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Our camp is located in Southern Kenya on the Nguruman Escarpment, which lies close to the Tanzanian border. A further 45 minutes into Tanzania, one hits the Natron basin. Lake Natron itself is said to be one of the most inhospitable places on planet earth! The surface temperatures exceed 60 degrees Celsius and the water is the most alkaline in the world. The lake, heralded as the remotest and least known of all the rift lakes, is situated just 2 degrees south of the equator. Its claim to fame however, is for it being the largest breeding ground in the world for the Lesser Flamingo. Although there is more food (algae) for the flamingos on other rift lakes, only Natron offers total protection due to its inaccessibility and remoteness. The great discovery of this breeding ground belongs to an ornithologist called Leslie Brown who discovered the site in 1954 (also an indication of how remote the place is). Reading about Brown’s intrepid explorations is one of the reasons that it took me so long to pluck up the courage!
In the book ‘Pink Africa’ the author tells the story of how Brown discovered the breeding colony, using the following words: ‘Leslie Brown nearly paid very dearly for his discovery of the Lesser Flamingo’s breeding grounds. On his first attempt to reach a colony in Lake Natron, he burnt his feet so badly that he came close to needing a double amputation. He was disabled for six weeks and underwent numerous skin grafts’.
The story goes on to say that Brown reserved a particular invective for Lake Natron and he described the dreadful heat to be, “Such as to make one wish one had never been born”! He describes the Lake as being filled with ‘appalling smells; treacherous surfaces and sheer daunting size’. Both before his discovery and after his discover, Brown used the following words to describe the Lake: ‘evil, fetid, foul, frightful, ghastly, horrible, horrid, leprous, stinking and vile’.
When my alarm clock sounded, I cautiously climbed out of bed not too sure how the morning would pan out. I have viewed images of the lake from the air and it looks like a large barren wilderness on Mars? Due to the algae, the surface is red in colour and it is this same algae that gives the flamingos their pink coloration. Somehow, I could not imagine my little raft afloat in the middle of this pink sea. For those of you with internet access, log onto NASA’s website and check out their images of the lake! So after promising Claire that I would be ‘responsible’ (what ever that means), I made my way to Tanzania and hit the lakeshore at around 05h15 and still in the dark.
Sitting there, watching the pink masses on the horizon and knowing that one of the greatest avian spectacles in the world was so tantalizingly close, I decided that if the canoe could not get me there, just maybe, I could walk to the breeding sight (just like Brown did)? So, a few days later, I repeated the exercise but drove around the Eastern side of the lake close to the base of the Gelai Caldera which is where Brown, all those years ago, set up his camp. I could see thousands of flamingoes as I slipped on my gum- boots! Taking my F100 and 80-400mm lens out of my case to avoid carrying a heavy load, I Rather tentatively made my way across a vast flat mud-bed before finally reaching the water. Proceeding into the water, the mud stayed firm! Was I on my way to pure avian nirvana? Alarmingly though, the thousands of Flamingoes on the horizon remained just that - on the horizon. The breeding colony lay still further ahead! As I moved closer, the birds walked further and I fast began appreciating that the lake spans a length of 55km. Peering through my lens, the cone-shaped nests were not yet in sight. Occasionally some water, carrying alkaline crystals, would splash up into my boots and I became increasingly wary of this, as it is these crystals that grind their way into one’s skin, causing soda-burns. This is exactly what happened to Brown! The mud was also deepening and clinging to the soles of my feet! Brown described how he nearly remained in the mud due to total fatigue, and I was fast appreciating why! This continued for another hundred metres, by which point every step had become a challenge, with the mud now sucking relentlessly at the soles of my boots. Looking back and seeing the land cuiser through my 400mm as a mere tiny dot on the horizon, I realized that should I get stuck, I was pretty much on my own with no way of getting a vehicle anywhere close to me! I gazed ahead one last time only to see the now familiar site of thousands upon thousands of flamingos on the horizon. Were they a mirage, a mere figment of my imagination?
The experience of walking into such a timeless and bazaar wilderness had been well worth it, and not wanting to repeat Brown’s experience, I reluctantly surrendered to the breeding colony. Just as well, as the return leg proved to be substantially harder with my energy now sapped. I passed a dead Flamingo on the way, lying in the thick, caustic mud-soup and serving as a vivid token that I had made the correct decision! Arriving at the car, I took my boots off and inspected my feet, which evidently had survived the ordeal despite feeling a bit numb.
So alas, this tale has no happy ending as the breeding birds still remain tantalizingly close yet so bloody far, and my portfolio is still void of images of the birds breeding. All is however not lost, as I now have a far greater understanding and appreciation for these splendid ‘flame birds’ and for their utterly inaccessible breeding site! I know now why they choose Natron and I have a far greater appreciation (and respect) for Africa’s Great Rift Valley! The experience of walking out onto the lake was still well worth it and one I would never have thought possible if it was not for the alluring breeding colony!
For now, it is me and my tripod and more pictures from the shore!
Love to you all
The Lake looks so placid but with dangerously high PH levels and deep mud, it is one of Africa's most hostile environments
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