Tanzania is story-book Africa. It’s the place where fascinating people and untamed wildlife live together in the world’s last great wildernesses. Wildebeest stampede across the plains, elephants leave giant footprints along their migration routes, red-cloaked Masai warriors graze their cattle on the semi-arid lands of the Great Rift Valley. And, it’s all very Lion King-ish when the setting sun bathes the uncluttered landscape in red and gold.
To keep all of this natural beauty alive, almost a third of the country is protected. Providing a much-needed sanctuary for the wildlife living across 16 national parks. Out of them all, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of the most important.
Sadly, this World Heritage Site is often relegated to a quick stop over at the iconic crater while on the way to the fabled Serengeti. But the Ngorongoro area deserves way more attention. Nicknamed the ‘Garden of Eden’, this near-perfect oasis is an assortment of mountains, waterfalls, and volcanoes. And, because it is a protected area, only the indigenous peoples of the Maasai tribe live within its borders.
It’s an eco-tourists dream destination, and the kind of place you can only truly appreciate by getting your boots on the ground. But if you want a taste of the adventure, here are a few reasons why the Ngorongoro Conservation Area will complete your East African overland adventure.
1. It’s a predator’s paradise
When Mufasa was showing baby Simba his future kingdom, I’m pretty sure they were overlooking the Ngorongoro conservation area. This 8,300 sq km area of rolling plains and hills are teeming with over 25,000 animals, including the Big Five.
However, it’s the high density of predator-prey action in the crater that makes going on a safari here so exciting. The game viewing opportunities hard to match. Beasts of prey such as lions, leopards, cheetah, and hyenas are constantly hunting on these open plains.
In addition to this, critically endangered animals, such as the black rhino, also call the area home. And, it’s also a stomping ground for over 1 million wildebeest during the annual migration. Witness thousands of baby wildebeests being born and a plethora of opportunistic predators in stealth mode.
2. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of the world’s first “multi-use areas”
Wherever you go in Tanzania, there will be plenty of opportunities to get to know the country’s people. More than anything else, it’s these amazing people and their fascinating cultures that will make your overland trip so memorable. And, while there are plenty of unique tribes and cultures in Tanzania, the Maasai are undoubtedly the face of the region.
They wandered into this area around 200 years ago, and now makeup around 98% of the resident population. The remaining 2% are Datooga and a few Hadzabe families who live on the very edge of Ngorongoro by Lake Eyasi.
To help preserve the region’s cultural heritage, the Ngorongoro area was dubbed a multiple-use landscape. As a result the land’s original people could share the space with the wildlife. This makes it possible for the traditionally pastoral people to live harmoniously with wildlife. Their cows and wild zebras often graze side by side, and giraffe are often spotted wandering right by the Maasai homesteads.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this way of life. With the limited barrier between wildlife and people, conflicts are on the rise. And, because of this, lions have all but disappeared from much of Ngorongoro’s community areas.
In an attempt to offset the dwindling lion herds, the crater was gazetted as the only exception to the multi-use principle and is thereby completely protected. The crater itself is like a natural terrarium, filled with every African animal you can think of – including the rare black-maned lion.
3. It’s East Africa’s Garden of Eden
While the notion of talking snakes is improbable, the Ngorongoro region is thought to have been home to the earliest known human species. Like the Garden of Eden. . . but in real life. Dubbed the ‘Cradle of humankind’, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world.
Over the last 80 years, the area has been subjected to extensive archaeological research. Ultimately producing evidence of human evolution extending over a span of almost four million years to the early modern era.
Olduvai Gorge is one of the most famous fossil sites. Wedged in a valley on the Ngorongoro’s eastern boundaries, this ancient land has produced evidence of many of our hominid ancestors. While you’re here, you’ll learn about the earliest made tools and how these ancient people may have lived.
But, if you truly want to walk a mile in our ancestor’s shoes then head to the Laetoli Ruins. Just 45km away from the Oldupai Gorge is a 27m-long trail of 3.7-million-year-old hominid footprints. It’s believed to be one of the longest-lived and best-known early human species. The tracks are the oldest of their kind ever found, providing crucial evidence that walking on two legs was picked up early in the human lineage.
Explore the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and discover this Wildlife Sanctuary:
4. It’s a photographer’s wonderland
Let’s face it, you cannot go on a safari without coming home with tons of photos of Africa’s iconic wildlife. But, this is Africa and things don’t always go as planned, especially when it comes to wildlife photography. Thankfully, the Ngorongoro crater’s unique landscape makes it super easy for you to capture amazing images.
About three million years ago, a volcano roughly the size of Kilimanjaro exploded and collapsed on itself. Thus creating what would be one of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders. Today, this 610 meters deep bowl (2,000 feet) is teeming with about 25,000 animals.
The flat, uncluttered landscape makes it one of the world’s premier game-watching destinations. Unfortunately, you won’t spot any giraffes here. But sadness aside; in every direction you look, you can spot zebras, lions, elephants, wildebeests, and, if you’re lucky, black rhinos, too! Like a natural animal enclosure, this caldera provides a stage for wildlife action as prey and predators graze and stalk their way around the open crater floor.
5. The remoteness of the Gol Mountains
You can’t get anymore off the beaten-track than this. The Gol Mountains are so remote and untouched that the only tracks you’ll find are those left by wildlife and traditional herders.
On the northern border of the Ngorongoro conservation area, these isolated and ecologically fragile mountains remain one of the most traditional corners of Tanzania. Here you’ll find extraordinary flora and fauna living alongside the Maasai who still hunt lions as their rite of passage into warriorhood.
If you’re looking for the ‘real’ Africa, this is as authentic as it gets. But take heed; traveling here is a huge, multi-day undertaking that is challenging to navigate. Intrepid travelers up to the task will be enjoy a surreal wilderness environment of stark, pink cliffs, dramatic canyons, and wide meandering valleys.
6. The beauty of lesser-known craters
When people say “Ngorongoro Conservation Area“, pictures of the world-renowned Crater are the first to come to mind. But, in the shadows of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll find a few lesser known craters that escape even the most comprehensive safari itineraries.
In the Highlands of the NCA, just 40km away from the famous Ngorongoro crater, lies the Empakaai Crater. This lake, which draws flamingos and other waterbirds, fills most of the crater floor and enclosed by forested cliffs. From this vantage point, adventurous travelers are treated to splendid views of the crater along with a glimpse of Oldoinyo Lengai, Tanzania’s most active volcano.