Ngorongoro and the Great Migration – Experiencing Some of our Planet’s Greatest Natural Wonders

Zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, lions, flamingos, elephants, buffaloes and even the extremely rare black rhinos. The Ngorongoro Crater is like stepping straight into the Lion King. Hundreds and hundreds of different species all co-existing in harmony, all with their own special place in the great Circle of Life. As if this wasn’t enough, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the scene of an annual, unparalleled wildlife spectacle. Yes, I’m talking about the great migration, one of world’s greatest natural wonders. We spent two days in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Here’s a blog post about this magical place!

Ngorongoro – An Indescribable Place

Travel Jael standing by the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania
Standing by the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater looking down at the grass dotted with thousands and thousand of animals is a moment to remember. Bring your jacket, especially if you’re heading there early as it can be a bit nippy.

I constantly find myself at a loss for words when attempting to describe Ngorongoro. No amount of superlatives seems sufficient and I feel like whatever sentences I use, I’m not doing the place justice.

Let’s just say that this place is a true natural wonder, something so mind-blowing you just have to see it for yourself to truly understand.

We’d woken up insanely early to be among the first ones in the crater. Then we ended up having some issues by the gate with our entry and got delayed quite a bit. This was a bummer, as I’d read from so many sources that for this place in particularly the motto “Early bird gets the first worm” definitely applies. I’ll explain why next.

Being such an incredible place, don’t expect to be the only one there. Estimates vary, but Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) receives around 700.000 visitors every year. Most of them make a beeline for Ngorongoro Crater (located within NCA). In fact, when people talk about Ngorongoro, they’re usually referring to the crater.

What Makes Ngorongoro Crater So Special

Hippo in Ngorongoro Crater
Happy (hopefully!) hippo enjoying a cloudy day. Did you know the hippo is the world’s deadliest large land animal? It can easily bite a human in half with one snap of its gigantic jaw.

Now what is this crater and why should you get there early?

Ngorongoro Crater is unique. Visitors have almost guaranteed sightings of all kinds of animals like zebras, wildebeests and hippos. But also what more or less every safari first timer is wishing to see: the big five, a.k.a. buffalo, elephant, lion, rhino and leopard (although the latter is hard to spot and usually only hangs out by the rim).

Buffaloes in Ngorongoro Crater
Buffaloes relaxing in Ngorongoro Crater.

Fast Facts About the Crater

  • The crater is actually a caldera.
  • Ngorongoro used to be a gigantic volcano.
  • Some two million years ago the volcano erupted and collapsed into itself, leaving behind an enormous crater.
  • The crater covers 310 square kilometres.
  • It measures around 14,5-19 kilometres across.
  • Ngorongoro Crater has the world’s greatest biodiversity of wildlife with hundreds and hundreds of different species co-existing side by side.
A male ostrich in Ngorongoro Crater
The ostrich is the largest living bird and a fast one as well. It can sprint up to 70 kilometres per hour! Like this guy in the crater, the male ostrich turns itself a more pinkish shade to attract females during mating season.

The crater has springs and streams that provide the area with an endless supply of water, thus also guaranteeing plenty of tasty grass for the herbivores. Consequently, there are around 25.000 herbivores living here including wildebeests, zebras and gazelles!

With herbivores come the guys that eat the herbivores: the carnivores. Around 300 carnivores patrol the area, having their daily pick of the meaty buffet that this place is. It’s all part of the Circle of Life!

Is the Experience More of a Zoo than Genuine Wildlife?

Two black rhinos in Ngorongoro Crater
Two of the around twenty or so black rhinos living in Ngorongoro Crater. Only some estimated 5.000 black rhinos remain in the world, a number that has carefully increased thanks to conservational efforts.

Endless supply of food and no need for dangerous migrations and everybody living together side by side. Ngorongoro Crater is a paradise not only for the animals living there, but also for those who want to spot them. And the latter come in hoards.

Many have argued that the amount of visitors make Ngorongoro Crater feel like little more than a visit to the zoo with hundreds of jeeps driving around the fairly compact area. The abundance of animals and the variety in species, all living right next to each other almost in a seemingly unnatural way perhaps adds to the zoo-like feeling.

Traffic jam in Ngorongoro Crater
Traffic jam in the crater: a lion sleeping under the bridge! This is definitely not my idea of fun, but to be fair, this was the absolute worst it got in Ngorongoro and it was almost lunch time (less crowds the earlier you go). To be honest, I don’t think the commotion caused by this lion differed much from any of the other national parks we visited. People are crazy about cats!

For the above-mentioned reasons I was not expecting to enjoy Ngorongoro Crater. But once again, my preconceptions couldn’t have been more wrong.

Yes, there are lots of visitors and the area is small. Don’t expect you’ll be cruising around all by yourself while lions bring down buffaloes right in front of your jeep and a baby rhino poses by the road. But, as long as you’re prepared you’re not alone, I really don’t see why the experience here would be any more zoo-like than let’s say Central Serengeti.

Highlights of Ngorongoro Crater

Zebras in Ngorongoro Crater
As you can probably tell by the amount of zebra photos in this blog post I was pretty excited about them. There were so many of them!

Even before driving down into the crater I found myself baffled by the beauty. We stopped by the rim of the crater to get a good overall view of the area, and the landscape is just stunning!

Driving down the extremely steep and bumpy road along the edge of the crater you’ll suddenly realise what high density of wildlife really means. The sheer volume of animals is astonishing, and without a doubt one of the highlights of any visit to the crater.

The landscape is open, with no obstacles blocking the view. You’ll almost certainly see any animal you wish for, probably not up close, but at least in the distance. We were lucky to spot not one, but 17 (yes, you read correctly) rhinos! Two of them were even attempting to mate, which was absolutely amazing to see.

By the, albeit crowded, restroom spot by the hippo pool I enjoyed watching the hippos – they sound kind of like pigs with their grunting and snorting, loved listening to it!

With plenty of water, there were thousands of flamingos making the most of it. Ever since I saw a documentary about flamingos I’ve been dreaming about seeing their funny mating dance. It was a wonderful surprise to be able to see it in Ngorongoro. To be fair, there were just a few males dancing, but exciting enough!

Cradle of Mankind

The entrance to Oldupai Gorge, where some of the most important paleoanthropological discoveries have been made, helping us better understand human evolution.
The entrance to Olduvai Gorge. Here some of the most important paleoanthropological discoveries have been made, aiding us better understand human evolution.

Feeling absolutely overwhelmed by everything we’d seen that day we drove out of the crater towards our camp for the night: Olduvai Camp, located within the NCA. This eco-friendly camp is absolutely stunning with an excellent viewpoint from which to watch both sunrise and sunset over the Maasai lands.

As the name implies Olduvai Camp is situated close to Olduvai Gorge. The place is referred to as the Cradle of Mankind, because some of the oldest known hominid fossils ever discovered have been found there. It’s regarded as one of the world’s most important paleoanthropological sites and has been of great importance in helping us learn more about human evolution.

A genet at Olduvai Camp
The highlight of our evening at Olduvai Camp was seeing a genet at dinner, what an interesting-looking creature!

At the very location that these important pieces of the evolutionary puzzle have been found there’s a museum. I was very excited about visiting, but there were some issues with arranging it. Had we not been in a safari tour vehicle, all we’d had to do was simply buy a ticket and enter, but as we were in a tour company’s car, somehow everything got complicated. That’s what we were told anyway, who knows what the real issue was.

There was some heavy rainfall as well, which made driving increasingly challenging, so we decided to abort our plan to visit Olduvai Gorge.

The Great Migration – One of Most Amazing Things I’ve Ever Witnessed

Zebras in Ngorongoro Conservation Area as part of the great migration.
Zebras in Ngorongoro Conservation Area as part of the great migration.

After a fantastic night’s sleep in the tent and watching the sun rise over the beautiful landscape it was time to leave Olduvai Camp behind and continue towards Serengeti.

While driving towards Naabi gate, I think none of us were really expecting to see anything, perhaps even looking forward to get some sleep before Serengeti.

Then suddenly we started spotting more and more animals. Zebras, wildebeests and gazelles just started showing up.  First there were maybe tens of them, then hundreds and then thousands and thousands as far as the eye could see!

I’ve seen all kinds of things in my life, but this is without a doubt one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed.

The Great Migration is one of the world's most amazing natural wonders
Can you see that endless line of animals in the distance? There’s thousands and thousand all moving, somehow knowing when to go and where to head next in search for food and water.

I’d read a lot about the great migration: the greatest animal migration on Earth. I knew the numbers. Every year around two million wildebeest along with zebras and gazelles travel 800 kilometres all the way from Kenya to Tanzania and back in a never-ending cycle in search for food and water. The journey is filled with dangers and in fact around 250.000 wildebeests are killed every year, many of which at the hazardous river crossings.

Yet, no matter how much you’ve read or how many documentaries you’ve seen you can’t fully grasp the enormousness of it all before you see it. I’ve never, ever seen so many animals in one place! How do they know when to leave, which one of them starts leading the way and why, how do the others know to follow? It’s endlessly fascinating!

Should You Visit Ngorongoro or Not?

Zebras and gazelles in Ngorongoro Crater
Being such a fragile environment that gets a lot of visitors do make sure you follow all the rules, you’ll find them by the entrance gate. Respect the wildlife so we can make sure this place remains a paradise for future generations of animals and humans as well.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is huge, beautiful and provides both unique opportunities to see animals as well as local culture, as this is one of the few protected wildlife areas in Tanzania where the Maasai are allowed to live. It’s also a great place for anyone who’s looking to learn more about the roots of mankind.

I guess it’s safe to say that Ngorongoro Crater is crowded and those looking for a very private experience might not like it. However, I didn’t mind – I think the abundance of animals and the jaw-dropping beauty of the place more than well made up for the fact that we weren’t the only ones there.

Few people have the luxury of spending weeks on safari, in fact, most will opt for just around four days. In case you have very little time, but want to see as much as possible the crater is the place to be.

If you don’t want to see other vehicles during your game drive, if you have plenty of safari days ahead of you and if you’re not that picky about what animals you see, then perhaps head elsewhere.

Personally, I’m really happy I went. My time in NCA in general and Ngorongoro Crater in particular was an experience I’ll never forget.

The Great Migration is one of the world's most amazing natural wonders
No picture can do this wildlife spectacle justice. All these animals walking in a single line, one after the other in a never-ending queue.

Leave a Reply