It was the red rock in the night sky at Island Camp Baringo that spurred me to Lake Magadi to watch the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century on Friday 27th July 2018 that lasted an hour and 43 minutes. I wasn’t risking the event of the century in cloudy Nairobi. Magadi, lying low in the rift, always hot as hell with clear skies, was my closest escape from Nairobi. When Kenya Museum Society announced the trip to witness the blood moon there, l was on it.
My imagination was already running riot with a startling red moon filling the sky with an equally red Mars, the closest it’s been to the moon in 15 years.
The ever jaw-dropping journey into the Great Rift Valley from Nairobi to Magadi in a space of 120 kilometers was already proving worth the escape with the sun so brilliantly hot. The extinct volcanoes of Esakut and Olorgesailie stood by the road past Corner Baridi. It is at Olorgesailie that the greatest technological break happened in the Middle Stone Age. Our ancestor, the Homo erectus began evolving into a more successful hunter with a breakthrough in technology.
Whereas between 1.2 million years and half a million years ago Homo erectus had skilfully made tear-drop shaped handaxes used as a multi-purpose tool, the homo’s next innovation 320,000 years ago was chiselling obsidian into small razor-sharp flakes to skin animals, and hence graduating as a knife-user. Olorgesailie’s digs are an amazing record of the last million years in Africa.
The great plain of Africa beyond Olorgesilie stretched with sun-bleached golden grasses dotted with the sun-coping commiphoras, acacias and the stunning Delonyx elata. Even the ever-dry seasonal rivers had water flowing in them. And just when we thought we could drive no further into the bowels of the earth, the shimmer of water beyond the dry golden grasses and volcanic hills, announced our arrival at Lake Magadi with its flat pans of the caustic soda in shades of crimson and white with clusters of the pretty pink flamingos under a spotless blue sky.
Duncan ole Kitipa the young Maasai guide with Magadi Soda Foundation showed us around town, a tiny Vatican in itself, complete with its own factory, sports complex, schools, community club, shopping centre and hospital – all attached to Tata Chemicals Magadi, the former Magadi Soda Company established in 1911 to mine trona from the lake – making it the country’s oldest factory.
“Magadi is one of the few places on earth where trona (a naturally occurring mineral that contains sodium carbonate compounds) can be found at the surface,” narrated ole Kitipa. Standing by the pink pan of trona with Nguruman Escarpment stretched in the horizon, Tata is Africa’s largest soda ash manufacturer which is used in the manufacturing industry for glass, detergents and more.
By eventide the excitement of the moon is evident. Stepping out of the old Magadi Sports Club, a red orb has drifted from the horizon. At this point, l’m sure it’s going to turn blood red. In theatrical style, this proves to be a prelude.
Meanwhile a feast has been organized at Lake Magadi Adventures tented camp with the moon still rising and Mars by its side.
And the celestial show begins. We drive out into the dark night away from any artificial light with the shadow of the earth gradually falling on the moon with little Mars keeping a close watch. As the moon darkens to red, ole Kitipa recalls a childhood memory. “The women believed that the moon was dying when the lunar eclipse happened and they sang to beseech God to let it live.” Asked if they would be singing tonight, the young moran gets out his smartphone from his red shuka and calls his grandmother. A few minutes later, we hear her sing to god for the moon as the sky dazzles with the Milky Way and the Scorpion. When she stops, there’s just the silence with the moon completely in the shadow of the earth.
Move to Magadi
Check in at Lake Magadi Adventures tented camp. The camp is a project of Magadi Soda Foundation (MSF) which is a community welfare organization started by Tata chemicals Magadi Ltd. The ensuite camp in spacious grounds is five minutes from Magadi Sports Club. The club offers daily membership with a swimming pool, fully fledged gym and rooms to stay in.
From Magadi, visit the hot springs, drive further to Lake Natron, hike up Nguruman escarpment and enjoy game drives in the conservancies between the lakes. It depends on how much time you have.