60km (37 miles) NW of Lake Manyara, 170km (105 miles) W of Arusha, 145km (90) SE of the Serengeti
Designated as a "multiple land use area," the Ngorongoro Conservation Area stretches from the precipitous barrier that is the Great Rift Valley wall, encompassing a high-altitude plateau of dramatic volcanic highlands and craters before gently descending to the contiguous plains of the Serengeti in the west. It is a vast and untouched region, much of it appearing harsh and barren, yet what makes the Ngorongoro Conservation Area so unique is that it is a refuge for both animal and man.
With no physical borders, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is very much part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem and hosts the annual Migration as it passes through from Loliondo in the north to the breeding grounds surrounding Lake Ndutu in December, before returning north and west some 12 weeks later. In fact, the entire Ngorongoro Conservation Area initially fell within the Serengeti National Park, but the inevitable conflict that arose between the newly formed park authorities and long-resident Maasai inhabitants resulted in a new agreement being signed by the Maasai elders in 1958. The following year, the Maasai herded the last of their animals across the Serengeti and resettled in the newly designated Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which included their most sacred of mountains, Ol Doinyo L'Engai (literally, "Mountain of God"), the last remaining active volcano in the Rift Valley. Government officials then tried to stop the Migration from moving into Ngorongoro, putting up mile upon mile of barbed-wire fencing, which the wildebeest, in their millions, simply trampled. "It's marvelous the way those animals have smashed it flat," was the sardonic response of Myles Turner, then deputy chief game warden of Serengeti, adding, "I use the fence posts for firewood now."
Seen at the time as a radical compromise, Ngorongoro was, and still is, the only conservation area in Africa to provide full protection status for resident wildlife as well as the interests of its indigenous pastoralists, who live as traditionally as ever, free to roam anywhere in the NCA (crater excepted), herding their cattle, donkeys, goats, and sheep. Thanks to the Maasai's innate conservation ethic, it has been a remarkably successful cohabitation experiment, attested to by the NCA's status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1979), followed by its recognition as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981.
Although the Conservation Area covers a vast 8,288 sq. km (3,232 sq. miles), virtually all tourist traffic is centered on and around the crater after which it is named: The Ngorongoro Crater is not only the world's largest unbroken volcanic caldera, but it is also home to one of the densest wildlife populations on Earth, some 250,000 wild animals. Created 2 million to 3 million years ago, the crater walls drop a sheer 610m (2,001 ft.), a circular embrace enclosing a 260-sq.-km (101-sq.-mile) valley, in which even a 6-ton elephant appears no larger than an ant. Standing on the lip and gazing into this vast natural arena, the opposite walls of which rise almost 20km (12 miles) away, one is struck not only by the sheer size and symmetry, but also by the visible ecosystems that sustain its incredibly varied wildlife. From the dark montane forests that clad the southern crater walls to the open yellow grassland and acacia thickets in the basin, intersected by veins of freshwater streams, and the tell-tale white crust of its very own salt lake, Ngorongoro's great caldera falls into the archetypal realm of an isolated Lost World, only without the dinosaurs. That said, descend to the valley floor, and you will probably have one of the most productive game drives in Africa. The fertile pasture and permanent water supply support a population of approximately 25,000 grazers, mostly zebra and wildebeest, but also buffalo, gazelle, eland, kongoni, and warthogs. Swamps and forest are home to hippos, elephants, waterbucks, reedbucks and bushbucks, baboons, and vervet monkeys. Thanks to the abundance of grazers, lion, leopard, cheetah, and hyena lead a rather idyllic life (though, sadly, stagnation has led to genetic inbreeding of the lion population), and they are so habituated to vehicles that you are likely to capture them on film without the use of a zoom. This is also the only area in the Northern Circuit park (aside from the Grumeti) where you are virtually guaranteed a sighting of that most prehistoric of living creatures -- the black rhinoceros. In fact, with the exception of impala, topi, oribi, giraffe, and crocodile, almost every species found in East Africa is present here. The cooler temperatures on the rim are also very agreeable, so much so they prompted great African explorer Frederick Courtney Selous to recommend a sojourn here as "an essential respite from the heat and repetitive bouts of malaria."
The main drawback -- and it is a very real one -- is the equally large population of tourists the crater attracts -- 400,000 at last count, earning the country a whopping $30 million. Park authorities have reduced volumes on the crater floor somewhat with their ever-escalating fees, making this the most expensive game drive you'll take in East Africa, but if your idea of experiencing the wilds precludes doing so in full view of other vehicles, I would recommend you traverse the rim road, with regular stops to take in the stupendous views, particularly in the late afternoon (or at least well after the morning fog has cleared). Having spent the night at one of the lodges recommended below, head on to the Serengeti, either by charter flight or, if you are driving, with a scheduled stop at Olduvai Gorge, considered one of the most important archaeological and paleontological sites in the world.