I had been in East Africa for more than two weeks; I had taken a train ride through the Kenyan savannah, had gone on safari in the Serengeti of Tanzania and had even spent a day tracking animals with a nomadic bush tribe called the Hadzabe.
But although I had laid my eyes on magnificent, awe-inspiring animals in the wild — elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and more — I had still not spotted one of the most elusive and majestic animals of the Big Five: the black rhino.
That changed when I arrived at the Ngorongoro Crater, a conservation and UNESCO World Heritage site abutting Serengeti National Park in central Tanzania. The ancient crater is the largest intact volcanic caldera in the world, which has created a singularly exquisite ecosystem that protects one of the most beautiful wildlife havens anywhere.
Seeing the Big Five
When it comes to safaris in Africa, the “Big Five” game animals are the African Lion, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard, and White or Black Rhinoceros. The term was coined by big-game hunters to define the most difficult animals to track on foot; but soon became used by people going on safari to simply spot and photograph these animals.
On my first day on safari in Serengeti National Park, the first of these that I spotted were the lion and elephant. I soon saw buffalo and on about the third or fourth day, our guide finally spotted a leopard laying up on a high tree branch. But the rhino proved the most elusive — partly because of its solitary nature, and also because, sadly, poaching has reduced their numbers to shocking lows. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the best places in East Africa to potentially spot the majestic rhino.
Ecosystem and Life
The Ngorongoro Crater shelters a permanent population of more than 25,000 animals that inhabit a mere 260sq km (100 sq mi) in the 610m (2,000 ft) deep crater. Because of this topography and unique biosphere, many rules of the natural world do not apply. For example, most of the animals do not migrate the way their same species do in other parts of Africa. And where the lion is king in the Serengeti and other national parks and preserves, here in Ngorongoro they have become rather lazy — generally living off the kills of other animals such as hyenas, becoming more of a scavenger than a hunter. The hyena is the main predator in the crater.
Ngorongoro is also the only crater on Earth in which both animals and people coexist. Along with the lions, hyenas, elephants, hippos, zebras, impalas, cheetahs and other wildlife, today the caldera is also home to the Maasai tribe; although fossil evidence shows that various hominids have occupied the area for more than three million years.
Going on Safari
There are three gravelled access roads to the crater. If you go off these main roads, a 4x4 vehicle is essential. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority sets a limit of five vehicles that are allowed to be around an animal or animal group at any one time. Most importantly, all visitors must be accompanied by a licensed guide. These can be hired in Arusha — where most safaris here originate; through a guest lodge, or in advance as part of a tour package.
In addition to driving and even some walking safaris in Ngorongoro, there is a beautiful picnic spot at Lake Magadi that is filled with hippos and flamingos. And of course there is the elusive black rhino. As with most types of rhinoceros, their species is endangered and their numbers have dropped drastically. As of 1995 there were only an estimated 11 to 15 black rhinos in Ngorongoro, and if you’re very lucky, you may be able to spot one.
Other Area Activities
The nearby Olduvai Gorge is well worth a visit. This important archeological site is known as the cradle of mankind, where the earliest remains of Homo Sapiens was discovered by paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey in 1959. Combine this with a visit to the nearby Shifting Sands — large crescent-shaped dunes made of volcanic ash. The Empakai Crater, surrounded by lush forests, makes for fantastic walking tours where you can see impressive flora and fauna, such as the huge strangler figs and diverse birdlife, including eagles, flamingos, the grey-headed negro finch and the barred-tailed trogon.
At Lake Eyasi you will find Maasai villages, and open animal grazing land that provides glimpses into the life and culture of this tribe. Opportunities to visit a Maasai tribe and interact with them can be arranged through tour companies.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in [Tanzania]((https://www.gadventures.com/destinations/africa/tanzania/?ref=body) encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.