Lake Natron, Tanzania

Lake Natron

What had started off as a short message from a friend, quickly turned into my newest obsession: Lake Natron in Tanzania. I just could not believe it. It had to be fake. It had to be photoshopped. A lake so bloody red, so desolate, so hostile and yet so little known. I quickly googled for possibilities to go there during my planned stay in Tanzania, but I just couldn’t figure out how to get to Lake Natron and see the red colors. I wrote to several dubious camps, a handful of professional photographers and many pilots to ask for more information or advice, but most leads were as dire as Lake Natron itself. Could I just drive there? Or should I rather take a dirt bike? Maybe walk? And could I really see the red colors from the shore? So much uncertainty and nothing seemed to work in my favor. Until the Kilimanjaro Aero Club revealed itself as the cure to my obsession with Lake Natron.

This is also why I would like to dedicate this article to the Kilimanjaro Aero Club, Jason D. and all the obsessed travelers out there and share my complete knowledge of how to travel to Lake Natron and explore its amazing red colors.

Lake Natron Blood Lake Tanzania

Lake Natron

Lake Natron is a very special lake. It starts off fairly “lake-like” with blue water, then slowly changes into an orange/brownish sludge and ends up as the blood-red surface as seen on the photos. So why is Lake Natron red? As the level of salt in Lake Natron is very high, salt-loving microorganisms begin to thrive in the sodic alkaline water – and finally produce these red pigments. Interestingly enough, it is precisely these photosynthetic red pigments of the microorganisms that give the thousands of flamingos at Lake Natron their pink color.

I wanted to go to Lake Natron so badly to see these unique red patterns, not flamingos. But it would not be an easy task. Especially after a photographer had told me that seeing the red colors of Lake Natron was only truly possible from the air. So finally, I had worked out two possibilities:

  • Drive and trek: organize a trip to the top of the Rift Valley, west of Lake Natron. Halfway up the lake, there is the highest and also the closest point to the lake, Ol Doinyo Sambu (2°07’42.8″S 35°55’52.6″E). You probably would have to drive towards Loliondo, then get through the small villages, Samunge, maybe Ghabere, and come back towards Ol Doinyo Sambu. It’s a couple of extra hours in the jeep, but probably not too bad. A bit of trekking and you’d have the best panorama of Lake Natron - next to an aircraft. But it all depends on the dirt tracks, rain and the ability and knowledge of your driver (there is hardly any tarmac road). It sounded like very difficult terrain, so I looked for a motocross shop in the region and found Dustbusters in Arusha. They might be able to take you up to the described point near Lake Natron, but it will take you two nights and many hours of driving through arid regions. Since time was of essence to me, I decided to heavily splurge on my trip to Lake Natron by looking for an aircraft solution. If someone ever embarks on a journey to explore the red colors of Lake Natron from the ground, please do let me know.
  • Fly: flying over Lake Natron is your safest, best and most expensive solution. I had a hard time getting any kind of reply from pilots or aviation services in the Northern Tanzanian region, but I was lucky enough to have gotten a valuable referral by Jason D., a fellow traveler: the Kilimanjaro Aero Club (KAC). The KAC is owned by a German expat and experienced pilot who was willing to fly me over Mount Ol Doinyo Lengai and Lake Natron to take some photos and videos. The legendary Cessna T210 was the perfect airplane for such an endeavor: light, flexible and fully equipped with in-flight cameras and GoPro mounts. We took off at Moshi Airport for our 2.5 hour flight over beautiful plains, the impressive active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of Gods) and finally the mind-blowing Lake Natron. Although privately chartered flights are significantly more expensive than driving there, I would still highly recommend it – especially with the Kilimanjaro Aero Club. You’ll appreciate the day trip of your lifetime much more from the sky! Plus, when flying over Lake Natron, I realized that you probably would not be able to clearly see and appreciate the red surface from top of the Rift Valley.

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By Valentin Rüst

I founded Don't Complain Travel in 2010 with the goal to experience, document and share travel adventures from all over the world. For the second half of 2014, I have planned to visit Chile. From Zurich, Switzerland.

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