An essential, bucket-list experience on any visit to Tanzania is a Ngorongoro Crater safari. Descend into this 20km-wide and 600m-deep volcanic caldera for a safari experience like no other, packed with Big Five sightings, giant elephant bulls and thousands of pink flamingos.
As dawn began to stain the morning sky, a knock at the door of our luxury Tanzanian safari lodge announced that our butler had arrived with a cup of fragrant tea. An air of anticipation for our Ngorongoro Crater safari hung over the breakfast table as the morning’s ‘full English’ was served.
Then it was time to set off in our game-drive vehicle. A winding road took us through the thick forests along Ngorongoro Crater’s rim. It was a perfect, windless morning. Here and there we saw Maasai herdsmen and their cattle on the move. ‘The reserve is a protected area; only indigenous tribes such as the Maasai are allowed to live within its borders,’ explained Roger, our guide.
The birdlife along the rim was excellent and we had good sightings of golden-winged sunbirds, African cytrills, white-eyed slaty flycatchers and mountain buzzards. I also caught a fleeting glimpse of a Schalow’s wheatear. Being a bit of a birding nut, this certainly got my juices going!
Down the side of the crater we went, through a forest of tall, hardwood trees, some of them covered by thick moss and lianas. Over to our right, we spotted an endangered black rhino moving through dense forest cover. We stopped and I managed to take a couple of wonderful photos before it disappeared among the leaves.
On we drove. Suddenly, the vast caldera opened up before us. It was a jaw-dropping vista. ‘Ngorongoro Conservation Area includes this famous crater as well as Olduvai Gorge and huge expanses of highland plains, scrub bush and forests that cover about 830,000ha,’ said Roger.
‘This extinct volcano – with its 20km-wide floor – is home to a unique ecosystem. The crater, which formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself some two-to-three million years ago, is more than 600m deep and its floor covers 26,000ha. Estimates of the volcano’s original height range from 4,500m to 5,800m. So it would probably have been bigger than Mount Kilimanjaro.’
‘The crater is a natural enclosure for a vast array of wildlife,’ Roger continued. ‘As you’ll soon see, the game viewing is exceptional. Sometimes we even bag the entire Big Five in one day on an Ngorongoro Crater safari! Thanks to the variety of habitats – long and short grasses, savannah, acacia forest, woodland, clearings, swamps, freshwater and soda lakes – it hosts about 30,000 animals, year round. In fact, virtually the full deck of wildlife, except for giraffes.’
By now, we’d reached the crater’s grass-covered floor and everywhere we looked were grazing herbivores. We were lucky to have come out of the high season (when the crater can get crowded with other vehicles). Ours felt like a much more private, exclusive experience.
Roger stopped the vehicle beside a group of enormous bull elephant. They were some of the handsomest I’d ever seen, with long, gleaming tusks. Further on, I was astonished to see herds of zebra and wildebeest grazing in dangerously close proximity to a pride of snoozing lion. Another fabulous sighting was a serval cat stalking a rodent, its sinuous body gliding through the long grass with slow, graceful strides.
We drove through a remarkable fever-tree forest, forming a sea of lime-green trunks. Further on, we came to Lake Makat, right in the centre of the crater. Hundreds of lesser flamingos frequented the shallows, looking like a vast pink stain on the water. Just then, something must have spooked them and the flock took off with a great beating of wings, filling the sky with gangly necks and legs and a glorious splash of colour that left us quite stunned.
Later, we drew to a halt at one of the designated picnic sites and got out. ‘Alright folks, we’ll be making a little camp here for lunch,’ said Roger. ‘Find a shady spot and relax.’
Our delicious packed lunch and ice-cold drinks were served under the picnic site’s canopy. Surrounded by game and the encircling crater rim beyond, it was without a doubt the most dramatic picnic I’ve ever experienced. After coffee, I had a little snooze beneath an acacia with Roger standing guard lest a lion decide I was a worthwhile canapé.
After the short, refreshing siesta, we climbed back in the vehicle and continued our wildlife adventure. Then it was up the side of the magical crater again and back to the lodge. By now it was mid afternoon and a decadent high tea awaited us. That evening we sat sipping sundowner cocktails as we watched the play of light on the crater below … and marvelled at our thrilling Ngorongoro Crater safari, on the floor of Africa’s most beautiful caldera.