The giant caldera of the extinct volcano Ngorongoro is located within the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, on the edge of the Serengeti Plain, adjacent to the famous Olduvai Gorge with its valuable anthropological finds of the Olduvai culture and the active “soda” volcano Ol-Arinyo-Aengai.
The fresh crater lake Magadi in the center of the caldera is inhabited by a large population of pink flamingos.
Zebras and gnu antelopes graze at the bottom of the caldera, which has been transformed over hundreds of thousands of years into a fertile mountain valley.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro is one of 115 volcanic craters located in this area of Tanzania, but it is the only one of its kind.
Calderas are one of the typical forms of landscape within the East African Rift (a 6,000 km long zone of faults in the Earth’s crust, created many millions of years ago by geological shifts at the boundary of the African and Arabian tectonic plates). The Great Rift Valley as a whole is characterized by incredible contrasts of relief (the highest mountain Kilimanjaro, the deepest (after Baikal) rift lake Tanganyika, the greatest caldera Ngorongoro, etc.) and to this day continuing volcanic activity. Thus, next door to Ngorongoro, on the other side of Olduvai Gorge (by the way, it is considered the ancestral home of mankind), is the most active of the “soda” volcanoes of the rift – Ol-Doinho-Lengai, whose frozen lava acquires the color of melted snow….
Tanzanian “big hole”, as locals call Ngorongoro, is one of the largest on Earth: its diameter is about 20 km and depth of about 600 meters. It was created as a result of the collapse of the cone of the mountain during the eruption of a giant ancient volcano about 2.5 million years ago. When you stand in the center of this natural “amphitheater” and somewhere on the horizon ridge of stone rises, it is hard to believe that you are inside the crater of an extinct volcano. Its scale is such that it simply does not fit in the head. Therefore, tourists visiting Ngorongoro National Park, having realized that this vast green valley is the crater of the volcano, switch from the “uncovered” whole to the interesting particulars, i.e. the local fauna.
Over the years, a special way of life has developed inside the ancient caldera. For example, the main peculiarity of local animals is that they are “sedentary”, because the mountain ridge surrounding the valley – the crater walls, which have become a kind of “cattle pen”, prevents them from migrating. But actually, the animals of the protected valley in the caldera have no reasons for seasonal migration: they have plenty of food and water all year round. The constant source of fresh water is the lake at the bottom of the crater and rivulets flowing down the slopes. They do not dry up even in the dry season, because they are fed by groundwater. The rains here are small and quite short, even in April and November when they are heaviest. In general, the climate of Ngorongoro is different from the surrounding savannah. The microclimate of the caldera is, firstly, milder, and secondly, more diverse, as it is influenced by altitude differences and the dynamics of air masses. Depending on the location within the caldera, several ecosystems can be distinguished. The deepest part of the crater is occupied by a lake famous for its population of pink flamingos (other birds include nectarbirds, flycatchers, etc.). The lake is surrounded by marshes. Once there were crocodiles here, but they were exterminated long ago by local herders so that the predatory reptiles would not interfere with grazing.
The green valley, surrounded by a natural wall, seems to have been deliberately created by nature as a biosphere reserve. It officially received this status in 1981.
Flora and fauna
In a ridge-fenced valley, animals are born, live, breed and die generation after generation. In terms of fauna, Ngorongoro is one of the most densely populated areas on the African continent. It is estimated that there are about 30,000 large animals (antelopes, lions, elephants, hyenas, ostriches, baboons, buffalos, leopards, hippos, rhinos…). According to scientists, it is home to 55 species of mammals and more than 100 species of birds. Many are found only here. Lake Magadi is home to a mass of pink flamingos and other waterfowl. Elephants, buffalo and rhinos come to the lake and surrounding swamps. Reed goats and kongoni and topi antelopes can be found in the reed beds along the edges of the swamps. On the plains there are gnu, zebra, gazelle and ostrich. Foxes, hyenas and jackals are encountered. There are also two small woodlands (acacia forests) at the bottom of the crater where impala, kongoni and bushbuck antelopes live. Just above the lake level, dikdiks live in dry rocky terrain overgrown with thorny shrubs. Even higher up on the slopes are wet savannah and mists. The slopes are covered with tall grasses, shrubs and remnant evergreen mountain forests.
Since ancient times, the fertile “cauldron”, almost to the brim with animals and birds, was inhabited by the Maasai, one of the most famous and numerous East African tribes. They are known as fearless warriors, but the main thing in their life is cattle breeding. Judging by their legends, the Maasai believe that their tribe was once the main and only owner of cattle, and if later cattle appeared to other tribes, it was only because they stole them from the Maasai. Ngorongoro has long been their protected area, but only the creation of a real biosphere reserve on this land has become a real disaster for these warlike and not inclined to compromise people.
Since 1951, the crater has been part of the Serengeti National Park. In 1959, a kind of reservation was organized in the protected area: a place where the Maasai could build settlements and graze their cattle. But from 1975 they were evicted from there to the savannah, finally banning any agricultural activity inside the caldera. In 1979, the Ngorongoro Crater was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as an outstanding natural monument, and in 1981 it was given the status of a biosphere reserve. It is one of the richest and most beautiful reserves in Africa.
The administration of the reserve has a good income from the organization of safaris (but the Maasai are not included in the administration and do not profit from tourism), especially since the animals do not go anywhere all year round. Tourists are taken in open jeeps on dirt roads along the inner diameter of the crater and show unafraid animals and birds (they say that lions there are not afraid of people at all, sometimes they come to rest in the shadow of a standing car, thus bringing delight and horror to photo hunters). It is forbidden to leave the road, as well as to get out of the jeep. It is safer for both animals and people.
- Ngorongoro is the largest unflooded caldera in Africa. Ngorongoro Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Location: in northern Tanzania, between the Serengeti Plain and the East African Rift Valley.
- Administration: Arusha Region (United Republic of Tanzania).
- Mountain system: East African plateau, part of the East African rift.
- Type of volcano: extinct volcano.
- Last eruption: about 2.5 million years ago.
- Crater lake: Magadi.
- Languages: Swahili and English (official), language of the Maasai tribe.
- Ethnicity: Maasai.
- Religions: local beliefs.
- Currency: Tanzanian shilling.
- Nearest large settlement: the city of Arusha 210 km away.
- Nearest airport: (local airlines) in Arusha.
- Altitude of the volcano: up to 3000 m above sea level; the bottom of the caldera at 2380 m above sea level.
- Crater depth: 600 m.
- Caldera diameter: 17-21 km.
- Total area: about 26,400 hectares.
Climate and weather
- Subequatorial, but Ngorongoro has a highly variable microclimate due to altitude differences and air mass dynamics.
- The higher the altitude, the more humid and foggy it is.
- There are strong temperature fluctuations in the plains.
- Average annual temperature: +21°C.
- Average annual precipitation: 550 mm.
- The rainy season is from November to May.
- Most precipitation falls in November and April.
- All agricultural activities are prohibited in the Ngorongoro National Reserve.
- Services: tourism, organization of safaris.
- Ngorongoro Cauldron with crater lake Magadi.
- Great variety of animals and birds
Cultural and historical
- Olduvai Goj Museum of Anthropology and Human Evolution (in a neighboring gorge, within the protected area)
- The name Ngorongoro may simply mean “big hole”, but there is a more beautiful version: the Maasai believe that the sounds of the bells, which in ancient times were sounded to intimidate the enemy during battle, were similar to “ngo-rongoro-ro”. This is also how the Maasai began to call their warriors who defended the caldera from the encroachment of outsiders, and then the caldera itself.
- The rhinoceros population, which 30 years ago was over a hundred, was almost exterminated already in the years of the reserve’s existence by poachers. The fact is that in Chinese folk medicine rhino horn is considered a powerful remedy for restoring potency. According to the latest data, there are 17 individuals of black and the rarest white rhinos left, and 50 rangers are assigned to protect them.
- The Olduvai Gorge, neighboring the caldera, is famous for the oldest fossilized remains of humanoid creatures (in particular, the skeleton of a “man of skill” dating back over 2 million years) and prehistoric animals; many stone tools and mammoth tusks have been found there. This area is considered by many to be the birthplace of mankind (a number of scientists link the initial stages of evolution of the human branch of hominids to the Great Rift Valley). At the same time, it remains one of the least affected by civilization.
- Olduvai, where the earth’s crust fracture exposed ancient archaeological layers, is a real treasure trove of interesting finds; excavations have been conducted there for a hundred years (since 1913). This place inspires not only scientists, but also fantasists. Thus, in the novel “A Space Odyssey” by A. Clark, the action takes place in the vicinity of the gorge. Here they find a certain cosmic monolith, which led to the emergence of the species Homo sapiens.
- The concept of “Olduvai culture” (or pebble culture) was introduced by paleontologists and writers named Leakey. All of them are relatives, they spent their whole life in the study of their findings. Interestingly, having put forward the hypothesis of African (Olduvai) origin of man, thus as if confirming Darwin’s theory, they all remained religious people.