Photo: Julie Zeveloff/Business Insider
If you’re hoping to see Africa’s “big five” on safari, there’s no better destination than Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania.I recently had the opportunity to visit the massive caldera, formed nearly three million years ago following a volcanic collapse, and was amazed by the quantity and diversity of animals I saw in a single afternoon.
The 100-square-mile crater, part of the larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area, is home to some 30,000 animals, including around two dozen black rhino, which are extremely endangered. It also has the densest known lion population, and thousands of flamingo gather there during the rainy season.
Click here to go into the crater >
Disclosure: Our trip to Tanzania, including travel and lodging expenses, was sponsored by the Tanzania Tourist Board, Africa Adventure Company, Singita Grumeti Group, Coastal Aviation, Qatar Airways, Tanzania National Parks, Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority and Wildlife Division.
I flew directly over the crater on the flight to Manyara Airstrip, where visitors to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area start their trips. The walls of the crater are around 1,600 feet high.
Our guide Ephrata of the Africa Adventure Company picked us up at the airstrip. From here, it's an hour-and-a-half drive the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
U.S. residents must pay $50 to enter the conservation area. The crater covers 100 square miles, but the park is much larger, encompassing some 3,200 square miles of plains, forests, and lakes.
Moments after driving through the gates, we found a family of olive baboons by the side of the road. They seemed totally unfazed by the passing safari vehicles.
There are a few spots along the rim to get a panoramic view of the crater. It's enormous, measuring around 12 miles across.
Before descending into the caldera, formed nearly three million years ago by a volcanic collapse, our guide popped open the roof so we could get a better view. Let's go!
On the way into the crater, I saw vast swaths of burnt ground. Park authorities occasionally conduct controlled burns to curb tick populations and encourage new grass growth.
The first animal we saw in the crater was a warthog. They are relatively common and we saw several groups rooting around for food on the crater floor.
Some 1 million wildebeest and 72,000 zebras migrate through the northern plains of the conservation area every year. Of all the parks I visited in Tanzania, the animals in Ngorongoro Crater seemed most acclimated to safari visitors — these wildebeest barely moved off the road when we passed.
Wherever there are herds of wildebeest, you can expect to find zebra nearby. The species have a symbiotic relationship, where zebras have superior eyesight and wildebeest have better hearing. The two eat different types of grass and don't compete for food.
A zebra's stripes may stand out in photos, but the distinct pattern actually helps camouflage them from predators.
Spotted hyena and lions are the main predators that live in the crater. I saw this hyena crossing the road, travelling alone.
A dust devil sprang up on the floor of the crater off in the distance. These whirlwinds happen when hot and cold air mix, and are pretty common in the crater.
We didn't see any elephants in the crater — while old bulls sometimes roam the floor, most elephants stay on the crater rim. But we did see a bleached elephant skull.
After several hours, we finally spotted some of the 60 or so lions that live within the crater's walls. Ngorongoro Crater is home to one of the densest lion populations on earth.
Lake Magadi, the large alkaline lake in the middle of the crater, was nearly dry when we visited. But during the rainy season it fills with flamingo and other water birds.
The crater is also home to a large population of hippos who keep cool in the swampy areas near the lake. We saw about 50 in this hippo pool.
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