Ngorongoro Crater: the cradle of life

The steep slopes of an ancient, extinct volcano in northern Tanzania, covered with a tangle of wild plants betray little of what lies inside the crater walls. The silence of the thin air at about 5400ft (1800m) above sea level is only broken by the rustle of leaves as a breeze through the warm air rises from the surrounding plains and over the edge into the watery blue African sky.

On the crest of the crater the landscape changes dramatically. 1800ft (600m) below you can see the giant, pastel-colored, flat bowl which forms the crater floor. At first it is difficult to get used to the staggering dimensions of the crater. The only landmarks are the thin lines of the rivers that make their way to the crater Lake. This is the Ngorongoro crater, also known as "the garden of eden" or "the cradle of life".

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Ngorongoro crater (Photo by William Warby)

The crater floor is dotted dark, only when the spots in these ever changing formations begin to move, it is clear what they really are - thousands of grazing wildebeest and zebras. In the shallow crater lake you can see huge flocks of flamingos.

One of the largest concentrations of wildlife in Africa can be observed here on the 100mi² (260km²) crater floor. The list of species occurring in the Ngorongoro Crater is huge. One can find 50 different species of large mammals, including lions, elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, eland, impala, baboons, warthogs and hyenas. Also there are more than 200 species of birds, including ostriches, ducks and flamingos. In fact, the crater is a smaller version of the natural life in East Africa, surrounded by the 1800ft (600m) high crater walls. With such a diverse amount of animals in the relatively small space of this beautiful crater, with its lush green grasses and stunning blue water, it's easy to see where the Garden of Eden name came from!

wildebeest and zebra herd
Wildebeest and zebra herd

The crater

This natural Noah's Ark is a fortunate geological accident. The Ngorongoro is lying on a fault line in the African crust, running from Mozambique to Syria. Over millions of years at several times the pressure in this fracture got to high and molten rock erupted from the volcano’s in East Africa The Ngorongoro is one of these volcanoes. He used to be cone-shaped and about twice as high as it is today. But when he erupted some 2.5 million years ago, all of the molten rock under his cone was vomited out, sinking the top of the cone into the hole thus created. The only thing still left is a Round Table Hill in the northwestern part of the crater.

A volcanic crater created by a volcanic explosion or collapse like this is called a caldera. The roughly circular Ngorongoro Crater is the sixth largest caldera in the world with a diameter of about 11mi (18km). The African name of the crater has little to do with volcano science: Ngorongoro simply means "big hole".

ngorongoro crater
Ngorongoro crater (Photo by Noyoudont)

In 1959 people constructed a steep, bumpy road that leads the crater floor over a distance of no more than 1,8mi (3km). Only cars with four-wheel are allowed to drive in the crater.

The cradle of wildlife

Unlike the animals in the Serengeti Plain in the west, who in search of water and fresh grass migrate every year, most animals stay year-round in the crater, where even in the dry season water is available. Two rivers-the Munge and Lonyokie - are feeding a number of swamps and the shallow Lake Magadi.

With no outlet, the lake has a high salt content due to centuries of evaporation. This gives the water a deep blue color. Only some algae and crustaceans such as brine shrimp can live in this water. They are the food of millions of flamingos. Two sorts of flamingos live here: the common flamingo, which filters crustaceans from the water at the shore with his beak, and the dwarf flamingo that filters algae from deeper water. Adjacent marshes offer mud pools where hippos can wallow in, but they offer also pools for elephants and black rhinos. These elephants are accompanied by little birds, which feed on parasites on their leathery skin.

ngorongoro flamingos
Flamingos in Lake Magadi (Photo by Vincenzo Gianferrari Pini)

After the long rainy season from December to April or May, the grassy plains of the crater are colored emerald green and dotted with pink, yellow, blue and white flowers that thrive in the fertile volcanic soil. During the dry season, from May to November, the crater gradually changes color from green to yellow and then to yellow and brown.

Safari

Ngorongoro is the only place in the world where you have a very high chance to see the “Big 5” in one day. The "Big 5" refers to the Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant and Cape Buffalo. Why not the hippo, gorilla or giraffe you may ask? Are they not large as well? Well, the term "big five" was actually coined by big game hunters. It refers to the difficulty in bagging these large animals, mostly due to their ferocity when cornered and shot at.

Apart from these potentially dangerous animals, there are about 50.000 other wild animals living in the crater. If you are considering a safari holiday this is the place to be. There are several great lodges near the crater who organize professional safaris.

lions in ngorongoro crater
Lions in the Ngorongoro crater (Photo by Mbz1)