A few hours drive north of the town of Mto wa Mbu, near the border to Kenya, lies Lake Natron. Away from the safari- and therefore main tourist trail, this was supposed to be a relatively cheap adventure (compared to the safaris). Pictures on Google showed a red colored salt lake, thousands of flamingos, and the amazing crater landscape of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano. It looked great and we had to go there, no matter what.
How to Get to Lake Natron
There are three ways to get to Engaresero, the Lake Natron region’s main town: By bus, on foot, or by car. The bus, a converted truck, was the cheapest but not the best option since we wanted to be able to stop en route to take pictures as well as to bring enough food and water for several days. The two-day hike through the Ngorongoro Highlands to Lake Natron sounded amazing but the park fees alone (USD 60 per person per day, plus 18% VAT) were enough for us to put that possibility aside. So what was left was the car.
In Mto wa Mbu we contacted Neemia, a local guide (find his contact details at the end of this post). He told us that a car to Lake Natron would cost us USD 200. For 120 km, that is. The reason for the high price is the bad shape of the road and the high maintenance cost of the vehicle. We argued and tried to bargain but there was nothing we could do. It wasn’t an unusually high price for a car in Tanzania, actually. However, the driver agreed to not only take us to the camp at Lake Natron, but to also bring us to Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano and back to the camp after the climb, all for the same price, so we wouldn’t have to hire a car in Engaresero. It was a good offer.
Gates & Fees
On the way to Lake Natron, there are three gates where tourists have to pay a fee: Longido (US$ 10), Engaruka ($10), and Engaresero ($15). The gate fees foreigners pay should help protect the wildlife in the area. 60% of the revenue should, in theory, go back to the local communities as an incentive not to hunt wild animals. That’s how our guide and several other people explained the gate-system to us. It sounds simple, in theory, and fair. In reality, however, you can’t see a single cent of that money anywhere so it’s quite hard to understand what the fees are really for (or: where the money actually goes to). The road, unpaved, is in bad shape, there’s only electricity up to Engaruka, and there’s no medicine in Engaresero’s dispensary.
Neemia told us that now there is a fourth gate, shortly after Mto wa Mbu. He couldn’t tell us for sure how much it cost, however, probably around $30 per person. To us, that seemed a bit too much and we were honestly considering not going to Lake Natron. The mere thought that we had to pay so much money just to pass through those gates seemed weird and didn’t feel right and now it got even more expensive.
So we called Maasai Giraffe Lodge, the place we wanted to stay at in Engaresero. They couldn’t tell us either how much the new gate would cost but they called the guy at the gate. He agreed to let us pass without paying and we’d settle the bill later at the lodge.
Despite everything we decided to go to Lake Natron, it looked just too beautiful and doing something else around Arusha wouldn’t be cheaper anyway. Half an hour after leaving Mto wa Mbu, two red-white striped iron bars on both sides of the dusty road marked the new gate. Under a big tree at the roadside sat a man in green uniform on a white plastic chair. He knew we were coming and demanded $60 for the both of us, despite the agreement with the lodge.
We thought: How do we know this is a real officer? Anyone could put a chair here, don a green uniform, and put some bars on the road. So we, thinking we were smart, demanded a receipt for the money. A real one, with a serial number and all that. He didn’t have any. We discussed, he made some calls, we called the Maasai Giraffe Lodge again and finally were sent on our way without having to pay the fee.
What we didn’t know: Our trip had just gotten much more expensive. We had fooled ourselves. The $60 “fee” was, what else, a bribe, and much cheaper than the real fee (for the fees and prices please refer to the list at the end of this post). Since we refused to pay the man his bribe, he reported us to the office in Arusha, telling them where and for how long we’d stay in Engaresero. Now Maasai Giraffe Lodge was responsible to pay the office the fee within 14 days, otherwise facing a fine. We still don’t know whether it was good not to pay the bribe and to pay the real fees or not, considering that the 60% of the fees that should go back to the communities may not go to the communities at all.
At the other gates it’s fine (and highly recommended!) to ask for a receipt, even if the guys first have to go and get the receipt booklet.
Despite the hassle and annoyance with the gates, it was an amazing drive to Lake Natron. The landscape is stunning and there’s lots of wildlife, especially zebra and wildebeest.
Ol Doinyo Lengai
The usual time to start climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai (“Mountain of God” in the Maasai language) is around midnight. A time for sleeping, in my opinion, not for climbing volcanoes. But we weren’t here to change old traditions and during the day it is definitely too hot to hike (or do anything, for that matter). So at midnight, after a short nap, we put on our hiking shoes, made coffee, and were ready to go. The weather, however, was not on our side. It was unusually windy, cloudy, and lightning dramatically illuminated the night sky. Our local guide, a young Maasai, strongly discouraged us from going up the volcano, it was just too dangerous.
Of course, this had been our chance to climb Ol Doinyo Lengai, since our driver was still here. We did consider climbing the volcano another day but we would have had to hire a car and driver for $70, which was just too expensive (the base of the volcano is just 14 km from the camp). Fortunately, perhaps, the weather was not good for climbing on all the days we stayed in Engaresero and therefore made our decision not to go much easier.
In dry season (June to October and January and February), the lake shrinks considerably but it’s very rare that it dries out, although it does happen. As long as there’s water, there are flamingos. But while in rainy season their numbers reach the millions, in dry season it’s only a few hundreds. We knew that and were happy to see at least a few.
What came a bit as a surprise to us, however, was that the lake wasn’t pink. At least not everywhere. We’d have to drive for several hours to somewhere along the western shore of the lake. But renting a car here… no way.
From Maasai Giraffe Lodge (highly recommended place to stay at Lake Natron, by the way) it’s a 1.5 hour walk to the lake. We went there twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I would recommend going at around 4 pm, for sunset at the lake. Anytime between 10 am and 4 pm is too hot to do anything but hang around at the lodge in the shade trying to catch a breeze.
On the way to the lake, our guide took us through amazing volcanic landscape to the “footprints”. 120’000 years old footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash have been found a few years ago by a worker of a nearby camp. The footprints – of both adults and children – are fascinating. Some of them are so clear that it’s almost hard to believe they’re so old. However, this is not the only site in Tanzania where such footprints have been found and, who knows, maybe there are still more awaiting discovery.
Lake Natron lies in the Eastern Rift Valley, the eastern branch of the East African Rift. Ol Doinyo Lengai is one of the many active volcanoes along the rift valley. A hike up the escarpment, west of the lake, provides wonderful views of the village and the plains below, the lake (but you still can’t see the pink color from there…), and the volcano.
Together with a small boy who was there looking after his family’s goats, our guide showed us how to make fire the Maasai way: With two pieces of wood, some dry grass, and donkey dung.
Not all Maasai children go to school. Their families need them to look after the animals. Helping their families, the children learn everything they need to carry on their traditional lifestyle. School, on the other hand, doesn’t prepare them for a life in the savanna. Furthermore, most villages only have primary schools so in order to attend higher schools, kids have to leave their villages and their traditional life behind. Once they finish school, however, it’s not sure that they find a job. Many Maasai work as night guards for hotels – poorly paid jobs that are barley enough to survive.
A Visit to a Maasai Boma
Many Maasai still live a very traditional lifestyle. They depend fully on their animals – goats, sheep, and cows – and on the rain. They eat mainly what the animals give them: meat, milk, and blood. Today, their diet includes also porridge (made from maize flour), but virtually no vegetables or fruits.
In northern Tanzania, there’s a short rainy season in November / December but last year, it didn’t rain during that period. When we visited at the beginning of February 2017, everything was very dry and dusty and carcasses of cattle and wild animals all over the land showed how dire the situation was.
To learn about Maasai culture and to see how they live, we visited the family boma of one of the Maasai that works at the lodge. Traditionally, a Maasai man has several wives – as many as he can have, depending on his wealth (e.g. his cattle). Every wife has a small hut where she lives with her children. The huts are arranged around the cattle enclosure. This kind of small family village is called a boma.
When we arrived, first the kids gathered around us, greeting us with loud “hellos”, then came the women, each of them with a bag full of souvenirs for sale.
One of the women invited us into her house. It seems much bigger from inside than from the outside. There’s one room for the children and one for the women. The rooms can’t be locked and are only for sleeping; the mattress is made of cowhide and there’s a small place to store personal items. In the middle of the hut, there’s a fireplace with some tiny chairs around it, where the woman cooks.
Our guide had gathered some warriors, young men aged around 15 – 25 (most Maasai don’t know their actual age), to perform a Maasai dance for us. The cattle enclosure served as a stage. On one side stood the warriors, on the other, facing them, young girls and kids from the village.
The dance was great to watch. The guys obviously enjoyed it a lot and did it more for themselves and their young audience than for us tourists. They carried on singing and dancing and more and more guys, including our guide, joined in.
At sunset, the cattle returned home to the boma. The kids and women milked the sheep, before they let the baby sheep, which were kept in a separate enclosure, join their mothers.
There’s no electricity or running water in any of the bomas at Lake Natron. What we saw was real, not a demonstration for tourists or a performance, no-one took out their smartphone when we left. The life the Maasai live here is hard and I respect them very much for carrying on with their traditional lid, a very big threat for a society depending on regular rainy seasons, climate change.
Back to Mto wa Mbu
We took the bus to go back to Mto wa Mbu. It travels once a day between Loliondo and Arusha (both ways). Around 10 am it passed by the gate at Engaresero, we got in, took the last seats available, and off we went in a cloud of dust. In less than three hours we reached Mto wa Mbu. The bus was much faster and even more comfortable than we had thought. As for the dust, no matter what means of transport you take, you and your luggage end up covered in a thick layer of brown dust.
Lake Natron is not that easy to reach, it’s a bit expensive, but it’s absolutely worth going there. There’s so much to do and see, the people are amazing, and you feel (and are) far away from anything. Life moves at a different pace here.
Essential Information: Lake Natron Area
We’ve heard and read that there are some unreliable guides in the Lake Natron area. In our opinion, having a good guide is essential for a good experience. Neemia from Tembea Tanzania Cultural Tourism in Mto wa Mbu can help you organize a trip to Lake Natron where he knows some really good and reliable guides. Neemia also does trips around Mto wa Mbu such as hikes, biking tours around Lake Manyara, and cultural and culinary tours. He’s a great guy and a very knowledgeable guide. We can highly recommend him and his tour agency!
You can contact Neemia by phone (+255 782 053 069), by email (firstname.lastname@example.org ), or on Facebook (Tembea Tanzania Cultural Tourism).
Getting to Lake Natron
4 Gates (all prices in USD as of February 2017):
– Gate 1 (new): $10/per person + $15/pp/per night when sleeping in a hut or $20/pp/per night when sleeping in a tent. All + 18% VAT
– Longido Gate: $10/pp
– Engaruka Gate: $10/pp
– Engaresero Gate: $15/pp
For the time being, there’s no 18% VAT surcharge at the three “old” gates, but that can change soon.
Car with driver from Mto wa Mbu to Engaresero: $200
Car with driver in Engaresero: $200/day
Car hire to go to Ol Doinyo Lengai and back after the hike: $70
There are several lodges and campsites around Lake Natron. We stayed at Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge and can only recommend it!
Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge (for more information, see their website)
– Hut: $50/night
– Camping: $10/pp, $10/night for hiring a tent if you don’t have your own.
There’s a small fee for using the kitchen, it depends on the size of your group and on how much you use the kitchen. Self-catering is a great way to save a lot of money (but you’ll have to bring most food from Mto wa Mbu. Also, bring enough water as it’s very expensive in Engaresero).
There are quite a lot of activities on offer. Fees are per person. You pay the guide, he will pay at the office in Engaresero. Part of the money goes to the community, part is the guide’s salary. If you want to go to the lake (or the escarpment or the waterfall) more than once, you pay the fee only once. The other times you go, you just pay your guide a tip.
- Waterfall: $20/pp
- Lake: $20/pp
- Escarpment: $35/pp
- Maasai village: $15/pp. Traditional dance: $5/dancer (usually 7 to 10 dancers). Option: Barbeque
- Ol Doinyo Lengai: 1 person $100, 2 persons $140