This spectacular area sits just north east of the Ngorongoro Crater and forms part of Africa’s immense Great Rift Valley. Nestled between rolling volcanic hills and deep craters, Lake Natron sits at the lowest point of the rift valley – 600m above sea level – and is probably the world’s most caustic body of water.
This area is hot ,so certainly for the more intrepid traveler. But for those who do choose to visit Natron, they are rewarded with an area that is far off the beaten track. It is also some of the most dramatic scenery we have seen in Tanzania and the journey here is worth it for the views alone.
The drive to Lake Natron takes around three hours from Mto wa Mbu (beside Lake Manyara). It is hot but with the Rift Valley rising up on your left hand side, the landscape is increasingly dramatic. You will soon focus on the scenery: looking around, the views are spectacular. Drive deeper, and green vegetation gives way to a sparse, dusty landscape. Only the occasional Maasai homestead now dots the landscape.
To the north of this track stands a handful of great mounds – the remains of extinct volcanoes. These are soon dwarfed by the sight of Kerimasi Crater and, finally, the active Oldoinyo Lengai – whose name means “mountain of god” in the Maasai language. To finally reach Lake Natron, you drive around this imposing volcano – perhaps keeping your eyes on its smoking crown.
Wildlife of Lake Natron
The area around Lake Natron is home to some wildlife, you might see the occasional giraffe or zebra – but this is not the main reason to come here. In stead, visit this area for its remoteness, scenery and for an interesting route into the back of Loliondo.
The lake itself is home to a fascinating eco-system which thrives in this harsh environment. The lake is full of millions of Cyanobacteria – a salt loving microorganism which create their own food through photosynthesis. As the lake increases in salinity, so does the population of bacteria. The lake also supports a vast population of Spirulina, a blue-green algae with red pigments, on which the large population of Lesser Flamingoes feed on.
The lake is an extremely hostile environment and most other organisms are not able to live here. The alkalinity levels of the lake can become so concentrated, that they almost approach that of straight ammonia. Few predators can survive here, and the result is a safe breeding ground for the flamingos who return here annually to nest.
Activities around Lake Natron
Activities in the Lake Natron area focus mainly on walks. You can walk out across the baked mud to the shores of the great soda lake itself, in which algae and zooplankton thrive – which in turn attract the flamingos that line the lake’s shore. Look back at the mesmerising view of Oldoinyo Lengai – standing tall in amongst rolling hills and flat plains. Its ash-grey colour and smoking top remind you that this is still very much active. This walk is best done in the very early morning or late afternoon out of the heat of the day.
Whilst here, take the chance to walk up to the Engero Sero Waterfalls. This walk winds up through a shady gorge between steep cliffs. There’s a bit of gentle scrambling involved, and you’ll also cross the river a few of times. However, after a few hours you’ll reach a beautiful natural swimming pool surrounded by steep rock walls – showered by cascades of spring-water and overlooked by palm trees.
The more adventurous might like to try and climb Oldoinyo Lengai. This climb usually starts at midnight, and you climb for around six hours, through the night, to reach the spectacular views of the top by sunrise. Anyone embarking on this walk must understand that it is a very tough climb, and that as this is an active volcano, so high risks are involved. Oldoinyo Lengai is not a climb to take.
Lake Natron as part of a safari
If you’re being driven between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti, then the obvious route is through the Ngorongoro Conservation area.
However, there’s a little-known route that’s rarely used by tourists – which is the road we’ve described above, through the Lake Natron area. These camps in Lake Natron make a great half-way stop on this between Lake Manyara and the Loliondo area of the Serengeti.
Lake Natron does have some wildlife, but this is not the main reason to come here. Instead visit this area for its remoteness, its scenery and some interesting walks – as well as for a stop on an interesting route between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti.