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Lake Natron safari


... is a relatively off the beaten track experience, one which can be added to a more outdoorsy and adventurous safari to the Serengeti region.

Upsides ...

Lake Natron is a little-visited area of Northern Tanzania, a relatively wild area of magnificent landscapes, amongst the finest in East Africa.

This area is most commonly built into safaris as part of an alternative and rather intrepid two to three day overland route back from the far north of the Serengeti.

The greatest highlight of the area is Ol Donyo Lengai, a picture book volcano which rises out of the plains at the foot of the rift valley escarpment just to the south of Lake Natron. This Maasai 'Mountain of God' is one of the most active volcanoes in the region. The crater contains fumeroles which emit small plumes of sulphurous gases and steam year round. Every couple of years activity increases to send large plumes of ash into the air, often enough to blanket large parts of the surrounding terrain with a layer of white snow-like ash.

There is a chance of major volcanic activity on Ol Donyo Lengai. A major eruption in 2008 produced new lava flows on the upper slopes and covered the landscapes over a broad area with white ash. The area was off limits to safaris for some months. This is very unlikely to affect your plans in any catastrophic fashion since eruptions tend to be preceded by days or weeks of ash plume activity, but you do need to be ready accept a change in plans should they become necessary and be ready to pay any additional costs associated with the alternate route.

The ascent of Lengai is one of the most dramatic one day hikes in Africa. Starting out around midnight, trekkers attempt to scale the slippery trail in the cooler hours before dawn in order to attain the crater by sunrise. The decent is back down the same way, returning to base mid to late morning. It is a seriously tough undertaking and not to be underestimated, but is arguably the best single day hike in East Africa.

Another highlight is Lake Natron itself, a vast multi-coloured soda lake at the foot of the escarpment. With the possible exception of Lake Turkana in the extreme north of Kenya, Natron is perhaps the most dramatic of all the Rift Valley lakes.

The lake has a surface area of around 1300 square kilometres and has no outlet other than by evaporation. Only about 400mm of rain falls in this area, much of which falls as 'phantom rain', a phenomenon by which the raindrops evaporate before they even hit the highly reflective surface of the lake. The evaporation rate has been calculated as being eight times the rainfall rate, the difference being made up by inflow from various seasonal streams and soda springs along the base of the escarpment.

The lake is highly alkaline, with high concentrations of soda and magnesite having been leached from the surrounding volcanic rock and lava flows. It is highly corrosive and generally unable to sustain life. Notable exceptions to this are the various types of microscopic diatom algae which thrive in this harsh environment, which in turn provide sustenance for several hundred thousand lesser flamingos, for whom this is the most important breeding site worldwide. By the way, apparently flamingos stand on one leg in order to let half of their brain sleep.

The lake is best appreciated from the air, when its full extent and the wonderful patterns and colours that cover its surface can be seen properly. But at present there are no companies offering scenic flights of this type other than by expensive private charter. The majority of visitors experience this aspect of the lake from the top of the rift valley escarpment, which is a pretty good alternative to flying, the views are extraordinary.

The lake-shore is generally approached by foot from the southern end, which involves a modest hike across searingly hot mudflats. Views out across the lake from here are not so very spectacular and it is very difficult to get close to the flamingos, but the overall experience is well worthwhile, especially for the enormous views back over Ol Donyo Lengai.

There is also some really interesting geology of this remarkable area, the obvious volcanic activity, incredible land formations and remarkable mineral outcrops.

Above the main accommodation area at the village of Natron there is a cleft in the rift valley escarpment which can be accessed first by vehicle and then on foot. A stream runs down through the defile and towards the top it plunges down a series of modest waterfalls, under which it is possible to swim. A local Maasai guide will show you the way. Be sure to sit in the 'washing machine' at the far end.

The further you are able to get away from civilization and the usual tourist routes, the more natural and rewarding should be your experiences with tribal peoples. This route through Natron passes through several larger villages. The level of traffic is so low here that if you do happen to pull in and stop by one of these villages, chances are you will soon be surrounded by locals. Typically the men, a fearsome looking group of warriors, will want to take a look at the vehicle and equipment, whilst the women in all their bead-work finery are usually more interested in seeing and even touching long blonde hair, unusual jewellery and clothing. Obviously the children are more interested in sweets and anything else they can get their hands on. This kind of interaction may only last ten minutes, but can be a real highlight. Please don't give anything to the children, it swiftly reduces them to roadside beggars. If you have anything to give then please do so through a chief, elder or schoolteacher.

Downsides ...

It is important to note that the journey through the Natron area is not generally a wildlife experience. There are animals out here, you should see giraffes, zebras and wildebeest out on the plains, but the land here is more commonly dotted with Maasai and their domestic stock.

One particular negative is that historically there has always been a small risk of bandits in this part of the country. During the 1990's there was a spate of armed hold-ups on the roads in and out of Natron. It is believed that these were perpetrated by bandits from distant Somalia. Swift action by the military brought an end to the problem. There have been reports of failed robberies as late as 2004, but little since then. Please refer to your own government's websites for security advice.

Perhaps the biggest reason to include this area in your safari is that it is now or never, everything is about to change. A major new road is presently under development and looks set to have a largely negative effect on this safari experience. The epic two day drive will be reduced to a few high speed hours, commercial development will blight the landscape along the route and traffic flows will increase dramatically. If you want to really experience this fabulous Natron area in its raw state then you need to get out there as soon as possible.

When to visit ...

They key issue in this area is the weather and, more specifically, the effect of rain on road conditions. During the dry season months of Jun/Oct the tracks should be easily navigable. During the period Mar/May, the tracks can become very difficult to negotiate and the whole drive in and out of Natron can become much more of a chore than a pleasure. The period Nov/Mar is unpredictable, conditions depend on the strength of the short rains. We tend to continue arranging safaris for this period, but with the caveat that last minute route changes may be necessary in the unlikely event of heavy rain. It also very much depends on the specific activities in which you are interested, please refer to the seasonality sections on the individual lodge pages for detailed information.

How we like to include this area in trips ...

It is truly remarkable that an area of the magnificence of Lake Natron exists so close to the Serengeti, it is so under-appreciated and little visited. We tend to recommend it most often to guests who are on longer safaris and are looking for a more intrepid and adventurous overland experience, especially those who want to undertake the magnificent hike up Oldonyo Lengai.

These days the majority of medium and high quality safaris through this region drive one way along the route Arusha-Tarangire-Manyara-Ngorongoro-Serengeti and then fly back. Flying the return leg reduces the overall distance that needs to be endured on bumpy dirt tracks and enables visitors to take more time on the outbound journey, which is really important. Lower cost safaris drive up and back, usually on the same route past the Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara. This Lake Natron area represents an alternative and very cool route back from the north of the Serengeti to Manyara, which adds to the scope and duration of a safari, but which is also relatively low cost..

The main reason that the traffic is so low on this route is that it can be a very tough overland journey, basically two very long days on bumpy dirt roads. Fabulous days, but you do need to be up and ready for it. Another downer is that there are very limited accommodation options in the Natron area.

We therefore tend to recommend the Natron area to more outdoorsy guests who are looking to do a longer safari through this region and who are keen to get off the beaten track and really experience something wild and unusual. The majority of guests will also be keen to undertake the tough trek up Ol Donyo Lengai, which is the undoubted highlight, although the journey is rewarding enough without.

If you are up for multiple day trekking, then it is also possible to access this area from the Ngorongoro North area, first camping at the mysterious Empakai Crater in the highlands and then walking for two days in the company of Maasai warriors and their donkeys, along the top of the escarpment and down the dramatic descent towards Ol Donyo Lengai and Lake Natron. Your driverguide will leave you at Empakai and drive the long way around and meet you down at Natron two days later. A very cool and interesting option.

Lake Natron Camp ... is the original lodge in this area, a relatively simple and occasionally unreliable place, but well located for all the various activities.

Halisi Natron Camp ... is another modest tented facility in light forest close by and also well located for all the various activities.

Ngare Sero Natron Camp ... is an unusual military-style camp out on the arid plains to the south of the lake.

Those visitors who do include Natron in their trip tend to do so for 1 or 2 nights, usually combined with surrounding areas such as Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Tarangire to make a safari of 7 to 14 nights.

These safaris are sometimes combined with further safari in other parts of Tanzania such as Ruaha, Selous, Katavi and Mahale, as well as treks on Mount Kilimanjaro. They are also commonly combined with nights down on the Tanzania Coast, especially on the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia or Fanjove.

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Tony Fishlock
Tony Fishlock, Finance Director
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