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Flamingo Woes

Dear Friends

From the air
Naron at dawn
Ever since arriving in Kenya, I have been intrigued by Lake Natron. My tripod and I have many times stood on the shore and pondered the strange lunar landscape. This in itself has been a unique and rewarding photographic experience, as images of Natron’s northern shores are almost nonexistent. A while ago, I had an idea to journey into the heart of this vast  and caustic lake but the harshness of the place has always kept me at bay. A couple days ago a helicopter pilot gave me some news, which finally pushed me over the edge. But, let me start at the beginning:

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’.

Passing this flamingo on the way out convinced me that I had made the right decision
The flamingoes remained in the distance and I wondered if I was seeing a mirage
Putting Brown’s infectious love for Natron aside, living so close to the largest breeding ground of Lesser Flamingos in the world has been tormenting me ever since I got here! Although I am a mere hour from the lake, the breeding birds remain in the epicenter and frustratingly out of reach. Standing on the shore one can see a large pink mirage in the distance, but one cannot comprehend the spectacle that lies within? A couple days back, when the pilot informed me that a couple million birds had started breeding, I decided to follow in Brown’s footsteps (but to try and avoid the soda burns and potential double amputation). Without telling my wife (for fear of being grounded), I secretly started planning an expedition to the lake’s core. The first concern I had was one of legality, as I would be entering Tanzania. I have done this many times before and the area is so remote that usually this is not a problem. My larger concern is that the lake itself was declared a RAMSAR site in 2001 and is protected by an intergovernmental treaty. To land myself stuck in the middle could prove problematic! Besides packing my passport and aliens card, I slipped 10 000 Kenyan Shillings into my camera case, just in case the need should arrive to take care of any problems the good old-fashioned African way. I also took, as an escort, one of the community elders to deal with any potential hostile Maasai moran (warriors) from the neighbouring clan in Tanzania. Once this had been taken care of, I then focused on the lake itself and what I would need to traverse across the highly alkaline water. A pair of gumboots would stop my feet from burning in the water although Leslie Brown too wore gumboots? I also filled a large drum of water so that in the event that I suffered soda-burns, I would be able to rinse off as soon as I got to shore. Brown neglected to carry fresh water and this was a mistake he paid dearly for. The water in Natron is alkaline in the extreme due to all the volcanic salts! Indeed, the only active volcano in East Africa lies to its southern shore! I managed to secure an inflatable raft plus an extra one, should someone need to rescue me. Two handheld radios would also keep me in contact with the shore! The next task was to decide on a good time to slip into the lake and to access the breeding colony? The heat out at Natron fast becomes excessively desiccating so I would need an early start. Securing the company of Andrew (a local Swahili guide), we left at 4 am and five days after full moon so that there would still be some light when I paddled out. Fifteen liters of drinking water; a spare paddle; loads of film and some cashew nuts completed the inventory and I went to bed a little apprehensive about the next days looming adventure.

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.

The mud at Natron is dangerous. Getting stuck can mean your car sits there for months.
We inflated a raft and began pulling it out towards the water. We walked and walked (very vast and flat place), and finally reached some water. Standing on the shore during my previous photo shoots, I always assumed that the water got deeper but,  a further 500 meters into the lake, I began to second-guess this assumption. The water never got deeper but the mud did! All this effort, and not enough water to paddle?! The thought of my precious Nikon and I, sinking into a volcanic soup of mud, meant the expedition was off before it had even begun! Back at shore by 06h30, our conciliation prize comprised of a lousy bag of cashew nuts!

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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