Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Landscapes
A Short Visit to Virunga (Nov 2015)
 

As a guide who spends most of his time in the classic savannahs of Tanzania in some of the world’s most wildlife rich national parks, the DRC offers a very contrasting but equally stimulating experience

A few iphone photos of the incredible vegetation on Nyiragongo.

Among the incredible life forms are these Boulenger's pygmy chameleons. A rare and special find.

There are few places in the world with as spectacular and diverse landscapes, habitats, and wildlife as Virunga National Park. Laid out along 300km of the western arm of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, it spreads from Lake Kivu through volcano fields (two of them still active), past Lake Edward and the equator, past the glacier-covered Mountains of the Moon, and ends eventually in the  Semliki valley to the north. Such diverse geography lends itself naturally to diverse habitats home to an incredible variety of mammals, birdlife, and other lifeforms.

Ascending Nyiragongo.

Getting up at night to watch the lava lake bubble and dawn arrive.

From a geological perspective, Virunga’s features are all very recent additions. 30 million years ago, pressure underneath the African continent caused by a series of plumes of magma forced it to bulge and effectively crack spreading southward from the Red Sea as far as Mozambique. As the rifting spread south, it reached a particularly resistant rock formation known as the Tanganyika Craton where it diverged into two arms forming what is now known as the Albertine (western) Rift and Gregory (eastern) Rift. It wasn’t until 12-13 million years ago that the first volcanoes began erupting in the Virunga region, although the 8 most prominent peaks are all younger than 2.5 million years old. Two of the 8 are still active to this day.  The other six are no longer active and their forested slopes are home to some of the last remaining Mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei). These large and gentle primates complete the montage of charismatic African wildlife and complement the East African savannah experience.

This short time lapse of Nyiragongo's lava lake in the morning shows its mesmerizing power.

Critically Endangered, there is an estimated population of 480 individuals and growing found in the three national parks that encompass the Virunga Massif (Bwindi National Park in Uganda is also home to a population of about 300). The area that the Mountain gorillas occupy is a very small range of about 450 km2 in the montane and bamboo forests of the Virungas. At present there are 8 habituated gorilla groups in Virunga National Park.

All of these photos and videos are on Instagram @tembomdogo and higher quality.

 
Beyond Ruaha's Charismatic Wildlife
 

An exploratory guide's-only trip.

Greater kudu- a flagship Ruaha species.

There’s a triangle in Ruaha National Park, bordered on the south side by the Mdonya river, the escarpment running north east, and on the east to south side by a section of the Ruaha River’s floodplain. Through the middle runs a sand river, the Mwagusi, creating an incredible area for the charismatic wildlife that gives East Africa its reputation. Like many places in East Africa, water is the limiting resource that determines wildlife abundance, and the Ruaha, Mwagusi and Mdonya Rivers provide just that- permanent (though not always obvious) water for herds of hundreds of buffalo, elephants, giraffe, zebra, impala, yellow baboons, and their predators: lions, leopards and cheetah. But it is a relatively small area in Ruaha’s extensive landscape.

Our first stop was a campsite on the Mdonya River. It was the end of the dry season, so water was limited to a few places where elephants knew to dig. We’d just driven 15 hours straight from Arusha, but were sighing in relief as the familiar sounds of the African bush comforted our souls. None of us bothered with the rain flies for our tents and went to sleep to the sound of the African scops owl. Lions roared as the walked by at about 4 a.m. but it wasn’t until the ring-necked doves started their morning call to work that Tom, our camp assistant, woke up to stoke the fire and get the coffee going.

Our first campsite under a Lebombo wattle (Newtonia hildebrantii).

Day 1.

Our first order of the day was a meeting with the tourism warden and a couple of rangers to discuss our expedition. Some recently opened roads were making access into some of the least visited areas of the park possible and we wanted to know if they would work for walking safaris. For many of us, walking is a way of experiencing a quieter side of nature and escaping from the diesel-engine-run game drives and trappings of luxury camping. Waking up to a thermos of coffee and going to bed after a sipping whiskey by the fire were all the luxury we needed; it was about the wilderness.

The magical triangle in Ruaha- see map below for context.

As we left the magic triangle we climbed up into the hills behind the escarpment and were rewarded immediately by a racquet-tailed roller who fluttered along side. “Lifers” were being added to the list and for most guides with passion like us, that is one of the most exciting things. The next lifer for a few of us, only a few minutes later, was a herd of Sable antelope: one of the most beautiful of all antelopes, and particularly exciting as they are miombo woodland specialists. The miombo woodland was also changing in anticipation of the rains, and with colors that would compete with a Vermont autumn. Vivid reds, purples, blue-greens, light greens; it was beautiful.

With 7 of us in the vehicle, food for 8 days, camping equipment, and our libraries, water was our biggest challenge. The 90 litres we could carry required us to take every opportunity we could to refill, and determined our campsites over the next few days. 

We arrived at the first campsite as the evening light became intense and vibrant and what unfolded became the schedule for the next week: unload, set up tents, collect firewood and light fire, unpack and prep dinner, carry the basin to the stream to bathe and then sip on a cold beer, reclining on thermarests, binoculars on chests, and reference books open. We didn’t need to meditate or even think about focusing on the moment; it just was, pure, the product of a love of wilderness and like-mindedness. Sleep came quickly, as it does in the bush. 

Racket-tailed rollers.

Racket-tailed rollers.

Day 2

As the night sky began to change, the fire was stoked and coffee water boiled. Each of us woke to our own beat, grabbed a cup of coffee and the first moments of the day were appreciated in respectful quiet.

With heavy rainstorms imminent we followed Thad’s suggestion and headed to the furthest point we wanted to reach. The grass got greener and longer as we drove around the Kimbi Mountains. We saw more game that day: sable, zebra, giraffe, warthog, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and even some lions. However, to say that wildlife was prolific would be very misleading.

Lichtenstein's hartebeest- a miombo speciality.

On maps, the Mzombe-roundabout appears to be the headwaters of the river. It is also on the border of the park; in essence, the end of the road. The grader driver literally created a cul-de-sac roundabout. In the past, the Petersons had walked the Mzombe River further downstream before trophy hunting and administration in the bordering Rungwe Game Reserve had become so profit-oriented that they stopped respecting the buffer to the park and hunted right to the edge. Yet, the Petersons’ stories of encounters with lions, elephants, hippos and more had left an impression of this river, one that was not fulfilled at the headwaters. 

Incredible flowers.

A natural bouquet. Nature does it better.

Delicate Orchids- Eulophia coculata.

Instead it was incredibly green, and the hills invited walking. It had obviously rained enough to bring out the wildflowers and on the walk the next day in addition to wonderful birds like thick-billed cuckoos, spotted creepers, and yellow-bellied hyliotas, we admired the proliferation of flowers.

Day 3

Having walked for 7 hours in the morning, we returned to camp for lunch. The clouds were building and we had already been dumped on while walking. We packed up camp, and made our way back around the mountain. Our third camp was at the base of the mountains in a small clearing. Purple crested turaccos hopped around in the trees and as darkness fell, barred-owlets, tiny little owls, began calling.

Water re-filling break under a Faidherbia albida.

Day 4

The next morning we set off early, and were fortunate to quickly find a proper elephant trail leading up into the hills. Elephants are big animals and just naturally take the best route. The switchbacks were there when we needed them and the path that wound its way up around rocks and to the top of the hills made it a real pleasure to climb the hill. A rocky outcrop distracted us as we paused for peanuts, homemade cookies and water. More new birds made our list but a particular highlight was 2 sightings of Chequered elephant-shrew. 

Photographs cannot capture the extensiveness of this wilderness.

We returned to camp at around 3, exhilarated by the climb. Lunch was quick and we headed off to a clearing we had passed a couple of days before that we believed we could drive down to get to a river known as the Lupati, a tributary of the Mzombe. We barely made it half a kilometre when the woodland became too thick to drive through. Small drainages were converging and a couple of times we ran into dead-ends. We did have good sightings of Roan antelope and that evening as we watched nightjars hawk the sky, we heard our first elephants.

Just a lunchtime chill.

Day 5

Spectacular storm build-ups warned us that we should probably head back to the Ruaha River, so after our usual breakfast we took a shorter walk before proceeding to head towards Usangu. We entered the new addition to the national park and drove and drove. It was a long day of driving, but the landscape kept changing as we pushed on. It was not until we made it into the lower areas that we began to see more wildlife, particularly giraffe and impala. There was evidence of game and in one clearing we had great sighting of sable, roan, and bush pigs foraging in daylight. Scuff marks and tracks in the road told a story of Africa wilddogs killing a warthog.

Roan antelope- another Ruaha speciality.

We arrived in camp as it was getting dark. Camp was on the river, just meters from a pool with over thirty hippos in it. We quickly set up camp before settling down on the riverbank to watch the birds fly by and hippos grunt their disapproval of their new neighbors. As darkness set in, we scanned the water for crocodile eyes- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 pairs of eyes watching us.

Day 6

The sun had not come up yet, but the sky was changing. Coffee cups in one hand, binoculars ready to train on birds flying by, we sat and watched. This was really a grand finale for us. It was a slightly slow start but this was the area we would most likely come to walk next year and I wanted to explore. We set off for a couple of hours and then returned to take the vehicle. There were campsites we needed to examine and stretches of river to see. The roads had not been graded as they had the previous days, and the going was tough enough that my vehicle is being repainted as we speak. A stump wrote off a tire, but those are the costs of adventure.

Pel's fishing owl.

Day 7

It was the usual morning routine, but as we sipped our coffee and contemplated the view, we knew we were leaving today. We took down our tents and then took a quick walk along the river before climbing back into the vehicle for the ride home.

To book an adventure in Ruaha contact me or Thad.

 
Flying on Safari
 

I remember the first time I managed to launch off a hill, suspended by a paraglider, tense and terrified. An Auger buzzard took off from a tree below me, soaring the same uplift I was on. Effortlessly, it turned, riding the wind while I continued to tense my body as I flew straight, my goal just to land.

I love flight, especially low-level flight. I’m not a pilot, but the different perspective, looking down at the ground from above, or looking eye-level at a cliff or mountain fascinates me. Over the last few months of safari, I’ve flown in helicopters, balloons, Cessnas, Boeings, and even a private jet. While the larger planes aren’t as much fun, here are a few images taken from the smaller flight vessels.

My first balloon flight was in June this year in northern Serengeti. A steady wind was blowing and I was a bit bewildered but equally excited as we lay on our backs, the loud fans blowing air into the balloon and burners roaring. The balloon filled and lifted, pulling the basket upright, the force of the wind jerking and tugging. Suddenly we lifted, and for a few seconds it was silent as we rose up leaving behind a frantic crew as they prepared the chase vehicles.

 

The fans blowing air into the balloon.

The burners on full-power creating the hot air that will lift the balloon.

The views are incredible.

Wind= bumpy landing.

The balloon experience in Namibia was very different.

We arrived at the balloon launch site, the balloons being filled. There was hardly a breeze, and the pilot uprighted the basket and balloon before we climbed in. Silently we began to rise. The colors in the desert as the sun rose were incredible, the hues of blue, orange, pink, and grey so soft.

The landing was different too, made easier by the lack of wind, and I was impressed by the conscientiousness to the fragility of the desert. The pick-up pulling the trailer stayed on the road as the pilot communicated our location. By throwing a piece of webbing that the crew grabbed, they were able to bring the basket down directly onto the trailer.

We will occasionally charter a plane. Not only does it maximizes time spent on the ground by allowing us to create our own schedule, but we can ask the pilots to detour or fly low. I took the following photos from the Cessna caravan en-route to Serengeti and then Rubondo Island.

Oldonyo Lengai is an active volcano. Read about climbing it here.

Wildebeest and migration trails on the Lamai Wedge in northern Serengeti. (August 2014).

As you approach Rubondo Island, the intensity of green stands out. Read about Rubondo here.

Flying across the western border of Serengeti National Park. Population pressures are growing.

My first experience with helicopters was guiding in northern Kenya on a safari organized by Charlie Babault.

This year I saw Victoria falls and flew over Rwanda in a helicopter. The ability to hover, the ability to fly through valleys, and the ability to fly slowly allow extra appreciation of the different perspective of being in the air.

Mosi o-tunya, Zambia.  

In Rwanda, we saved time and got a birds-eye view of intense small-holder agriculture, and a dense population.

Leaving Kigali at sunrise.

Like a patch-work.

A 3hr car ride became a 20 minute helicopter ride.

Sabyinyo group.

All photos in this blog article also appear on Instagram @tembomdogo.

"Spring" in Ruaha
 

My office under a baobab tree.

The lilies bloom.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in the back of my open vehicle under a massive baobab tree, staring across the vast expanse of a tiny portion of Ruaha National Park. A lone antenna on a far away hill beamed an unreliable cell-phone signal that allowed me to send various emails and of course the occasional instagram photo (and to call my lovely wife). Around me the grass was green and the sky a Polaroid blue interrupted only by a few cumulus clouds. Woodland kingfishers reestablished their territories, and flocks of Eurasian bee-eaters and rollers patrolled the skies feasting on the termite irruptions, joined by other migrants such as Amur falcons and kestrels.

Seven weeks prior, I arrived in Ruaha to begin the second round of training rangers. The Pilatus flew over the Ruaha River, or what used to be the Great Ruaha River. Unregulated rice farming upstream and an illegally overgrazed, but now recovering, Usangu swamp have reduced the river to a few pools of hippo dung-infested water. The animal trails were clear when we flew over and spread like nerve ganglia from any form of drinking water. Ash lay in white shapes against the red earth, evidence of trees that had burned in grass fires, reminiscent of the chalk drawings used to outline bodies at crime scenes.

The temperature must have been close to 40 degrees Celsius, and the sun unbearable. Even with the windshield down as we drove to camp, the hot blasts of air did little to cool the body. It was pretty clear that the next few weeks were going to be intense. The harsh light and dust in the air immediately forced a squint that would become so permanent for the next weeks that I developed squint-tan lines across my forehead.

A wild ginger.

Like a fresh breath of air.

Building storms accentuated the heat, hinting at relief, but it wasn’t until well into the course that it finally did rain. The seasons do not change in East Africa as they do in the temperate climates. Instead of gradual changes, season changes here are striking distinct events, the zenith of a build up. There’s not half-rain between dry season and wet season, or a half dry between dry and wet season. It is a sudden thunderstorm that leaves you soaked and shivering when only half an hour ago you couldn’t drink enough to keep up with your perspiration.

That first rain is one of the most beautiful moments you can have in the bush. The bush becomes silent, and then the violent raindrops fall, bouncing off the hardened ground. If you go out you’ll notice that none of the animals take cover. Instead they expose themselves, the water washing off months of accumulated dust. Within a couple of days, buds appear on the trees, and little cracks appear in the ground as grass sprouts push through the earth. The next morning, the dry season silence is broken before dawn by migrant birds arriving, and a great weight is lifted while the impala fawns dance. Baby elephants run around trumpeting, no longer stumbling behind their mothers.

Within a week, lilies are flowering and the baobabs go from bare grey branches to dark green leaf. It is an amazing time for training as new life is visible and obvious. Insects that could not survive the dry season irrupt in unbelievable numbers, if only for their ecological role as food for the birds that begin their breeding. Other animals that may not be considered so pleasant also appear. Centipedes, scorpions, and massive spiders patrol the nights- but it’s all part of a big web of interconnectivity that keeps the wilderness wild and healthy. The contrast of obligate, fragile and intricate connections is easier appreciated on foot. The sense of immersion and vulnerability is far more appealing than watching lions sleeping under a tree from the safety of a 4x4. These are among the things that the training course was attempting to teach.

A young leopard tortoise emerges from aestivation after the first rains.

The training we conducted this year built on the training conducted in January: 20 participants, five days Advanced Wilderness First Aid, 10 days firearms training, and two weeks of walking emphasizing safety including dealing with potentially dangerous game. This November we added two weeks of identification, interpretation and further firearms training.

Marksmanship and weapons handling on the firing range with Mark Radloff.

Dr. Amol gives expert instruction in Swahili & English.

Andrew Molinaro goes through the drills- "what happens when an animal does charge"?

Simon Peterson on shot placement- "as a last resort, where are you going to shoot to stop a charging hippo"?

Kigelia africana, a common talking point.

It is a misconception that participating in a guiding course will equip you with in-depth knowledge. Even individuals with advanced academic degrees struggle in identification unless they have extensive field experience. However, the foundations can be laid, seeds of curiosity planted, and skills established enabling and encouraging a student in the right direction. It would be extremely arrogant for us “experts” to not admit that we are learning every day.

 
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!

 
Celebratory Safari
 

The moon rises as we enjoy sitting around a fire.

The new season kicked off to a wonderful celebratory safari for a well-earned birthday. Two nights in Ngorongoro, three in Serengeti and then a four-day Rwanda trip to see the Mountain Gorillas made for a sweet safari. So here's how we celebrated:

After breakfast on the verandah of the tent, we went for a game drive. Driving around a bush we encountered this impala giving birth- which seemed fitting for a birthday sighting.

The landscapes in northern Serengeti provide a quintessential backdrop to the wildlife sightings in the area. These 500 million year old kopjies provide refuge for lions and leopards. Rock-splitting fig trees (Ficus glumosa) find tiny spaces to establish themselves sending their roots through the cracks in the rocks. Some of them are very old like the one below.

What a perfect tree to have a picnic lunch! The rock at the base was also the perfect table top.

Rounding off the day with sun-downers on a rock with a view.

The celebrations continued in Rwanda with two gorilla treks. Gorilla groups are named after the silverback, the dominant male. We treked to Kwitonda group where this little rascal entertained us for nearly half an hour, and the next day to Agashya group where the weather made it too dark to photograph or film. The Agashya gorillas retreated in the mist and sat in a semi-circle in a cathedral of bamboo.

Kwitonda, the dominant silverback has 4 females and 14 children. He is accompanied by 2 other silverbacks

Gorilla individuals are easily (easily to some) identified by the unique pattern of wrinkles on their nose. By comparing nose prints on the family tree above and the rascal in the video below, I believe his name is Karibu.

 
Congo III: Volcanoes
 

The new volcano from 350m. Photo by Gian Schachenmann

The day before we boarded the Rwandair flight to Kigali en route to Congo, I received a link from a friend equally passionate about adventure to a youtube clip from Cai Tjeenk Willink (the Director of Tourism). It was breaking news: sometime in the evening, on the 6th of November, a loud bang was heard marking the beginning of a new eruption. We’d planned to climb Nyarigonga, the famous active volcano that in 2002 had sent a river of lava out of a fissure on the southern side, down Goma’s main street and covering a third of the airport runway. The volcano itself, at 3,468m, has a crater just over a km in diameter, and in the middle sits the world’s largest lava lake. Our plan was to sleep in the cabanas on the rim to enjoy the night view of the glowing molten rock. 

Driving around the south-east of Nyarigonga, we couldn’t wait to see the new eruption. As we glimpsed the first ash and lava spraying into the sky, we excitedly stopped the driver and dragged pelicases and tripods onto the bank of the road to get photos. Little did we know that we’d have fantastic views from the lodge at Rumangabo and the gorilla camp at Bukima. Upon arrival at Mikeno Lodge, we immediately wanted to know if we could walk in to see the new volcano. The delegation of heavily armed rangers had not returned yet from their safety assessment of the area, so Sarah was hesitant to commit.

The volcano from Bukima ranger post. by Gian Schachenmann

That evening from the crest of the hill, we watched the earthen firework display light up the sky, and we slept to the sound of the repetitive explosions nearly 15 kilometers away.

Three days later, escorted by 12 rangers, we set off as the first visitors to see the eruption. The path was narrow and overgrown and footing precarious as we picked our way over the lava flows from an eruption that had occurred in 1977. I couldn’t help but notice the prime example of succession; lichens covered the 34 year old rock and in the cracks, moss and ferns had started to grow. Other than that, there were a few pioneer shrubs and small trees that were establishing themselves where enough organic matter had accumulated.

Glowing lava. by Gian Schachenmann

Fountains of lava. By Gian Schachenmann

As we neared the volcano, the explosions became louder and our footfalls began to crunch gravel spread by the eruption. The camp was basic, having been carried in the day before when the volcanologist and head warden had walked into the site.  We dropped our backpacks and hurried closer. 300-400m was close enough and we could feel the warmth on our faces. We sat mostly in silence, mesmerized by the sound and sight of the liquid rock building a new mountain. Already in the few days since we’d first sat on the hill watching, a cone had formed. As darkness approached, the explosions became louder and we were showered with light stones. The ambient light faded, and the light from the volcano intensified. We retreated to camp and slept with our tents open, listening and watching as the fountains of lava lit up the sky.

 
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.