Ngorongoro Crater was once the earth’s highest mountain, a volcano that stretched two or three times higher than Everest. Three million years ago it blew its stack in what had to have been one of the most violent natural occurrences ever experienced by our planet. In a geologically short hundred thousand years it formed what exists today, truly what is often called the “8th Wonder of the World.”

The sheer beauty of the crater begs a visit. Twelve miles across, 102 sq. miles large, with steep sides that are 1600-1800′ above the floor, it is a geological masterpiece. The caldera — the largest intact volcanic caldera in the world — is a wildlife paradise of grassland plains, marshes and a large central soda lake. The natural protection afforded by the shape of the crater protected its wildlife from poaching over the years, and as a result the wildlife found here is often much less skittish than that found on the open plains.

The density of lion in the crater is as great as Kenya’s Maasai Mara, the highest on earth. And some of the last, vintage giant tuskers are found here — surprisingly, since this is not good elephant habitat. But during the horrible years of elephant poaching, some of the greatest of the tuskers took refuge in the crater, and they’ve stayed like old men now unable to change their routine.

The actual biomass of the crater changes radically throughout the year, peaking in the rainy season with about 20,000 animals. It drops to fewer than 4,000 at the height of the dry season when its central soda lake often dries up completely. Those that remain include the cats and gazelle that require little water.

Crater visits are charged by descent, and so the popular wisdom is to go down all day, but that might not be the best time to go. The crater can become crowded and no off-road driving is allowed. Dawn is often the best time to find the black rhino and photograph the extraordinary early light that plays on the crater’s walls.