Pink birds and breathtaking landscape
Lake Natron is a large, salty lake and probably the world’s most caustic body of water. However inhospitable, the lake is home to billions of salt loving micro organisms and algae, and millions of lesser flamingos use the lake as a breeding ground, feeding on them. The drive to Lake Natron took us on a long and dusty road of gravel and sand in the great Rift Valley, along the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, passing the volcanoes and craters that are spread across this ancient landscape. With the Rift Valley rising up to our left, and the vast dusty valley to our right, this is some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve seen, and our final destination would not disappoint either. Sadly, this fragile ecosystem is currently under threat from planned industrial development, and the lesser flamingos of East Africa may face extinction.
Tanzanian Safari – Day 3-4
With relatively few visitors in the area, it felt very remote and off the beaten track as we drove through this barren landscape. To try and stay clear of the dust, and to make the bumpy ride at least a little more comfortable, our new driver-guide Abbas kept quite a quick pace. Still there was nothing to stop the fine dust of the road finding it’s way into our eyes, nose and lungs. The high African sun baked our car, as it has baked this land for eons, and we had to keep our sliding windows at least half opened. We only met a handful of other cars, but whenever one came passing in the other direction, we had to swiftly close our windows and wait for the ensuing cloud of dust that would completely engulf our vehicle to dissipate before opening them again. All around us, small and large whirlwinds swept across the land, pumping the fine dust into the air like small tornadoes.
Along the road we’d sometimes see young Maasai boys with their family’s cattle, some as young as four to five years of age. In Maasai culture, the children get the job of leading the herds of cattle for miles across this desert landscape, looking for patches of grass. This can sometimes mean spending a long time far away from any source of water, in smoldering heat. Every time we drove by one of these unfortunate kids, they’d come running up to the road, arms stretched and yelling out for a bottle. We obviously had stocked up on bottled water for the trip, but if we threw one out to every kid in need we passed, we’d soon run out. So Abbas waited, and when we met one particularly unfortunate kid who had followed his cattle very far away from any source of water, he stopped the car. A minute later, a very happy young boy was left on the roadside holding up a big bottle of water to show his friends. We would spend quite some time in the coming days talking with Abbas about the situation with the Maasai people in Tanzania.
After a few miles, without warning, Abbas went off the main road and started driving along a path that led up a long steep hill. He raced forward as we put our heads to the window wondering what he was up to. After a couple of minutes we could make out some sort of edge in the landscape in front of us, and as we came closer a huge ravine appeared right in front of the car. The sight did not seem to make Abbas feel the slightest need to slow down, in fact we’re pretty sure he accelerated the car as he raced us towards the edge. A few meters from the seemingly endless abyss, he abruptly turned the car around, drove along the edge for a moment and then came to a stop. Now we could see it. We had just parked at the rim of a large crater, or caldera as it is more correctly called, the remains of a collapsed volcano. The approach had exactly the effect on us that Abbas undoubtedly was aiming for. The view that opened up around us was spectacular, and the drop to the bottom of the caldera sheer and wide.
When we got out of the car we were completely taken aback by the force of the wind. While we stood there and took in the magnificent view, a group of Maasai women and children we’d seen in the distance when we came, walked up to us. They swarmed around us, chattering and giggling, with broad smiles revealing their stained teeth.
They took our hands as they introduced themselves and asked us our names. Our replies triggered even more laughter and giggling as they they tried to repeat our names and we did the same. They especially turned their attention to Beate, holding out their jewellery for us to buy, putting it on her arms and up to her neck. While Asle and Abbas were enjoying the view, Beate was absolutely overwhelmed by their persistence, trying in vain to communicate to them her lack of interest in the handicraft. A long look of desperation let Asle know she needed rescue, and finally we agreed to take a picture with them and give them 10000 Tanzanian Shilling for it (about US$6). A couple of memorable snapshots later, smiles and goodbyes, and we were on our way again.
After a while, a tiny green spot appeared in the distance. It seemed obvious this would be the place where we tourists would camp. It was a beautiful camp, a green oasis on a hill with a stunning view towards Lake Natron down in the valley. Mounds, craters and volcanoes of various sizes shot up from the ground around us, and behind us a flat mountain loomed like a massive wall. From the camp we had a beautiful view of the largest and the only still active volcano in the area, Oldoinyo Lengai, or Mountain of God, which we could climb if we so desired. But after seeing the steep long hill we were clear about one thing – we didn’t. We were more interested now in taking a shower to get some of the dust off and relax our aching bodies.
Maasai came to help us unload the car and set up our tent. Abbas asked us where we wanted our tent set up, and of course, we wanted it to be as far away from the other tents as possible, and out on the edge of the campsite so we could wake up to the beautiful view. “Well, it might be windy”, Abbas said. We are Norwegians, we are used to a little wind, we thought. So, we got our wish, and they set our tent up on an open field, away from the trees and the other campers. The evening came, and with it so did the wind. That night we fell asleep listening to the sound of the violent wind doing it’s best to rip our tent to pieces. The next day the guys moved the tent to a safer location. We had no objections.
The following day we would make the two hour hike from the camp to Lake Natron, followed by a local Maasai guide named Jima. The day started at 5 am, and after we brushed our teeth to an amazing sunrise, Jima met us at and we started the walk. Just outside the camp local people live their lives, and again we were met by a group of Maasai girls wanting to make some money from us. They are clever girls, telling us their names as they take our hands asking to establish a relationship before the sales pitch. Beate met one girl named Monica (Beate’s sister’s name is also Monica, so a connection was established) and she said she had a baby at home, and asked if Asle was her husband, and if he was nice. Beate said yes, and asked about her husband. She said she didn’t have a husband. “But you have a baby”, Beate said. “Yes”, she said, “but no husband”. Beate asked how old she was, and she said she was twelve years old. We were told by Abbas later that this is common among young Maasai girls. They have big parties in the Maasai villages, but after dinner it’s not all just dancing and fun, as guys indiscriminately may pick out young girls to have sex with. The girls will get ostraciced by their families if they report an incident like this, so they do not go to the police, they know they have no hope without a family.
After trying to let the girls down gently, we continued with the walk. We soon realised it was going to be a windy walk, but a very beautiful one. The 90 minute walk across the valley to the lake took us over a vast, dusty field of grey volcanic sand, dotted with small spots of dried out grass. The gusts of wind blew the dust in our faces, and sometimes made it hard to move forward. The scenery was spectacular, and it almost felt like we were on some alien moonlike planet. We met a few local people on the way, and even spotted a large group of giraffe. Always walking in front, Jima wore a traditional Maasai outfit, covered in colourful beads and ornaments. But at one point we saw him looking down into his hand for a long time. Did he hurt himself? No, he was checking his mobile phone, which he kept in a stylishly matched beaded purse on his waist. Quite a contrast. After a while we approached a rocky hill. As we slowly climbed the hill towards the top, the wind got very strong, and it became impossible to walk straight. While holding on to our hats, hearing nothing but the roaring noise in our ears, we kept walking. Once we reached the top, an amazing view opened up before us, Lake Natron.
We took a short brake, taking in the view. Going down to the lake was a nature sight we had never seen before. An otherworldly landscape of grey and red mud where the lake had receded during the dry season, full of cracks and dotted with white patches of salty deposits. The dry season makes the lake much smaller than in the wet, and when the Lake is its full size it is full of breeding flamingoes that can sometimes be counted in the millions. Now most of them had migrated to other parts of East Africa, but a significant number were still hanging around. We strolled along the muddy lake shore, watching the birds as they walked across the shallow water, filtering the microscopic algae through their impressive beaks.
A lonely flamingo caught our attention as it was trying to move across the lake. Because of the strong wind he was drawn sideways and struggled to stay on his feet. His skinny legs did not stand much of a chance against the wind, but he barely managed, doing a very funny walk. Even with relatively modest numbers, the sight of the flamingoes was fantastic, their pink feathers creating a colourful spectacle against the grey backdrop. Looking back we could see the mesmerising view of Oldoinyo Lengai as it stands tall among the hills and flat plains. We walked back along the shore again to where we came from, and met Abbas who had driven down to the lake to pick us up. Back in the camp we took a nice, but cold shower, and washed our clothes. They dried in about twenty minutes on our clothesline between two trees. The wind was good for something at least!
The Engero Sero Waterfalls
After lunch we met up with Jima again and headed for the river and the walk to a nearby waterfall. We were told to bring sandals because we had to cross the river sometimes. What we didn’t know was that we had to cross river with water up to our hip at some points. And, as it would turn out, Jima did not like the water at all, and now his overdecorated Maasai attire was about as practical as a wedding dress. Every time we crossed the river, he asked us to hold his walking stick while he carefully folded his clothes up so they wouldn’t get wet. And safely out of the water he quickly wiped away the water from his thin, bare legs. Every drop. But he was a good guide, and very attentive and helpful, always holding out his hand an helping us through the most difficult crossing.
It was quite a hike, going in and out of the water in strong current, and climbing some steep hills along the river. But it was a beautiful walk, in a deep gorge with spectacular views.We had no expectations – waterfalls have disappointed us in the past – so when we came to a small waterfall we thought, well, this was just another let down. But Jima said “Small waterfall here, big later!”. And he was right, after the last curve a large and tall waterfall appeared, falling from the top of the gorge and into a large, shallow pool. A few people were all ready there. We tore off our clothes, leaving the swim suites that were already underneath, and jumped in. Jima, of course, wouldn’t come near the water, and waited patiently for us by the riverside.
The water in the pool was surprisingly warm, but the water coming down the waterfall was much cooler. We played like small children, stood under the shower and slid down the slippery rocks into the pool. Behind the falling water, a deep cave led us into the mountain and to another hidden waterfall inside the cave. The amount of water pouring down the enclosed cavity in the mountain was so large that the current pushed us out of the cave with great force, back out and down into the large pool again. After about an hour of exhilarating and cooling water play, we began the trek back again, and this time it felt much easier and shorter than on the way in. It was a great ending to a wonderful day at Lake Natron.
Lake Natron is a salt lake located in northern Tanzania in the eastern branch of the East African Rift. The lake is fed by the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River and also by mineral-rich hot springs. It is quite shallow, less than three metres deep, and varies in width depending on its water level, which changes due to high levels of evaporation, leaving behind a mixture of salts and minerals called natron. Temperatures in the lake can reach 60 °C, and depending on rainfall, the alkalinity can reach a pH of 9 to 10.5, almost as much alkaline as ammonia.
THE LESSER FLAMINGO
The lesser flamingo occures in sub-Saharan Africa with another population in India. They can weigh from 1.2 to 2.7 kg, and the standing height is around 80 to 90 cm. They feed primarily on Spirulina, algae which grow only in very alkaline lakes. Although blue-green in colour, the algae contain the photosynthetic pigments that give the birds their pink colour. Their deep bill is specialised for filtering tiny food items. During breeding season, more than 2 million lesser flamingos use the shallow Lake Natron as their primary breeding ground in Africa.
LAKE NATRON AND THE LESSER FLAMINGOS UNDER THREAT
A new threat to Lake Natron is the proposed development of a soda ash plant on its shores. The plant would pump water from the lake and extract the sodium carbonate to convert to washing powder for export. Accompanying the plant would be housing for over 1000 workers, and a coal-fired power station to provide energy for the plant complex. According to Chris Magin, the RSPB’s international officer for Africa, “The chance of the lesser flamingoes continuing to breed in the face of such mayhem are next to zero. This development will leave lesser flamingoes in East Africa facing extinction”.