The Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is the largest unfilled inactive volcanic crater, or caldera, in the world. However, it’s not entirely empty as a wildlife spectacle unfolds in this dramatic setting. At the base of 610m cliff faces elephants trumpet, lions roar, and antelope…eat grass.
The crater is arguably the best place in Tanzania to see the big five. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most mesmerizing natural features in the world.
Humanity has deep ties to the crater as well. The Ngorongoro Conservation area is home to footprints that date back the oldest humanoids walking upright, nearly 3.7 million years ago. The age combined with other finds suggests that Northern Tanzania and the Ngorongoro Conservation area is the birthplace of humankind.
One’s first descent into the crater is filled with a sense of our primordial origin. In the early morning, a fine mist rolls over plains filled with wildlife. To watch the sunrise from within the Crater it is one of life greatest experiences.
A Guide To The Ngorongoro Crater
Ngorongoro Crater Safari Fees
There is no arguing that the crater is one of the most stunning natural features in Africa, a continent well known for its natural beauty. There is no cheap way to visit the crater as park fees are $78 a person per day and just the vehicle permit comes in at $297. We never told anyone Africa was cheap.
Despite the high price, we found the crater to be one of those African experiences you simply cannot miss. It ranks right up there with gorilla trekking in Uganda, or going deep into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
All park fees in Tanzania are now payable at the gate via credit/debit card. They have done away with cash payments and you should be prepared to pay in advance or via credit card. Your tour company will usually handle all of permits/fees while you sit in the car or take photos! For a detailed breakdown of park fees in Tanzania, we found this pdf with current prices.
Ngorongoro Crater Safari Guide
It pays to have a solid guide when going on safari. We had a great guide set up by Perfect Africa, with African Horizons. Francis was our man for two days and his knowledge of the Tanzanian parks was abundant. We haven’t been with many guides more knowledgeable than Francis and he gave us tons of good pointers for the Ngorongoro Crater.
The best advice he gave was telling us we should wake up at 5:30 so that we were the first ones into the Ngorongoro Crater before dawn. Which, meant that in the early morning hours we had the place to entirely to ourselves before the crowds descended upon the famous crater. I’ve never been the first one into a park or for that matter the only person in the park. This gave us the chance to experience the complete tranquility of the crater at sunrise.
We are big time self-drivers and I have driven in almost every national park in Africa. However, we chose to go with a tour operator for the crater due to its extremely high vehicle permit fees and rough corrugated roads within the Serengeti and conservation.
We felt the cost of self-driving the crater vs going with a safari company to not be a significant difference and having Francis drive and inform let me fully enjoy my experience instead of being the driver concentrating on the roads. We parked our vehicle safely with Ma and Bj at the Meserani Snake Park near Arusha and anxiously hopped on a safari to the see the Crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater History
The name Ngorongoro comes from the Maasai tribe. The translation is roughly “gift of life.” There is the Oldupai Gorge situated in the plains area of the conservation. Which is widely regarded as the most important prehistoric site in the world, with even the famous Mary and Louis Leakey having done research in the valley. The footprints and skeletal fragments have been instrumental in understanding early human evolution and development.
The Ngorongoro Conservation, NCA, was formed in 1976. With its deep ties to humanity, cultural heritage is well prized in regards to the conservation.
It is an area of land that has deep significance for both human and animal life and it is the only park in Tanzania where both human settlements, Maasai tribesmen, and animals live together. When driving around the crater rim guests will see pastoralist villages with the Zebra and buffalo walking through herds of cattle.
Quick Ngorongoro Crater Facts
Ngorongoro Crater Safari Location
The Ngorongoro Conservation or crater is located in Tanzania. It is roughly 180km or 110 miles west of Arusha in Northern Tanzania.
Ngorongoro Crater Formation
The crater is believed to have formed around 2.5 million years ago. After experiencing a large scale eruption the peak of the volcano collapsed and formed the crater. Estimates to the volcanoes original size put it at nearly 19,000 feet, or about the same size as Mount Kilimanjaro!
Ngorongoro Crater Size
The crater is 610 meters deep. While the floor covers an area of 260 square kilometers. It’s relatively small and can be seen easily in one day. The crater measures between 10-12 miles wide and the rim sits around 2250 meters in elevation.
The Ngorongoro Crater Safari Animals
The Ngorongoro crater is home to roughly 30,000 animals, making it one of the most densely populated animal populations in the world. It is famed for its healthy black rhino population (of which we saw four total in one morning!). Many large animals call the crater home and you’ll likely spot many within a few hours drive.
Large mammals include Grant’s zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, hyena, elephants, cape buffalo, and lions. The majority of the craters landscape is a large grassy plain, so spotting wildlife is super easy.
However, visitors should not expect to spot any leopards or giraffes, as there are few of the elusive leopard and no giraffe. I would recommend purchasing a good safari camera before your trip to Africa to take some amazing shots of the animals!
Our first hour in the park we were fortunate enough to spot lion cubs playing in the water and two pairs of black rhino. Francis had arranged for our lodge to pack us breakfast.
So, instead of a crowded dining room, we enjoyed our breakfast as the sun rose over the crater’s rim and struck a pair of black rhinos awakening for the day. It was of those rare moments in Africa that ignite our passion for this beautiful part of the world.
The Perfect Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
There are only a handful of lodges that are on the craters rim and we were lucky enough to stay at one of them – the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge. The stone hotel blended well into the crater’s edge while the atmosphere of the lodge was relaxing and intimate.
We enjoyed the main lounge which featured communal fireplaces and great views of the crater with floor to ceiling windows. The focus of the property is obviously the crater. With numerous balconies around the property ensuring a serene spot to relax and enjoy afternoon tea or sundowners.
Rooms in the Serena are small, but have balconies facing out to the crater floor. While the bathrooms and large closet space were more than adequate. I found the beds to be a little too firm for our liking though with rooms too tiny for three people.
Dinner at the Serena Lodge was a wonderful affair in their large dining room, the waitstaff were attentive, and the fresh salads and curries were great fuel for a game drive filled morning. Overall, we found the total package of the lodge tough to beat. Rates start at $155pppn in the low season and go as high as $500 pppn for full board in the high season.
Final Thoughts on our Ngorongoro Crater Safari
It was our first time to the Ngorongoro Crater and although we were only there for one day, it felt like more than enough time to properly see the crater. The beauty beckons us to return. despite the fact that we have seen most of it.
We find that our most enjoyable moments in Africa are times of reflection. At the behest of our fantastic tour guide from African Horizons and tour company Perfect Africa we sat for several hours in the afternoon on the balcony taking in the serenity of the crater.
It was a moment of reflection for me, while Tasha snapped photos of me drinking tea in a chair. The air at the crater’s edge feels mystical and the deep ties to humanity humbles visitors as they look on in awe.
Plan Your Ngorongoro Crater Safari
We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights. Are you going on safari? We always carry our Robert’s Southern Africa Bird Book and a good mammal guide.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun in Africa since you’re near the equator. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling to the around Africa. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the African sun and it can be very hard to find outside major cities.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals. They’re mineral based and usually only cost a few dollars more to help protect our oceans. If you’re not going to swim in the ocean just go with a reliable name brand.
Hiking Shoes or Boots
If you’re wondering what necessities to bring to Africa then sturdy shoes are perhaps the most important thing you will need before you get to Africa.
I cannot stress a good pair of shoes enough because if you land anywhere outside of South Africa a quality pair of hiking shoes will be hard to come by. If you plan to walk around a lot get thick rubber soled shoes as acacia thorns are prone to stab through thin shoes. Cameron learned the hard way one day when he pulled a thorn out of his foot that went straight through his thin rubber sandals.
Lightweight pants that are made from synthetic material are tremendous to have in your pack. It’s what we wear most days when traveling around Africa as they’re comfortable, antibacterial, and protect our legs from mosquitos (malaria).
We recommend neutral colored pants as they’re great at hiding dirt and can match most shirt colors. What’s great is they’re useful beyond Africa as they are a travel staple and we pack a pair everywhere we travel.
I like two pairs, one pair is made by prAna and rolls into capris and the other are convertible pants. For men, prAna makes the Stretch Zion Pant, a tremendous pair of hiking pants for a reasonable price.
I love my buff. I usually wear it for keeping my hair back, but it’s also served its purpose as a scarf and wet rag too. Buffs last for years and aren’t only helpful in Africa. I actually wear mine every day when I’m snowboarding in the mountains. It’s been one of my top travel accessory investments ever!
Grayl Ultralight Water Bottle
It’s not advisable to drink the tap water in most of Africa. We previously used the Lifestraw Go for all those times during our travels when the water is questionable. However, over time we became annoyed with the water bottle as the filter aged and clogged. Plus the bottle leaks when it is on its side.
We now switched to the Grayl Ultralight Purifier. It’s a more simplistic design than the Lifestraw that is more effective and does not leak. Most importantly it is a purifier, not a filter. The Grayl water bottle system purifies water vs. filters which removes viruses and virtually removes all threat of waterborne illnesses.
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