Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania: The Complete Guide

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
••• Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Ariadne Van Zandbergen/ Getty Images 

Located in Tanzania’s northern Crater Highlands, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is part of the Serengeti ecosystem and one of the country’s most famous safari destinations. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it covers 8,292 square kilometres of magnificent grass plains, acacia woodlands and crater-filled highlands. It is named after the world’s largest intact and unfilled caldera, the Ngorongoro Crater, and provides a home for Maasai pastoralists who live in relative harmony alongside the region’s abundant wildlife.

 

Ngorongoro's History

The area now known as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has been occupied by hominid species for approximately three million years - an astonishing fact proven by fossil evidence found at Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli. Around the time that our ancient ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, was leaving footprints that would become one of the most important anthropological discoveries in history, the Ngorongoro Crater was formed by a major volcanic eruption. 

For the past 2,000 years, the area has been the province of pastoralist tribes, including the Mbulu, the Datooga and most recently, the Maasai. The first Europeans arrived in 1892, and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was established as a sanctuary for wildlife in 1976. Three years later, the area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its importance as the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while allowing human cohabitation.

 

A Wildlife Haven

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, including Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles, wildebeest, zebra and large herds of buffalo. The Ngorongoro Crater alone sustains around 25,000 large game animals, all of whom live at close quarters in the natural enclosure of the caldera.

This density of wildlife makes the crater the best place in Tanzania to see the Big Five. It also supports the only viable population of black rhino left in the country, while its tusker elephants are some of the largest on the African continent. 

Every year, the grass plains around the crater play host to the herds of the Great Migration, usually numbering close to two million wildebeest, zebra and other antelope. This sudden abundance of prey attracts many different predators, including lion, cheetah, hyena and the endangered African wild dog. The crater’s Lerai Forest is a sun-dappled thicket of yellow-barked acacias, which provide the perfect habitat for the elusive leopard. 

Amazing Birdlife

Around 500 bird species have been recorded in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, of which 400 can be found in the crater itself. The region’s dense acacia woodland is home to the world’s largest known population of the near threatened Fischer’s lovebird, while the Gorigor Swamp is an important habitat for aquatic species like the whiskered tern and African rail. Many of the birds found in the conservation area are unique to Tanzania or East Africa, including endemics and near-endemics such as the Jackson’s widowbird, the Hartlaub’s turaco and the rufous-tailed weaver.

All seven East African vulture species are represented here, while Lake Magadi, Lake Ndutu and the Empakai Crater lake host vast flocks of lesser and greater flamingo. 

What to Do

Ngorongoro Crater is the conservation area’s biggest drawcard. Covering an area of approximately 260 square miles, its spectacular scenery and prolific wildlife make it the ultimate destination for game-viewing safaris. There are plenty of opportunities to see animals outside the crater itself, too. In the Crater Highlands, the smaller calderas of Olmoti and Empakai offer the chance to embark on a walking safari, hiking adventure or climbing expedition. The former is known for its waterfalls, and the latter for its flamingo-filled soda lake. 

From December to March, the Ngorongoro grasslands welcome the herds of the Great Migration.

Wildebeest and zebra arrive by the thousands to graze and give birth, and big cat sightings are common. Many tour operators and lodges offer dedicated migration safaris at this time of year. 

Ngorongoro Conservation Area also has its fair share of human interest activities. A visit to a Maasai cultural village is a must, as is a trip to Olduvai Gorge. Here, one can follow the story of world-famous archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who made several discoveries in the immediate area that changed our understanding of human evolution. These included the first known fossil evidence of Homo habilis, and a set of fossilized footprints that proved hominid species were already walking on two legs some 3.7 million years ago. Casts of the footprints can be seen at the Olduvai Gorge Museum. 

Where to Stay

There is a wide choice of accommodation options in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, ranging from luxury lodges on the rim of the crater itself to budget-conscious tented camps. For ultimate decadence, consider a stay at the iconic andBeyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, where 30 sumptuous suites boast Versailles-inspired decor and breathtaking crater views. In-room massages, private butler service and banquets on the crater floor are all part of the experience. For a more affordable option on the crater rim, try 75-room Ngorongoro Serena Lodge

Elsewhere, top choices include The Highlands and Ndutu Safari Lodge. The former is nestled on the slopes of Olmoti volcano, and features unique perspex and canvas dome suites complete with wood-burning stoves and floor-to-ceiling bay windows. The latter is a comfortable 3-star option located at the head of Olduvai Gorge with 34 stone cottages and a central lounge and dining room. Each cottage has a private verandah facing Lake Ndutu, famous for its flamingos. 

Weather & Health

Ngorongoro Conservation Area enjoys a subtropical climate with the winter dry season lasting from June to August, and the summer rainy season lasting from November to April. There is no bad time to travel, as each season has its own unique set of pros and cons. For the best weather and prime game viewing, plan to visit during the dry season. To catch the Great Migration, you’ll need to be travel between December and March; while summer also yields impressive numbers of rare migrant birds. November and April may be rainy, but benefit from fewer crowds and lower prices. Flamingo populations on the region’s soda lakes are greater when the water levels are high. 

Regardless of when you travel, the CDC recommends that all visitors to Tanzania are vaccinated against hepatitis A and typhoid. Cholera, hepatitis B and rabies vaccines may also be necessary. Because of Ngorongoro’s relatively high altitude, malaria is less of a risk here than elsewhere in Tanzania. However, prophylactics are still a good idea, especially if you’re traveling during the rainy season when mosquitoes are more prevalent. 

Getting There

Most visitors to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area pass through the regional gateway of Arusha, which can be easily accessed via domestic transfer from Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam. From Arusha Airport (ARK), it’s a three-hour drive to the conservation area. Usually, your lodge or tour operator will arrange for you to be picked up in Arusha and driven to your final destination.