The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is acclaimed as a World Heritage site and was established in 1959 as an experiment in multiple land use. It is an attempt to manage a complex mix of wildlife, vegetation, Maasai pastoralists and their livestock, tourism, water catchments and other resources. This is not an easy task since conditions change steadily over time.
The area, embracing the eastern half of the Serengeti Plains, highland plateaus, volcanic mountains, craters and gorges, covers 8288 sq km. It combines magnificent nature with the culture of its Maasai inhabitants and the history of its archaeological sites.
The best known part of NCA is Ngorongoro Crater, which in spite of its name, is in fact not a crater but a giant caldera which was formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself some two to three million years ago. It is 600m deep and 16 kms in diameter, making it the largest unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera in the world. The 265 sq km basin floor now provides a natural sanctuary for thousands of animals.
Many of Tanzanias last remaining black rhino can be seen on the open grassland, grazing side by side with herds of zebra, antelope and gazelle. There are animal trails leading in and out of the Crater, but most of the animals stay inside, providing a well stocked pantry for the many predators. Dawn and dusk are perfect times to see leopard lurking around at Lerai Forest with its yellow-barked acacias and lions are a common sight as they rest in the minimal mid-day shade of the trees. The Crater’s population of lions have however over the years become severely inbred due to very few migrating male lions entering the crater from the outside. As a result, genetic problems have been passed from generation to generation.
Lake Makadi and it’s surrounding pools are popular feeding points for flamingo and other birds. Photo by Michael Lund Markussen
Outside the crater on the highland hills, Maasai continue to herd their cattle and goats as they have done for centuries. Hiking on cattle trails alongside these proud warriors will take you to two smaller calderas, Olmoti and Empakaai. Further in the distance you can see the still active volcano Oldoinyo Lengai, which means “mountain of God” to the Maasai. Nights are spent camping amongst Maasai bomas, allowing visitors to interact with the Maasai in their own environment and learn more about their culture. Exploring this little visited part of the country is an adventure of a lifetime.
Olduvai Gorge is situated not far from the main road to Serengeti. It is a steep-sided ravine with two branches which have a combined length of about 50km and in places a depth down to 90 metres. Deposits exposed in the sides of the gorge have revealed fossil remains from several lines of human ancestors - the oldest being from 2 million years ago. It provides the most continuous known record of human evolution as well as the longest known archaeological record of the development of stone-tool industries. The paleoanthropological site, commonly referred to as "The Cradle of Mankind.", was made famous by Louis and Mary Leaky who pioneered the excavation work here in 1931.
There is a little museum next to the excavation site, where you can view the fossils from both humans and long since extinct animals. There is also a cast made from footprints found in nearby Laetoli and made by one of the oldest hominids known, Australopithecus afarensis, the same species as the famous Lucy whose fossilized remains were found in Ethiopia.
The name Olduvai derives from the Maasai name for the wild sisal plant, Sansevieria ehrenbergii, which grows richly in the area.
Photo by Michael Lund Markussen