Camel Safari to Lake Natron

I wrote this article in June of 2006 immediately after participating in a film project for an Italian development NGO named Oikos.

I had just returned to Arusha from a very special safari experience, a five day pilgrimage by camel, camping across Tanzanian Maasailand.

Our little band of fifteen people parted with contemporary civilization (i.e. the East African mobile phone network) at the foot of Longido mountain, a knobbly crowned eminence quite close to the Kenya border. Wending leisurely westward through shrubby northern acacia savanna and game rich open pasture we made our way between the exquisite forested peaks of Kitumbeine and Gelai, to an utterly breath-taking finale deep in the Rift Valley, beneath the perfect volcanic cone of Oldonyo Lengai, on the shimmering flamingo-sequined southern shore of Lake Natron.

We were making a promotional film for Tanzania’s only camel safaris with a company called Media88 from Milan, as part of a cultural tourism project, affiliated to the Italian NGO Oikos. The intention is to introduce low impact tourism to this relatively remote and as yet unspoilt northern frontier of Tanzanian Maasailand. 

We began our delightfully machine-free safari, partly on foot and partly riding the camels, by setting our first camp at a little korongo (a seasonal watercourse or wadi) near the primary school below Kitumbeine, by a Maasai village, which is already two hours from the nearest tarmac road linking Arusha to Nairobi. In the gathering dusk Zebra and Spotted Hyenas laughed challenges to one another at a water hole in the middle distance. Meanwhile the splendid red-robed Maasai porters and guides set out a delicious candle-lit Italian supper as ghostly avian silhouettes danced around and above us. These were hawking Slender-tailed Nightjars, clearly revealing their projecting central tail feathers. They called occasionally throughout the night from the floor of the shrubby acacia woodland all around us. Absurdly their staccato churring song always suggests to me a distant malfunctioning car alarm!

Mounting-up early next morning we bade a temporary goodbye to some water dependent birds that have become successful commensals of maize-growing man in the developing landscape of East Africa. For example four nattily attired, yet seemingly ubiquitous, roadside birds, or sub-Saharan “trash birds” in 1970s US birding parlance, these are our everyday companions here African Pied Wagtail, Pied Crow, Pin-tailed Whydah and Yellow Bishop.

Over the next four days, until we reached our destination, a village at the southern corner of Lake Natron, we left behind all those species that are dependent upon settled agriculture and met with only those birds typical of extensive pastoralism – the wild uncultivated lands – home of the still partly nomadic lowland Maasai.

For me it was very interesting to observe such changes in the bird community as our camel train wound westward and, with daily altitudinal gains and losses, generally downwards to our journeys end on May 24, in the searing midday heat, at the lowest point of the safari – on Lake Natron’s shoreline deep in the Northern Rift.

The pleasures of a safari, birding from a camel’s back, certainly outweigh a certain loss of one’s physical capability to use those indispensable binoculars at each and every moment. So long as you are able to dismount more or less at will, and especially at any key sites along the route, you will miss little or nothing that could be seen from the front seat of a safari vehicle; were a Toyota land cruiser able to enter many areas that you can traverse quite easily by camel. For a camel train can pass quietly through even quite dense stands of bush and tall grass, and along narrow rocky korongos, most of which would be impassable even for the best four wheeled vehicle. Furthermore from such an elevated vantage point, at nearly three metres above the ground, you have a beautiful view, overlooking the savanna canopy. The additional height and openness to the wonderful African sky enables unhindered scanning for raptors, diurnal migrants, swifts and singing larks. And in addition, from your elevated position, the superb peacefulness due to the complete lack of engine noise and pollution means that you can hear (and also smell!) as much as, or perhaps even more than, you would were you on foot. In essence, on this camel safari, I felt that I had perhaps half the freedoms and perspective of an Eastern Chanting Goshawk (the commonest medium-sized raptor along the way) and almost as much as a Taita Fiscal (the commonest, most definitive Lanius, a shrike of shrikes if ever there was one).

A White-browed Scrub Robin perches atop an isolated thorn bush.

Since we were making a film, and I was the only birder-naturalist on board, we did not rack up a big bird list. I had never traveled this route before and we logged only 189 species in five days. However by traveling in such a gentle and unobtrusive manner through a glorious landscape such as this we witnessed some very special things indeed.

Most important, in each and every moment of our camel journey, I felt a sense of kinship with, or duty to, the great mountains; silent spectators, no matter whether they were looming green and close, or in some way idling nonchalant and afar. Throughout the journey we were all, fifteen travelers, in thrall to their majesty and the unforgettable scenery that they create. 

Within each hour’s eighty buoyant camel strides we grew steadily closer to the awesome symmetry of the near-perfect cone of Oldonyo Lengai (2878 metres) an active volcano that launches, just south of Natron, from the uniquely mould-green moonscape of the Rift Valley floor. “Home to God” so sacred, certainly to the Maasai, whose inaudibly hissing, ash-turreted summit rim towered above our little blue-tented camp on our last night in the bush. Wending our way ever westward to the foot of this awesome being we could comfortably admire no fewer than eight “lesser peaks immortal”. Whilst behind us to the east, the one-and-only, free-standing, permanently snow-capped equatorial giant of Kilimanjaro (5895 m) slipped imperceptibly each evening into the ochre haze of the horizon. He was framed by the serene, yet exploded, olive grey majesty of Meru’s shark fin caldera (4566 m) and the stolid, staff-holding Longido (2629 m), standing quietly aside to Kilima’s south and north respectively.

The active carbonate volcanic crown of Oldonyo Lengai – “Home of God”

Looking forward, for much of the journey, to the left of Oldonyo Lengai, who loomed straight ahead and was clearly the focus for the trek, we could admire that richly forested king of the Crater Highlands – Loolmalasin (3648 m) whose wandering summit ridges were usually lost from view each morning and evening, obscured by drifting, whispering turbans of the softest pastel cloud. Between Loolmalasin and Lengai, always edging impudently forward, as if trying to peer more closely down upon us, was the neat little cone of Kenimas (2,300 m), just a buckram lad and utterly unwooded, yet so very grassy and green, like a Scottish mountain – almost!

The impressive Olmoti crater.

Closer to our route than Kenimas, sprawling to our south and north respectively, standing always on the flank, yet also appearing as if they wished to monitor our progress, were the twin tarantulas of Kitumbeine (2858 m) and Gelai (2942 m). Great and deeply green, hirsute arthropod-like, these are fine mountain homes for nature. Their deeply fissured flanks sustain very few, and exceptionally isolated, ancient looking hamlets; thus they remain but lightly cut and chopped, presenting this northern naturalist with a happy wooded patchwork in forty shades of green. Articulated ridges, bony shoulders and knobbly arms, their hairy stumpy legs protrude every which way, beneath giant green shukas (tartan Maasai blankets), as if haphazardly thrown there to protect these twins, either from the rheumatic mists of morning, or from the fierce desiccating heat of early afternoon. Finally, standing on the slate-coloured mud of Natron beyond the pink-crayoned lines of feeding flamingos, we could look toward the equator somewhere north. Far beyond the darkly floating bergs of Olosha (2526 m) and Oldonyo Sambu (1564 m), while closer yet and therefore larger stood gaunt Shombole (1564 m) whose blue-grey highland straddles the international border between Kenya and Tanzania.

Close views of mammals, often feeding unconcerned, were an important component of the camel safari. Our first two days produced several sightings of Gerenuk; a total of seventeen individuals being seen. Not coincidentally these giraffe-necked gazelles were in the same areas in which we noted several pairs of delightful clean-looking Somali Golden-breasted Buntings. They were at the south western extremity of their range, shuffling in the red dust, they searched for tiny “weed seeds” under the low stature acacia scrub of this arid Somali-Maasai environment. Another typical bird of this habitat, which we saw in quantity during the first three days, is Fischer’s Starling. A fine study in softest grey and fawn, with that obligatory sturnid eye of fortune, for the first half of our trek small flocks of this dapper bird were our constant companions. They and certain other ‘eastern forms’ dwindled in number as we pushed westward and downward into the Rift. Another restricted range species in Tanzania, the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, curiously became very briefly abundant when we reached the stockade and huts of “Grey-eyes” boma (a boma is a traditional Maasai hamlet) that has been built in a fabulous situation, along a ridge where the outermost gravel fingers of Gelai and Kitumbeine almost grasp one another.

The most plentiful mammal on this safari was Thomson’s gazelle; several hundred were seen. Next in number were Zebra and Grant’s gazelle with perhaps some two hundred and fifty of each species observed. We also saw plenty of Giraffe (ca 40) and a few each (less than 15) of Eland and Wildebeest. Kirk’s Dik Diks were widespread, especially on the first three days. With amazing luck we found a Cheetah and her single cub, right beside the track, just three kilometers beyond our camp early on the last morning as we headed for the lake shore at Natron. Vervet Monkeys and Olive Baboons were seen on only a few occasions, chiefly in quite small troops.

Finding birds of prey was, as usual, an especial focus for me, not least on this prototype new-style safari, our comparatively ecologically-friendly camel trek. In all we calculated that we saw at least 78 individual raptors of 17 species in the five days. Pride of place must go to an immaculate adult Verreaux’s Eagle hunting rock hyraxes along a black basaltic dyke that a million years ago issued, in a vermillion stream of lava, from Gelai’s southern flank. Four African Kestrels (Falco ‘tinnunculus’ rufescens) who live in the crater of one of Gelai’s parasitic cones, near to which we camped beside the “Plain of Stars”, was a very pleasant find; for this lovely cinnamon-coloured resident falcon is somewhat scarcer than one might expect, certainly here in northern Tanzania. Only three Bateleur Eagles, each of them an adult (or near-adult) male, were seen and all on the first two days, and but one handsome adult Black-chested Snake-eagle also at the aforementioned crater. A displaying pair of Brown Snake-eagles directly over head on day two was a real pleasure to watch. The commonest small raptor was the Pygmy Falcon; we saw at least eight. Considering that we were in unprotected areas Tawny Eagles remained ‘relatively plentiful’, in that I reckon we saw seven different birds.

White-backed Vultures soring above the hot African savanna.

We saw only eleven larger Vultures. Three Lappet-faced, including one bird thought to be in its first calendar year, five African White-backed and three adult Ruppell’s Griffons. Sadly no Egyptian Vultures were seen, even though the arid western slopes of Gelai, forming the eastern shore of Natron, arguably remain their last viable refuge in Tanzania. We found only four typical Accipiters (bird-eating hawks) both were trim little Gabar Goshawks (one an adult, one a juvenile) testament perhaps to a resurgence in the (only partly illicit) use of DDT and other lethal concoctions upon these lands of Africa.

I also paid particular attention to Streptopelia doves. Since August 2006 when we first noticed dying doves at water holes across Tanzanian Maasailand I have been much more appreciative of these classic thorn bush birds, whose calls are so hauntingly evocative of the vast African savanna. It is clear that populations remain severely suppressed; so that our total haul on this extensive transect through northern Maasailand was: African Ring-necked Dove ca 160, African Mourning Dove 23 and perhaps more significantly, and most saddening of all, Laughing Dove a species who, with only 12 individuals seen and not one heard singing, certainly gives little cause for laughing these days. Populations of Streptopelia doves have clearly suffered tremendous losses right across sub-Saharan Africa during the past year. Why? Newcastle disease or an evolving immune deficiency, perhaps combined with widespread incidental poisoning at water holes?

May 22 was a perfect day. The special interest began soon after dawn with the arrival at our breakfast table of the grey-eyed libon himself (a Maasai cultural leader and healer) from the nearby grey-eyes boma. He and one of his wives had come it seems to observe the strange eating habits of the wazungu (white travelers). An hour later it was we who became guests in his boma when we passed through the outer thorny hedge-like barrier of dried acacia branches that always surround every even half-remote Maasai settlement. This boma is divided between himself, his four wives (and their respective younger children), each round earthen hut occupying a separate fenced-off enclosure within the main compound. The remainder of the compound is divided, by low woven fences of dry thorn branches, into the nocturnal shelters for the different types of stock. The largest enclosure being for the safe storage of the most precious of his possessions – the cattle, the smallest for the donkeys, whilst an intermediate one is occupied by all the sheep and goats. “Grey eyes” was the most authentic and least ‘developed’; no evidence here of persistent pesticides or the use of veterinary pharmaceuticals, very few shards or shreds of shiny plastic debris, not even a single twisted, fluttering remnant of that ubiquitous introduced alien the black polythene bag; simply the most organic Maasai boma that I have visited yet in Tanzania – this century.

The apparent total absence of modern chemical compounds ensured a wealth of invertebrate fauna that thronged in every corner of the boma. Processing this abundant unpolluted food supply was a diversity of birds that should set any ornithological mind a spinning. One fabulous manifestation of this wonderful, and increasingly rare, example of ecological well being, was in the form of a Rufous-crowned Roller, who danced that morning back and fore between two lofty dark green balanites bushes that were growing just outside the encircling ‘dried hedge’. In tumbling, clashing flashes of red, maroon, purple and indigo this large-headed bird, a real roller of rollers, repeatedly swooped down to a bare red swathe of earthen ground, one of three, swept clean by the twice daily trampling of over two thousand hooves. These swathes radiated, petering outward, from each of three narrow passages through the outermost stockade. In so doing the magnificent ‘Purple Roller’ was obtaining very large dung beetles, who were noisily droning in and crash landing on the red earth, assembling to roll away and bury those cow pats that had not yet been gathered by the younger children. Lifting a beetle, easily as large as a bantam’s egg, the roller would fly up to a favoured perch in the balanites bush, where it would expertly toss and re-toss the rhinoceros-horn armoured beetle until it fell just right, and could be swallowed comfortably, head first.

A galaxy of bees and wasps and myriad kinds of (for me at least!) fascinating fly swarmed around this boma. Complex invertebrate ‘parasitic’ interrelations notwithstanding, the animal dung and its inherent undigested seeds, the extensive bare earth and the weed-filled curving ‘dry hedgerows’ provide them all with ample sustenance. Consequently the sky overhead was filled with the trilling calls of White-throated Bee-eaters, who in ones and twos had accompanied our every step since leaving the first camp at Kitumbeine village. Here they simply chased the larger hymenopterans. Coveys of Crested Francolins foraged unconcerned in the sheep and goat pen and all along the inside of the perimeter hedge, whilst little flocks of Wattled and Superb Starlings and White-headed and Red-billed Buffalo Weavers vied for being considered the most conspicuous avian characters on the scene. Among the gathering of African passerine seed eaters, Ploceids, Estrildids and Viduids were well represented in the form of motley-plumaged gangs of Chestnut Sparrows, dainty Speckle-fronted Weavers, sharp and sprightly Blue-capped Cordon-bleus, Crimson-rumped Waxbills, sombre looking Yellow-spotted Petronias and sizzle-singing Village Indigobirds al of whom were gathering in small mixed flocks on almost each and every surrounding shrub. In the denser bush out yonder Fork-tailed Drongos and African Grey Flycatchers hawked-down insects from twiggy acacia extremities; whilst chunky and cinereous, Ashy Cisticolas, who were unexpectedly abundant throughout our trek, alternately sneezed or sang their tremulous whistles.

A Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrike. On the hunt from a shady Acacia.

The undoubted finale of this wonderful pilgrimage through Maasailand must surely always be to walk out, in the brilliant morning sun, onto a natural causeway of dried grey lacustrine mud. Perhaps, as we did last week, in pursuit of birds – in this instance three cavorting Western Reef-Egrets themselves chasing minnow cichlids – between the lapping silver shallows of Lake Natron, where great straggling lines of astonishingly pink Lesser Flamingos feed unconcerned within a few hundred metre radius of where you stand. Overhead one hundred and twenty breeding plumage Great White Pelicans drifted slowly south, doubtless heading toward the Hippo pools of Lake Manyara. Whilst at our feet swarms of Banded Groundlings, (a blackish sympetrum-like dragonfly with dark stripes across both sets of wings), would flutter up at the last moment, accompanying our every step. Far out across the shimmering quicksilver of this soda lake yet more craggy youthful mountains float, galactic battle ships, gun-metal mountains, saturated in the starkest grey and blue. In the hot and acrid breeze these bergs seemed to drift on the horizon where the mirage at Natron’s northern end ebbed silently into Kenya land. Listening to the constant gentle murmuring honks of the feeding flamingos, subsumed within a great silence, surrounded by a spectacular volcanic moonscape, in the limitless peace of the Rift Valley, one is transported to a timeless zone, where any person can simply be. Like a raindrop rejoining the ocean, united with the timeless rhythms of the Earth, effortlessly one becomes at ease with oneself. A foothold in the moment, where we have always been, standing simply human, perfectly here and now, in what feels like it just must be, the very womb of Nature.

A mixed flock of Greater and Lesser Flamingos feed at a rapidly evaporating salt lake

All the photographs in this piece, with the exception of the male Giraffe’s head, were taken by my great friend Martin Goodey back in Maasailand in 2007. The giraffe was photographed by Debbie Hilaire in Arusha National Park in March 2014. I also would like to thank Geoff Harries for his expert piloting abilities, as well as for his great kindness in taking Martin and myself over Oldonyo Lengai, right up there, up with the White-backed Vultures, magnificent fliers who very sadly, likely as not, are no longer with us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s