Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Lake Natron
Empakai to Natron
 

The Empakai to Natron walk has been on my to-do list for many years: one of those things that is on your doorstep that you just never get out and do. When, Ake Lindstrom from Summits-Africa, Frank Castro from Adventure International, and Gian Schachenmann, Tanzania’s ultimate drone photographer, decided to do a trip to make a promotional film, I jumped at the chance to join as a recce as it is known in the safari world- an abbreviation of the word reconnoitre. I was amused being on the receiving end of an itinerary and getting the list of what to pack, and like most guests of mine, I disregarded the list and packed what I wanted to anyway, except that I did succumb to the advice of my wife to actually wear hiking boots.

Not only was the hike through dramatic views, but it was also geologically fascinating. The hike started at Empakai Crater, a beautiful caldera that is about 7 km in diameter with a typical alkaline lake thats waters reflect the dark forested walls that rise up 980m from the crater floor, and whose shoreline is encrusted with the snow-white residue of the alkaline salts. The first campsite was on the rim of the crater in the montane forest. We woke in cloud, surrounded by beautiful Hygenias thats flowers hung like giant bunches of grapes and Giant St. John Wort bushes, a habitat I associated more with mountain gorillas.

Empakai crater

Crotalaria species on the descent path.

Descending from the 2500m altitude, we left the forest and entered the drier grasslands. It was the perfect trip to discuss the effect that water has on life. The fertile soils, refreshed with new ash from Oldonyo Lengai every couple of decades or so provide abundant grazing for the cattle, sheep and goats that the Maasai tend. The easily eroded light soil forms deep gullies running from the highlands and incredible canyons lower down. These porous soils drain water efficiently, therefore trees cannot establish themselves, yet as we descended we found ourselves in one of the canyons, surrounded by a beautiful yellow-fever acacia forest. It is initially a surprise as these trees dominate swamps, and this was no swamp. But it indicated water, and though we never saw it, there must be a high-enough moisture content in the soil for these trees to grow. This was the setting for our mid-way camp and that afternoon we climbed a steep knoll to look out across the view.

Roadside flowers

At this point in the walk, the rift valley wall, an uplifted escarpment became more and more imposing, while Oldonyo Lengai, the active volcano, stood out against the sky. In the distance, other volcanoes rose out of the dust as if hanging in the sky: Kitumbeine to the east, Shompole and Oldonyo Sambu to the north. The Masonik volcanoes appeared tiny in the Angata Salei plains and if you squinted you could see the Gol mountains to the west, where in 2007 & 2008, Gian and I had watched Oldonyo Lengai send pyroclastic clouds 30 000 ft into the sky.

On the last day of the trek, we followed a well worn donkey trail used by Maasai who move between the weekly markets bringing corn from the highlands and taking back bricks of natron (Sodium bicarbonate) to mix with tobacco for snuff and to soften beans. We left the fever tree forest and as whatever moisture there was in the soil also disappeared, we found ourselves on a knife-edge ridge, devoid of vegetation except for a thick tussock like grass. One could imagine that this trail we followed had been used for transit for millennia between the fresh waters at Ngaresero on the shores of Lake Natron, and the crater highlands. After lunch in the shade of a ravine, we trekked the last couple of miles to the vehicles that were waiting. It was a quick drive to camp and we quickly settled into the natural pools with ice-cold beers, the sweat and dust washing off. Fish nibbled at our toes and we discussed the activities for the next day.

The donkey path with the rift valley escarpment on the left and Oldonyo Lengai on the right.

Wildebeest skull at the bottom of the valley.

One of the striking things about this area is how harsh and hostile it is. Windswept and barren mudflows, dry cracked pans, brittle volcanic outcrops, the caustic bicarbonate lake, and stark volcano not to mention wind and sun, yet there are oases where life flourishes. The mineral rich springs along the edges of the lake grow algae that feeds and provides shelter for abundant specialized fish and lesser flamingos. Invisible moisture supports Acacia tortilis woodlands that feed giraffe, and sheltered spots provide enough grazing for zebra, wildebeest, and Grant’s gazelle. One of the most beautiful oases is the clear water that flows out of the rift wall.

Dawn on the lake shore.

Lake Natron Panorama

The incredibly lush forest in an otherwise desert scrub environment.

The incredible blossoms of the Desert Rose.

Having played in the waterfalls and clear waters toward the mouth of the gorge, I had never been to the source of the river and a small group of us decided to make the trek. It was very different walking in flip-flops and often barefoot as we scrambled up the boulders, jumping into pools and showering in the natural waterfalls along the way. In many ways it was paradise.

Homo sapien tracks preserved in the calcrete. New dating places them 11,000 years old.

 
Wilderness walking, Oldonyo Lengai and Serengeti
 

Shedding the high thread count cotton linen and 5 course meals (luxuries of the semi-permanent and permanent lodges and camps I usually use) and braving the elements, an adventurous group of guests and I set off on safari. After having successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, including the 10 year old and 12 year old in the group (thanks to the professional climbing outfit I use, Summits-Africa), they were excited for their next experience. My ten days with them can be divided into 3 chapters: Wilderness, the Rift Valley, and of course, Serengeti.

Gourmet bacon, scrambled eggs and cowboy coffee cooked over an open fire.

Wilderness

We left Arusha in one of my new open Land Rovers which immediately added an air of excitement, followed by my trusty Land Cruiser. A private lightweight camp had been set up for us in a special campsite just on the edge of where most people get to in one of my favorite national parks in Tanzania: Tarangire. When the focus is on a wilderness experience, you sacrifice the wildlife abundance that you get in the core tourist areas, but with the right guide, you get to immerse yourself in nature.

The encounters you have with wildlife become much more meaningful and so much more than just about the wildlife.

Three bull buffaloes visit a water hole while we quietly watch downwind of them.

We didn’t really sacrifice comfort. None of us were cold, and we had warm duvets to keep us warm at night. There was always cold beer, gin & tonics at the end of the day, and the scotch was good around the fire after dinner. We even had hot showers. The coffee in the morning was proper and hot. But, yes, there were moments when the sun was beating down, and when we got dust in our eyes. We woke up a couple of mornings having not slept all that well, but it was because of the excitement of hearing a leopard on patrol, and the hyenas whooping.

Rift Valley

Having enjoyed our wilderness experience, we ventured on, taking advantage of the lightweight camp to see another part of the Tarangire ecosystem that most guests to Tanzania don’t get to see. During the wet season, just like in the Serengeti ecosystem, the volcanic grasslands of the Rift Valley draw 10,000 wildebeest (10% of what there once were) to feed on nutrient rich grasses and calve. But during the rest of the year, the valley is dry and harsh. The fertile soil turns to talcum powder dust that feeds tornado-like dust devils, and the volcanic rocks and lava flows violently shake any vehicle that drives those roads. Yet, despite the harshness, Maasai pastoralists eke out a living, herding cattle across the grasslands, and large herds of zebra with their hardy digestive systems feed on the dry grasses that remain. And then, as you come around the corner, Oldonyo Lengai seems to rise out from the plain in front of you.

Under the light of the moon, we attempted began our summit bid. The views from the top are beautiful, but the climb is brutal. Volcanic ash fills your boots, and you slip constantly. There are no switch-backs, just a 5 hr, 6000ft ascent. Since its eruption in 2008, you can no longer walk out into the crater filled with lava and ash. Instead, the mountain is higher than it used to be and the crater a deep, deep hole.

That afternoon, after napping and eating, we drove to the edge of Lake Natron in search of Lesser Flamingos. Lake Natron lies at a low point in the rift. It has no outlets, and with high surface temperatures and wind, the water in it evaporates leaving behind salt deposits that make it as alkaline as ammonia.

These conditions are perfect for Cyanobacteria to flourish. Lesser flamingos are Cyanobacteria specialists and use Lake Natron as a nesting ground.

A few thousand Lesser flamingos through the eyepiece of my binoculars.

Serengeti

A lovely herd of giraffe... yes, those black dots in the background are wildebeest.

Having completed another chapter of our adventure, we climbed back into the vehicle and headed up the few million year-old rift and up and over the 580 million year-old Gol Mountains to northern Serengeti. Unusually dry for August, I was a little worried that the wildebeest migration might have already disappeared across the river into Kenya’s Mara. Again we chose to spend most of the time avoiding the other vehicles and bumbled around finding our own lions, except for one drive that took us towards the confluence of the Bologonja and Mara rivers to see the thousands of wildebeest. The rest of the time we took the opportunity to be quiet and capture the ambient sounds of the bush on film, sipping champagne in celebration of a wonderful experience and 69th birthday, and watching a threatening thunderstorm bear down.

Finding predators is always very satisfying although most of the time they are sleeping.

Post note: The group continued to Mt. Kenya where they successfully climbed to Point Lenana, the highest point on the mountain that doesn’t require technical climbing. Well done!

 
Tanzania's Great Rift Valley Lakes & Mountains
 

As if the dry season is attempting its final life sapping effort to suffocate us before the rains come, an apocalyptic dust storm is sweeping across the southern shore of Lake Natron. Agitated by the dark, threatening thunderstorm, the dust is diffusing the afternoon rays of sun giving Oldonyo Lengai an eerie glow as the dust slowly envelopes the volcano.

Driving from Amboseli to Lake Natron the other day, I took a cross-country route through the plains between four prominent volcanoes. The volcanic dust, like talcum powder enveloped the vehicle billowing into the car through every space possible. Building cumulonimbus clouds inspired graphic dust devils on the barren landscape. Zebra, Fringe-eared oryx, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle and giraffe stood in the shade of the few Acacia trees resting in the heat of the day.

Lake Natron, where we’re headed is the largest of the Great Rift Valley’s soda lakes and is also the most caustic lake in the world. It is extremely shallow, no more than 3 meters deep. Lying at 610m above sea level it also gets extremely warm and water temperatures regularly reach 40C (60C recorded), combined with a pH of 9-10, it’s surprising that life can actually flourish. Microorganisms that love the salt give it amazing shades of red, greens and crystal white.

Lesser Flamingos use this lake as an important breeding ground, protecting their eggs and hatchlings by building little mounds in the water far enough away from the shore that predators have to seriously think about venturing out. They also specialize in feeding on the algae- Spirulina that blooms in these waters. There’s also an endemic fish- the Magadi Tilapia that concentrate in the hot springs that feed into the lake.

A year ago, travelling with Nick Brandt on safari, we drove to Natron in search of calcified birds. We scoured the shores picking up a variety of birds including hornbills, flamingoes, starlings, doves, bee-eaters, mouse-birds, and Quelea that had been mummified by the salts in the water. The small invertebrates, fish, and bats that stood frozen in their death pose were fascinating. Click to see his photos of what we found.

A mixture of Sodium bi-carbonate (baking soda) and Sodium carbonate is called Natron, and is the same substance that was mined in Wadi el Natron in Egypt 5000 years ago by the Egyptians when they began mummifying their pharaohs. The alkali salt loves water and absorbs it, drying whatever it has come in contact with. Its alkalinity is also anti-bacterial which helps to stop bacterial decay.

A few days after we arrived here, it rained. The dust finally settled, and you could almost hear the animals breathing a sigh of relief. We drove out into the plains in front of Kitumbeine Mountain visiting all the little parasitic craters at the base of Gelai, Kerimasi and Oldonyo Lengai. The green grass already sprouting, we counted hundreds of zebra and wildebeest on the plains and spent some time just sitting and watching. In the evening we drove up Lengai as far as the track goes and sat watching the afternoon light sending moving shadows through the valleys and ridges, reflecting Shompole in the lake.

 
Sidai, Gelai, Piyaya

The darkness is coming in fast and the road we’ve been following hasn’t been driven in months and the influx of the rain season has turned it into a gully. I’ve been bush-bashing and now I’m walking in-front of the car with my brother driving pushing through grass that’s above my head to get to higher ground. Its wet and all of us are hoping we can get to the big Acacia trees where we’ll set up camp.

Feeling liberated- I head off with my headlamp to collect firewood while my brother, father and cousin set up the tents. A couple matches and the flickering flames leap up the rungs of Commiphora kindling getting bigger and lighting heavier Acacia sticks. Meanwhile we’ve opened the fridge and the first gushes of cold liquid on the backs of our throats are heavenly. The slight anxiety to get camp up in the dark fades and my cousin’s first night under the southern hemisphere’s constellations is not in anyway typical. I apologize but the feeling is juxtaposed by his enthusiasm and as we lay out cushions next to the fire. I hear sighs of satisfaction.

The next morning, I coax another flame from the coals and heat water for coffee. Everything tastes so good in the bush. We pack camp and head off on a walk. Fresh elephant tracks pass nearby camp, but none of us heard them. The bush is alive and the rains have invigorated growth- birds are courting as are plants with their glorious flowers.

We decide to head to Sidai camp, where we should have slept last night had we not detoured and stopped too long to watch magnificent kudu, the long-necked gerenuk, giraffe, and gazelle stare at us. The road is not a road, but in the morning light we find our way, over rolling crystalline granite hills- I could go on the whole day, but I realize that we have arrived at a good stopping point. Nestled into Oldonyo Sidai (Mountain of Goodness) is a hunting camp. Built with local materials, it’sluxurious backdrop offers our heads a resting point on the large cushions in the open dining room. An old plow blade is acts as a bird bath and our bird list increases in 2’s, 3’s and 5’s. Male whydah’s display their extended tails, and emerald spotted wood doves and laughing doves chase the waxbills and sunbirds away.

At around 4, I get restless, it’s hot and I’m on holiday, but the bush is too vibrant for me to lie still. I wrangle the others- all feeling the same and we head off to look for elephant, and then do a night drive back. We find the elephants, and watch until its nearly too dark to get back to the road, then drive back, spotlight leading, illuminating nightjars, genets, and lesser galagoes that leap 10 feet from branch to branch. They leave scents along their paths and its said they can accurately execute a 3m jump on a pitch-black night by their keen sense of smell.

We sleep well and in the morning rise to the dawn, still and quiet. I load the rifle and we head off on a walk. There is a sand river I’d like to explore and we follow an old game trail. A lion has passed before us, and we can smell elephant and see where they have fed that night. The sun gets hot and we find ourselves walking the sand river. It’s a bit too warm to see much game, but the dikdik and giraffe don’t know that. That night we drive the sand river again, and on returning to camp use the spotlight to pick up jackals, and a great reward- a White-faced scops owl. Its been 7 years since I’ve seen one.

It’s so nice to be off any schedule, and the next morning it’s a late start. We arrive at a junction. Two roads diverge, one is graded, the other is just a track. The GPS shows that the track should take us around the north of Gelai mountain to the east shores of Lake Natron. We take the track. Like all the roads we’ve been on it hasn’t been driven in a while. We engage four-wheel drive, in some places we follow the little arrow on the GPS that changes direction if you leave the track. We can’t see the road, in other places its obvious, sometimes we have to dig the banks to climb out, other times it’s a low-range crawl. Our driving is distracted by beautiful straight-horned oryx, that gallop off. Occasionally giraffe stick their necks above the acacia scrub and watch us pass. I wonder what they think.

Around the north of Gelai the land becomes rocky and my cousin calls it a moonscape. Kiti cha mungu (God’s stool), otherwise known as a small hill. My father and cousin talk of Arizona, the Sonora desert. I don’t know if they have termite mounds there. We stop at one that must be nearly 30ft high. The rocks get bigger and it seems each gully leading off Gelai has carried with it rocks as big as basketballs across the road and down to the lake. We can’t drive the edge of the shore because at the base of each gully is a spring that softens the shoreline.

Oldonyo Lengai appears in the distance. We are headed towards its base but tonight we will sleep under the stars again, on the shores of the lake. We stop, set up camp, the sun has sapped us of energy, but we are rejuvenated by the shining grass flowers, the dark mountains, the reflection of Shompole, Masonik, and the Rift wall in the lake. Flamingos add pink, and the springs are all surrounded by dark green sedge. Grants and giraffe wander down to drink from the springs. That night we sit shirtless under the stars, sipping beers and listening to my father sing on his guitar. My cousin adds his songs as does my brother- such peace.

Too many things happen the next day to write about. The silent morning, the sunrise over Gelai, skinny-dipping in hot-springs- a dose of the daily amenities no luxury lodge could imitate. We drive south and cross the top of the lakebed. Alkaline salt flats that mirage, with zebra in the foreground. We head up the escarpment and climb, and climb and climb to the top where we have lunch and look out across our morning’s journey. We push on, across the Ngata Salei plain to the base of the Sonjo mountains passed their settlement; agriculturalists who have been in the area since long before any Maasai. The mountain pass we climb is flanked by cycads. Old plants that once fed dinosaurs. The temperature drops and the trees are lush- less adapted to desert conditions. The birds are also more colorful and soon we are seeing Augur Buzzards again; a bird identical to North America’s Red-tailed Hawk.

By 4 we are at the edge of the short grass plains that vitalize the migrating wildebeest. High in phosphorous and calcium the seemingly fragile grasses support lactating wildebeest. The plains are also full of zebra, the stallions fighting for their harems, and to my father’s amazement there are herds of nearly 500 eland. Most people only read about these congregations at the beginning of the rains. We stop and scan with binoculars before heading down into a woodland to the camp. Familiar smiling faces of the camp crew greet us with cold washcloths and ice tea. Our first hot showers it seems in ages are lifted into the bucket showers.

We sleep again, this time to the chorus of zebra and hyenas. The lions are silent tonight. The next three days we rise before dawn, coffee brought in French-presses to the tent door. We head off and find beautiful coffee spots on rocks or under trees eat breakfast and enjoy the wild. One day we drive to the Sanjan Gorge that cuts through the Gol mountains. They are 500 million years old I’m told- as old as the oldest mountains and once higher than the Himalayas. We find fossils and stone tools in eroded volcanic ash soil and finally hike down the steep banks of the gorge as two Black Eagles fly out from below us rising on updrafts. It is breathtaking. The water has carved natural slides in the rock but its too low to swim. Instead we lay in the brown water refreshed.

That evening is our last and we drive across the plains- it has rained while we were in the gorge and it seems that the wildebeest numbers are increasing. They must sense it before it rains. There is no need to use the road and the few land marks triangulate where camp is. The next day we head home. It will be the 8th day out and we have yet to see another tourist. The vehicles we have seen can be counted on our hands. 45km south I know we will cross the Olduvai Gorge and with it we’ll meet the masses. Our days have been filled with rich events, many I know I find difficult to describe. I have skipped parts of the some of the days- even highlights like the sand boa, a very rare find, or the Tree of Life standing out in the plains.