Everyone is overwhelmed by their first sight of the Ngorongoro Crater, in northern Tanzania. The immense scale, the grandeur, the aesthetic perfection of the landscape, all prompt wonder and incredulity. You stare and stare at the dark-green walls of the caldera, cradling a sky-blue soda lake, home to tens of thousands of pink flamingos. And although you can’t see them from high on the rim, you are aware that down on the crater floor, 2,000 feet below, lives a Noah’s Ark of animals, including around 60 lions.
My recent visit to Ngorongoro was my third, and despite knowing exactly what to expect, when we reached the first observation point, I was still awestruck. And, of course, this is why pictures of the crater appear in virtually every guide and brochure about East Africa. And why, alas, in recent years Ngorongoro has become a byword for overtourism.
Motivated by who-knows-what cocktail of commercial interests, as well as a hunger for hard foreign currency, the Tanzanian authorities allow up to 400 vehicles a day to descend into the crater, and there can, quite literally, be traffic snarl-ups on the two dirt roads that lead down from the rim. Off-road driving is forbidden. On my first visit, back in the 1980s, I was able to camp on the crater floor overnight with just three other people. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience, not least because of the elephants who turned up at 2 in the morning, stepping gingerly between the guy ropes of our tents. It seems inconceivable today. Sometimes, I interrogate my memory, to check that over the years my imagination hasn’t spun an elaborate fantasy.
Ngorongoro is the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera: 12 miles wide, with an area of 102 square miles. It was formed around 2 million years ago by an incident of unimaginable violence, when a volcano that may then have been as much as 19,000 feet high — as big as Kilimanjaro — exploded and collapsed. Today, the grasslands of the crater floor lie at an elevation of 5,700 feet.
Of all the destinations on my recent East Africa itinerary, it was Ngorongoro that exerted the strongest pull. In the era of COVID-19, the crowds would be gone, and it seemed likely that I would be able to revisit the place that I had known all those years ago. And so it proved. For the first two hours of our initial game drive, we appeared to be the only people inside the crater. We stopped for a while somewhere close to the middle and gazed around at the epic landscape. There was no one to be seen, and the only sound was that of the wind gusting through the long grass. Eventually, we did spot another vehicle, and by the end of our excursion we had encountered a grand total of five.
For many years, I have recommended &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, perched on the rim, an unexpectedly lavish enclave of 30 suites divided among three separate camps. On this occasion, however, I decided to try somewhere more remote, in anticipation of a time when the crowds have returned. From The Highlands, it is an hour’s drive (along a dreadful dirt road) through Maasai ranchland to the Lemala Gate, the nearest of the two places where you can descend into Ngorongoro. However, the advantage of its location is that it is close to Olmoti and Empakaai, two smaller craters that attract only a handful of more adventurous visitors. Neither has the same profusion of animals — though buffaloes, elephant and leopards are all present — but both provide memorable hiking. In addition, Olmoti offers sensational views, while Empakaai contains a soda lake, home to thousands of flamingos.
The Highlands comprises eight futuristic bubbles, made of canvas and glass, with narrow decks that have a view of the distant Serengeti plains. Outside, they look like the kind of structures that one day may be erected on the surface of Mars. Inside, ours contained a king-size bed, a log-burning metal stove — the camp is at an elevation of 8,750 feet, and temperatures can fall below freezing in June and July — wicker armchairs covered with sheepskins, and animal-skin rugs atop polished wooden floors. A striking color scheme of purple and slate gray was augmented by large framed black-and-white photographs of Maasai tribespeople. A paneled wall separated the living area from a narrow, well-lit bath with two sinks and a walk-in shower. Overall, our bubble seemed stylish and well appointed, if rather small for two people. During our stay, however, we came to realize that it possessed a significant design failing, being too cold at night when the fire had died down and too hot during the middle of the day, despite a fan high in the roof that was clearly intended to obviate this problem.
Other aspects of the camp impressed me: Although the menu was limited, the food was imaginative and well prepared, the staff were friendly and conspicuously anxious to be helpful, and our driver-guide was knowledgeable and communicative. But despite these qualities, the accommodations fell short of the standard that members will require. I will continue to look for ways in which Ngorongoro can be experienced without the crowds.
The remote location; the sweeping views of the distant Serengeti; the hospitable staff.
The bubble accommodations are cramped for two people and are cold at night and hot during the day; the dirt road from the lodge to the entrance gate of the Ngorongoro Crater is diabolical.
If you want to hike in the Olmoti and Empakaai craters, avoid June and July, when, at more than 8,000 feet, it is often extremely cold.
From the nearest airstrip to The Highlands (a three-hour drive), it is a 45-minute flight to Seronera at the center of Serengeti National Park. This brief aerial journey crosses the Ngorongoro hills, before skimming over the grass sea of the southern Serengeti plains, an apparently limitless expanse of savanna, dappled by shifting cloud shadows.
Seronera is a small settlement, where most of the buildings belong either to the park administration or to one of the established scientific research projects. However, the permanent water of the Seronera River permits a substantial year-round wildlife population, and numerous camps and lodges are located nearby. In consequence, tourist numbers can be excessive. On one occasion, during a previous trip, I saw 32 vehicles clustered around a tree containing a dozing leopard, which was clearly accustomed to all the attention. Fortunately, the Serengeti is a big place — 5,700 square miles, an area significantly larger than Connecticut — and it is easy enough to escape the crowds. On my recent trip, it was unnecessary to try, as ours was one of only two planes at the airport and the small terminal was deserted, aside from two or three bored security staff.
In much of the Serengeti, the wildlife viewing is seasonal, as there is no permanent water and the animals must follow the rains and move to areas of new grass. At the time of our visit, in March, the main herds of wildebeests and zebras were still in the southwest of the park, around 50 miles from Seronera. Our destination, Namiri Plains camp, lay a two-hour drive to the east, an area through which the migration passes in November and December. We set off with our driver-guide in a Land Cruiser, bouncing along a dirt road, buffeted by the breeze, exhilarated to be out in a vast open space, beneath a blue canopy of sky, with not another vehicle for 10 miles in any direction. Between November and May, this area of the park is green and there are scattered herds of buffaloes — some 200 or 300 strong — as well antelopes and gazelles. But in the dry season, from June to October, the landscape turns brown, and the immense plains can be almost deserted.
Namiri Plains is located in a region renowned for the density of its cheetah population — there are probably more here than anywhere else in Africa — and for 20 years, the area was off-limits to visitors and reserved for cheetah research and conservation projects. The camp opened in 2014 — it was completely refurbished and upgraded in 2019 — and there are still no other properties nearby. Although close to the open savanna, it is backed by slightly more tangled terrain, with large numbers of acacia trees that attract herds of giraffe. Permanent underground water sources enable animals to survive in the area year-round.
Both the public areas and the 10 tented suites have walls made of calcrete, a sedimentary rock created from compressed volcanic ash, covered by spreading khaki canvas roofs. Our accommodations came with a king-size bed, two armchairs, a fridge, a desk and generous quantities of hanging space. Its distinguishing feature was a glass wall, with screened sliding doors, that ran the entire length of the living area. Outside was a sizable terrace with daybeds and a tub, from both of which it was possible to lie back and survey the Serengeti grasslands. The bath was spacious, bright and unusually well appointed with two sinks and an indoor-outdoor shower, enclosed by sliding glass panels. Although the suite was exceptionally comfortable and convenient — the water pressure was strong; the Wi-Fi was reliable — its atmosphere struck me as slightly soulless. Certainly, the design scheme had little of the complexity and sophistication that you might expect to find at properties run by companies such as Singita, Sanctuary or &Beyond.
This deficiency was also observable in the lounge, dining room and bar, which all struck me as rather austere. Fortunately, the public area opened directly onto the grasslands, which gave them a strong feeling of connection to nature. On a more positive note, the staff were consistently warm and hospitable. And the food was well prepared and attractively served, even if the choices were restricted.
The principal reason for a stay at Namiri Plains is the easy access it provides to an area of the eastern Serengeti that is justly renowned for its unprecedented numbers of lions and cheetahs. The famous Gol Kopjes, volcanic outcrops that emerge from the grasslands like rocks in a gigantic Japanese Zen garden, are only a 45-minute drive away, and in normal times they have a resident population of wildlife filmmakers. During our stay, the humans had departed, but the cats were still there. On one game drive, we saw three cheetahs, a pair of male lions (presumably brothers) and two prides, one of six and another of 18. For Harper members, the preferred base in the Serengeti will remain Singita Sasakwa on the opposite, western side of the park. But Namiri Plains is far from the tourist crowds who cluster around Seronera; it provides easy access to the epic landscape of the southern short-grass plains; and there are few places in Africa where big cat sightings are so routine. In fact, they are virtually guaranteed.
The extremely spacious and comfortable tented suites; the proximity to the Serengeti’s famous short-grass plains and Gol Kopjes, with their huge predator populations.
Reaching the camp requires a two-hour drive from the nearest airstrip, on a dirt road, in an open vehicle; some people might not be relish this experience, despite the landscape and the wildlife to be seen along the way. The interior design is austere and rather charmless.
The Great Migration passes through the area in November and December; although there is a resident animal population around the camp, from June to October the nearby plains are often deserted, as the animals have moved on in search of water and fresh grass.