Lake Natron might be the most beautiful place you never want to visit. It is stark beauty at its best, but unfortunately, it is fiercely guarded by a gauntlet of fees and tolls from the Tanzanian Government. This has significantly decreased travelers to the region, and hurt the local Maasai community that depends on the revenue they bring.
The Beauty of Lake Natron
Hominid footprints from over a hundred thousand years ago are etched in solid rock, and Ol Lengai’s conical peak looms over the southern end of the lake. Its summit is dusted in a white ash which looks like desert snow. The surrounding land is barren, saturated with salt from the lake, and whipped into the air by dust storms. Only the thorny branches of the acacia tree seem suited for these conditions.
In the dry season, cyanobacteria turn the lake neon red and hundreds of thousands of flamingos arrive and nest on its islands. The water recedes leaving a ring of pink salt around the lake, and reveals a graveyard of small animals claimed by the toxic lake waters. It is a display of the area’s biodiversity, showcasing grasshoppers, snakes, frogs, birds and fish, all encrusted in salt, and mummified for inspection.
The escarpment to the west of the lake is a sanctuary, providing some of the only shade and fresh water in the region. Veins of jade run through the rocks, and the bright pink flowers of the desert rose add vibrancy to the otherwise stark and dusty landscape.
There is a fun hike on the escarpment, which follows the Engaresero river through a narrow canyon, fording the river a few times. A tailwind blows the spray from your footsteps into perennial rainbows at your shins as you trudge upstream towards the falls.
The trail leads to a natural spring, which flows into a 20-meter waterfall. The waterfall veils the entrance to a slot canyon, and you can climb behind the falls and follow the canyon to a secret swimming hole with another waterfall cascading into it. It is a worthy setting for a fairy tale.
The Gauntlet of Fees Guarding Lake Natron
The images of desert snow, hidden waterfalls in slot canyons, and neon red waters full of flamingos were enough to ignite our expedition to Lake Natron. Our drive through northern Tanzania was spectacular, providing views of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, and the Usambara Mountains.
However, turning north from the town of Mto wa Mbu onto a rambling dirt road we met our first toll gate. It is manned by the Wildlife Management Authority (WMA) that in 2016 decided it would start levying conservation and camping fees of 35 USD per person per night.
Comically, these fees do not actually buy you anything, including the ability to camp. Further, since this seems to be posted nowhere, you probably have not paid the fees. This means you have to drive over 100 kilometers to their office in Arusha, arrive during business hours to get a payment slip, take it to a local bank, wait in line, pay, and then return to pick-up your permits.
If you manage to pass this road block, the next one occurs just about an hour later on a poorly maintained dirt road in Engara. Here a district official demands another ten USD per person, yet has no documentation explaining what the payment is for, or indicating its legitimacy. He only offers the helpful advice, that you still have a long way to go and it is getting dark, so you should pay now or turn around. Of course turning around would mean forfeiting the WMA fees you already paid.
After another hour, you feel Déjà vu when this happens again at Longido road block, and then with your destination in sight, after 3.5 hours of driving, at Engaresaro road block you are forced to pay another 15 USD per person, plus another 20 USD for your car (unless it is registered in Tanzania).
Finally, you have reached the fabled Lake Natron. However, depending on a couple variables, you are likely about 100 USD per person short, and you still have not paid for lodging, food or a guide to go anywhere.
Strangling Community Tourism in Lake Natron
You arrive at the lake feeling like you just got robbed four times consecutively, and have no recourse. It makes it hard to trust anyone you meet, as you feel the need to guard the little money you have left, and are uncertain if anyone else is going to try and strong arm it away from you.
Fortunately, the local Maasai are very empathetic, as they feel the same way. They have been fighting these rock blocks for years, as they are greatly limiting their earnings from tourism. They also report that the government gives them very little support, so they are unsure where all these fees are going. No one was aware off any work the WMA was doing in the area.
Matthew Kirrinkol has been guiding travelers around the lake for ten years, and laments that five years ago, before most of these fees were in place, the community would receive 200 travelers a week, whereas now it is more like 20. Lepara Naandatwa Leshushu, Owner Maasai Giraffe Camp, estimates he has seen tourism drop by over 50% since the newest fees have been put in place.
Further, in 2016 the Tanzanian government has levied a new 18% VAT tax on the money they earn, so they are getting even less of the little they still receive. It was sad seeing Maasai women running across the lake shores with jewelry they made, desperate to sell something to the few tourists they still see. There are just not really any other ways to earn money there.
The Basics of Visiting Lake Natron
Fortunately, the community has done a great job organizing itself in the Engaresero-Eramatare Community Development Initiative, so that you can pay 20 USD per person, and go visit all the sites around the lake. Included in the price is a well-trained local guide, and the money goes to medicine, water projects, and school fees for the community.
Further, there are some great little campsites like Maasai Giraffe Eco Camp, and World View. The former campsite is closer to the lake and offers a nice lawn for pitching your tent, while the latter sits on the escarpment offering great views, access to the waterfalls. Also note there is a butcher in town that will chop a kilo of delicious Nyama Choma (BBQ goat) for a few dollars.
The Future of Lake Natron
It is sad that the high prices of visiting Lake Natron are deterring so many travelers, and those that still do manage to arrive, do so without much money left to spend. In the end, the government seems to be punishing those it has been elected to serve, by squeezing the one industry the community can use to try to help themselves. Hopefully they will see this and change in the future, so that the local Maasai community can derive more benefit from their own traditional lands.