Your Next Big Trip

Circle of Life: Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

My alarm goes off and I fumble in the darkness to silence it. No light shows through the bare window. We arrived in darkness, racing through the gate to Ngorongoro Conservation Area that closes at sunset. Now it’s 5am and we dress hurriedly to rush down for breakfast. We know that we are less that half an hour away from that awe-inspiring, uninterrupted view of the crater that we could only sense the night before.

A Typical Day in Ngorongoro Crater

The sense of being in a truly special place is palpable in Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge. Situated on the crater rim, it offers unbelievable crater views from most rooms. Believe it or not, this is not what made us choose this lodge. I would have been equally happy in a tent listening to the sounds of the rainforest microclimate outside. Our choice of lodge had everything to do with location, location, location. It was my 2nd time to visit the Crater. The first time was memorable for the 10 minute steep ascent to the crater floor and our time observing lions lazing in the sun only arms reach from the car. For my second visit, I wanted more. I wanted to see lions on the hunt. This meant a sunrise start which, for me, is usually difficult. For some reason, early starts in Africa come more naturally. Waking with the sun is a whole lot easier with lions waiting down below and the early sunsets (approx. 6pm) mean that time is of the essence.

Your Next Big Trip- Ngorongoro Crater

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa

Ngorongoro Crater is home to approximately 25,000 large animals. This includes lions, wildebeest, elephant and buffalo. Giraffe are notably absent, as are impala, but the abundance of other animals still makes it an unmissable stop on a short safari. Some people refer to Ngorongoro Crater as a glorified zoo. To me this is a ridiculous statement only made by those privileged enough to go on many safaris in their lifetime. For a first timer, or someone on a limited timespan, the crater is the perfect way to see a high concentration of animals in a short period of time.

Making the Descent on the Search for Lions

Once we finished breakfast and admired the view, it was time to get on the road. The crater opens at 6am and fees (200 USD per vehicle) must be paid at the gate. Soon it was time to begin our descent down the 610 metre crater wall. On the way down we passed Maasai herders descending on foot with their cattle. Even in the car I was hanging on for dear life so I can only imagine how difficult the descent must be on foot. I suppose when you’re doing it every day it starts to look effortless! We reached the crater floor without too many cars following- I was grateful for our early start. However, where we had previously sat beside sleeping lions, we saw nothing. We drove for 15 minutes passing nothing more exciting than wildebeest, gazelles and endless zebras. All great in their own right, but not top of my list on my 4th safari!

Ngorongoro Crater- Your Next Big Trip

In for the kill

Time was ticking. All my friends were having a great time on their first African trip, happily snapping endless photos of Thomson’s Gazelles and eland. I was almost losing hope when we stopped behind another car observing a herd of zebra. The next thing I knew a male lion was walking towards us. As I nearly fell over myself to get a photo of his perfect mane, my friend grabbed my arm. Right beside her, on the other side of the car was a female lion. All our windows were open and she could have touched her without extending her arm. We all held our breath as slowly, one after another, a whole pride of lions stalked past us.
Ngorongoro Crater- Your Next Big Trip

We realised with a mixture of horror and excitement that the herd of beautiful zebra we had been observing were the target. More and more lions kept appearing from behind the vehicle in front of us. We counted 15 in total! Some crept through the long grass while others crouched in the shadow of our vehicle. We were all afraid to move but wanted to get the best view of what was about to unfold. Three female lions arranged themselves in formation to keep watch from all angles. The zebra herd were still blissfully unaware, munching grass and flicking flies with their tails. On a silent command from an unknown lioness they sprung into action. Leaping across a small stream, they bounded towards the zebra.

Ngorongoro Crater- Your Next Big Trip

The male lions stayed behind while the females attempted to corral the zebra herd. Other lionesses waited on the periphery to pick off the unfortunate zebra that couldn’t keep up. Soon, they spotted their prey, the weak link of the group. 2 lionesses chased a young zebra for about a minute while he ran around the herd trying to find a way in. Eventually he managed to get back to the group and the herd galloped into the distance. The lions milled around for a while, deflated and hungry, before gathering at the watering hole for a drink.

Circle of Life

However, all was not lost! We later spotted two lioness finishing off what appeared to be a gazelle. Vultures circled overhead, while hyenas waited for the leftovers. The Lion King’s ‘Circle of life’ played on the jeep radio and all was right with the world…ok, I made that part up, but what a perfectly natural conclusion to the day!

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40 thoughts on “Circle of Life: Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Hi Roxanne,

      I often feel sad too but then weirdly felt sad for the lions walking away hungry. It’s a weird situation where the predator has to eat but its sometimes nicer to pretend it doesn’t happen!
      I’ll definitely check out your post. Love reading other people’s experiences!
      Thanks for reading.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Hi Punita,

      No fear, except for the poor zebras minding their own business eating grass. I was wishing we could warn them somehow! The lions had no interest in us past using our vehicle for shelter. They didn’t even look at us. They say that once you stay inside the vehicle, the animals view it as one unit that is much bigger than them. Not sure if it’s true for all animals or just something they tell tourists but it definitely puts my mind at ease!

      Thanks for reading!

  1. Eulanda

    We recently spent 9 days in Zanzibar, and are gutted that we were unable to make it to Tanzania for a Safari. Your experience sounds incredible! That jumping Lion shot is amazing!

  2. Megan

    How amazing that you got to witness a hunt! Ngorongoro Crater was the highlight of my time while in Tanzania, and while we saw Lions, we didn’t see them run in for the kill. It’s a spectacular experience either way!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Hi Megan,

      It was really cool to witness such an exciting moment but the crater is amazing no matter what. Before I had even seen an animal it took my breath away! Glad you loved it too.

      Thanks for reading,
      Cliodhna 🙂

  3. Telma I Blank Canvas Voyage

    Hi Cliodhna, what an adventure you had! This is just amazing! Although it’s great you got to experience a real hunting moment…I am not sure I wouldn’t cry 🙁

    Which tour operator did you chose? Do they offer tailored tours?

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Hi Telma,

      Thanks for reading. It was the perfect experience for me as we missed the actual kill itself so we got all the excitement without the gruesome part!

      I went with a company called EASTCO and did a tailored tour for me and 4 friends. I actually went with them twice. Their reviews have been very mixed on TripAdvisor. I found them good but there are literally hundreds of good tour operators in Tanzania so I’d advise you to shop around. Send out a few emails and see who gets back to you with the best information for the best price. Keep an eye on the blog as I’m planning on doing a post on how to pick a reliable safari operator. But until then, the Tanzania forum of TripAdvisor has been invaluable to me!

      Hope you get to go on safari too!

  4. Rirhandzu

    I have never been fortunate to witness a kill, what a precious moment you had. Sometimes the excitement can get the better of us, it is good that you had a friend to catch you ;). be careful out there.

    This was just an amazing experience, and I love that you also witnessed all the other scavengers coming in after the lions to take their share.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I didnt actually witness the kill itself but close enough to keep me happy! In fact it’s probably better I missed the gruesome part!
      Thanks for reading,

  5. Maggie

    What an amazing experience! This is super high on my list but I have to wait til my daughter is older before we go on a safari trip. Your pictures are amazing!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Safari is amazing! People always ask if I ever get bored of doing the same trip but the thing is it’s never the same trip. Even going to the exact same spot every day is going to show you something completely different. Thanks for reading.

  6. Allison

    I have to admit 5am is not my friend and I try very hard not to make sure I am up at this time. For this I would make an exception! What an incredible experience. The zebras look truly magnificent. I vow to get to Africa one day.

  7. kathy

    Wow what a brilliantly told story. I felt like I was also in the van with you. I suppose it is a lose lose situation but also survival of the fittest.
    The circle of life bit made me laugh out loud!

  8. Kassie

    Wow that would be such a cool thing to witness! I’ve always wanted to go on a safari to really see how the “circle of life” happens. I’m not sure I would have been able to keep my cool like you did while all that was going down. Especially with lions stalking past me!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      It was hard but crucial as I didn’t want to scare them away, or worse, attract them! It’s such a cool thing to see animals in the wild as nature intended. Thanks for reading!

  9. Jillian Michelle

    I love the way you tell your story! The opening is very engaging and the drama unfolds nicely throughout the article to make me want to keep reading! Going on a safari has always been something I’ve dreamed of doing, but I haven’t had the chance to yet. I absolutely love the shots of the lions you were able to get! So cool that they were so close! And the Circle of Life song joke made me chuckle! <3 🙂

  10. Melissa | Parenthood and Passports

    Wow! I don’t think I could have witnessed a hunt. I obviously know it happens and totally understand the circle of life, but I want to blissfully pretend it doesn’t. By the way, I probably would have peed in my pants out of fear when the pack of lions walked by the car. What an amazing experience!

  11. Clare

    It looks amazing there. I have not yet made it to Africa. It’s on the list and reading about it and seeing your great photos is wanting me to put it to the top of the list 🙂

  12. Christina from Happy to Wander

    Oh my gosh I am so jealous! I’ve wanted to visit Ngorongoro ever since I saw it on an episode of the Amazing Race (I’m lame, I know haha) Kind of a close call with the attempted lion kill too! I understand that this is all just how the food chain works, but I don’t think I’d be able to handle watching a bunch of zebras get killed.

  13. Diana

    So cool!! Do you know why there are no giraffes or impalas there? Might it be because there are too many lions and larger predators, so the giraffes/impalas wouldn’t be able to survive? I personally would have loved to see the elephants since they’re my favorite animal!

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      I think you could be right as they told us the lions and elephants have no reason to leave the crater since they have all the food they need down there! Also there aren’t very many areas of foliage to provide cover for giraffes. They really rely on tall trees to blend in with since they aren’t predators themselves. It’s only when I saw them in the wild for the first time that I realised how perfectly formed they are to camoflage against the trees!

      I love elephants too and could watch them all day!

  14. Cristina

    WOW, you are brave! I would be really scared, and would not be able to watch the “meal” moment. But I would definitely go to Africa, staying away from the lions of course :).

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Definitely go to Africa! It’s a huge continent with lots to do besides safari. If you wanted safari without the lions you could go to Arusha National Park or Lake Manyara. Both beautiful parks!

  15. Delaine

    Darn it, looks like we both missed a kill! But atleast you were surrounded by lions which is pretty amazing. By the way, how close were you to those pelicans & zebras. It looks like those zebras have just posed for your camera.
    Did you drive around yourself or go with a guide? Looks like did a self-tour.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      We’ll both have to go back and try again! 🙂 I was pretty close, maybe 200 metres? I use a Fujifilm bridge camera with a big zoom for safari.

      I always go with a guide. Don’t think I’d have the nerve to self drive! But I’ve always been lucky to have a few friends with me so we can book a tailor made tour without it being to expensive. This time there were 5 of us so we split the cost of the tour. It was great as we still had lots of room in the jeep and we called the shots on where we stopped and for how long. Can’t beat the experience of a good guide for some local insight and expertise!

  16. Ama Addo

    I must admit when i clicked into your link in the Female Travel Bloggers group on Facebook this WAS NOT what I was expecting! I am so completely blown away by how awesome this is. I’ve never read a travel article of someone anywhere near a Safari or some of the places you’ve been. It’s seriously so cool and your pictures are beautiful. This has totally motivated me to push my own boundaries of travel. I’m on my way ro the airport heading to Brussels and now I kinda wish I was here experiencing this with you. Lovely post!

    Ama / Albatroz & Co.

    1. Cliodhna Post author

      Thank you for such a kind and thoughtful comment! I’m glad you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing it 🙂 I ended up in Tanzania for the first time by accident- I tagged along with my boyfriend when he was visiting a friend from college. Since then I’ve been there 4 times in total and there’s still more I want to do there. Brussels is cool too though! Hope you had a great time there! 🙂


  17. Maja | Mexatia

    What an excellent text, I felt like I was right there!
    I feel sorry for those animals, but as you said – it is a circle of life. Hopefully we will experience the safari like this once!

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