From the rim, 2,000 feet above the crater floor, you can look down into this vast hole in the earth and see teeny little specks moving about. Wildebeest. Zebra. Even the elephants look like tiny toys.
NgoroNgoro Crater is a place of superlatives: the world’s largest unflooded and unbroken crater, containing perhaps the world’s most impressive concentration of animals. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the crater is home to some 25,000 large mammals — almost all of the major animals to be found in East Africa, with the exception of impalas, topis, oribis, giraffes, and crocodiles.
In Your Bucket Because…
- NgoroNgoro contains the biggest concentration of wild African animals in the world.
- There is no where else like it. Period.
- Good for wildlife lovers, photographers, adventurous families with animal-loving kids (and which kids aren’t?). Not cheap.
To get there requires a bone-ratting descent from rim to valley floor in a stripped-down four-wheel-drive Landrover. The ride shows that this particular vehicle, at least, may be due for a check of its suspension system. And it makes it clear why four-wheel drive vehicles are the only ones allowed down. We cling to our seats, bouncing as the van navigates the rutted road that snakes down the 2000-foot Crater wall (think top-to-bottom distance at a major American ski area; that’s the elevation change).
We are clearly descending into another layer of the world, and another world it is.
No one really knows the origin of the word Ngorongoro. A a quick etymology check turns up a handful of competing guesses, perhaps a reference to the people who once lived here, or an allusion the shape of the crater, which resembles a traditional bowl. The answer is obscured in the fog of oral history.
So we turn to geology to tell us what this place is: A volcano, formerly the size of Kilimanjaro, whose caldera collapsed some two to three million year ago, forming what is today the largest unbroken caldera in the world. With plentiful water, abundant grass, and enough space, the approximately 10 to 12-mile diameter crater forms a sort of natural holding pen, although some animals do migrate up and down the crater walls.
Visiting the Crater
Traditionally, visitors have stayed at one of the crater rim lodges. But in recent years, a time limit (currently six hours) has been put on “bottom time” (to borrow a Scuba diving term) in the crater. So some tour companies do the crater as a day-stop, between coming from somewhere else and heading on, often to the Serengeti for lodging and game viewing elsewhere.
After descending to the bottom, vehicles fan out over a network of rutted dirt trails. Up to 500 cars a day come into the crater during the high season, which sounds like a lot, but they are spread out over the course of the day, and also geographically over the 100 square miles of the crater floor. The problem is that when a guide sights, say, a lion, or an elephant, he often radios word to tour company partners, who then hurry over for the sighting. If the sighting is of one of the “big five”– lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros — crowds get even thicker as more and more guides spot the commotion and check out what there is to see. You can’t blame anyone, really: Not the tourists, who have paid a premium fee for this premium experience, not the drivers and guides, who know their tips will be based on their clients having snapped their once-in-a-lifetime photographs.
After all, I thought, jostling for position to photograph a lion that was actually rubbing against one of the van’s tires — “Heads and arms inside the van, everyone!” barked the guide) — I wanted those pictures, too.
A few interesting tidbits from our guide:
- Leopards mostly live on the rim, so you’re unlikely to see one in the crater.
- Most of the elephants in the crater are bulls; the females live on the rim, necessitating a fairly significant climbing expedition during the mating season.
- Up to about 20 percent of the wildebeestes join the massive migrations through nearby Serengeti and Masai Mara.
- Because of plentiful food, NgoroNgoro lions are larger than average, and well able to fend off incursions by outsiders. As a result, the lions here are fairly inbred, with some genetic anomalies.
- Only four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed to enter the Crater. If you have your own vehicle, you must take a guide with you.
- Regulations have varied in recent years regarding permits and how long visitors were allowed to spend in the crater, which is open for touring from 6 a.m. to 7 p,.m. (currently, visitors are limited to six hours). Additionally between 2006 and 2007, per vehicle entry prices were raised from $10 US to $200 US (yes, a 20-fold increase) in the hope of encouraging car-sharing to reduce traffic congestion. Fees are expected to rise again.
- Early morning is the best time to see and photograph animals because they are more active in the morning (and early evening), because the light is better for photography, and because the crowds are thinner at the crack of dawn.