After the grand spectacle of the blood moon that lasted an hour and 43 minutes, the sun rises red hot with splashes of pink and gold that l watch from the luxury of my room at Magadi Sports Club. The plan is to leave before the sun gets too hot to see the wildlife in Shompole Conservancy between the caustic lakes of Magadi and Natron with a stop at Natron. Natron is in Tanzania but with the heavy rains, the lake has flooded into Kenya.
The causeway that would have shortened our journey through Magadi’s flat soda pans is aborted because it’s been washed away with the heavy rains. The longer route along Magadi’s salt-lined dry moonscape is welcome, watching hordes of lesser flamingos, some greater flamingos, pelicans, yellow-billed storks and the smaller waders. Magadi’s little endemic fish, the Magadi tilapia attract the fish-eating birds.
“When Magadi is dry, it’s a pink lake,” tells Duncan Kitipa, the local Maasai Guide with Lake Magadi Adventures, a community project under Magadi Soda Foundation where all profits are channelled to the Maasai members for development projects.
Kitipa continues. “But after the heavy rains in April, the Ewaso Nyiro River (not to be confused with the Samburu one) flowing from Narok in the north changed course and flooded everything, destroying peoples’ homes and the causeway.”
Stepping out on the salt-crusted shoreline, the famous hot-springs are underwater with few bubbles pointing to them. The water in the drowned springs is nevertheless hot. Stepping in, it feels therapeutic because the water is said to be medicinal.
“There are a million lesser flamingos in Magadi now, something l have never seen,” tells our young guide.
It is on these salt flats that one of the greatest dramas in nature was played out. In 1962, more than 850,000 chicks hatched in Lake Magadi – something never witnessed. Heavy rains that year had flooded the birds’ traditional nesting ground on Natron. So while there was a lot of algae to feed on in Natron, there was nowhere to nest. The pink beauties descended en masse on Lake Magadi to nest.
The eggs hatched but more heavy rain flooded the nesting grounds. What followed was a crisis. The factory began drawing the freshwater. The water in the lake became super alkaline trapping thousands of flamingo chicks with salt bangles or “anklets” on the legs as the water receded.
The chicks began to die.
It led to a massive rescue operation by the Alan Root, a wildlife filmmaker with the late Leslie Brown who was the first to study flamingos. Over 27,000 flamingo chicks were rescued helped by the community including local school kids who caught the shackled chicks and brought them to the ‘hammerers’ to free the birds. The Magadi Soda Company started pumping fresher water back into part of the lake.
Another 200,000 were saved by driving them each day away from the super-alkaline water and keeping them near the soda factory. One pink flamingo chick that was fitted with a ring during that fateful season was found dead on 13th February 2013 by a British tourist having lived a grand old age of 50, flying between the saline lakes of the Great Rift Valley in search of spirulina algae.
The lake fades and the massif of Shompole appears – tall and majestic. It’s midday and we make our way into the conservancy. By now, every single sensible animal has taken to the shade and any sign of the amazing elephants, elands, African wild dogs and even lions is a far-fetched dream. Dust devils rise in the scorching heat and in the midst of all this starkness we’re suddenly in a fig forest of tall majestic trees more than a hundred years old. It’s a leisurely picnic with baboons squealing and bird song.
The road to Natron is not far and driving past the Maasai villages, we are on the shores of the caustic lake between the mountains of Shompole and Sambu. The lake stretches into infinity. The road into Tanzania has been swallowed by the lake but the lesser flamingos feed on unperturbed.
Stay at Lake Magadi Tented Camp by the lakeshore. It’s a beautiful tented camp.
Lake Natron, 54 km from Lake Magadi, is the only breeding site of the lesser flamingo in East Africa and one of the five in the world. It therefore is a very important place for the pretty pink bird.
Up to 2.5 million lesser flamingos, representing more than three-quarters of the global population, frequent the highly alkaline lakes in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria are the most important feeding sites. Flamingos need a regular receding flood to construct nesting mounds, and mining disturbs this natural cycle. Tata Chemicals decision not to mine at Natron has been a welcome decision.