Tanzania – Part 6: Lake Natron


“Here it is the landscape rather than the animals that is the attraction – the area around the lake is dry, desolate and hauntingly beautiful.” (www.moivaro.com)

“The lake is 35 miles (56 km) long and 15 miles (24 km) wide and contains salt, soda, and magnesite deposits. The lake’s warm water is an ideal breeding ground for the Rift Valley flamingos.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

“Three-quarters of the world population of lesser flamingos live and nest in East Africa. All depend on Tanzania’s Lake Natron as a breeding site. Food is plentiful, nesting sites abound – and above all, the lake is isolated and undisturbed.” (www.rspb.com)

Running Log, 12/30/10 — 30 minutes in and around Lake Natron camp, including “hill repeats”

December 30th was our second full day of Safari and would be, in every sense, our longest. It would take us from the near lunar isolation of Lake Natron to a brazen island of Western luxury in the heart of the Serengeti. In between, we would traverse a stretch of road so uneven it would make our Land Cruiser buck like an enraged bull, with only our seat belts keeping us from repeatedly banging our heads on the roof of the truck.

Our longest day began before dawn with a sunrise drive to the mud flats on the southern end of Lake Natron. Rob had strongly urged us to an early start, and it was nearly pitch black when we staggered out of our tents, carrying flashlights to find our way to the toilets across camp. Henry had heated water for tea or instant coffee, and after a few minutes to linger over our cups, it was time to bundle into the Land Rover for the fifteen-minute drive to the Lake.

Giraffes at sunrise near Lake Natron

There were many things that I saw on our trip that left a general impression that has acquired detail over time as I have read more and been able to put the experience into some sort of context. The early morning wander among the flamingos at Lake Natron is one of those things. So forgive me if I take a few moments to digress and things I learned later when I sat down and read about this place.

Let’s start with the name. I was a little put off by the name, which sounds harsh and forbidding — so different from the Swahili and Maasai names I was learning. Wikipedia tells me that “Natron” is an English word (from a French cognate) that refers to a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate (hydrated soda ash). So Lake Natron is something like “Salt Lake”.

Alkalinity in the large, shallow lake can reach a pH of 9 to 10.5 (almost as alkaline as ammonia), and temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit). Who could love such a place?

It turns out that these conditions are ideal for salt-loving organisms, including Spirulina, a cyanobacterium that grows in water and makes its own food via photosynthesis. The bacteria have a reddish pigment that gives the open water of Lake Natron a deep red appearance. Flamingos feed on the bacteria, and the pigment makes the birds appear pink. In other words, pink flamingos aren’t born pink — they get that way by eating red bacteria.


The other advantage for the flamingos is that a lake whose water is so alkaline is no haven for predators. Other than a few giraffes off in the distance, the only traces of larger mammals we saw near Lake Natron were some bleached bones on the shore. It seemed to me that unless you were a flamingo, the lake was a place to go to die.

Near us, there were thousands of flamingos wading in the water, feeding. We spent a long time walking slowly out on the flats, taking a few pictures, picking up a few bones. I look at the pictures now and none of them seem particularly compelling. It was a quiet refuge, isolated and spare. After an hour or so, we headed back to the Land Cruiser for the drive back to camp.

When we got back to camp, it was probably around 8:30 or 9:00 and breakfast was waiting for us. However, I had other plans. On the second to last day of the year there was no way I was going to pass up my one and only opportunity to sneak in a run. I told Ann to save me some food, and I slipped away to change into shorts and running shoes.

I didn’t have high hopes for this run when I began my usual routine of looping around the campground. Even though the morning was pleasantly warm before the heat of midday and the grass and soft roads in camp were a pleasure, I expected to feel like a horse in a paddock. These pictures that Peter took sort of get that across.


However, after a few laps in the camp, and with Rob’s assurance that there were no lions around, on my next loop I ventured out of camp and up the road that led past the Maasai village to the open plain beyond. I soon found a very runnable path that led up a decent hill and intersected the road we came in on. Thus, even without heading into the wilderness (I thought about it), I was able to follow a big lopsided figure 8 that combined small curcuits of the campground and large loops outside with a challenging climb to keep me focused.

The more I ran, the better I felt. At one point, I was joined by a Maasai boy and we ran together for a few minutes, a thrill for both of us, I think. In spite of the fact that I knew breakfast would be put away and that Rob would want to be leaving, I extended the run longer than the minimum and managed a good thirty minutes and some energetic charges up the hill. It would be my second favorite run of the whole trip.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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