Located in the northern safari circuit, Lake Natron is one of the more off the beaten path places to visit in Tanzania. Lake Natron is a large alkaline, or salt, lake located in the the northern part of the Ngorongoro region of Tanzania. It measures 57 km long (35 miles) and 22 km (14 miles) wide. Lake Natron is a game controlled region that is located 136 km (84 miles) northwest of Arusha, Tanzania. It is near the border of Kenya, with ~10% of the lake is located within Kenya and the remainder within Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. Being located in one of the deepest valleys, just 600m above sea level, it is much warmer and drier around Lake Natron than the adjacent northern safari circuit.
What is Lake Natron area known for?
This lake is known for its crimson red algae blooms during dry season, where evaporative losses will cause the lake’s pH approach 11! This makes it an inhospitable place for most living beings. However, it is the primary breeding ground in the world for the Lesser Flamingo, a near-threatened bird species. 75% of the world’s lesser flamingos lay their eggs on dirt mounds amidst the crimson crusted lake. Here, the flamingos feast on the cyanobacteria in the water, which lends the pink pigmentation to their feathers, and tend to thrive where their predators cannot.
It is also known for Ol Doinyo Lengai – Tanzania’s only active volcano. This carbonate volcano is unique in that its magma is colder and more liquid than other volcanoes. It is known by the local Maasai tribe as The Mountain of God – they view it as where their god Engai resides and they are known to climb the mountain to provide sacrifices.
While Lake Natron is not that far away from Arusha as the crow flies, it is important to note that the roads in and out of Lake Natron are quite primitive and the use of a 4WD vehicle and experienced driver/guide is strongly advised. Lake Natron does not have an airstrip and must be driven to via one of three primary routes:
- From Arusha it is only 84 miles away but the trip will take 3.5-4 hours!
- From Mto wa Mbu it can take 3-4 hours
- From Serengeti Klein’s Gate it can take 4-5 hours – so stay closer to the gate and not deep in the Central Serengeti.
What to do?
Wildlife photography, in particular avian photography, can be amazing along the edge of the lake – home to over 250 specie of birds! Here you have the opportunity to get water level and get photographs of the massive flocks of lesser and greater flamingo as well as great white pelican, pied avocets, yellow-billed storks, and other waders congregate in large flocks along the less alkaline edges of the lake. This along with the Rift Valley escarpment make for some stunning landscapes and eye-level photography. Along with birds, you may see other wildlife like zebra, wildebeest, and other antelope, such as the gerenuk, oryx and lesser kudu which are not commonly seen in the northern safari circuit. You won’t be wading in this lake though – the pH is too high to allow for swimming or wading.
Hiking and trekking can be incredible in and around this region. The landscape surrounding Ol Doinyo Lengai is different that other locations, given its spot in the valley. Nearby Ngare Sero waterfall, as well as many hot and cold springs erupting from the ground make for a nice, albeit warm, place to hike. You can climb Ol Doinyo Lengai – but it is a very challenging climb and not for the faint of heart!
When to go?
You can visit Lake Natron at any time of year, however the dry season makes for better road travel, as it can be impossible during heavy rains. June, July and August tend to be the coolest months. However December and January are an amazing time to see the lake flush with flamingos and their hatchlings. Please see the linked article on climate as you will note that Lake Natron is more arid and warm than other areas on safari – think desert heat.
Where to stay?
There are a few lodges and camps in and around Lake Natron. One of our favorites, however, is Lake Natron Tented Camp. This camp is ideally located along the edge of the lake and contains a fresh water spring around which the camp is situated. Surrounding your tent and the mess are natural spring swimming pools where you can take a plunge in the afternoon sun. You can hike around the lake bed for views of the volcano and even visit some well preserved Hominid footprints from 5000-19000 years ago within their concession.