Known as ‘the eighth wonder of the world' the Ngorongoro Crater is one of Africa's best-known wildlife arenas. A World Heritage Site, it boasts one of the largest volcanic craters in the world (almost 20 kilometres wide, 610-760 metres deep and covering a total area of 264 square kilometres).
Quite apart from the ‘big five' (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo), all of which can often be spotted in a morning, the Crater also hosts up to 25,000 large mammals. Most are grazers, half of which are zebras and wildebeests while the rest are made up of gazelles, buffalos, elands, hartebeests and warthogs. As a result of these extraordinarily large numbers of herbivores, the crater also numbers one of the densest predator populations in Africa, most of which are lion and spotted hyena. This remarkable ecosphere also supports a large elephant population, most of which are bulls due to the relative paucity of food for the breeding herds. Other animals, such as giraffe, topi and impala, are notable by their absence. Finally, Ngorongoro is the only place in Tanzania where there is a realist chance of seeing a black rhino, around 20 of which live within the crater walls.
Explanations as to how it derived its name vary; some say it commemorates an especially valiant group of Datoga warriors who defeated their Maasai enemies in a pitched battle on the crater floor some 150 years ago whilst others believe it relates to a long-forgotten Maasai age-set. Most evocative is the suggestion that it refers to an old Maasai warrior, named Ngorongoro, who lived in the crater and made cowbells for his beloved herds of cattle.
As recently as 2.5 million years ago the young Ngorongoro Volcano became filled with molten rock that subsequently solidified into a crust or roof. As the lava chamber emptied, the solid dome collapsed and thus was formed the largest perfect caldera in the world (almost 20 km wide).
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) was established in 1959, most of it having previously belonged to the now contiguous Serengeti National Park. The Ngorongoro Crater is only one of many natural attractions that are contained within its vast boundaries (8,300 sq km). These include both dormant and active volcanoes, soaring mountains, archaeological treasures, rolling plains, rivers, forests, lakes and shifting sand dunes whilst almost half of the NCA is made up of vast tracts of open grassland, which swing in a vast arc stretching from the Serengeti in the northwest through the Gol Mountains to the Salei Plain in the northeast.
Close to the centre of the NCA is Olduvai Gorge, the ‘Cradle of Mankind', where the remains of our earliest ancestors, the hominids, were found. To the west lie the alkaline lakes of Ndutu and Masek, to the south Lake Eyasi and to the north the shimmering waters of alkaline Lake Natron.
Easily the most memorable human feature of the Ngorongoro Crater are the fabled Maasai whose brushwood Manyattas sprinkle its slopes, proud warriors patrol its rim and patient lines of cattle graze its floor. Often strikingly tall and slender, swathed in brilliant red cloth ‘Shukas', hung about with beads and metal jewellery, the young men (Moran) favour long, plaited, ochre-daubed hairstyles and have a formidable reputation for glamour, prowess and ferocity. Traditionally the Maasai live off the milk and blood of their beloved cattle and believe that all the world's cattle are theirs by God-given right. Their nomadic and pastoral lifestyle, though historically based on the pursuit of migratory wildlife, is slowly changing thanks to a combination of education, favourable new laws, projects, jobs and income.