The Ngorongoro Crater was so-named by the Maasai people, the original inhabitants, to mean the gift of life. It’s so lush and green, with jungles along the crater rim and green grasses in an otherwise savannah-like Rift Valley, it’s no surprise they chose this name.
The crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera, and was named of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
Approximately 25,000 animals live in the crater, and it is one of the best places in Tanzania to see the critically endangered black rhino.
On a personal level, after going on Safari in Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia, I have to say this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever searched for wildlife, and other than Etosha in Namibia, the only place where I’ve seen wild black rhinos. I saw four, to be exact.
The crater is also home to one of the the densest known population of Masai lions, which I saw as well, playing in the grass.
This was due to a combination of being lucky and doing a few key things right – though mostly the latter. These are my tips for seeing the best of the best in the Ngorongoro Crater:
You can see it in a day
If you’re planning out a Tanzania trip and want to see the Serengeti too (and you should!) and are wondering where to prioritize your time, compare the size of the two.
The crater is pretty small at 8,292 km2 (3,202 sq mi), and there aren’t a lot of places to hide, so the animals are everywhere, in plain sight. In almost any direction you look, you’ll see zebra, wildebeest, elephants, and if you’re lucky, lions and rhinos too. You can devote one full day to the crater, and save 2-3, or more, for some of the other parks which are much larger and have different animals, like giraffe and leopards.
Stay the night on the rim
I suggest arriving at your lodging on the crater rim by the mid afternoon. This gives you a chance to watch as golden hour and then sunset come and paint the crater various hues of green and blue. It’s a beautiful sight.
There are campsites and hotels of varying luxury. I stayed at the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge which is within the Crater Conservancy and provides breathtaking views from the stone rooms and pictured here, from the bar and dinner area:
The food was good and plentiful, they hire local Maasai to come dance in the evenings, which I like since they provide work opportunities for the local community, and rooms start from the low $200s per night, which is a pretty decent rate for the crater!
Go early (seriously!)
We left the hotel at 5:55am for our game drive into the Ngorongoro Crater, and it was the best decision we could have made! Later in the day three things happen: The animals get lazy and tired and try to hide from the heat, more and more cars arrive so the crater gets crowded, and the light gets quite harsh for photos.
We got lucky with lion sightings, seeing the younger lions playing around in the reeds and the water. Later in the day, they were considerably less animated, sleeping under rocks and in the ravines, enjoying the shade.
We were also lucky enough to see four black rhinos. Two were at a distance, but the other two we saw were pretty close!
Get a good guide
Francis was essential to our trip because he knows how to spot the animals. It was also at his suggestion that we went super early in the morning. He took this very seriously, making sure that we were the very first people in the gate.
He also had a radio that allowed him to communicate with the other drivers so that if they spotted something, he would know where to go.
It was usually him letting everyone else know what we’d found, though, because we had been the first in the crater and he’s so great at his job. Ask for him when you book with Perfect Africa and you won’t be disappointed!
And let him drive
Like the Serengeti, you can self-drive the crater if you really want to. You’re looking at a $300 vehicle fee (if it’s foreign-registered like the one we’re driving is) plus the $70 per person park fees for the privilege, though.
I’m normally not a tour person, but the downside to doing the crater on your own is you don’t have the pop-up top that allows you to stand and get a 360-degree view of the crater and animals, so you’re fighting each other for window space.
We’d read in forums that the roads are also terrible, which I can confirm are incredibly true. They might be among the worst in Tanzania, which is honestly quite a feat since many of the roads are barely even roads, so you’ll spend more time worrying about the car than enjoying what you’re seeing if you self-drive.
Talk to the guide about what you want to see the day before
Let your guide know what you want to see the most so that he knows what to prioritize when you enter the crater. We wanted to see rhinos, so he made that priority number one from the get-go. He also knew that we really wanted to see hyenas, because for whatever inconceivable reason they just appear to be really cute to me.
I know one shouldn’t and can’t hug a hyena, but how can someone with a face like this really be a villain in the Lion King, I ask you?
He was so knowledgable about the area and the animals as well, and he even brought along his own camera with a 300mm zoom lens so that we could shoot with it in case ours broke or weren’t long enough.
He had a pair of binoculars as well, which we were really excited to have along for the rhinos.
You don’t have to eat at the picnic areas
There are designated picnic areas where you can go and have your breakfast and lunch, sometimes with a little plaid table cloth over the hood of the car, if you fancy, but we had an even better breakfast view.
We stayed in the car and ate our packed breakfast while watching the rhinos. I can honestly say that’s the coolest breakfast view I’ve ever had!
Another incentive for eating in the car is the aggressive birds. Every now and then, they make off with some of the tourist’s food and some are even brazen enough to grab your food right out of your hands! These are huge birds, and you don’t want those talons to meet your face.
I much preferred watching a rhino and all kinds of awesome hoofed animals from the car instead.
In all, we spent rougly 24 hours between the crater rim and the crater itself, arriving in the afternoon, enjoying an evening on the rim watching the stars come out, and descending into the crater early in the morning to see the best that it had to offer. It all came down to timing, having an awesome guide, and yes, there was a little bit of luck involved too.
*This post was brought to you in collaboration with Perfect Africa, all thoughts on the safari and the awesome rhinos are sincere and my own, as always.