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Ngorongoro Crater – a Guide

Maybe it was Mark Twain who said that there were lies, damned lies and statistics. This seems to be the case concerning statistics for Ngorongoro Crater. As I checked my figures for accuracy for this article I could find no two sources that agree. So I will endeavour to keep statistics to a minimum.

This aside, Ngorongoro Crater is a true marvel and, I believe, unique in Africa; it is located between the Lake Manyara National Park and the Serengeti. It was formed from an ancient volcano that erupted and then collapsed into the craters we see today. Craters of this type are called calderas, and Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest (unbroken) caldera. It is thought that this volcano, before it erupted and collapsed, stood taller than its close neighbour Mount Kilimanjaro.

The crater floor is spread across 100 square miles (259km²) and is home to many thousands of animals. Ngorongoro Crater enjoys a year-round water supply and so nearly all animals remain here as permanent residents. It has the densest population of game in the whole of Africa, and it is possible to see the “Big Five” (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros) in one day. It is often referred to as a mini-Serengeti, as it shares many of the habitats of this huge neighbour. Although rich with game, the crater has no giraffe, impala or topi. There are only a small number of tall acacia trees, which lack of grazing may explain the absence of the giraffe; but the absence of impala and topi is a mystery, especially as they are present in large numbers in the nearby Serengeti.

There are five habitats on the crater floor, which as mentioned have echoes of the habitats of the Serengeti. In the south-west is the Lerai Forest, which gets its name from the tall yellow-barked acacia. This forest is home to baboons and vervet monkeys. There is also a small population of giant tusker bull elephants. These elephants are the biggest you will see in Tanzania. There are no breeding herds of elephants here; in fact there are no female elephants in the crater. If you are lucky you may also catch a glimpse of the shy leopard lying along the branches of the acacia trees in this forest.

The best time to visit this forest is early in the morning. We recommend a 06:30 start, if you are up to it, to be amongst the first into the crater. The animals are at their most active in the morning and an early start will be well rewarded. The Ngorongoro crater has been likened to a giant deep-freeze in the early morning, so wrap up warm for this early start.

Just off-centre is Lake Magadi. This is a soda lake and home to thousands of (migratory) flamingoes. The central region is an area of short grass plains which are home to wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle.

In the south-eastern and the north-western areas of the crater floor are seasonal swamps where hippo and many water birds abound.

The eastern section has the longer grasses, where buffalo are present. These buffalo have dramatically increased over the past few decades. This is a direct result of humans leaving the crater and it reverting to its natural state. The grasses in this section are particularly suited to the buffalo.

There are over 100 bird species found here which are not present in the nearby Serengeti. The crater is also home to one of Tanzania’s last herds of black rhino. The other herd is found in the Serengeti. You are more likely to see the black rhino here in this small area than in the vast Serengeti. There are just 25 rhino here but we have been told that numbers are increasing slowly.

Of the carnivores, Ngorongoro Crater boasts lion, cheetah, hyena, serval, ratel, jackal and bat-eared fox. Cheetah have thrived here; especially over the past few years, because of the increase of buffalo and the decrease in wildebeest. The regeneration of this area has been particularly favourable to the cheetah.

From 2006 the park fees will be doubled for this destination and also for the Serengeti and the Kilimanjaro National Park. Half-day safaris will be enforced for Ngorongoro Crater. This will result in most safari companies taking two half-day safaris to visit Ngorongoro Crater. We would recommend you take one morning safari and start as early as possible. All the lodges in this area are perched high on the rim of the crater. They make an ideal spot for relaxing and enjoying the view of the crater far below you.

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