Oldupai Gorge

serval pouncing ngorongoro tanzania safari

Two million years ago, the landscape of Ngorongoro Conservation Area looked very different to how it does today. Ngorongoro itself would have been an active volcano, taller perhaps than Kilimanjaro is now, and the seasonally parched plains at its western base were partially submerged beneath a seasonal lake that formed an important watering hole for our hominid ancestors. The fluctuating nature of this ancient lake led to a high level of stratification, one that accentuated by sporadic deposits of volcanic ash from Crater Highlands, creating ideal conditions for the fossilisation. Then, tens of thousands of years ago, fresh tectonic activity caused the land to tilt, leading to the formation of a new lake to the east and the creation of a seasonal river that cut through the former lakebed to expose layers of stratification up to 100m deep and a continuous archaeological and fossil record of life on the plains over the past two million years.

Named after the Maasai word for the wild sisal that grows in the area, Oldupai Gorge is one of the richest palaeontological sites in East Africa. First excavated in 1931 by Professor Louis Leakey, it was here, in 1959, that Louis’s wife Mary Leakey unearthed a critical landmark in the history of palaeontology: the discovery of a fossilised cranium that provided the first conclusive evidence that hominid evolution stretched back over more than a million years and had been enacted on the plains of East Africa. Nicknamed ‘Nutcracker Man’ in reference to its bulky jawbone, the cranium belonged to a robust Australopithecine that had lived and died on the ancient lakeshore around 1.75 million years earlier, and while its antiquity would later be superseded by more ancient fossils unearthed in Ethiopia and Kenya, it rewrote the perceived timespan of human evolution, shot the Leakeys’ work to international prominence, and led to an a series of exciting new discoveries, including the first fossilised remains of Homo habilis. At nearby Laetoli, in 1976, four years after Louis’s death, Mary Leakey discovered footprints created more than three million years ago by a party of early hominids that had walked through a bed of freshly deposited volcanic ash – still the most ancient hominid footprints ever found.

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Today, the original diggings can be explored with a guide, but the main attraction is an excellent site museum that lies a short distance off the main track connecting Ngorongoro Crater to Serengeti National Park. Displays include replicas of some of the more interesting hominid fossils unearthed at the site as well as the Laetoli footprints, along with genuine fossils of a menagerie of extinct oddities: a short-necked giraffe, a giant swine, an aquatic elephant and a bizarre antelope with long de-curved horns. Outside the museum, look out for colourful dry-country birds such as red-and-yellow barbet and purple grenadier.


Our Recommended Itinerary

World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)

day 1

Arrival in Tanzania
  • World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)
  • World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)
  • World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)
  • World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)
  • World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)
  • World Cup of Wildlife Migration Safari with HerdTracker (9 days)

day 2 to 3

Enjoy game drives at Tarangire National Park

day 4 to 5

Nature walks in the Ngorongoro Crater

day 6 to 8

Witness the Great Migration in the Serengeti

day 9

End of Migration!

View Full Itinerary

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Ngorongoro in September

The dry season that started in May or June should continue into August, leaving parts of the crater floor looking like a dust bowl and the remaining grassland all parched and yellow. The low vegetation is great for spotting animals, with predators being at their most conspicuous, and wildlife tends to congregate close to the few remaining sources of drinking water. This is peak safari…

Lake Eyasi and the Hadzabe

Bounding the southern Ngorongoro Conservation Area at the base of the Rift Valley Escarpment, remote Lake Eyasi is a shallow soda lake prone to large fluctuations in area and level depending on local rainfall. Possessed of a certain desolate beauty, the surrounding dry savannah is home to the Hadza, or Hadzabe, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers that numbers fewer than 100 individuals…

Lake Natron and Ol Doinyo Lengai

Set within the Rift Valley on the eastern border of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Natron is perhaps the most starkly beautiful of all the Rift Valley lakes south of Turkana. Almost 60km long but nowhere more than a metre deep, this primordial alkaline sump is renowned for its caustic and unusually viscous waters, which are enclosed by a crust of volcanic ash and salt, as well as a…

Ngorongoro travel tips

Ngorongoro Conservation Area can only realistically be explored in a solid 4x4. The 150km road from the northern Tanzanian ‘safari capital’ Arusha to Lodware Entrance Gate, the only access point along the eastern border, is now surfaced in its entirety, and can be covered in less than three hours. All roads within the conservation are unsurfaced, however, and most - including the…

Ngorongoro in October

October is a month of transition in Ngorongoro Crater. The start of the month is the height of the long dry season, and much of the crater floor resembles a barren dust bowl of fine volcanic soil, while what grass remains will be low and yellowing, making it easy to spot larger predators, while grazers tend to congregate close to the few remaining sources of drinking water. The first of…

Empakaai Crater

The second-largest crater in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Empakaai is almost 8km in diameter and its floor is dominated by a saline crater lake and enclosed by sheer 300m high walls that rise to an elevation of 3,200m on the eastern rim. On of East Africa’s most underrated and seldom-visited scenic gems, the crater lies about 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Ngorongoro Crater via…

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