Leaving the Serengeti for Lake Natron

Leaving the Serengeti for Lake Natron

It rained while we were sleeping. As camp was packed up, I could smell the wet earth mixed with fire and vegetation. I feel like I am attuned to so many more smells here. Things are not paved over and transformed away from their natural state. It reminds me of being on trail. When you regain your ability to smell people – the soaps, bug spray, sunblock, perfume, and more – before you see or hear them. But this is different. It’s stronger, I am bathed, and have not become the same kind of feral beast I am on trail, yet I can smell the world in the air. It is like the rush of smells of nature when you first step out of a cave. You don’t realize you haven’t been able to smell nature until you are being reunited after breathing sterilized air. I like it.

Melissa and I again perched our selves on the kopje to watch the sunrise, Lucas dutifully leading the way. I spotted a banded mongoose, but discovered my camera battery was dead. We saw a wildebeest herd hustle by our camp. I don’t understand why predators don’t attack while they herd. It is clear the strongest wildebeests make their way to the front of the line while the calves are left racing to keep up the tail. As we drove out, we passed heaps of ostriches really close to the road. The pink legs of the males and faces of the females indicating breeding time was fully visible at this close distance. We could see Masai women collecting water from a stream that developed from the brief rains. It is scary to think water here is so scarce that these people work hard to capture all they can. Most of the migrating animals are independent of water, so they do not rely so heavily on a constant water supply.

Since the animals are mostly in Ndutu, we asked Daudi to take us into Serengeti National Park as a special request. As the always gracious host, he of course complied. The herd was noticeably thinner, but we still had many great sights! Immediately we saw about 20 hyena lurking around a carcass and encroaching on nearby wildebeests. The endless plain of its namesake was more evident here than in Ndutu. Prior to formation of the plain, this area would have been largely exposed pre-Cambrian metamorphic rock. Then the Kerimasi volcano, a small carbonatitic strato-cone on the north edge of the Ngorongoro volcanic highlands, produced a series of explosive eruptions, blanketing the entire area in pyroclastic air fall tuffs. The result is the “endless plains” seen today. Besides the mountains at the horizons, it could easily have passed for the plains of western Kansas (animal presence aside of course), interesting how so many geological environments can produce such similar looking results. We watched a miles long line of wildebeests crossing the road towards Ndutu, and a picturesque juvenile tawny eagle staring us down from in a lone acacia tree.

On the way back out the same road, it was like all the animals had come swarming. Instantly we spotted a female cheetah lounging by the side of the road. Then a lioness in the distance perched on a giant rock under a tree’s shade. The hyena were on the move and ostriches took off running. These animals are oblivious to the boundaries marked by humans, seamlessly crossing back and forth as best fits the path of their migration. Ndutu and Loliondo are pivotal to this ecosystem’s survival. The animals will go as they please, continuing migration routes established long before humans divide up their land as our own.

We went back through Oldupai Gorge to drop off Lucas and capture our last views of this earth cradling humanity’s evolution. Then we set off for Loliondo, the far other side of the rift fault. We drove across the far east side of the Serengeti, where Oldonyo Lengai volcano continues to contribute to those vast grass plains. Loliondo is where game hunting is allowed. You can immediately see the differences from Masai only territory. The buildings are more permanent structures, a combination of more wood resources and other tribes than Masai. Also, there is a noticeably greater turn to agriculture.

We pulled off for lunch under a whistling acacia and looked out over the landscape. The Tanzanian government has hired Chinese immigrants to build a paved road from the Serengeti to Lake Natron and then to Arusha. What a difference that will be for this landscape. I am not comvimced the outcome will necessarily produce beneficial results to the people living in these areas, but it will dramatically change tourism, for one. But that is all a long way off. For now all we see are the scars of ground being leveled. Then, many large bridges will have to be built. This land is riddled with deep gouges from water ripping through the fine sediment and wearing away the rock during rain storms. I hope their engineers have geological understanding, or the road is destined to crumble as quickly as it is built. But maybe that wouldn’t be such an overly bad thing. Not that I want to prevent the opportunities of easier travel, wealth of tourism’s arrival, or the modernizing of this land. But it will surely change this place in unpredictable ways.

Soon we began to loose elevation. I could tell from rising temperatures, and the wide sediment ravines we kept driving down, working our way off the Rift Valley escarpment. We passed through the village of Engaruka to Water Fall Camp. It is a public camp, and the only green oasis on this side of the escarpment (and we are not even in the dry season, when all the plants wither to black sticks). The owner hires Masai from the village below to work as camp helpers for whatever guests arrive. There are other camps, but I suspect this is a favorite. The grounds are relatively flat and grass covered, there are giant trees casting shade (several large fig trees were dropping fruit!), and it overlooks Lake Natron with Gelai looming behind it. And a short walk to the edge of the plateau reveals decent views of Oldonyo Lengai and the escarpment towering up behind us.

We met our Masai guide for this region, a kind and patient man named Daniel. He will accompany us on all our excursions, including Oldonyo Lengai. Melissa and I also learned that Daudi is Masai. No wonder he was able to tell us so much about their culture, his culture. And Kimambo is from the Chaga Tribe in Moshi. Daudi told us “oldonyo” is Masai for “mountain,” and “Oldonyo Lengai” is Masai for “Mountain of God.” So the Google map name of Ol Doinyo Lengai is yet another example of incorrect spelling from European explorers. We also discovered numerous other discrepancies as we showed Daniel our USGS geological map of the region. It contained a whole slew of of oldonyo spelling variations for the various peaks around; made all the more funny when that means everything has been somewhat formally named “mountain.”

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