KARATU, Tanzania — Whatever you call it, crater or caldera, this beautiful 44-square-mile plain is surrounded by a 2,000-foot escarpment of lush forest and savanna.
Ngorongoro means "cold place" in Masai, a strange name for the earth's largest unbroken caldera, a bowl probably created 2 or 3 million years ago by the collapse of a volcanic mountain much larger than Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Once a part of the Serengeti Plain that runs from Kenya down into northwestern Tanzania, the crater floor and surrounding wall of jungle and rain forest is home to about 25,000 animals: great herds of wildebeest and zebras, Grant's and Thomson's gazelles, cape buffalo, rhinos, hippos and elephants. Also, lions, cheetahs, jackals and hyenas. Ngorongoro's abundant water supply creates a congenial habitat all year.
Bird fanciers will have a field day, too, focusing on several hundred species including crested cranes, white egrets, ostriches and thousands of flamingos covering the soda lake at crater center like an early morning mist.
With Ngorongoro's great beauty and innumerable kinds of wildlife, small wonder that it is often called a combination of Noah's Ark and the Garden of Eden.
Here to there: Fly British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, Pan Am or Air France to Nairobi, Kenya. From there your best bet is overland by safari (see below).
How long/how much? A two-night stay is the usual for most safaris, with a full day of game runs on the crater floor. The steep hills into and out of the bowl can be made only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and you'll have a midday lunch prepared by your tour or safari operator. Lodges rimming the crater are very reasonable, dining the same, but again, this will probably be included in your safari cost.
A few fast facts: Tanzania's shilling recently traded at 90 to the dollar. You must have yellow fever shots for moving between Kenya and Tanzania. Cholera shots and a malaria-pill program are a good idea. Visas are required for both countries. Bring a sun hat, a plastic bottle for water and a strong flashlight, as electricity goes off periodically.
Getting settled in: Gibb's Farm (Box 1501, Karatu, Tanzania; $60 U.S. double) is 25 miles from the crater, a lovely old brick-and-stone colonial house overlooking coffee plantations and the Great Rift Valley. Small cottages apart from the main house hold 12 utilitarian rooms, all set in gardens overflowing with lilies, daisies, bougainvillea, roses and fruit trees. This is a heavenly setting with views to match.
Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge (edge of crater; $60 double) gives you a front-row seat for viewing all of the crater. Stone fireplaces rise to high beamed ceilings in the lobby, dining room and bar. Rooms are simply furnished, but feature huge windows overlooking the game below. A very attractive place, although the major topic among guests seems to be when the hot water will return for a much-needed shower.
Ngorongoro Crater Safari Club (also on the crater edge; prices about the same as above) is being completely renovated. It's on the same side of the crater a few miles from the Wildlife Lodge, and the setting is equally dramatic.
Regional food and drink: Tanzania food is simple fare, well prepared, with usually a game dish adding zest to the menu, as hunting for the table is still legal in Tanzania. Soups are usually good, and a variety of fresh fruits are plentiful.
We had a stew of topi , a type of antelope, that was delicious. And one guide told us that elan, the largest of the antelopes, was the best meat in Africa, tasting very much like choice beef. Another guide said that a wart-hog steak couldn't be beat for taste.
Safari is Tanzania's beer and it's very good. The wines are something else again, worthy only of being given a wide berth.
Moderate-cost dining: All of northern Tanzania seems to stop by for lunch at Gibb's Farm, with Germans, French, Brits and a conglomerate of other types milling about its bountiful buffet. Lots of salads, quiches, cold meats, breads and desserts for about $10 per person. Most take their plates outside to dine beneath fruit trees amid banks of flowers.
The dining room of Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge is a gigantic room with a surprisingly varied menu for safari country. One dinner started with creamed cauliflower soup, then an omelet followed by a choice of topi stew on pasta or roast lamb, ending with fresh fruit salad or cream caramel. The tab for drop-ins is $11.50.
The lodge's breakfasts always start with juice and fresh papaya, followed with eggs or an omelet prepared to order, lots of coffee and rolls. And that's after tea or coffee with your wake-up call.
On your own: The crater's floor is spotted with mini-forests and woodlands, most having a stand of yellow-fever acacia trees, so called because they were once thought to cause the disease. The trees usually grow near water, which attracted mosquitoes that brought on the fever.