Formed by the same immense geological upheavals as the Great Rift Valley, Ngorongoro was once a mountain as high as Kilimanjaro. About 3 million years ago, it blew itself to bits, covering the Serengeti in ash while the crater floor sank into the mountain. Today the Ngorongoro is the world’s largest complete volcanic caldera. The crater floor is one of the most densely crowded game areas in the world, home to an estimate 30 000 animals. Its high walls contain an entire microcosmic ecosystem, the most beautiful and surreal on earth, complete with lakes, forests and plains - and in there life hundreds of species of wildlife. It is bounded by Lake Eysai in the southwest and the Gol Mountains in the north. Roughly in the centre is the Olbalal Swamp and the arid Olduvai Gorge.
Towering euphorbias cling to the Crater walls and on the floor, fever and fig tree forests provide shade for the awe-inspiring array of wildlife flanked by the lone lean Maasai, resplendent in beads and furled in scarlet shuka robes. Fresh springs and large soda lake quench the thirst of all the inhabitants. Black rhino are protected within its rim, giant tusked elephants wander the forests, black-manned lions stalk the grassland and flamingoes crowd the soda lakes.
Ngorongoro is a Maasai word who are the traditional owners of the area and about 12 000 lived in the crater in 1951 when the area was first incorporated into the Serengeti National Park. Today with the growing population of people, cattle and goats and water shortages in the area, some 40 000 Maasai are claiming rights over the crater.
There is no giraffe, topi or impala in the crater as they find it too difficult to negotiate the cliffs and there is insufficient grazing for large herds of antelope. Wildebeest, zebra and buffalo is easy to spot across the open plain, while the resident lions have taken to scavenging hyena kills. In the southwestern corner, Lake Magadi is a large, shallow lake, home to plenty flamingos and hippo and other water birds which can also be seen in the central Mandusi Swamps. The Lerai Forest in the south, is the best place to see elephant, although bizarrely, only bull elephants descend in the dense forests on the rim.
Probable the best opportunity to see the decorative Maasai people is in the Olduvai Gorge where you will also find many giraffe and antelope that was absent from the crater floor. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is an extensive highland area along the eastern arm of the Rift Valley, with the world-renowned Ngorongoro Crater as its focal point. Not a national park in the strict sense of the word, the NCA was established to conserve wildlife and other natural resources, as well as to safeguard the interests of indigenous people and promote tourism. Thus, guests on safari have the unique experience of seeing Maasai herdsmen whose cattle graze side by side with the tremendous variety of wildlife found in the area.
Unmatched for its natural variety, there are few places on earth where such a tremendous diversity of landscapes exist inside a region this size. Apart from its wildlife riches, the NCA is also of great archaeological importance, with the remains of some of mankind’s earliest ancestors discovered in the area. The largest intact caldera in the world, the Ngorongoro Crater shelters one of the most beautiful wildlife havens anywhere. A permanent population of more than 30 000 animals inhabit a mere 260 km² (100 square miles) in the 600 m (2 000 ft) deep crater, making this one of the few places in Africa where guests stand a great chance of seeing the entire Big Five in the course of a single game drive.
The walls surrounding the Ngorongoro Crater are some 600 metres high and contain a veritable Eden. Over 30 000 animals live in this eco-system which contains areas of swampland, open savannah plains, Fever tree forests and a lake. Among the animals in the Crater are some 70 elephants, hippo, wildebeest, buffalo and the rare Black rhino. Ngorongoro also boasts the highest concentration of predators in Africa. One hundred black-maned lions, skittish cheetah and leopards stalk the Crater floor.
Another sight which delights visitors to the area are the traditional Maasai tribesmen, wearing their traditional red blankets, who can often be seen herding cattle into the Crater. Maasai tribes were relocated to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area following conflicts in the Serengeti National park in the mid-1900s. Land in the conservation area is multi-use, it is unique in Tanzania as the only conservation area providing protection status for wildlife whilst allowing human habitation. As such land use is controlled to prevent negative effects on the wildlife population, for example cultivation is prohibited at all but subsistence levels.
The Great Migration usually passes through the Ngorongoro Crater Conservancy in a southerly direction in June, while it moves North back through the area in December. The Migration movement does change seasonally depending on the rains, but the migration pattern causes the animals to traverse most of the plains in search of food.