Lake Natron Guide – When to Go, What to Expect, History & Culture

Expedition: Great Rift & Lake Natron Trek Tanzania

360 Expeditions

Known variously as the Red Lake, the World’s Deadliest Lake and Lake Medusa, Lake Natron is the stuff of myth and legend. Its astounding red surface can be picked from space and its alkali waters turn bodies to stone. It sits at the heart of a region known as the Cradle of Humanity and the volcano that feeds it is regarded by the Maasai as God’s dwelling place. 

With this kind of reputation, it is understandable why so many trekkers want to visit its fabled shores. But what is fact and what is fiction? Where does myth end and reality begin? 

In this guide to Lake Natron and the surrounding region, we explore its history and geology, examine its cultural importance and deep dive into the area’s fantastic trekking opportunities. 

Understanding Lake Natron

Situated in northern Tanzania, on the country’s border with Kenya, Lake Natron is one of the most striking and spectacular natural features in the world. Fed by Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River and supplemented by mineral-rich hot springs, the shallow lake is renowned for its red hue and is the only regular breeding ground for the continent’s 2.5 million lesser flamingos. 

Lake Natron’s remarkable appearance and reputation as the world’s deadliest lake is due to high levels of evaporation, which cause saline levels to increase and create the perfect conditions for salt-friendly microorganisms. These organisms produce energy via photosynthesis and one of the byproducts of this process is a red pigment which dyes the water and the salt crust that sits atop it.

The high saline levels mean the water is strongly alkaline, often exceeding pH 12. As such, the water can burn the eyes and skin of creatures not adapted to the conditions and calcifies the bodies of organisms that have died in the water, effectively turning them to stone. However, stories of Lake Natron causing instant death via contact with the water and its reputation as the “world’s deadliest lake” are misguided. It supports a thriving and diverse ecosystem that includes wetland birds, fish and algae. It is this algae that attracts the aforementioned flamingos.

A valued cultural landmark

The fact that Lake Natron is arguably most famous for the misconception that it is deadly and turns living creatures into stone is understandable but unfortunate. Largely because these myths may actually be the least interesting thing about the lake and surrounding area. From an ecological and geological perspective, the lake is fascinating. The chemical composition of the water is partly produced by activity from nearby Ol Doinyo Lengai  – the only volcano in the world that still produces carbonatite lava.

Lake Natron also sits at the heart of Maasailand and, alongside Ol Doinyo Lengai, has been at the centre of the Maasai’s traditional heartland for centuries. Ol Doinyo Lengai translates as “The Mountain of God” and it is regarded as the dwelling place of the Maasai’s deity, Enkai (or Engai). As such, the region has great spiritual significance for this nomadic, pastoralist people. 

Offering insights into early human evolution

Lake Natron also sits within the Gregory Rift, a branch of the East African Rift – a continental rift zone home to many of Africa’s Great Lakes. The East African Rift has developed over the last 30 million years due to the gradual splitting of the African tectonic plate into the Nubian Plate and the Somali Plate, the latter of which is moving away from the former at a rate of 6-7 mm a year. The tectonic activity in this area is responsible for the continent’s highest mountains, Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, as well as the arresting landscapes, sweeping savannahs and awe-inspiring valleys.

The East African Rift is also often referred to as the Cradle of Humanity due to its incredible paleoanthropological sites and the role it is thought to have played in early human evolution. While contemporary theories are moving away from the idea that homo sapiens developed from one geographically-restricted people and towards the idea that we descend from diverse groups across Africa who went through cycles of connectivity and isolation, the area surrounding Lake Natron can and has provided remarkable insights into our early development. This ensures it attracts many visitors who want to walk in the footsteps of our oldest known ancestors. 

Ample opportunities for adventure

All this makes Lake Natron and the surrounding region a beautiful, captivating and intriguing destination for those interested in history, nature and outdoor adventure. Whether trekking the region’s highlands and experiencing the grassland wildlife up close, scaling volcanoes, immersing yourself in Maasai culture or visiting influential paleoanthropological sites, few destinations offer such a varied and exciting expedition experience.

With so much to see and do, it is difficult to know where to start. With this in mind, here is the 360 itinerary for our Great Rift & Lake Natron Trek in Tanzania.

Day One – Fly from the UK

Participants typically depart the UK in the evening and will often travel with their dedicated 360 guide.

Day Two – Arrive and settle in

After touching down at Kilimanjaro International Airport, our driver will pick you up and transfer you to your hotel in Moshi. You will have the afternoon to rest, recover and relax by the hotel pool. 

Day Three – Highlands and transfer to camp

Today, we make our way to camp, stopping off at Mto Wa Mbu, a vibrant village at the base of the valley. Here, we stop for lunch and a trekking briefing conducted by your guides, before heading up to the Ngorongoro highlands in safari vehicles. There will be plenty of opportunities to stop and admire the grand landscapes and we aim to arrive at camp by mid-afternoon. As the day cools, we will set off on a short, 5 km hike to see the Olmoti crater. 

Day Four – Nainokanoka to Bulati

The trekking begins for real. Following an early start, we will trek across the Ngorongoro Highlands, accompanied by a thrilling volcanic backdrop. Passing Maasai bomas, we will cross the Elbulbul Depression – a vast, treeless grassland that guarantees great wildlife spotting. The depression is home to grazing zebras, roaming wildebeests and soaring raptors, who circle overhead watching for activity in the many mole rat mounds rising from the ground. After completing the 15 km trek, we should arrive at camp by early afternoon.

Day Five : Bulati to Empakaai

Another early start allows us to complete the first part of the day’s trek in cooler temperatures. Crossing undulating terrain and encountering several Maasai villages, we will head for the Empakaai crater, which overlooks a stunning crater lake. The transition from temperate grassland to a montane forest zone is representative of the diverse ecosystems found in the region and the importance of the volcanic geology. In the afternoon, we descend into the crater to get our first good look at the lesser flamingos for which the region is so famous. At 300 metres deep and 6 km wide, the caldera is on another scale and simply breathtaking. After working our way back out of the caldera, we will camp right on the crater rim. As campsites go, it doesn’t get much better.

Day Six – Empakaai to Acacia

On Day Six, we descend from the crater rim, pass the remote community of Naiyobi Village, and leave the Ngorongoro conservation area. In doing so, we enter the plains where local herdsmen move their livestock as part of the famous Maasai Migration. Here, we are moving through a region that plays a key role in the centuries-old comings and goings of the pastoral communities that live on and with this land.

Day Seven – Acacia to Ngare Sero and Lake Natron

Continuing to follow the Maasai Migration trail, we descend the Rift Valley Escarpment and trek towards the base of Ol Doinyo Lengai – the Maasai’s holy mountain. At the base, our safari vehicles will collect us for the 45-minute transfer to our camp for the night. Located above the Ngare Sero River, close to Lake Natron, it will allow us to enjoy a hot lunch and rest, before ending the day with a relaxed walk to the nearby Ngare Sero waterfalls and natural pools.

Day Eight – Lake Natron

Today, we have plenty of time to explore Lake Natron’s wondrous beauty and admire the thousands of pink flamingos that come here to breed. We follow this up with a trek to Ngaresero Gorge – the final stop on this incredible adventure. There’s also the opportunity to explore Olduvai Gorge, often referred to as one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world and the source of early stone tools and evidence of our early cognitive transition and increased communal activity. Here, we stand where some of our earliest ancestors would have lived, hunted and collaborated.

Day Nine – Lake Natron to Tarangire

Following a delicious, early breakfast, our safari vehicles will drive us the three hours to Tarangire Park – a phenomenal national park known for its sizable elephant population and ancient baobab trees. You will also encounter the park’s other notable wildlife, which includes everything from big cats to the dainty dik-dik. After an afternoon game drive, it’s time for drinks around the fire. The perfect send-off for an unforgettable trek!

Day Ten – Depart Tanzania

With just enough time for another game drive in the morning, you will have one last chance to experience the region’s wildlife, then it is time to transfer to Kilimanjaro International Airport and head home.

When to go

Generally, the best period to visit Lake Natron is during the dry season, from late June to October. At this time, the weather is usually more stable and there is a much lower likelihood of rainfall, making the trekking experience more pleasurable. In the dry season, you can expect lows of anywhere between 5-15℃. Temperatures can get pretty high towards the middle of the day and in particular locations, most notably around Lake Natron. Consequently, trekkers should ensure they bring adequate clothing and sun protection.

Other things to think about

If you are considering a trekking experience in Tanzania and the Lake Natron area, there are a few extra factors you need to think about. These include:

  • Ethical tourism

In the past, there have been issues surrounding ethical tourism in the region. Few efforts have been made to ensure the long-term sustainability of the tourism sector in this area, resulting in environmental damage and exploitation of local guides and workers. As a result, we recommend all visitors do their research and book with an organisation that prioritises ethical practices and is accredited by independent and respected third-party regulators.

For instance, 360 Expeditions is an approved partner with the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) and is involved in the International Mountain Explorers Connection – IMEC – Partner for Responsible Travel Program. We agree to monitoring and evaluation by KPAP and have received one of the highest ratings possible – something we are very proud of. We also provide extensive training to our local team, including the REC Level 4 Remote Emergency First Aid Course, conducted by UK expert in Rescue & Emergency, Allan Shaw.

  • Health and safety

Travelling to Tanzania means visiting a malaria zone. Consequently, antimalarials are essential. The 360 team tends to recommend Malarone but we advise you to see your local nurse practitioner at least two months before your trip to seek their advice and ensure all medications are organised well in advance.

The following vaccinations are also recommended, though professional medical advice should be sought to ensure you have a comprehensive list.

  • Hepatitis A
  • Typhoid
  • Diphtheria
  • Tetanus
  • Polio
  • Yellow Fever

Preparation for trekking

The 360 Expeditions Great Rift & Lake Natron Trek is graded as a P3 on a P1 to P7 scale. This means the trip is physically tough and preparation should involve frequent exercise. This will take the form of regular walking and some strength work in the gym. You should be comfortable doing eight-hour days in hilly and steep terrain with a 6-10 kg pack. All participants on the 360 trek receive a training guide specifically tailored to the expedition, helping you to ensure you’re fully prepared. 

Lake Natron with 360 Expeditions

At 360 Expeditions, we leverage our extensive experience in the outdoor sector to organise and deliver memorable expeditions in some of the world’s most spectacular locations. Our Tanzania Expedition is a fantastic example and gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself physically while enjoying the magnificent natural environment, engaging with local cultures and immersing yourself in the region’s history.

 

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