Lake Natron Naturally Maasai And An Active Volcano - Ol Doinyo Lengai

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Lake Natron Naturally Maasai And An Active Volcano - Ol Doinyo Lengai

Butch has just been handed a 3kg Nile Perch. It is ginormous. Lake Tanganyika is breathtaking, and there are even waves on it. Small waves pound the beach a mere three meters from where I sit. The fish is for our evening braai. I'll make fish cakes with the leftovers for a roadside picnic later.


My fascination for flamingos is? I have no idea. This might sound quite bizarre, but I see enormous white and pink blow-up flamingos floating lazily in a glam swimming pool on a blue summer's day when I think of Flamingos.

They are photogenic, and their colour is feminine. Swan Lake, the ballet, might have to do with my beguilement. I know they're not Flamingos, but think of a ballerina in a stiffly layered, flared tutu, on pointe, her toned muscular arms aloft mimicking a graceful swan, and I see a Lesser Flamingo.

Each to her own.


Nevertheless, the flamingos are a tiny cog driving tourists to Lake Natron. It's the active volcano that is the draw plaster. Ol Domyo Lengai – or The Mountain of God is the Sacred Mountain of the Maasai, who climb the mountain to worship, pray, and offer sacrifices to their god.


The drive to Lake Natron from the Serengeti was enjoyable. As you know, the Maasai were the land's first inhabitants until the tribes were relocated from the park to the outlying areas beyond the Serengeti National Park.

While driving, Rapha, a Maasai descendant, told us stories about his childhood, their traditions and folklore.

I love this traditional Maasai story of human origin."The Maasai creation tale begins when god gave his three sons three sticks as gifts. The third son, an ancestor of the Maasai, was god's favourite son. He presented him with a long herder's stick and a  length of rope enabling his cattle to slide down to Earth from heaven. On earth "The daughter of the Maasai introduces herself, and she explains their essential relationship with their cattle and the sky god Enkai."

It is believed Scottish missionaries introduced tartans to the Maasai during the colonial era, which was rapidly adopted and became the traditional shuka still worn today. Rich, bright colours, especially red, are favoured traditionally.

Red is primarily worn by warriors and represents blood, which signifies the unity of the tribe and their courage, strength, and protection from predators, he explained.

Every Maasai has a wooden stick, we noticed. Rapha explained that these sticks are used to defend the family and cattle against wild animals, with lions being a real threat. Sticks are used because they are easy to obtain, yet they can be very effective if appropriately wielded. Every Moran (Maasai Warrior) carries a fimbo with them. I am the proud owner of a Fimbo, too, and I hope to use it when we go trekking in the mountains.



Rapha told us his parents met when his Dad was a driver and Guide. The story goes that he was enchanted by a beautiful young maiden, msichana, who was busy bathing in a stream. Captivated by her beauty, he cautiously approached her, introduced himself and hoped they would become friends.

As time passed, they fell deeply in love and soon became pregnant. As I recall, she, mwanamke now, remained with her family, bore her baby and remained with the Maasai until Rapha was 12, when his father persuaded his mother not to allow Rapha to partake in the traditional circumcision and manhood traditions of the Maasai. In the dead of night, at great danger and sacrifice, the mother and her son bravely escaped the village, her Maasai traditions and the community she was born into.

Each extended Maasai family live in enkang, a large fenced-in compound with several mud huts. Cattle, sheep, chickens, mules (pack donkeys) and goats are kraaled inside the enclosure. The Maasai have great family values where children are raised collectively by the whole community. Food and labour is shared throughout the village. All this she abandoned to pursue her dreams. Today, they are happily married, and Rapha has two sisters of whom he is immensely proud.




Along the way, we saw Maasai herders and warriors herding large herds of cattle. Their pack animals cart water, bedding and food. Yes, Rapha said the Maasai are primarily migratory in this arid region. Since they arrived in the Rift Valley's savanna four centuries ago, the Maasai have lived a nomadic, pastoral lifestyle. The boys and young men we saw were warriors responsible for protecting the cattle from predators, herding them to water sources, and grazing.

We could see that grazing is scarce during the dry winter, and foraging is difficult.

The landscape was reminiscent of the Richtersveld, resembling a moonscape at times. White powdery dust covered everything, and ghostlike trees and shrubs stood sentinel along the rocky, winding dirt road as we made our way to Lake Natron.



 In the distance, we noticed a volcanic mountain making its presence known. I'd never heard of Ol Doinyo Lengai. The Maasai and Sonjo tribes refer to the mountain as the Sacred "Mountain of God" Legend has it that the mountain was the home of god (Engai), who withdrew from there after being hit by a hunter's arrow.

This sacred volcanic mountain is known by many names, like Basanjo, Donjo Ngai, Duenjo Ngai, Mongogogura, Mungogo wa Bogwe, and L’Engai.

Ol Doinyo Lengai is an active volcano. It consists of a volcanic cone with two craters. Uniquely for volcanoes on Earth, it erupted natrocarbonatite, an unusual, cold and highly fluid magma. The southern crater is inactive and sometimes filled with water. White volcanic ash deposits cover the volcano's slopes.

The summit was first explored between 1904 and 1915 and is still a popular tourist destination where hikers come from all over the world to explore and witness the boiling point.

An expedition starts at midnight on a clear night with a full moon, and it takes 8-10 hours to reach the summit. Hikers are prohibited from spending a night and must descend during the hot afternoon. A strenous ascent and descent we were told.

Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only volcano on Earth that has erupted carbonatitic ash. However, this is only a tiny fraction of the volcanic action and only occurs in the northern crater; this appearance is recent. 

The carbonatite lavas are rapidly chemically modified by rainfall or covered by deposits condensing from fumarolic gases.

After a quiescence phase, renewed activity began in 1983 and continues with several interruptions. Ash fall occurred tens of kilometres from the volcano.

A large explosive eruption began on the 4 September 2007, producing a three 3-kilometre high eruption column, forming a new 100-metre deep and 300-metre wide crater. The explosive activity continued into 2008 when the volcano settled back into the effusion of lava flow, a  cinder cone formed in the northern crater during the eruption.

The lava flows of Ol Doinyo Lengai have temperatures of 540–593 °C (1,004–1,099 °F) and are so cold that they look like brown mudflows or oil during the day and glow only at night. These flows are highly fluid, making them the most liquid known magmas.

Aerosol clouds from the eruption extended over East Africa. In 2007, the eruptions forced the evacuation of three villages and disturbed air travel and tourism.

Livestock fatalities and injuries led to requests that the Tanzanian government enact access restrictions to the volcano and increase awareness and education about the threat formed by the volcano.

My Guide, Larusay, to see the Flamingos told me the eruption also impacted his village, his family and himself. Untold trauma, fear, loss and anxiety in a society who don't have the tools to deal with personal issues. Survival means getting on with it. Upwards and onwards. The next meal has to be provided, he smiles and acknowledges that in his culture he has a village of support.

Vegetation in the area consists primarily of grassland. The ash from Ol Doinyo Lengai influences the surrounding landscape, favouring the growth of nutrient-rich plants.

The black dust-cloth covering the landscape was due to recent eruptions in 2007-2008—an eerie, scorched earth landscape where only the fittest survived. The hardy flowering pink Impala lily is a celebration of survival in a harsh, unforgiving landscape.

This volcanic mountain is the epicentre of life on these savannahs, and its seismic activity or inactivity influences the people, their traditions, beliefs and faith in a remarkable way.

We experienced its tangible presence, like dust, for miles around us, and during our stay, our vistas were paramount in our conversations; one couldn't resist its changing face photographically.


Our campsite on a koppie overlooking the black plains was abuzz with tourists, guides and safari vehicles. We all shook our heads in puzzlement when we spotted vehicles being washed. A futile operation in this neck of the woods where dust is a given.

Once again, Costa unpacked his pantry of crates and set up his cooking station in the communal kitchen to prepare our last supper. A vertible three course feast. How he did it shows his incredible creative talent.

Rapha entertained us with his wit and organised a guide to the flamingos on Lake Natron.

We are always quite exhausted after a long drive and choose to spend our afternoon exploring the little kopje and relaxing with our books and admiring Ol Doinyo Lengai, enjoying the changing hues cast by the setting sun as the day ends.



Maasai ladies had set up a stall selling traditional beaded jewellery, arts and crafts and souvenirs. I couldn't resist the colourful bracelets.

The beadwork embodies the Maasai culture, representing beauty, tradition, strength, and sometimes even social status. Men and women wear beaded jewellery during events and occasions. "Beads are a symbol of beauty” - One of the ladies told me while I took some photographs.

While perusing the trinkets, they enthusiastically shared their knowledge with me.

The primary colours used in Maasai beadwork are Red, symbolising bravery and unity; Yellow or Orange hospitality; and white, representing peace, purity, and healing. Blue, which denotes energy and the sky. They told me that green symbolises the Earth, nature and their land; Black represents the people and the struggles they must endure.

Koko, they called me, Grandmother. After sizing me up and down for a few minutes suggested I buy blue bracelets with touches of black and white. I agreed wholeheartedly. Their struggle is real my black bracelets remind me.


The following day Rapha, Butch and I met our guide, Larusay, who accompanied us to Lake Natron to see a sprinkling of Lesser flamingoes. 

"Lake Natron is a salt or alkaline lake located in north Ngorongoro District of Arusha Region. It is in the Gregory Rift,  the eastern branch of the East African Rift.The lake is within the Lake Natron Basin, a Ramsar Site wetland of great significance. It is the only regular breeding area for Africa's lesser flamingoes.

This lake is fed by the Southern Ewaso Ng'iro River, which rises in central Kenya, and by mineral-rich hot springs. It is quite shallow, less than three metres deep, and varies in width depending on its water level.

High levels of evaporation have left behind natron  and trona . The alkalinity of the lake can reach a pH of greater than 12. The surrounding bedrock is composed of alkaline, sodium-dominated trachyte lavas that were laid down during the Pleistocene period.

The lavas have significant amounts of carbonate but very low calcium and magnesium levels. This has allowed the lake to concentrate into a caustic alkaline brine.

The chemical properties of the water are known to calcify the bodies of birds and other animals that die in the lake, turning them to stone before they decompose.

Lake Natron is home to some endemic algae, invertebrates, and birds. In the slightly less salty water around its margins, some fish can also survive.

Although most animals find the lake inhospitible it is the only regular breeding area in East Africa for the 2.5 million lesser flamingoes, whose status of "near threatened" results from their dependence on this one location. When salinity increases, so do cyanobacteria, and the lake can also support more nests. This single large flock in East Africa, gather along nearby saline lakes to feed on Spirulina (a blue-green algae with red pigments).

Lake Natron is a safe breeding location because its caustic environment is a barrier against predators trying to reach their nests on seasonally forming evaporite islands. Greater flamingoes also breed on the mud flats" Edited - Google


The light was not right, I told Butch. After explaining my disappointment and dilemma, our guide Larusay agreed and told me there was another area further along the lake where we'd have a better sighting. Butch and Rapha decided I was on my own now, and the two men wandered back to our vehicle while we trampled on, slipping and sliding with mud squelching up between our toes. 

Like many Maasai, Larusay was a shy man and initially didn't say much, but while it was just the two of us opened up and told me, very knowledgeably, about the volcano, its history and the 2007-2008 eruption.

When the dusty, powdery sand surrounding Lake Natron became wet and sticky-slippery, he offered his hand to steady me, and so we continued walking companionably, chatting away like old friends.

At the site, he spotted interesting tableaus and suggested good spots where the lighting was spot on. While I photographed, he patiently waited and asked me questions about my family when he thought it convenient.

He is the proud father of two little girls, he said. He was impressed that we shared seven children with five boys in the mix. Seven grandchildren were fortunate, and he hoped to be a grandfather someday.

"The first male child is vital to us Africans. He has certain privileges. He is the first to be served with food. He is consulted on family matters. As the eldest, he also has direct contact with his father and is treated as the future head of the family. Also, he is the principal heir and will inherit the famiy land." After a while he added "A man with many sons is a strong man" he added mischieviously. I have heard it mentioned that many sons is a sign of virility and the father's prowess as a warrior capable of defending his family.

Their village has a sizable herd of cattle, but he does not yet have his own herd but hopes to own a small herd in the future. For now, his sheep, goats, two mules and a clutch of chickens will do.

We became so comfortable and familiar that he even agreed to pose for a few portrait photographs. I think they're extraordinary, and I hope to print one to frame when I get home one day. I can highly recommend this “Vesuvius of information” relating to the power of a volcano, a lake and men, by our charming guide Larusay.

Butch and Rapha had a village of souvenir sellers to contend with. I swallowed a lump in my throat when I turned and saw the receding figure of my amiable guide waving. Koko had to go home. I was touched by his pronounciation of my name Malicha. The Maasai use an R as an L (In East Africa I am Malicha.)


 While swanning at the lake, Costa prepared for our return home. We packed up and soon hit the road.

Like most return journeys, ours was a quieter, more subdued one. Rapha and Costa were thinking and planning their next safari, while Butch and I  reminisced  our unforgettable experience. I sighed, my shoulders sagging, because it was back to Arusha with us to have the Honey Badger serviced, or hoped, to have serviced.

To while away the hours, I tried to capture the changing landscape, the herders, pedestrians and life we encountered along the way. It was difficult in a bouncing safari vehicle I had no control over. Butch was a passenger who couldn’t slow down, stop or make a U-turn at my request.


It would be amiss of me not to mention the Candleabra Tree of Tanzania. The Candelabra Tree is a spiny succulent with all the branches growing from a single trunk making it look like a candelabra. It is native to the African Savannah. It has yellow flowers and is poisonous.

In traditional medicine, in addition to being used as a purgative to cure syphilis or a salve to treat leprosy, E. candelabrum sap has been used in the treatment of coughs, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV infections. It has the ability to be mixed with fat and applied topically to heal wounds, sores, and warts.

Huge trees, many decades old carpet hills, plains and grow in gardens in this region and are proudly mentioned and pointed out.


Back at our campsite in Karatu, we unpacked, and to make the experience last just a little longer, Costa served our ABF (absolute-bloody-final) meal before agreeing to join us for a late lunch. And then they were off, leaving two forlorn old people behind.



I can hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and all around me, lights, like stars, are lighting up the hills around the lake. We’re sure the lake is tidal as waves come rushing in much louder than earlier. There’s an urgency in their crashing against the shoreline. I count eighteen fishing boats’ lights on the horizon—an armada.

Butch has lit his charcoal fire which glows bright red. His fish is prepped, shining an oiled silver in the waxing moonlight.

I’ll make a simple garden salad, a tangy sauce with the last of my Hellman’s Mayonaise and creamed horseradish with a squeeze of old-fashioned, sweet, thick-skinned lemons. Life is good, and we are deeply grateful for it. 


 “ I feel a volcano of lovely eruptions happening within my heart!” Anon