One of the highlights of our small-group 7-day Group Safari in northern Tanzania – an incredible value at just US$2,495/person in 2016 – are the two nights we spend in rugged Lake Natron, at Natron Halisi Camp, exploring this incredibly stark land. Situated along the Kenya border, in between Arusha and the Serengeti, Lake Natron itself is a huge Rift Valley alkaline lake ringed by desert hills and known as the breeding ground for all of the lesser and greater flamingos of East Africa. In fact, over half of the world’s lesser flamingos (between 65-75%) are born here, raised and protected on isolated islands within this shallow, highly caustic lake. The best time for the flamingos is July through November but the region has a number of other amazing attractions that beckon truly adventurous souls June through March.
A high point at Natron Halisi Camp is visiting the little-known but nearby Engaresero Hominid Footprints, a stunning archaeology site discovered only in 2006. Here you carefully walk among 120,000 year-old fossilized footprints of early man and the animals that thrived here. It’s something truly surreal to be standing right next to where you know an ancient man walked inconspicuously across the mudflat, while you are breathless at the idea that here we can connect with a world so distant and far-gone as to be well beyond the reach of nearly all Western history.
From the footprints, we hiked with our Maasai guide across the rocky plain to the lake, past grazing Maasai donkeys and the resident gazelles, crossing a stream and onward towards Lake Natron where we slowed down on the approach to the amazing sight and sound of thousands upon thousands of flamingos. An occasional bright chirp would rise over the steady guttural whir of the massed flamingos.
In the distance across the water, mirages would create flamingos that looked like shimmering 9-foot tall birds, while close by, the flamingos gracefully swept their beaks in the water looking for food. Suddenly a few birds would leap into the air and then thousands would join that bird in a spiraling cloud of pink dashing against the blue sky. In six previous safaris to Africa, I’d never experienced anything like this.
We hiked back to the Land Cruiser, maybe a mile away, and drove to the nearby modern village where the local school, health clinic and bar were located. Here sun-wrinkled mud homes line the dusty “streets” with the sparkling lake in view. We visited the clinic, where we spoke with the head nurse about local health issues and toured the facility. From there, we spent time at the bustling school, where kids were having their lunch break and eating in the shade or showing off their smiles to us in the bright classrooms. We finished with a walk past a long line of colorfully-dressed women cooking over open fires to the local open-air bar where we had some laughs with each other and the locals over a bottle of Kilimanjaro.
One of the highlights of any Lake Natron trip is the challenging 1/2 day hike through the Ngare Sero Gorge all the way to a couple of beautiful waterfalls. The first waterfall you reach by hiking along the base of steep cliffs, occasionally scrambling over boulder outcrops, threading the needle along thin footholds just above the river, using whatever handholds you can find. The landscape reminded me a lot of some of the deeper, more rugged Utah canyons I’ve backpacked through.
Once you reach the first waterfall you’ll switch from hiking to swimming (i.e. hike with your swim gear on). Here there is a nice pool to relax and cool off in at the base. I forgot the mention that Lake Natron is hot, with temps that easily feel around 90-95-100 degrees (F) during mid-day. So the cool rushing spring water feels utterly refreshing. But once in the river, you’ll want to press on, through the first cascade, and under a massive rock overhang and into the next pool and waterfall, where the water is deeper and the swimming fun, as you can try to swim through the rapids at the top of the pool and casually drift back to the main eddy in a classic slot canyon.
The three serious hikers in our party chose to climb nearby Ol Doinyo Lengai (10,450 feet), one the most unique volcanoes in the world since it is the only one in the world that spews Natrocarbonatite lava. It’s also the third highest mountain in Tanzania. While it may be a day hike, it’s a very difficult climb suitable only for tough, experienced mountain hikers. The elevation gain is over 5,000 feet, mostly at a steep 45 degree angle, with lots of exposure, through loose volcanic grit and rock and at higher elevations, thick sulfuric fumes. The trip starts at 11pm with the drive to the base, and at about 12 midnight, you join your Maasai guide for the push up. It will take most of the morning to make it up the very slender summit – part of the crater wall – and back. The mountain hike is an optional activity at Natron Halisi Camp – just let us or your AWR guide know well in advance if you are interested. Remember there are no gear rental shops here, unlike at Meru or Kilimanjaro, so you’ll have to bring all of your own mountaineering gear – poles, gaiters, boots, rain/wind jacket, fleece, hat, etc.
Instead of hiking the volcano, I chose to sleep but I did wake up at 5 am to join our AWR guide for a trip to a nearby Masai settlement to check out Maasai life and see the morning milking. The contrast of their colorful clothing and jewelry against the harsh tans and browns of the landscape was striking. Women milked cows and goats, while curious kids milled around. We were invited into a home and sat around the fire pit, listening and learning about how remarkably different domestic life is like for the Maasai compared to us. After about an hour and a half, we returned to camp to get ready for our departure to the Serengeti.
On a typical 2-night stay in Natron, you can have all the above experiences. It’s amazing but this is a harsh region, making even a short stay very unpleasant if you are not up for the heat and dust or if you are a luxury traveler. The area is best for adventurers, keen photographers, and tough, open-minded cultural travel enthusiasts. If you come, we recommend staying at Lake Natron Halisi, in fact this is our standard choice on the 7-day group safari. Natron Halisi is a modest, 10-unit mobile-camp semi-permanently situated in a Maasai grazing area where there’s welcome shade from huge trees. Amenities are few, but all standard tents come with a comfy bed with full linens and en-suite private bucket shower and chemical loo; the food is simple but very respectable; and the views are wonderful of the desert mountains dotting every horizon. Astounding star gazing and interesting bird watching add to the delights. All-in-all, Natron is a place no one will ever forget!