Ngorongoro Crater – natural wonder

1-2 August 2018

A visit to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, in particular the crater, is an expensive exercise. This required careful planning – many tips were gleaned from 4×4 forums and magazine articles. In a nutshell, the permit for the NCA is for 24 hours, so if you purchase a permit for one day, like we did, your entry is logged at 15h52, you need to make sure you have left the NCA by 15h51 the next day, otherwise you have to pay for another 24 hours.

We left Outpost Lodge after a good breakfast, and headed to a supermarket mall to stock up on a few groceries, buy Emma a camping chair (found a fold up type office chair), and fill up with diesel. On the road leaving Arusha, just before the airport is a Cultural Heritage Centre – a potential tourist trap, but we decided to visit it, as we needed to use up some hours. The main part of the centre is a collection of African Art – old and new, lots is for sale, and it is impressive. My favourite are always the sculptures, both depicting various animals, but also those capturing the history of the people in Africa. Really worth a visit – no cost! There are then curio shops, coffee shops etc where one can but various niknaks.

Time to hit the road up to the crater. The road winds its way past villages and towns dominated by Maasai in a mixture of traditional and western clothing, past herders with their cattle, through the rift valley and up, so one has a magnificent view of Lake Manyara, one of the soda lakes of the Rift Valley.

A view from the escarpment down over Lake Manyara in the Rift Valley

The road winds its way higher up the escarpment, until the gate of the NCA. We felt quite at home, as baboons (Olive Baboons, not Chacma baboons, though) were there to entertain the tourists arriving and leaving the area in their droves.

Apparently being removed of parasites is an exciting feeling!

Safari vehicles abound! We headed to the ticket office, and what a pleasure – give dates, where you are staying, and if you are going onto the crater, hand over the Visa card, and wince as a cool USD 500 is removed from your account for a 24 hour stay for 3 people!

NCA Conservation Fee per person per 24 hours: USD 50

Vehicle Fee (Foreign registered, Tare < 2000kg) per 24 hours: USD 40

Camping Fees per person per 24 hours: USD 30

Crater Entrance Fee per vehicle: USD 200

Then add 18 % VAT!


Permit in hand, we headed up the back of the crater: steep, thickly forested slope, on a narrow dirt road, with all the day tripper safari vehicles leaving the area at pace – super scary. I tried to focus on the incredible jungle vegetation. We popped up onto the crater rim and stopped at the viewing site – it took my breath away – and I couldn’t believe we were actually here – a place one sees on BBC and other wildlife channels, that I have learnt about at university 30 years ago, and dreamt about as a place that I would probably never had a chance to visit. Yet, thanks to my husband, and bonus, our daughter is with us, here we were, standing on the rim of this magnificent extinct volcano, whose caldera is home to thousands of animals as well as many Maasai in the wet season.

I moved to the back seat of the car and Emma sat in the hot seat to lessen my nerves of the narrow road (not a bad road, just busy at this time of the year) with steep sides, either disappearing down the escarpment or into the crater! There are two public campsites – Simba A & B – we landed up staying at A, together with lots of people on tented safaris. The camp attendant showed us where we could set up our camp for the night – pretty much on the rim edge, under a tree. A beautiful spot. We popped up the rooftop tent, and fitted the other tent so that Emma had a place to sleep. The temperature was dropping fast, and I made a quick spaghetti bolognaise, we ate, and jumped into bed.

Our aim was to be at the crater gate by 6h30 – got there around 7h00 in the end after packing up. We were above the thick fog that covered the crater, so the road to the descent road provided us with some beautiful scenes of the rim, with fog below it. We showed our entrance permit at the gate, and as we were a private vehicle, one is supposed to take a guide, but we genuinely had no space in our car – it was no problem. And one really does not need a guide if you have a map.

Down we went – I had read about the descent and ascent roads and was very nervous. The road was actually in good repair, but Richard still engaged low range at one point as the road is steep in places. Parts of the crater were visible through the fog, and the area we entered was still engulfed. Beautiful an eerie – difficult to photograph the animals, but amazing to see them in this kind of light.

Thompson’s Gazelle – love them, as they remind me of home

Once the fog lifted, the grassy plains, dotted with marshes and small forests, surrounded by the steep, high walls of the crater is magnificent. Game abounds – we saw lion, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, zebras, buffalo, elephant, hippo, Coke’s Hartebeest, wildebeest, baboon, vervet monkeys, and a variety of birds. What was incredible were the safari vehicles – just everywhere, zooting at speed from one major sighting to another – a cluster of vehicles usually meant lion.

We think this hippo was not well – lying out of the water in the hot sun, right next to the road.

Grant’s Gazelle

Our best experience for the morning were 2 lionesses, using the vehicle in front of us, and our vehicle as cover to stalk a group of 3 wildebeest. It was very exciting, but it was not a successful hunt.

I would have loved to have been able to spend the whole day in the crater, to experience all the areas, but we had to be winding our way up the Ascent road by lunch time to get out of the NCA in our allotted 24 hours. The road out is bricked – very steep – Rich used low range again for the steeper bits just to feel more secure, but it is a good road. Being terrified of heights meant that on the switch backs when I was on the crater wall edge side, was terrifying and beautiful all at once. It is incredible how the vegetation changes from the centre of the crater to the rim.

Entering the edge of the small fever tree forest at the base of the Ascent Road

The road to the Serengeti follows the rim for a while then starts descending the escarpment on the other side, past Maasai villages and the herders with their cattle. The vegetation is now grassveld, scattered trees, and almost arid. The Serengeti plains stretched for miles in front of us. Next time I hope to visit Olduvai Gorge – no time this trip, and yet another alarming expense.

Between the crater rim and the Serengeti – home of a large number of Maasai and their cattle. Harsh environment!
Tried to capture the corrugations – too bright and way too dusty!

Ngorongoro is a wonderful experience. One needs to go not just to see the game species, but to experience a rather unique ecosystem in this incredible geological feature. It really is special. The cost is pretty prohibitive, unfortunately, and it would be nice if the NCA and Tanzanian Parks would be given the money collected to sort out the ablution facilities at their campsites. Simba Campsite is beautiful, but really, with all the camping safaris, the ablution facilities do need to be improved radically. Grading the roads would also make things a lot more pleasant.

The road deteriorated – of all the roads we have travelled, this stretch right up to the northern part of the Serengeti had the worst corrugations – everything in the car rattled and vibrated, with low tyre pressure even. Best was to drive around 60 km/hr, but with our heavy vehicle, it got hairy at times. Going slowly was just unbearable though. And the other safari vehicles fly past you at about 80km/hr – dust everywhere.  All part of the greater experience, but prospective self-drivers, if you are precious about your vehicle, rather fly in, or go in with a safari tour.  But don’t let the roads stop you – Ngorongoro and Serengeti are very special places with their vast herds, fabulous biodiversity and fascinating beautiful landscapes.