In search of the Big Five: Ngorongoro Crater

What I’ve learnt from travelling through Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania is there’s no such thing as saying ‘I’ve done safari once, there’s no need to do it again’. The natural habitats and scenery vary massively here – which is why I’m so glad that we booked our trip to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

If you haven’t heard of the Ngorongoro Crater, it was formed when a volcano exploded and collapsed 3 million years ago. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is now the largest unbroken caldera of its kind in the world. The drive to the Conservation Area gates involves a steep ascent up the the rim which stands 610 metres above the crater floor. Your safari guide will probably encourage you to stop and jump out a few times – the photo opportunities across the Great Rift Valley are out of this world.

Ngorongoro Crater

Once you’re at the gates, this is the perfect opportunity to grab a quick coffee before you descend into the crater. Because after that, it’s probably a five or six-hour drive in this great Jurassic Park-like eco-system in search of the Big Five.

I’m not the first person to use the Jurassic Park simile. I’ve heard many people and writers use this comparison and it’s pretty accurate. The edges are covered in a carpet of lush forest, and when you start your descent into the crater, you see a vast expanse of open savannah, bushland, streams and woodland. The caldera stretches for a whopping 20 km and you do kind of imagine a great T-Rex foot stepping in front of you.

Ngorongoro Crater

It’s not long before you spot signs of life but thankfully not of the prehistoric kind. You’re likely to spot several baboons before you’ve even got to the crater rim and the forest here is also the best place to spot leopards, elephants, reedbuck and buffalos, as well as cheetahs, wild dogs and other cats.

As we followed the steep dirt tracks, we spotted openings in the bush where buffalo have created their own highway. As you look across this vast ecosystem from the crater edge, that’s when you realise just how concentrated the wildlife is here. Thousands of animals are dotted across the terrain like tiny ants and Maasai tribesmen herd their cattle right in the midst of this great wildlife spectacle.

Ngorongoro Crater

It’s at this point we can’t help but ask our safari guide Godfrey, how safe it is for pastoralists to walk on land inhabited by Africa’s most dangerous predators. He tells us it’s been their way of life for hundreds of years and the children are brought up to be fearless of nature’s consequences. The inevitable attack by a predator however, will occasionally happen.

After a little research, I discover the Ngorongoro Crater has been inhabited by ‘hominid species’ for 3 million years and the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority is the only site where humans live in harmony with such a high concentration of animals. I hold onto the hope that the lions here save their hunting for the night time, when pastoralists have left the crater to go back to their villages.

Ngorongoro Crater

Within minutes, we spot elephants and what seem like hundreds upon hundreds of zebra, impalas, gazelles, waterbuck, buffalos and wildebeest.

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

You can’t go off-track and the open style of safari vehicles are not allowed in the crater. But many of the jeeps here have a pop up roof, so you can stand up and enjoy the ride.

Ngorongoro Crater

One of our first stops is the hippo pond and admittedly, it is a bit of a bun fight in between other safari vehicles to get the best view. But don’t let this put you off – the vehicles soon disperse when you return to the track and once you get a good spot, it’s fascinating to watch these mud-loving beasts. We love seeing them one more time after our Zambia safari.

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Further into the drive, we come across many more – including a couple who Godfrey explained were carrying out mating behaviour.

Spot the spare wheel…

Ngorongoro Crater

As we drive off across the savannah, the safari vehicles soon disperse. I’ve definitely been bitten by the safari bug since being in Africa and soon, that tingle of excitement comes rushing back. As our guide, Godfrey, keeps his eyes peeled for wildlife, we don’t know what we’ll see next…

Soon, we are crossing the paths of ostriches….

Ngorongoro Crater

pumbas (warthogs to you and me)…

Ngorongoro Crater

and secretary birds (we first saw these lovely long legged creatures at Nimali)

Ngorongoro Crater

Come lunch time, there’s a picnic spot by a lagoon that’s very picturesque and offers a great opportunity to stretch the legs. Tip – watch out for the swooping birds who might grab your lunch.

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Then once you’ve refuelled, it’s off again to explore the vast plains…

Ngorongoro Crater

You won’t find giraffes in the Ngorongoro Crater, however out of The Big Five, we still haven’t spotted a lion, the tree climbing leopard or endangered black rhino. So after lunch, Godfrey and our driver dedicate a long chunk of time trying to spot these elusive creatures.

Ngorongoro Crater

Very sadly, it’s not our day to spot the rhinos or leopards, but we do unexpectedly spot a civet in the long grass (which Godfrey says is rare in the Ngorongoro Crater) and some hyenas lying menacingly by a pond, looking like they are ready for their next kill.

Like I say, game drives can throw up all sorts of surprises.

Ngorongoro Crater

And as it happens, we haven’t seen our last cats in Africa. In the distance, we see a large male lion in the long grass, his impressive mane visible from afar.

We then see a lioness not long later and Godfrey’s commentary as we watch in awe is fascinating. Although there are buffalo close by, it is unlikely the lioness will go in for the kill. If it’s the middle of the day and the buffalos know the predator is there, it’s unlikely they’ll risk expending their energy.

So we can’t help but wonder whether another male lion will take an opportunistic pounce, when we see him lurking beside a river.

Ngorongoro Crater

It turns out we aren’t going to see a kill – and to be honest, I’m not sure how my nerves would cope seeing one – but as we ascend the crater wall once again, we are amazed at how much wildlife we’ve seen in this single area.

The Ngrorongoro Crater is enthralling, teeming with life and utterly unique. This is one safari setting that does have a Steven Spielberg quality about it. And yes, I’d jump at the chance to explore it all over again.

Ngorongoro Crater