Just a stone’s throw from some of Africa’s most celebrated safari destinations, the astonishing Lake Natron remains irresistibly isolated and under-explored. But with so much to offer and with the world outside drawing ever nearer, Christopher Clark is left wondering what the future holds for this hidden highlight.
The air seems hotter and drier with every minute. The golden savannah grasslands and flat-top acacia trees, images synonymous with a Tanzanian safari, soon give way to parched, rocky semi-desert. We’re slowly wilting away like old spinach in the back of the Land Cruiser.
Defying the inhospitable landscape, the bomas (enclosures) we pass belong to the semi-nomadic Maasai, with fences of thorny acacia branches wrapped around them in perfect circles. Long lines of cattle and goats kick up clouds of dust all around us. Barefoot children run towards the side of the car in excitement as our small film crew passes.
The Mountain of God rises serenely ahead of us
When we stop to stretch our legs, we are instantly enveloped by a crowd of Maasai women who seem to have materialized out of the earth beneath our feet. They hold up colourful beads and cloth for sale, and ask us to take photos of them in their traditional garb in return for a small fee. It’s suddenly apparent that although this area remains irresistibly isolated for now, we are not the first intrepid tourists to tread here.
In fact, a number of local operators, including our hosts Tanzania-Experience, are looking to tap into Lake Natron’s hitherto under-explored offerings, and have started to include it on their Northern Circuit camping itineraries. After all, we’re just a few bumpy hours’ drive from safari icons including the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, as well as the transport hub of Arusha.
We continue along our route and soon we can see Ol Doinyo Lengai, Maasai for “Mountain of God”, rising serenely ahead of us. Ol Doinyo Lengai is an active volcano, and around its peak an uneven white coat that resembles a giant bird dropping bears witness to the last eruption back in 2007. A solitary cloud hovers directly above the summit like a halo.
After skirting the rugged escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, finally Lake Natron comes into view ahead, its mirror-like soda and saline surface akin to a great shallow ocean coruscating in the harsh light of early afternoon. At over a thousand square kilometres in size, the lake stretches all the way to the Kenyan border somewhere inside the haze on the horizon. It’s home to more than two million crimson-winged flamingos, while fauna in the surrounding area includes giraffe and zebra.
We pull up at our campsite for the night, which has plenty of shade and raised views from the hillside right across the lake. Our guide Enock tells us the property is owned by an enterprising Maasai businessman who was born in the area and has great faith in its tourism potential, as evinced by the various unfinished developments – a pool, a conference centre and luxury safari tents – dotted around his property. Today though, we are his only guests.
Maasai men lead a life little-changed in the last hundred years
A few lean Maasai teenage boys with large knives on their belts emerge from one of the outbuildings and help us set up our tents. Every so often, one of the boys will pause and pull a mobile phone out of his robe, type furiously for a moment or two and then resume his work. I wonder what impact this technology has had on a way of life that otherwise seems to have changed little over the past hundred years.
I also wonder whether these teenagers will still be in this place, living this way, in another ten years. The world outside is drawing ever closer, and the area’s rich biodiversity and cultural heritage are threatened by deforestation, oil and gas exploration and a proposed soda ash plant.
In June 2015, local villagers signed a deal with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) that they hope will go some way to securing the area’s future. If carefully managed, more tourist footprints could make a valuable contribution too.
Having unpacked and taken a quick power nap at our campsite, the early evening temperature is less oppressive and we make our way down to the lake shore to get a closer look at the flamingos, who it turns out don’t smell half as pretty as they look, even from some distance. We can’t get too close anyway – the high alkalinity of the shallow water in Lake Natron can seriously burn the skin, ensuring the birds’ safety from any predators.
In softer light the undulating Rift Valley escarpment looks less hostile but even more striking
At the top of a nearby hill we set up a table and chairs and settle in for a cold sundowner. We look out over the perfectly still surface of the lake, its edges studded with pink birds. In the softer light, the ancient undulating Rift Valley escarpment looks greener and less hostile, and even more striking. We have this view all to ourselves.
Down at water level, a lone Maasai herder walks across the dry, cracked earth into the distance, presided over by the Mountain of God. What the future holds for him and his region remains to be seen, but it’s not hard to see why many around here don’t seem to be in any great hurry for change.