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Ngorongoro Fascination

by Stephen Lelo

Situated in the northeastern corner of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) in Northern Tanzania, the less known Empakaai Crater is a breathtaking ecological jewel worth visiting by casual and serious hikers.

Many people know of the world famous Ngorongoro Crater, however the Ngorongoro Highlands have two other smaller craters &endash; Empakaai and Olmoti, which are just as fascinating as the bowl-like Ngorongoro Crater. These three distinct geological features share a common origin in that they were all once active volcanoes whose summits collapsed into the underlying subterranean molten lava (magma) chambers forming what geologists call "calderas" &endash; erroneously referred to as 'craters.'

Over thousands of years, these enormous stone bowls developed their own unique mosaic of habitats that vary from caldera to caldera. Although little or less known than its towering neighbor, Empakaai Crater is a breathtaking ecological jewel worth a visit.

Empakaai is located about 30 km northeast of Ngorongoro Crater. Its northern and eastern slopes rise from the floor of the rift valley while its southern and western slopes are bordered by the highlands. The area is especially suited for hiking since there are no vehicle roads into the caldera.

The caldera is about 7km in diameter and the floor contains a saline-alkaline lake that is about 79 m deep and is fed by several freshwater streams. The average elevation of the caldera floor at the shore of the lake is about 2,230 m above sea level varying from an elevation of about 2,510 m on the East to about 3,260 m on the West.

The best hiking trails are situated along the lowest point of the eastern rim and descend through forest to the eastern shore of the alkaline lake. The scenery within the caldera is spectacular at every point and one can occasionally see the distant snow cap of Mount Kilimanjaro on the far eastern side of the Rift Valley.

The walk takes a mere 30 minutes to the caldera floor. Another half an hour of trekking around the grassy plains brings the hiker to the edge of two small beautiful ponds. Several species of large mammals are visible year-round, with the most common ones being bushbuck, blue monkey and buffalo.

Walk for Health and Education

Short hikes can be organized with tour operators, lodges, or the NCA headquarters. Empakaai Crater and its surrounding area offer a unique variety of experiences to visitors while reducing the pressure of vehicle congestion in Ngorongoro Crater.

Empakaai Crater is best known for its large concentrations of the pink Lesser flamingoes that feed on the blue-green algae knows as Spirulina. Thousands of ducks and other water birds inhabit the lake and its shores. Myriads of other colorful and inter-rolling forest and savanna-dwelling bird species also abound around the lake.

The best time for hiking is around 6 a.m. in the morning to 10 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the evening. However, since buffalos and lions can occasionally be dangerous, it is advisable that visitors be accompanied by an armed ranger.

Throughout the year, fog is common for most part of each day. While there are many sunny hours in the Ngorongoro Highlands, the weather is generally unpredictable. The eastern part of the caldera rim is lower in elevation and is therefore usually below the clouds. Photographing and animal viewing are especially good between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.

In order to enjoy Empakaai Crater and its surrounding environs, visitors should plan to spend at least two or three days in the Conservation Area. Leaving the NCA headquarters early in the morning gives visitors ample time to take a short hike into the caldera and enjoy a picnic lunch before returning to Ngorongoro.A Pristine Area

Currently there are no tourist facilities at Empakaai. However, public campsites are situated along its rim. All campsites are situated adjacent to the road and water can be obtained from local springs. However, visitors are advised to carry their own drinking water for health precautions.

The NCAA plans to diversify attractions available beyond the Ngorongoro Crater. One of the featured activities being considered are adventurous walking safaris in the Ngorongoro wilderness.

For the details of walking expeditions in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a walking safari brochure can be obtained from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority Information Center in Arusha Municipal, from prominent tour operators, or by request from the Conservator of Ngorongoro at the following email address: The Ngorongoro website,, also provides a wealth of information about the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.Conservation, Conservation

"In all of the wildlife countries, Tanzania has the greatest percentage of protected land," said Peter Mwenguo, Managing Director, Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB). "Close to 30% of our land is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife, flora and fauna." With the addition of Mkomazi in the North, Tanzania now has 15 National Parks, 32 Game Reserves and the world famous Ngorongoro Crater, which is part of its own unique conservation area. Mkomazi, Tanzania's 15th National Park. Now an exciting new development for wildlife lovers is unfolding in northern Tanzania. Added to Tanzania's 14 National Parks will be the restructured Mkomazi, a 56 year-old former game reserve.


As the centerpiece of the new National Park, Mkomazi is joined with the Umba Forest Reserve, and shares a border with Tsavo National Park. Tanzania's 15th National Park plays a key role within the greater ecosystem as safe migratory routes and dispersal areas for herds of elephants, oryx and zebras during the wet season and as a protected area for giraffes and many other birds and animals year round.

The transformation of Mkomazi into a National Park has served three major purposes: the re-securing of its land as a haven for wildlife, including the reintroduction of the critically endangered (and once extinct in East Africa) black rhino and the hunting dogs; the upgrading of the entire infrastructure of 500 miles of road, an airfield, and dams and water sources within the new area; and the introduction of an innovative outreach program to villagers living in surrounding areas. Construction of schools and clinics, new boreholes and water pumps, the formation of women's groups and a soccer team, and the introduction of cultural tourism are all part of the program meant to benefit the people of Tanzania as well as its wildlife.

The South

Whereas Arusha is the safari capital of the North, Dar es Salaam, the exotic port city and commercial capital of Tanzania, is the jumping off point for the South."Since Tanzania's tourism strategy is to encourage high quality, low volume tourism, the Southern Circuit creates more diversity in the safari circuits and helps avoid mass tourism," said Amant Macha, Director of Marketing, TTB.The Selous Game Reserve, at 55,000 square km is the largest in Africa and larger than the country of Switzerland. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along the Rufijii River, Selous offers the tourist different game viewing experiences, boat safaris, as well as walking safaris. In addition to its masses of elephants, hippos, buffalo, it is the remaining home of the Black Rhino and is also home to 25% of the continent's wild dog population.

Ruaha National Park will soon be combined with Usangu Game Reserve, and expected to increase its size by over 15,000 square kilometers; if this expected size remain the same, it will make Ruaha the largest National Park in Africa. According to Gerald Bigurube, Director General, Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), one of the aims of the government in annexing Usangu to Ruaha is in part to save the biodiversity of that area as well as to increase tourism to the region. This can best be accomplished if the area is administered and marketed by TANAPA". Ruaha, which boasts 10,000 elephants, the largest population of any East African national park, protects a vast tract of the rugged semi-arid bush country that characterizes central Tanzania. Its lifeblood is the Great Ruaha River which courses along the Eastern boundary of the park.

The Usangu Game Reserve includes the Ihefu Wetland, the natural water reservoir for the Great Ruaha River. Other parks in the South include Mikumi, set between the Uluguru Mountains to the north and the Lumango mountains to the south-east and within a short flight from Dar es Salaam, Mikumi is teeming with wildlife and 300 species of birdlife.Udzungwa Mountains National Park, one of the world's key biodiversity hot spots, is especially known for 10 or more species of primates, including the rare Iringa Red Colobus and the Sanje Crested Mangabey as well as the bizarre giant elephant shrew. Its constant climate has given rise to a range of flora and fauna, and sometimes called the African Galapagos. For information e-mail