Glowing golden plains, with backdrop of dark hills, and layers of clouds that change from dark to light softening the sun’s rays that bathe the land – it was a place of incredible beauty, a landscape photographer’s dream.
But I wasn’t there for the landscapes.
I was there for the 25,000 large wild animals and countless smaller animals that occupy 100 square miles in the Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania.
The crater is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera.
It’s a natural enclosure that is 2,000 feet deep where many wild animals remain their whole lives. While the walls are steep, many of the animals could migrate out if they wanted to, but with plenty of food and water available in the crater, there is little need. Only the wildebeest, zebra, cape buffalo and eland regularly migrate in and out of the crater.
On our arrival we stopped along the rim to stretch our legs and admire the vista of the crater floor.
Driving along the rim on the way to our tented camp, we were welcomed by a troop of baboons!
Once they saw us coming, they quickly ran off into the woods, so I was glad I was ready with my camera to capture this moment between two baboons before they were gone.
After a hot lunch we were ready for our first game drive to the crater, and soon after our 2,000 foot descent to the crater floor we came across some lions. In the heat of the afternoon, the lions were mostly lying flat in the grass sleeping. That doesn’t make for very interesting photos, but we found one mother with some pretty active cubs that weren’t allowing her to get any sleep. I loved watching the interaction between the cubs.
Although I’m sure there were many more elephants there, we only saw this one lonely bull elephant the whole time. He’s blowing a bit of dust to protect himself from insects and the sun.
These are just four of the many thousands of wildebeest. Over one million wildebeest will pass through the crater during the migration.
The cape buffalo also number in the thousands. This one has a small oxpecker on his back. The oxpecker feeds exclusively on the backs of large mammals, cleaning them of ticks and other insects.
The hyenas always have a sneaky look about them. Even the soft golden rim light doesn’t take away from their fierce look.
There are also plenty of smaller animals like this little vervet monkey.
These are just some of huge variety of wild animals I was able to photograph in the crater.
Being one of the most popular destinations for safaris in Tanzania, and given the relatively small size, there are a lot more tourists and safari vehicles here to contend with. As soon as a sighting is made, the drivers tend to radio each other to share the information, and soon enough ten more safari vehicles will arrive. Even if they don’t radio each other, it’s easy enough to see a safari vehicle that has stopped moving, so you know they are seeing something.
But that is about the only downside to this location. The crater floor is completely flat so it is somewhat easier to spot animals here than it is in Tarangire National Park and the roads are less bumpy making for a more pleasurable driving experience.
The sheer density of the animals provides more wildlife photography opportunities than you’ll find almost anywhere and the layers of light with the dark background of the crater walls creates dramatic images.
- Plan on spending all day on the crater floor. As photographers, we usually plan our trips for morning and evening, but the crater tends to have beautiful clouds that diffuse the light making excellent conditions all day.
- You’ll need a wide variety of lenses: wide angles to show the animals in the landscape, medium lenses for animals that are close to the vehicle, and of course a telephoto at least 400mm – an essential for wildlife photography.
- Try to isolate the animals from each other. Watch and wait for that moment when there is one animal separated from the others or when there is a nice spacing between animals.
Even though the opportunities for photographing wildlife were almost constant, I couldn’t help myself from making the odd landscape photo too. It’s irresistible.
For gear suggestions, check out my “Gearing Up for my African Photo Safari” post and video.