A Safari Guide to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania

The Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is the largest unfilled inactive volcanic crater, or caldera, in the world. However, it’s not entirely empty as a wildlife spectacle unfolds in this dramatic setting. At the base of 610m cliff faces elephants trumpet, lions roar, and antelope…eat grass.

The crater is arguably the best place in Tanzania to see the big five. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most mesmerizing natural features in the world.

Humanity has deep ties to the crater as well. The Ngorongoro Conservation area is home to footprints that date back the oldest humanoids walking upright, nearly 3.7 million years ago. The age combined with other finds suggests that Northern Tanzania and the Ngorongoro Conservation area is the birthplace of humankind.

One’s first descent into the crater is filled with a sense of our primordial origin. In the early morning, a fine mist rolls over plains filled with wildlife. To watch the sunrise from within the Crater it is one of life greatest experiences.

What to Expect on a Ngorongoro Crater Safari

Ngorongoro Crater Safari Fees

There is no arguing that the crater is one of the most stunning natural features in Africa, a continent well known for its natural beauty. There is no cheap way to visit the crater as park fees are $78 a person per day and just the vehicle permit comes in at $297. We never told anyone Africa was cheap.

Despite the high price, we found the crater to be one of those African experiences you simply cannot miss. It ranks right up there with gorilla trekking in Uganda, or going deep into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

All park fees in Tanzania are now payable at the gate via credit/debit card. They have done away with cash payments and you should be prepared to pay in advance or via credit card. Your tour company will usually handle all of permits/fees while you sit in the car or take photos! For a detailed breakdown of park fees in Tanzania, we found this pdf with current prices.

 What to Expect on a Ngorongoro Crater Safari

It pays to have a solid guide when going on safari. We had a great guide set up by Perfect Africa, with African Horizons. Francis was our man for two days and his knowledge of the Tanzanian parks was abundant. We haven’t been with many guides more knowledgeable than Francis and he gave us tons of good pointers for the Ngorongoro Crater.

The best advice he gave was telling us we should wake up at 5:30 so that we were the first ones into the Ngorongoro Crater before dawn. Which, meant that in the early morning hours we had the place to entirely to ourselves before the crowds descended upon the famous crater. I’ve never been the first one into a park or for that matter the only person in the park. This gave us the chance to experience the complete tranquility of the crater at sunrise.

We are big time self-drivers and I have driven in almost every national park in Africa. However, we chose to go with a tour operator for the crater due to its extremely high vehicle permit fees and rough corrugated roads within the Serengeti and conservation.

We felt the cost of self-driving the crater vs going with a safari company to not be a significant difference and having Francis drive and inform let me fully enjoy my experience instead of being the driver concentrating on the roads. We parked our vehicle safely with Ma and Bj at the Meserani Snake Park near Arusha and anxiously hopped on a safari to the see the Crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater History

The name Ngorongoro comes from the Maasai tribe. The translation is roughly “gift of life.” There is the Oldupai Gorge situated in the plains area of the conservation. Which is widely regarded as the most important prehistoric site in the world, with even the famous Mary and Louis Leakey having done research in the valley. The footprints and skeletal fragments have been instrumental in understanding early human evolution and development.

The Ngorongoro Conservation, NCA, was formed in 1976. With its deep ties to humanity, cultural heritage is well prized in regards to the conservation.

It is an area of land that has deep significance for both human and animal life and it is the only park in Tanzania where both human settlements, Maasai tribesmen, and animals live together. When driving around the crater rim guests will see pastoralist villages with the Zebra and buffalo walking through herds of cattle.

Quick Ngorongoro Crater Facts

Ngorongoro Crater Safari Location

The Ngorongoro Conservation or crater is located in Tanzania. It is roughly 180km or 110 miles west of Arusha in Northern Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater Formation

The crater is believed to have formed around 2.5 million years ago. After experiencing a large scale eruption the peak of the volcano collapsed and formed the crater. Estimates to the volcanoes original size put it at nearly 19,000 feet, or about the same size as Mount Kilimanjaro!

Ngorongoro Crater Size

The crater is 610 meters deep. While the floor covers an area of 260 square kilometers. It’s relatively small and can be seen easily in one day. The crater measures between 10-12 miles wide and the rim sits around 2250 meters in elevation.

The Ngorongoro Crater Safari Animals

The Ngorongoro crater is home to roughly 30,000 animals, making it one of the most densely populated animal populations in the world. It is famed for its healthy black rhino population (of which we saw four total in one morning!). Many large animals call the crater home and you’ll likely spot many within a few hours drive.

Large mammals include Grant’s zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, hyena, elephants, cape buffalo, and lions. The majority of the landscape of the crater is a large grassy plain, so spotting wildlife is super easy.

However, visitors should not expect to spot any leopards or giraffes, as there are few of the elusive leopard and no giraffe. I would recommend purchasing a good safari camera before your trip to Africa to take some amazing shots of the animals!

Our first hour in the park we were fortunate enough to spot lion cubs playing in the water and two pairs of black rhino. Francis had arranged for our lodge to pack us breakfast.

So, instead of a crowded dining room, we enjoyed our breakfast as the sun rose over the crater’s rim and struck a pair of black rhinos awakening for the day. It was of those rare moments in Africa that ignite our passion for this beautiful part of the world.

Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge

There are only a handful of lodges that are on the craters rim and we were lucky enough to stay at one of them – the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge. The stone hotel blended well into the crater’s edge while the atmosphere of the lodge was relaxing and intimate.

We enjoyed the main lounge which featured communal fireplaces and great views of the crater with floor to ceiling windows. The focus of the property is obviously the crater. With numerous balconies around the property ensuring a serene spot to relax and enjoy afternoon tea or sundowners.

Rooms in the Serena are small, but have balconies facing out to the crater floor. While the bathrooms and large closet space were more than adequate. I found the beds to be a little too firm for our liking though with rooms too tiny for three people.

Dinner at the Serena Lodge was a wonderful affair in their large dining room, the waitstaff was attentive, and the fresh salads and curries were great fuel for a game drive filled the morning. Overall, we found the total package of the lodge tough to beat. Rates start at $155pppn in the low season and go as high as $500 per person per night for full board in the high season.

Final Thoughts on our Ngorongoro Crater Safari

It was our first time to the Ngorongoro Crater and although we were only there for one day, it felt like more than enough time to properly see the crater. The beauty beckons us to return. despite the fact that we have seen most of it.

We find that our most enjoyable moments in Africa are times of reflection. At the behest of our fantastic tour guide from African Horizons and tour company Perfect Africa we sat for several hours in the afternoon on the balcony taking in the serenity of the crater.

It was a moment of reflection for me, while Tasha snapped photos of me drinking tea in a chair. The air at the crater’s edge feels mystical and the deep ties to humanity humble visitors as they look on in awe.

The crater is one of the most trafficked and touristic parks in all of Africa. At times we’d even go so far as to say it feels like a zoo, the best zoo on the planet, but a zoo none the less. There are lots of game vehicles darting all over the place and when a lion or rhino is spotted they quickly descend on the same location.

However, the crater itself is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the world. Then add an abundance of wildlife into its heart it is very hard to say it is not worth a visit for first-time safari-goers. If you’d like to find a bit more solitude we’d suggest heading to Ruaha National Park.

Book A Safari in Tanzania

Traditionally if you wanted to book a safari you’d have to go to a travel agent and have them book your safari for you. They made suggestions for camps and lodges then presented you with a large bill. Most of the industry still operates in this fashion.

Timbuktu is a new platform that allows you to select the lodges you’d like and see the pricing per day that way you can select the best itinerary for yourself. They will then contact the lodges and help you through booking your safari. With experts on staff, they can also provide suggestions and arrange the little details much like a travel agent.

Another great option is Safari Bookings. Safari Bookings offer safaris all around Africa in every price range!

Check Out Some Lodges in Tanzania

Kilindi Zanzibar Room

Kilindi Zanzibar

The pavilions at Kilindi are one of a kind, designed tastefully with minimalistic flair.  Each “room” has three circle pavilions that open up to the tranquility of the Indian ocean. There is the main bedroom, open-air bathroom, and then a private lounging deck. In each setting, you are completely at one with the Zanzibar nature.

There are two pools in each of the villas. An upper pool extends right off the main room, and a lower larger pool for a little more space and sunbathing. The pools are private which is just what is needed for a relaxing couples holiday on Zanzibar.

Kigelia Ruaha Camp

Kigelia Camp is located along a dry river bed beneath Kigelia Africana trees. Each of the six tents is the perfect size for two people to enjoy comfortable beds and an outdoor seating area.

It’s worth noting that there is also a family tent for children above 12 to enjoy with their parents. Each tent has a flush toilet and a classic outdoor bucket shower. All in an effort to preserve water a precious resource in the park.

Staying in these tents allows guests to connect with the wild. Falling asleep to the sounds of hyenas and lions in the night is a memory never to be forgotten

Sand Rivers Selous

The lodge was founded in the 1990s by a legendary guide Richard Bonham. The fantastic camp sits in an amazing spot in the Selous Game Reserve, where the Rufiji River makes a wide curve on its way to the Indian Ocean.

Eight thatched guest bandas, are set on raised wooden platforms that overlook the river. The rooms are open-fronted, low-key and permit the wilderness to drift into the villas. The sounds of the babbling Rufiji river are ever-present while hippos grunt happily along the river banks all day and night.

What to Pack for an African Safari

Packing the right safari clothes is always a good idea, but it’s never essential because you can wear whatever you want. We also go in-depth on the best women’s safari clothes!

Grayl Waterbottle
Travel Water Bottle

Plastic pollution is a problem in Africa so it’s best not to contribute to the problem of buying plastic water bottles everywhere. The tap water in Tanzania is generally not safe to drink, but a water purifier, like the Grayl waterbottle, works well!

However, we also love filtered water bottles in areas we’re uncertain of the water supply. Read more about our favorite water bottle for travel in our post.

Travel in Zanzibar
Camera Gear

Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Africa. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm. 

For more professional photographs we use our Fuji XT-3, and LOVE IT.

Safari Hat

A good hat is both stylish and functional. In peak dry season there is little to provide shade, UV rays are intense and can easily burn the unsuspecting traveler. Check out our full break down of the best safari hats here!

Safari Bag

great daypack for travel is a solid idea to throw your stuff in for game drives and bush flights. Or you could try out a safari backpack.

Safari Pants

Lightweight pants that are made from synthetic material are tremendous to have in your pack. It’s what we wear most days when traveling around Africa as they’re comfortable, antibacterial, and protect our legs from mosquitos (malaria).

We recommend neutral-colored pants as they’re great at hiding dirt and can match most shirt colors. What’s great is they’re useful beyond Africa as they are a travel staple and we pack a pair everywhere we travel.

Safari Shirt

You’ll want a safari shirt while on safari. They are lightweight and keep the bugs away. Plus they look ideal in photos and blend into the environment around you!

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