As soon as Sean Kirk and his family arrived at Ngorongoro Conservation Area, they discovered they were not going to be alone.
“We got in at dinnertime and met two other families. Almost immediately we went out and saw a water buffalo being devoured by a pride of eight lions,” says Kirk, a 49-year-old financier and bond trader from Florida.
“You’re not allowed to be by yourself when you go out here. You have to be escorted by a Maasai warrior.”
The escort is for the safety of guests and to enhance what most visitors to Ngorongoro consider one of the greatest experiences of their lives – seeing the world’s most awesome creatures in an imposing setting that is literally considered the cradle of civilization. It’s the crater of civilization too.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, in Northern Tanzania, is a centred around the vast, volcanic Ngorongoro Crater. The crater, 19 kilometres in diameter with inside walls that are 600 metres high is believed to be the largest unbroken caldera in the world – the cylindershaped depression formed after the explosion of magma from a volcano.
“It was millions of years ago that this land collapsed and formed this amazing caldera that is now the home of spectacular wild animals,” says Daniel Nagewo, Camp Manager of South Camp, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. Ngorogoro Conservation Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as an International Biosphere Reserve.
“We were on the crater looking down,” says Kirk, who flew into the area on AirKenya from Nairobi with his wife and two teenaged daughters.
“We found out that this particular crater has five different prides of lions. As we were getting into the area, our guide noticed a couple of paw prints. That’s when he found a pride of lions stalking a water buffalo,” Kirk says.
“The amazing thing to me was how well our guide was trained to looking out for wildlife. Of course, he had binoculars, but even then, it was something you could miss easily.”
Kirk is filled with praise for the guide who took him and his family on bush drives during their stay at Ngorongoro in July 2017.
“He is amazing! He has 13 years experience, and he has just the right blend of knowing when to talk, and knowing when to get everyone to keep quiet and look.”
What was even more remarkable for Kirk and his family was that they were far from the only visitors to the crater at that time. “There must have been a dozen jeeps in front of us,” he says – yet the animals appeared to be undisturbed.
“We counted about 12 different species; zebras, warthogs, wildebeest, buffalos – even a hippo up close. I don’t think there’s anything that can compare to seeing this kind of diversity of wildlife in one area and in such a short time,” Kirk says.
“Visiting the Ngorongoro area is one of the highest experiences one can have,” Nagewo says.
“Visitors can not only experience an amazing wildlife viewing at the crater floor; they can also find out about the local community by visiting a Maasai village and learning about how people live here. Visitors can also find out how different organisations support local communities through different projects.”
There are at least 18 lodges in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. “Each one offers its own unforgettable experience with the highest quality of service,” Nagewo says.
The Kirks stayed at the highly rated Crater Lodge. This opulent lodge, built in 1995, combines architectural hints of traditional Maasai homesteads with interiors that nod to the designs of the stately homes of Europe.
Crater Lodge has 30 rooms and is actually three separate camps, a North, South and a Tree Camp, each with its own dining and lounge area. The Kirks stayed at South Camp.
“It’s luxurious and the food is amazing,” Kirk says. The lodge features Kenyan cheeses and beef, local lamb from a Tanzanian farm and fish from Lake Victoria.
There’s also an extensive breakfast buffet, and guest can either remain at the lodge for a lunch buffet or take a packed lunch to the crater. Tea and biscuits are served at 4 p.m. and of course later on it’s time for that African, tradition, the sundowner. Dinners are informal – no need to dress up.
Kirk found that he did not need to venture far to encounter spectacular sights. “It’s a completely open camp. Lions could walk right in front of me! And there’s a resident water buffalo – they guess that his age is about 25,” he says.
In addition to safari and bush drives, Ngorongo offers visitors the opportunity to visit Olduvai Gorge, perhaps the most important paleoanthropological site in the world. This site reminds visitors that we have truly ancient ancestors. Homo habilis, who may have been the first human species, lived here as long as 1.9 million years ago.
Researched and developed by anthropolgists Mary and Louis Leakey, Olduvai shows how humans and human society evolved, learning to use tools and establishing social and community structures. Our most direct ancestors, the first homo sapiens, are believed to have lived here 17,000 years ago.
Ngorongoro’s more intrepid visitors can expand their experiences even further by visiting Lake Eyasi.
“At Lake Eyasi you can get hunting experience with the Hadzabe tribe that lives there,” Nagewo says. “It’s a day tour, but you will need an extra day to get there and to return back to your lodge.”
Kirk says the most impressive part of his trip has been gaining new understanding of how animals think and behave.
“Sometimes I feel a little tired after half hour blazing by along a dirt road, but then to see 10 giraffes sticking their heads above the treetops, looking like dinosaurs – there’s nothing to match this,” he says.
“I’m amazed at how well the guides understand the animals too – they trust the fact that the animals are docile during the day, and they make sure none of us go out at night. They understand animal behaviour – and they understand us too!”