In addition to wildlife as a tourist attraction, geological features are drawing visitors to northern Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The geological features have been collectively established as Ngorongoro Lengai Geopark, whose geological history dates back 500 million years.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) management is now developing tourist lodges and other visitor service facilities in the geopark to attract foreign and local visitors, heritage manager Joshua Mwankunda said. It receives about 600,000 visitors every year.
“Investing in this geopark would make tourists visiting the wildlife conservation area stay longer,” Mwankunda said.
Unesco registered the Ngorongoro-Lengai as a geopark site in April 2018, making it the only one south of the Sahara. The other one is the M’Goun Global Geopark in Morocco.
Unesco Global Geopark is the status awarded to a single, unified geographical area where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development, Mwankunda said.
Geoparks are mostly focused on the sustainable use of geological heritage and natural landscape as tourism attractions, providing geoscience knowledge to the public and students and encouraging appreciation and developing a sense of place and value for protection.
Other attractive sites within NCAA are the Ngorongoro Crater — the crater bowl is 250 square kilometres — Olmoti Crater (3.7 square km) and Empakai crater (eight square km).
Ngorongoro Crater is the most famous of the geographical features. It is home to elephants, black rhinos, lion, gazelles, and other large mammals.
'Mountain of God'
Top among the geological hotspots is Mount Oldonyo Lengai, an active volcano in Tanzania.
To kick off my one and a half days’ tour of the park, the guide drove close to the slopes of the mountain to allow me see the cone-shaped peak from where it spits fire when it erupts.
“Mountain of God” in Maasai language, Oldonyo Lengai towers above the East African Rift Valley.
To prevent wildlife attacks, walking is not permitted in most areas inside Ngorongoro. Only the local Maasai pastoralists can be seen striding proudly with their herds of cattle, goats and sheep within the conservation area.
For tourists and other visitors, we were advised to drive. At the Maasai bomas, I stepped out of the car to take photographs and speak to the headmen. Maasai bomas provide cultural experiences to the visitors, clearly demonstrating the symbiosis of life between man, livestock and wild animals, all sharing in nature.
From the lower slopes of Oldonyo Lengai, we drove to the Malanja depression, another attractive geological feature.
Malanja Depression is scenic and is located on the south limb of Serengeti plains and east of Ngorongoro Mountain. The depression was formed by the movement of the land toward the west, leaving the most eastern part depressed.
I saw Maasai children grazing large herds of cattle, each with about 200 head, goats and sheep.
The lush grass in the depression provides good pasture for livestock.
There is also a freshwater spring along the southern margin, used by wild animals, livestock and the Maasai households.
I also visited the spectacular Nasera Rock, a 50-metre-high inselberg located in the southwestern part of Gol Mountains inside the conservation area.
This light-coloured rock is metamorphic gneiss into which molten granitic magma was injected and then cooled to form pink granite, my guide Patrick explained.
There are several, shallow caves under the Nasera Rock which provided shelter to early man.
Evidence has shown that humans lived there about 30,000 years ago. Inside these caves, stone tools, bone fragments and pottery artefacts were discovered, Patrick added.
Olkarien Gorge is also within Ngorongoro. It is deep and narrow, and about eight kilometres long.
Olkarien is rich in both geological and cultural features. A short way up the gorge, we came across the Maasai cultural wells that provide water during the dry season.
The gorge is also home to colonies of vultures. I watched in fascination as hundreds of vultures flew over the gorge.
The Maasai get their hair colouring soil (Okaria) from this gorge, my tour guide informed me.
Tanzanians and other EAC citizens above 16 years of age pay Tsh10,000 ($ 4.3) per single entry to the conservation area, and children between five and 16 years pay Tsh2,000 ($ 0.86). Entry is free for all children below five years.
Non-EAC adults are charged $60 and those between five and 16 years pay $20 per single entry.