Lake Natron & Ol Doinyo Lengai

Leave the rest of the world behind
Impressive landscapes and a wonderful feeling of solitude await you at Lake Natron. Located on Tanzania’s northern border, the region is a great stopover on the northern safari route. Flamingos breed their young here in the shallow lake, which is naturally poisonous to other animals. Ol Doinyo Lengai, the sacred mountain of the Masai, towers over the vast landscape. Although the climate here is generally very hot and dusty, there are also waterfalls and hiking trails in the Lake Natron area.

A soda lake, a volcano and the beginnings of mankind

Lake Natron is a huge alkaline lake on Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya. It may only be a short distance from Arusha (214 km), but it is a remote location on the popular northern safari route. You can visit the area in conjunction with Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park.

Lake Natron has a hot desert climate all year round. When land animals or birds drink the salty lake water, they die from the effects of the algae that thrive here. The roads are bumpy, the air dusty. So why does Lake Natron attract visitors at all?

It’s a destination for nature lovers and travellers in search of solitude. Frankly, Lake Natron is breathtakingly beautiful. The spectacular lake, which turns red in the dry season, dominates the scenery. And a cone-shaped, active volcano called Ol Doinyo Lengai conjures up a fantastic backdrop. The vibrant ochre colours and the unique geographical landscape sometimes feel unreal.

Ol Doinyo Lengai
The Maasai say that the volcano is the home of their god Ngai. In fact, Ol Doinyo Lengai means “God’s Mountain” in the Maa language. A guided tour up the mountain is possible. However, it is an extremely steep and challenging hike that starts at midnight to escape the heat. But the view from the crater rim at dawn makes up for the steep climb – it’s incredible.

Engare Sero
About 15 kilometres from Ol Doinyo Lengai, you can see traces of the beginnings of mankind at Engare Sero: More than 400 well-preserved human footprints of our ancestors are spread across the area. They tell stories of mankind from 5,000 to 19,000 years ago. An impressive experience.

From September to May, Lake Natron turns into a breeding ground for ~2.5 million lesser flamingos. An unrivalled wildlife spectacle. Here you can see flamingos moving through the water in seemingly choreographed, large groups. They breed in the shallow waters in the centre of the lake to protect their young from hyenas and jackals. You can see flamingos as they forage near the shore. Lake Natron is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance.

With ~250 bird species living here, bird watching is the main wildlife attraction. Apart from the lesser flamingos and pink flamingos, you will see ostrich, sacred ibis, Nile goose, pelican, crested francolin, giant bustard, bare-throated warbler and many others.

Lake Natron is not a habitat for a large number of wildlife. However, the shoreline is home to zebra, wildebeest, kudu, oryx and giraffe gazelles. The few predators here include the rarely seen golden jackal and hyenas.

What can you do at Lake Natron?
One of the highlights is a short hike to a waterfall near Lake Natron. It usually starts in the afternoon. As soon as you reach the steep Ngare Sero river gorge, the heat drops off you and you can start the 45-minute hike. A guide will show you the various river crossings (the water height is no more than waist-high). At the waterfall, you can cool off in the pool in front of and behind the falling masses of water. All this fresh water in such a hot environment is a miracle.

Those who want to learn more about the Maasai, their gods and their nomadic culture can also visit a manyata (small farm).

It is a destination off the typical tourist track for nature lovers who want to leave the rest of the world behind.

Best time to visit Lake Natron and Ol Doinyo Lengai
The best time to visit Lake Natron is during the dry season from June to October. The daytime temperatures are still hot, but milder than in the rainy season. Hiking is more pleasant. Intensive evaporation of the water during the dry season increases the salinity of the lake. This creates excellent conditions for the rapid growth of cyanobacteria. This process colours the lake red. Consequently, the dry season is the best season for great photos. From mid-November to February, you should avoid the area unless you like very hot weather. You can also visit Lake Natron during the rainy season from March to May, but sections of the lake remain inaccessible.

An unexpected hiking destination
You probably don’t expect it, but this dry and hot area offers some amazing hiking opportunities: Accompanied by a local guide, you can take a walk along a gorge to a waterfall and cool off in a natural pool. If you have a little more time, you can go on a multi-day hike from the Ngorongoro Highlands to Lake Natron – a magical experience for active travellers looking for new adventures off the beaten track. If you are an experienced hiker, you can also climb Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mountain of God – a steep and sometimes treacherous trail, but one that rewards you with great views from the crater rim at dawn.

The area is very hot from September to June. If you want to climb Ol Doinyo Lengai or go on a multi-day hike, we recommend the cooler dry season months of July and August. Hikes to the waterfall are possible all year round.

Lake Natron is only 214 kilometres from Arusha. However, due to its year-round hot temperatures, the area is less travelled and considered a bit of an adventure. Most travellers stop here on their way to the Ngorongoro Crater or in the vast Serengeti National Park. The hike to the waterfall begins south of the small village of Engare Sero. Most of the accommodation can also be found in this area. It is an area off the beaten tourist track and gives you a real sense of seclusion and solitude on the popular northern safari route.

Photos from Lake Natron National Park


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