Rift Safari
ITraveling along the Rift Valley: Lake Natron

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Ol Doinyo Lengai, Natron

Recommended nights: 1 to 3 nights according to specific interests
Landscape: geologically extravagant, for travelers in search of extremely spectacular and untouched places
Warning: The road to
Natron is quite long and dusty [about 4 - 6 hours from Serengeti and about 3 - 4 hours from Manyara] but it offers the opportunity of non-commercial interaction with the Masai people.
Accommodation options are pretty simple and basic: accommodation in Natron

Lake Natron [56 Km in length - 24 km wide] occupies a depression created by the sinking of the terrestrial lithosphere. It is fed by underground highly alkaline springs seeping from Ol Doinyo Lengai, the only volcano on earth erupting white and "cold" lava consisting of natrocarbonatite and potassium. Another contribution is given by that minimal fraction of rain able to reach ground before evaporating. The very high evaporation involves great variations of the lake size. During dry season it shrinks leaving behind vast gray mud expanses studded with soda crystals, simultaneously the salinity level increases to the point that salt-loving cyanobacteria [also called blue-green algae] begin to thrive. Like plants, these micro-organisms feed themselves by photosynthesis but unlikely plants they are capable of using also a non-visible part of the spectrum thanks to a complex of antennas which contain photosynthetic blue and red pigments. These pigments are responsible of the blue and red coloration of cyanobacteria which are in turn responsible of the deep red and orange color of the lake. These wonderful colors patterns are is not visible standing at the lake level but only from a certain height. The best way to appreciate it is to overfly the lake [envolving high costs since you have to pay for a private charter] or from the top of the rift escarpment which you will normally descend when arriving from Serengeti. During the green season or when the lake is not dry enough waters colors range, according to depths, from white to blue-green, gray and brown.


BIRDING

The cyanobacteria thriving in the lake are the main source of food for the 2.5 million lesser flamingos
[
corresponding to 75% of world population] who have elected Lake Natron to the sole breeding place for all Eastern Africa.
Flamingos breed from August to October when water salinity has reached its maximum so the availability of food. In all other months albeit a good number of them can still be seen in the southern shores, they tend to split for feeding into various lakes including Momela lakes in Arusha, Lake Manyara, Lake Ndutu in southern Serengeti, Lake Magadi in Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Bahi near Dodoma, Lake Nakuru in Kenya.
Nests are made only along the north-eastern shores of the lake close to the caustic hot water springs where no predator can reach them. In order to visit this sector of the lake you need an entire day normally departing from the camp by 4x4 early in the morning and coming back at dusk.
The southern shores are suitable for sighting flocks all year round and to take splendid pictures when the sun rises over the lake tinting everything in pink.
Beyond flamingos the lake is home to 400 species of birds and waterfowl including, to name a few, Fischer's Lovebird, King Fisher, Von der Decken's hornbill, red and yellow barbet, Cordonbleu, lilac roller breast, paradise whydah, Hildebrandt's starling, Arnaud's barbet, Rupell's Griffon who nest along Ngaresero gorge, and other birds of prey.

Flamingos on the southern lake shores

ANIMALS

As the crow flies, Natron lies 50 km from Arusha which is green and lush filled with banana plantations and fruit trees. It's hard to imagine such a change of scenery in such a short distance. Natron is in fact a very hot, arid, harsh, lunar and fascinating territory, a layering of volcanic eruptions which colors range from ocher to white, green and black, a glittering expanse of anthracite color sand and mudflats where water temperatures in the lake can reach 50° while alkalinity can climb to corrosive ammonia levels.
Lake Natron is part of the migratory corridor of buffalos, zebras, wildebeest and elephants [who move out from Tarangire and Manyara during green season and move in during the converse dry season], resident game includes gazelles, ostriches, jackals and hyenas, some oryx, lesser kudu and gerenuk.
Cheetah is the only cat that, with big luck, can be sighted around the lake. Certainly not the case to schedule a visit to Natron for cheetahs. Lions footprints have occasionally been sighted in the sand.
Amazing the adaptation of a fish called tilapia alkaline [Oreochromis alcalicus] who alone can survive in the alkaline waters of the lake, typically along its shores.

Ostriches, Natron

EXCURSIONS
Ngare Sero waterfall: Masai people live in the area breeding cattle. The most important settlement of the lake is Ngare Sero, from where one can start walking upstream Ngare sero gorge where Ruppell's griffon nest. After about half an hour walking you will reach the little waterfalls and after about an hour and half you will get to the major ones. Usually the walking stops here enjoying some swimming in the natural pool behind the waterfall but if you continue hiking you will arrive to the sacred tree which branches bear the prayers offers. In such an arid environment it is impossible to miss the value of the clear and cool water and to refrain from entering it. While the dust melts off you will appreciate the world as God created it.

The walking do not require to be particularly fitted but you will have to cross here and there the stream to follow the
narrow rocky path leading to the waterfalls. You will have as well to use your hands in some rocky steps. Bring with you a comfortable, non-slippery pair of shoes suitable to enter the water. The water level is normally just above the knee, but if it had rained in the highlands then it could be higher and torbid. Do not forget to wear the swimming costume before leaving the camp. You will be escorted by a masai guide.

Walking to southern lake shores:
you will wake up at dawn and walk to the southern shores of the lake in order to sigh the lesser flamingos flocks. A Masai guide will lead the way across the mudflats. Although you will not be able to get very close to the flamingos who will keep moving further you can enjoy the beautiful lake scenery with the first pinkish daylight and the impressive view back over the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai. The walk will take from one to two hours and you will then return to the camp for breakfast.

Bring with you an old pair of shoes to walk in the mudflats.

Excursion to the north-eastern lake shores: this is the less scenic area of the lake but it is as well the place where lesser flamingos
breed from August to October. You will leave the camp early in the morning by 4x4 escorted by your guide and a local masai guide reaching the north-east sector of the lake after about 3 hours driving. You will then proceed on foot with your Masai guide since mudflats cannot be accessed by car. That's the hot springs spot where water flows out at 50° meaning you will need a good pair of shoes not just sandals. During the breeding season this place is absolutely packed with flamingos and you can get stunningly beautiful pictures. Before night you will be back at your camp. The visit of this end of the lake requests two nights minimum stay in Natron.
Ngare Sero Waterlfalls

INTERACTION WITH MASAI

The long dirt road that from Serengeti leads to Natron is one the best places to encounter the real Masai. Unlikely Masai along Ngorongoro main traffic routes these ones are not after you. Each of them, woman, elder, warrior or child is just after his day and unless you intervene they tend to be rather reserved. Adults will silently observe you remaining a few meters behind, children will shyly try to touch you. They will not try to sell you something, perhaps they could ask your guide to ask you a little lift.

Masai along the river, Engaruka

OL DOINYO LENGAI

Natron is the starting point to ascent the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai.
Literally translated from the Masai language, Ol Doinyo Lengai means The Mountain of the God. The name is probably due to its perfectly conical shape, the unique composition of its lava and the fact that the volcano is still active.

The volcano is located nearby Lake Natron and it is the only one in the world erupting natrocarbonatite and potassium, which causes the water of the lake to be extremely salted and corrosive. The lava flows colour can be black or silvery
-white and solidified lava takes an unusual tint ranging from gray-white to light green with
pinkish-white, green-white and yellow-white stalactites. The top of the mountain [2890 m] seems to be snow capped but it is just covered with lava!


Lake Natron and Ol Donyo Lengai are the place for those of in search of extremely spectacular and untouched places

Climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai

VIABILITY, WEATHER AND INTERESTING LINKS

Lake Natron is an extremely arid, hot and harsh region. The risk of rainfalls is very low [see the below chart measuring average rains millimeters per month] and sunshine hours hold year-round on elevated levels [7 hours out of 12 hours daylight in dry season and 9 hours during green season] however Natron lies just at the foot of the rift valley escarpment where various seasonal stream originate from. These streams must be crossed in order to reach the lake. In March, April and first half of May downpours in Ngorongoro highlands and Loliondo could swell the streams making crossings quite difficult, sometime impossible.
At this time of the year we think it is wiser to avoid reaching Natron from Serengeti and relatively less risky to choose the Manyara dirt road. In the majority of cases, when a stream is full you will have to wait 30 minutes up to 2 hours until the water has lost power but there might be cases a re-routing become unavoidable. In such a situation travelers must be ready to accept and pay for extra costs [i.e. booking another hotel found out it is impossible to reach the place of destination].
Exceptionally, the problem might also occur in other months of the green season [November, December, January and February]. During these months our itineraries reach Natron from Serengeti. In case of re-routing extra costing will include beyond overnight in a different hotel from the originally scheduled one also extra park fees related to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Interesting links:
Save Natron flamingos: www.birdlife.org