Renowned for its outstanding natural beauty Lake Natron with its glistening soda lake and surrounding majestic mountains is a unique jewel in Tanzania’s highly bejeweled and priceless crown. One of the few remaining breeding grounds for the lesser flamingo and a rare and beautiful volcanic ecosystem, I had heard so many great stories about it and I could not wait to get there. We traveled there in search of a cycling route from Arusha, and through rolling hills, ascending great mountains, across vast savanna plains deep in Maasai country, I found the journey as enchanting as the destination.
Leaving the city and eventually the tarmac, we headed north first towards Monduli mountain. Dotted with Maasai bomas and divided between rich indigenous forest and agricultural land, it is a truly Tanzanian rural landscape. As we winded our way along the dirt roads and eventually reached the top overlooking the hairpin bends descending on the other side, we were faced with an incredible panoramic view across the Great Rift Valley floor. Being dry season, dust devils could be seen swirling their path across the savanna, kicking up the dust creating a haze over the distant mountains so they appeared like mirages on the other side of a vast and awesome plain.
Down in those plains where the giraffe, gazelle and zebras roam my eyes were peeled for wildlife spotting but leaving a trail of dust in our wake our sights were set on the heights of Mount Kitumbeine. Climbing through beautiful landscape, greeting local Maasai along the way and waving to the local children excited by the sight of unexpected travelers, we ascended up to nearly 2,000 meters. Travel weary we found refuge and a camp site in a local school kindly proffered by the headmaster and rested by the camp fire gazing in mesmerized awe at the milkyway, so clear up here in the mountains.
We awoke to an audience of school children. With 400 pupils at this particular school, an extraordinary amount for such a remote community, that was quite a lot of curious faces to wake up to all bright-eyed and in their uniforms, whilst I stumbled out of the tent bleary-eyed and wondering where I might manage to find a private toilet!
Back on the road, with varying reports as to how passible our road ahead was, we pressed on further ascending and seeking out the road to descend the other side. The road turned to a trail, the trail turned to rocky river bed but between thorny acacia bushes, past a stunning gorge, greeting and getting advice from passing Maasai herders along the way, we found passage down to the plains below and eventually met with the main road. From the altitudinous heights and cool temperatures of the lush mountain of Kitumbeine we were back in the arid heat of the savanna speeding along the dust road towards Gilai.
Through the dust finally emerged the impressive forms of Gilai and Ol Donyo Lengai volcanoes. Its name in Maasai means ‘God’s Mountain’, and towering at 2,828 meters this active volcano seems to preside majestically over the whole area and is an impressive sight behold.
We reached Lake Natron as the sun was descending over the rift valley wall in its twilight phase. Walled in by mountains the lake area is huge (the lake itself extends beyond the horizon from this side towards Kenya). Maasai wash and bring their livestock to drink at the many winding, glistening inlets into the Lake Natron, buffalo and zebra roam and flocks of lesser and greater flamingoes paint the shorelines pink. Lake Natron does not disappoint. Brace yourself for the wind as the expansive valley is quite exposed. Camping on a hill in the center gave us great views but whipped sand in our already dusty faces and flapped out tent around at night but sunrise was breath-taking.
A more comfortable night was spent in the exceptional hospitality of Lake Natron Camp, a camp daring to sit furthest out into the plain and get you closer to the lake itself, their tents are well equipped and structured for the wind and their positioning perfect for taking in the surrounding panorama and the glorious and abundant wildlife. Under the watch of God’s Mountain this feels like paradise.
I did not want to leave Lake Natron. I entreat you to go but, if you are able to, veer off the beaten track, it is well worth it. And enjoy the journey!
El Mundo Safaris will be offering package to cycle or walk to the coming Lake Natron Festival; Natron 100.