Tanzania UNESCO site a must-see

Lions in the morning and prehistoric sites in the afternoon are just some of the attractions visitors to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania can expect.

Designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2010, the region is inhabited by the Maasai people while its outstanding feature is a deep, volcanic crater, the largest unflooded and unbroken caldera in the world.

It is also one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world and a centre for scientific research into early human evolution.

The crater measures about 20 kilometres in diameter, is 600m deep and encompasses a total area of 300 sq km.

Standing on its edge offers visitors stunning views of a savanna where thousands of zebras, wildebeest and buffalo graze with an acacia forest and flamingo lake visible in the distance.

Renowned zoologist Professor Bernhard Grzimek, whose campaigns to save wildlife in East Africa led to the creation of the Serengeti National Park, is buried here. Grzimek called the crater the eighth wonder of the world and after experiencing a safari here most visitors would have to agree.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area was designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1979 and was listed as a Cultural Heritage Site in 2010 due to the Oldupai Gorge, which is considered the most famous archaeological location in East Africa.

Remains of the earliest humans have been found in Oldupai Gorge and it was here in 1959 that Mary and Louis Leakey unearthed the famous Zinjanthropus (Australopithecus boisei) skull.

It was not the only discovery made by the Leakeys as evidenced, for example by the 3.6-million-year-old hominid footprints preserved in volcanic rock at Laetoli, west of Ngorongoro Crater.

The excavation sites have been preserved for public viewing and there are special archaeological tours available that include the remarkable Shifting Sands. There is also a small museum at the top of the Gorge where local Maasai souvenirs are available.

"The crater used to be a large lake that drew all forms of life to it," explains Ladislaus Kashaija Domician from the Oldupai Museum as he gestures towards the now barren landscape where desert shrubs and wild agaves grow. When animals died, their skeletons sank into the mud and remained there.

Homo habilis, Homo erectus and the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens) have all been preserved here over a period of two million years. Archaeologist also discovered early stone tools.

Impressions of the footprints found at Laetoli can be seen and touched in the museum. The footprints are barely distinguishable from those of modern man, indicating to scientists that Australopithecus afarensis stood upright.

The walls of the Olduvai Museum are also adorned with the skulls of the extinct predecessors of elephants, antelope, giraffes and buffalo.

Their descendants are to be found in abundance in the Ngorongoro highlands. During the African summer months, around 1.4 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles make their annual migration through the savanna to the west of the conservation area.

It is here at the start of the year that the wildebeest give birth to thousands of calves, which nourish themselves on the mineral-rich grasses before migrating further westwards in the Serengeti in May.

Other animals stay in the crater all year round and with good reason.

"They can find everything they need here," explains park ranger Abdieli Laizer. "There is water, grass and even salt to lick."

Laizer leads tourists on guided tours of the crater's edge. Zebras graze near the track's edge while crown cranes and kori bustards stalk past. It is not long before the group see the first of what is known on a safari as the "Big Five" - water buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant and rhino.

"Those are six old bulls," says safari guide Macdonald Machege as he points to a group of buffalo grazing less than 100m away.

"They look like lame geese but believe me they can cover ground extremely quickly."

It has begun to rain when the off-road vehicles reach the acacia trees of the Lerai forest. It is a tropical downpour and visibility is so poor that the group would not be able to spot a leopard if it was sitting on a branch in the nearest tree.

It is the perfect time to stop for lunch. The safari group is soon on the move again until a cheetah blocks the path of one of the vehicles.

"He wanted to hunt but the hyenas have driven him away," says Machege.

The large cat is none too perturbed by the convoy and walks between two of the vehicles, giving everyone the chance to see and photograph a cheetah close up.

The convoy stops again a short time later, this time for creatures that looks far more threatening.

"Rhinos at 10 o'clock," shouts Machege. Two black rhinos loom into view as he reaches for his binoculars.

"That's a mother and her calf," he says.

Poaching reduced the number of rhinos in the park to just 18 in the 1980s but the ranger thinks there are now 38 or 39 living in the crater area.

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