Ngorongoro Conservation Area :The jewel in Ngorongoro’s crown is a deep, volcanic crater, the largest un flooded and unbroken caldera in the world. About 20kms across, 600 meters deep and 300 sq kms in area, the Ngorongoro Crater is a breathtaking natural wonder.
NCA is a unique protected area in the whole of Africa where conservation of natural resources in integrated with human development.
The main feature of the NCA include the Ngorongoro Crater, The Serengeti Plains that support about 2.0 millions migratory wildlife species of the Serengeti Mara-ecosystem (TAWIRI, 2003) and the catchment forest; the Northern Highland Forest Reserve (NHFR) known as ‘Entim Olturot’ in Maa language. Other important features found in the NCA are the archaeological and palaeontological site located at Oldupai Gorge and the early human foot-prints that were discovered at Alaitole in Ngarusi area. Because of these particular features and the harmonious co-existence between wildlife and people that has existed for many years, NCA was accorded the status of a World Heritage Site and listed as one of the International Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Reserve Programme.
Encompassing three spectacular volcanic craters, the Olduvai Gorge, huge expanses of savannah, forest and bush land, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the flagship of Tanzania’stourism industry.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), measuring 8,300 square kilometres, is also the only place on earth where mankind and wild animals co-exist in harmony. The NCA became a Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1971 and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
Originally part of the Serengeti National Park when the latter was established by the British in 1951, in 1959 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) was formed, separating NCA from Serengeti. Land within the area is multi-use, providing protection status for wildlife while also permitting human habitation. Its uniqueness lays in the fact that the NCA is where man, livestock and wild animals live in peace: Maasai cattle can sometimes be seen grazing alongside zebras on Ngorongoro’s grassland.
Oldupai Gorge (originally misnamed Olduvai) is the most famous archaeological location in East Africa, and has become an essential visit for travelers to Ngorongoro or Serengeti.
At Laetoli, west of Ngorongoro Crater, hominid footprints are preserved in volcanic rock 3.6 millions years old and represent some of the earliest signs of mankind in the world. Three separate tracks of a small-brained upright walking early hominid. Australopithecus afarensis, a creature about 1.2 to 1.4 meters high, were found. Imprints of these are displayed in the Oldupai museum.
More advanced descendants of Laetoli’s hominids were found further north, buried in the layers of the 100 meters deep Oldupai Gorge. Excavations, mainly by the archaeologist Louis and Mary Leakey, yielded four different kinds of hominid, showing a gradual increases in brain size and in the complexity of their stone tools. The first skull of Zinjanthropus, commonly known as ‘Nutcracker Man’ who lived about 1.75 millions years ago, was found here. The most important find include Home habilis, Zinjathropus and the Laetoli footprints.
The excavation sites have been preserved for public viewing and work continues during the dry seasons, coordinated by the Department of Antiquities. One may visit Oldupai at all times of the year. It is necessary to have official guide to visit the excavations. At the top of the Gorge there is small museum, a sheltered area used for lectures and talks, toilets and a cultural boma. Local Maasai souvenirs are also available.
Thus, Oldupai and Laetoli makes the Ngorongoro Conservation Area an important place in the world for the study of human origins and human evolution.
Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek form shallow basins where water accumulates from the nearby areas of slightly higher altitude. The water in both lakes are extremely saline, too saline for human consumption. Lake Ndutu becomes alive with animals during the migration because it is surrounded by the Ndutu woodlands and the Short Grass Plains, which provide ample cover and food.
Located just outside the NCA, to the north-east near Lake Natron, this Volcano, whose Maasai name means ‘Mountain of God’, has had a major influence on the development of the area. It rises 1830m above the Valley floor. Its ash has been blown westwards onto the plains and helped shape the landscape and ecology. It is the only active volcano in the area, having erupted in 2006 and more recently July this year (2007).
This remarkable black dune, composed of volcanic ash from Oldonyo Lengai, is being blown slowly westwards across the plains, at the rate of about 17 meters per year. Some 9 meters high and 100 meters long in its curve, it can be found to the north of Oldupai Gorge.
The Gorge is ecologically important because it is a vital nesting site of the Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture. The best time to visit Olkarien Gorge is from March to April when the vultures are breeding. This coincides with migration when there is plenty of food available.
Flamingos are very common at lakes in the NCA, all of which are saline. Flamingos are filter feeders and feed on plankton. Plankton is a collective name for microscopic plants and animals that occur in the mud and on the surface of shallow, saline lakes.
The mixture of forest, canyons, grassland plains, Lakes and marshes provide habitats for a wide range of bird life. The wet months see the arrival of the Eurasian migrants at the pools. White storks, yellow wagtails and swallows mingle with the local inhabitants: stilts, saddle-bill storks, ibis, ruff and various species of duck. Lesser flamingos fly in to feed from their breeding grounds at Lake Natron. Distinctive grassland birds – ostrich, kori bustards and crowned cranes-abound. The rest of the NCA also has areas which will reward the keen ornithologist.
Walking in and around the NCA encouraged, but should be done with guides. Short hikes can be organized with your lodge or the NCAA headquarters. Long walks can be adventurous and rewarding but need some planning.
Suitable walking routes include the area from Olmoti Crater to Embakai Highlands and down to the Great Rift Valley, the Northern Highlands Forest Reserve and the Eastern Plains around Nasera Rock, Gol Mountains and Olkarien Gorge.
For thousands of years a succession of cattle herding people moved into the Area, lived here for time, and then moved on, sometimes forced out by other tribes.
About 200 years ago the Maasai arrived and have since colonized the Area in substantial numbers, their traditional way of life allowing them to live in harmony with the wildlife and the environment. Today there are some 42,200 Maasai pastoralists living in the NCA with their cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep. During the rains they move out on to the open plains; in the dry season they move into the adjacent woodlands and mountain slopes. The Maasai are allowed to take their animals into the Crater for water and grazing, but not to live or cultivate there. Elsewhere in the NCA they have the right to roam freely.
Visitors are welcomed at two designated Maasai cultural bomas one on the road to Serengeti and another close to Sopa Lodge at Irkeepusi village.
The Datoga, Nilo-Hamitic-speaking pastoralists, who arrived more than 300 years ago and were subsequently forced out of the Serengeti-Ngorongoro area by the Maasai, today they live just outside the NCA, in the Lake Eyasi basin and beyond.
One needs to fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport at Moshi, situated at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. From there one can get a charter flight, take a taxi or make use of the free shuttle service. The distance from Moshi to Arusha is about 55km.
Take note: The road from Arusha to Lodoare Entrance Gate is 160km long. As of recently, the entire journey is on tarmac and it takes about two hours. Unless you stay on the main roads, which are graveled, a 4×4 vehicle is essential when entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.