro’s grassland. Most of the famous Serengeti Plains now fall in the NCA.

Bucket list, for sure.

How deep and how wide. See for yourself.











How big is the Ngorongoro Crater?

The Crater itself is one of the seven natural wonders of Africa. It is 16 to19 kms in diameter, with walls are up to 600m high. In this extinct volcano is the densest known population of lions, numbering 62. Higher up, in the rainforests of the crater rim, are leopards, about 30 large elephants, mountain reedbuck and more than 4,000 buffalos, spotted hyenas, jackals, rare wild dogs, cheetahs, and other cat species. All this in an area less than 260 square kms! Beat that!

One of the funniest and most poignant sights I had while visiting the crater was a pick-up truck (bakkie) that carried about 6 guys in orange overalls, bouncing along the crater floor. The purpose of this you may well ask? They are part of a team that permanently follows the Black Rhinos and is responsible for their protection, 24/7.

The crater is home to a small forest, The Lerai Forest, a shallow soda lake called Lake Magadi (home to huge flocks of flamingos, both greater and lesser), the Gorigor Swamp and the Ngoitokitok Springs where pods of hippo are to be found. It was quite dry when I was there and the hippos were so tightly packed in the little remaining deep water they looked like a very bumpy raft. (For this reason, I am in favour of calling a “collection” of hippos a raft)

A little shade cubs?











Shade anyone?

The north of the Crater is, on the whole, much drier and consists of the open grasslands which characterises the Crater floor; this is where the majority of the resident game resides. On a single game drive, I managed to see three prides of lions (jealousy is not a pretty thing). How many areas this size in Africa can boast the same? The Crater’s lion population, on the whole, show a complete disregard of vehicles; they will hunt within yards of a vehicle, and when exhausted even seek shade beside them.

Sode Lakes are the ideal feeding ground for flamingos

Flamingos and more in the Ngorongoro Crater

Wilderness or Zoo?

Safaris in the crater are rewarding in that the abundance and variety of wildlife seen in such a small space is unparalleled. You however have to contend with “Bakkies” with orange overalls flying past, fellow gawkers in many other safaris vehicles making it feel like Grand Central Zoo rather than a true wilderness experience (please see one of my future blogs on Wilderness Camping in the Serengeti for a more relaxed safari).

Migration in the Ngorongoro

Wildebeest herds spread over the Serengeti Plains in the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation area

The Ngorongoro Migration

While the Ngorongoro Crater is the centre piece of the NCA, the plains below are the dessert. The legendary annual wildebeest and zebra migration also passes through Ngorongoro, when over 2 million ungulates (big word I know) move south into the area in December then move out heading north in June. The ungulates (just boasting that I know a big word) 1.7 million wildebeest, 260,000 zebra, and 470,000 gazelles.

Herds of Wildebeest in January

Lake Ndutu

Not all is about the ungulates. The Lake Ndutu area to the west has significant cheetah and lion populations. Over 500 species of bird have been recorded within the NCA.

Empakai Crater, part of the Ngorongoro Conservation area

Besides Ngorongoro, there are two other craters in the area: the Olmoti and Empakai Craters. These two are located in remote and pristine places, where you can enjoy tranquil walks, cultural experiences and game viewing, against a backdrop of spectacular vistas. Among NCA’s many other treasures, a most intriguing one is the Olduvai Gorge, towards the border with Serengeti.

This where they dug up Lucy.










Lucy, Homo-habilis

The Olduvai Gorge archaeological site, widely regarded as the cradle of mankind and the most important prehistoric site in the world. It is at Olduvai where remains of Zinjanthropus, the world’s first humans, were discovered by Dr Louis and Mary Leakey over 50 years ago. The earliest known specimens of the human genus, Homo-habilis, as well as early hominids such as Paranthropus boisei have also been found there.

Fun Facts:

60% of all tourists to Tanzania visit the Ngorongoro area
No impala or giraffe in the crater.

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