Duration: at least one week
Lake Natron in Tanzania is one of the most unique destinations we’ve ever had the chance to visit, and not just for its vivid range of colors. We read about Tanzania’s red Lake and its bizarre ability to turn animals into stone and were excited when our Maasai friend Papakinye invited us to visit his family. Lake Natron is the centerpiece of a traditional homeland for the Maasai people, where they pass on stories and lessons to generations through song, dance, and cultural traditions. Until today, our visit with Papakinye marks one of our most unique travel experiences as we did not just get to see surreal landscapes but also dive head first into the Maasai culture.
A promising journey
The journey is the destination. For Lake Natron, this is even truer. The ride was rough but stunning. Precisely as our following days with Papakinye’s family. We drove through dry savage vegetation, and climbed or jumped over dried-out rivers while spotting herds of zebras and giraffes. The journey itself was already bearing the promise of an unforgettable time.
Wander through the maze of alleys
Waterfalls by the Ngare Sero river
Massai and Papakinye proposed to visit the “nearby” waterfalls along the Ngare Sero river. What we didn’t know back then: You can entirely rely on Masai people with anything BUT their definition of “nearby.”
Their semi-nomadic lifestyle accustoms them to walking long distances under the burning sun of the African savannah. So, equipped and prepared for a “short” walk, we started walking in flip-flops with very little water. We quickly earned our new nickname, “pole & pole,” which translates into slow.
The walk through the dramatic landscape of a savage was impressive. But we were excited to cool down after 2 hours of sweltering heat. Seeing such a powerful and high waterfall after walking through absolute dryness for two hours is almost unreal. We dived right into the freshwater pouring down on us. Looking back, we should have enjoyed the water a bit longer. It was the last time for days that we had access to water.
Trying to protect our feed from the hot sand, we quickly began to recognize the virtue of Masai shoes. Masai shoes are often crafted from old tires. They are constructed to keep the hot sand from burning your feed. Walking through the golden savannah, we encountered kids as young as five years herding goats.
Learn about Maasai culture
Even though there is one village, a hub for the surrounding Masai tribes, which offers some places to get food and one hostel with western standards, we decided to stay with Papakinye and his family.
The Maasai: Where do they live?
It had become pitch black when we arrived at what seemed the side of an unpaved road. Only the stars offered some light. For a split second, we were confused until we could see flashlights coming towards us.
The Masai lead a semi-nomadic life in which cattle and the seasons dictate the course of life. Traditional Masai settlements consist of bomas, tiny houses made of cow dung.
Arrival at the boma – Meeting Papakinye’s family
Suddenly, we were surrounded and warmly greeted by Papakinye’s family members. Greetings are essential in the Maasai culture, so it took some time till we walked back to their bomas.
The traditional cow skin under the African sky would become our bed for the following days. Exhausted from the travel and the impressions, we unfolded our sleeping bags on the cow skins right in front of the boma. That night we quickly fell asleep under the stars. The rising sun woke us the following day. We rose to see the boma for the first time.
Thorny acacia branches were wrapped around the bomas in a circle. In the middle, we found another circle of branches home to the cattle during the rainy season. Beyond that, there was nothing. Nothing. We have landed in the middle of nowhere.
The jumping dance of the Maasai
On our second night, we were sharing a coup of porridge when we heard the whistling sounds come closer. We joined the group and followed them to the next bigger boma. Walking through the night, our excitement rose. We have heard of the typical Masai dance and its mesmerizing music.
But never did we expect to be invited to such an occasion. More and more warriors gathered. Soon they formed a circle and started to sing in a chorus. One after another entered the middle and jumped as high as possible while the others continued with the mesmerizing rhythms. We were overwhelmed and entirely in awe by this ritual.
Climb Ol Doinyo Lengai – Maasai's "Mountain of God"
The active volcano offers a dramatic, picturesque backdrop. Ol Doinyo Lengai is unique in the world. From a distance, the summit looks as if covered with snow. But the impression is deceptive. Instead, it is the only volcano that spits white lava during the eruption. The whitish color is caused by lava consisting of sodium carbonate, which also gave the soda lake its name.
Ol Doinyo Lengai means “mountain of God”. The Maasai believe that the holy volcano is the residence of their god. The volcano can be climbed with a tour guide and offers an adventurous journey, far away from any tourism. The ascent to the volcano, with its steep, rough rock ramp, is quite challenging. We decided against it but are convinced that the hike can be an exciting and unique trekking experience for every enthusiastic and well-equipped mountaineer. The cost for the ascent with a tour guide is $100.
Hot springs and flamingos
However, it becomes home to millions of migrating flamingos of magnificent pink color. Even though the mysterious Lake Natron, with its surreal and drastically varying landscape, is located close to Arusha, it was spared by mass tourism. Visiting Lake Natron was one of our highlights!
Besides feeding into the lake, the up to 50 degrees hot springs provide warm, mineral-rich water, which is ideal for the growth of salt-loving microorganisms devoured by millions of flamingos. In fact, over three-quarters of the world’s population breeds here because food is plentiful and nesting sites abound. They built their nests on islands of evaporated salt. We spotted beautiful pink flamingos as we walked across the dried lakebed and came close to the shoreline.
Washed up along the shoreline, one can discover the bizarre calcified corpses of all kinds of birds and bats. According to National Geographic, the creatures presumably died of natural causes and were salt-encrusted after death. Lake Natron is indeed a surreal place!
Practical travel tips for Lake Natron
When is the best time to visit Lake Natron?
We visited Zanzibar in October and November, which is the shoulder season. It's the perfect time to visit Zanzibar's beaches as you most likely will have them to yourself. The rainy season on Zanzibar lasts from March to May. Expect some rain in November and December, too
How to get to Lake Natron?
There are two direct buses from Arusha to the Lake Natron area. One of them takes you on a bumpy ride through the African savannah. The bus takes only 3,5 hours, but it's likely to be your life's most thrilling bus ride. We passed zebras and giraffes while getting an in-depth "African massage." The other route is far more comfortable as you drive on a paved road. The six hours ride takes you through cute little villages.
How high are the entrance fees Lake Natron?
Remember that as a foreigner, you must pay gate fees to enter the Lake Natron area. In addition, the "district fees" of $35 are collected at the entry gate. But you'll also need a conversation permit, which you can get in Arusha. Plus, potentially some other fees, which are subject to change.
Where to get money?
It was close to impossible to get a matchstick. So, you can imagine that there is no ATM anywhere close. So, make sure to bring sufficient funds with you, especially if you plan on doing tours. They quickly become more expensive than imagined.
Is Zanzibar safe for travelers?
We felt safe at all times. Obviosuly you will have some beach boys approaching you, but a friendly and firm no thank you goes a long way.
What's the biggest challenge for the conscious traveler?
Trash: To avoid plastic wrapping, choose to buy your food at the bus stations and have them put it in your collapsible container. Bring your water filter to avoid having to buy bottled water.
Packing List Tanzania
Tanzania is one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in the world. You can explore bustling cities, go on safari to see some of the most incredible wildlife on earth or relax on some of the best beaches in Africa.
Check out our packing list to prepare for all Tanzania has to offer. You’ll find anything from clothing to travel gadgets and eco-friendly toiletries.
Places to visit in Tanzania
With its diverse cultures, beautiful nature and rich history Tanzania is a country not to be forgotten.
The beaches in Zanzibar are stunning. White palm trees seam white sandy beaches with perfectly turquoise water. Even though Zanzibar has been a popular tourist destination for quite some time, you’ll still find authentic, quiet villages and empty beaches.
Are you planning a safari in Tanzania? Tanzania’s Northern Circuit is a great place to start. This region offers several stunning national parks, including Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, and the famous Serengeti. Tour operators provide many possibilities, ranging from budget camping safaris to luxury lodging safaris.
Arusha, Tanzania, is a city in the middle of two worlds. This creates an exciting mix of people and cultures that make Arusha is unique. Arusha itself is a dusty, charming mid-sized African city.