Lying in a Rift Valley depression 1000m below Nairobi, Lake Magadi is a vast shallow pool of soda (sodium carbonate), a sludge of alkaline water and crystal trona deposits, and one of the hottest places in the country. Magadi is also the second-largest source of soda in the world, after the Salton Sea in the USA. At Magadi, the Magadi Soda Company – formerly an ICI business, now owned by the Indian company Tata – operates the very model of a company town, on a barren spit of land jutting out across the multicoloured soda. The company’s investment here is guaranteed – hot springs gush out of the earth’s crust to provide an inexhaustible supply of briney water for evaporation. Everything you see, apart from the homes of a few Maasai on the shore, is owned and run by the corporation. You pass a company police barrier where you sign in and enter over a causeway, past surreal pink salt ponds, often flocked by flamingos. Now on company territory, a sign advises visitors that “it is dangerous to walk across the lake surface”, just in case you were contemplating a stroll across the soda. Note that some of the company police are touchy about you taking photos of the factory installations. Despite this, the atmosphere here, somewhat surprisingly because of the nature of the work and harshness of the environment, is relaxed and welcoming. By comparison with the rest of Kenya, the company pays its 700 staff high wages, starting at around Ksh20,000 per month; people tend to get drunk a lot, and staff accommodation and many services are free.
Many visitors come to Magadi specifically for its birdlife. There’s a wealth of avifauna here, including, usually, large numbers of flamingos at the southern end of the lake. At this end, there are also freshwater swamps, which attract many species.