Visitors to one of Tanzania’s natural sites on the world heritage list, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), seldom have in mind some natural spectacles other than the famous crater which markets the area to thousands of tourists.
The crater covering 304 square kilometres, the size of Arusha city, is popular because visitors never miss it and tour operators know this well. They have to drive visitors to the crater floor.
But those versed with such geological formations would never be surprised by the presence of similar craters elsewhere in the vast NCA.
And there is little doubt that one of the hidden beauties of Ngorongoro is the Empakai Crater which is seldom visited by tourists. Located some 50 kilometres or so north of the famous crater on the Arusha-Serengeti road, Empakai is isolated even to the Maasai pastoralists, who are the inhabitants.
This is because few members of the cattle-keeping community would often venture there with their large herds of livestock and because of the sheer wilderness of the area.
Until recently, the crater had largely remained isolated with only a few researchers and rangers from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA). But this is set to change, thanks to a drive to attract more tourists to the remote side as well as investors to put up lodges and tented camps.
It takes about an hour or so from the NCAA headquarters to reach the view point on the rim of Empakai, a journey that takes one through the plateau grassland of Nainokanoka where it is not uncommon to find zebras and other ungulates grazing side by side with the livestock.
Although the end of August is the middle of the dry season in much of Maasailand, the impact is minimal because of the high altitude. The livestock are healthy because no other type of farming is allowed there despite the huge fertile land. Any form of crop cultivation is prohibited in the entire NCA, a measure taken for conservation.
It is at the forested hills north of the village, which has the largest concentration of people compared to other areas, where visitors suddenly stumble upon Ngorongoro’s second largest crater –Empakai.
For first time visitors, the magical scenery would make them recall the true wilderness of much of Tanzania some centuries ago when none had thought of turning Ngorongoro into a protected area.
There is a little sign of human presence save for pathways made for the brave who descend into the shores of an alkaline lake in the middle of crater and face an uphill task to climb.
The inner slopes are heavily forested and provide sanctuary for a range of animals and birds.
“This is a truly beautiful, more isolated crater supporting a variety of animals and birds”, said Stephen Kabulunze, a driver-cum tour guide with NCAA.
The tranquil air is only interrupted by chirping birds and strong winds disturbing tree branches. Much of the caldera is dominated by an 85-metre deep soda lake occupying about 75 per cent of the crater floor.
The lake is one of the breeding areas for the flamingo birds. Other aquatic birds found there include sunbirds, turacos, the black-winged stilt and cape teal.
Wild animals common in the area include buffalo, gazelle, bushbucks, the elusive leopard, a variety of antelopes, blue monkey and other animals, Mr Kabulunze said.
A resident of Kapenjiro village Yohana Leshiro urged the government to promote the remote site for tourists to visit it.
Sources close to NCAA said some investors had recently visited the area and may be given land to build tourist lodges in the area. Officials however say ecologically fragile areas such as crater rims, forest reserves will not be affected.