Everyone is overwhelmed by their first sight of the Ngorongoro Crater, in northern Tanzania. The immense scale, the grandeur, the aesthetic perfection of the landscape, all prompt wonder and incredulity. You stare and stare at the dark-green walls of the caldera, cradling a sky-blue soda lake, home to tens of thousands of pink flamingos. And although you can’t see them from high on the rim, you are aware that down on the crater floor, 2,000 feet below, lives a Noah’s Ark of animals, including around 60 lions.
My recent visit to Ngorongoro was my third, and despite knowing exactly what to expect, when we reached the first observation point, I was still awestruck. And, of course, this is why pictures of the crater appear in virtually every guide and brochure about East Africa. And why, alas, in recent years Ngorongoro has become a byword for overtourism.
Motivated by who-knows-what cocktail of commercial interests, as well as a hunger for hard foreign currency, the Tanzanian authorities allow up to 400 vehicles a day to descend into the crater, and there can, quite literally, be traffic snarl-ups on the two dirt roads that lead down from the rim. Off-road driving is forbidden. On my first visit, back in the 1980s, I was able to camp on the crater floor overnight with just three other people. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience, not least because of the elephants who turned up at 2 in the morning, stepping gingerly between the guy ropes of our tents. It seems inconceivable today. Sometimes, I interrogate my memory, to check that over the years my imagination hasn’t spun an elaborate fantasy.