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Friday, November 7, 2014

Tanzania: Lake Natron Stories | Luxury by the Lake

(This is the thirteenth installment in an ongoing series about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. To start at the beginning, click here.)
The lone giraffe we saw while in the
Lake Natron area.

When we arrived at Lake Natron, we checked into the campground with high hopes. The Moivaro Lake Natron Tented Camp was purported to have both a restaurant and a swimming pool, two luxuries that had not been present at any of our other stopovers on this trip. We had learned to lower our expectations when it came to amenity listings, but hope springs eternal: At this point in the trip, crocodile-free water and food that was cooked by someone else would be 5 stars in our book.

Once we finally found the campground (there were at least two other campgrounds that went by the name "Lake Natron Tented Camp" one of which we mistakenly pulled into before realizing our error) we were met by our Maasai host, who hopped onto the running board of the Land Rover and guided us to a spot on the grassy campground, ducking as we drove under the thorny acacia trees. Once parked, we spilled out the doors in what I can only assume was a shocking amount of dust and sweat, exhausted from the eight hour drive from the Serengeti.

Mbiraru, our host, signed us in and gave us the tour. A nice garden area surrounded the luxury tents where the more posh guests were staying. In the middle of the tents (which were in reality closer to cabins, equipped with full bathrooms, running water and king size beds) was a thatch roofed open air restaurant and bar, a heavenly sight. Off to the side, a small natural swimming pool fed by water piped in from the nearby river. One of the guests was swimming laps as Mbiraru walked us by. "The pool comes with hippo." he said with a sly grin.

One of the "tents" of the Lake Natron Tented Camp.


We were the only ones in the campground. Lake Natron is not nearly as popular as the other parks in Tanzania, and camping is not nearly as popular as traveling with an organized resort tour. The attractions there are the flamingos that gather on the lake and climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai, the active volcano on the southern edge of the lake. It's remote country, eight hours of rough road from Serengeti, and seven hours from the nearest town, Mto wa Mbu, to the south. In between is a whole lot of dry plains and rocky mountains, not the romantic big game areas for which Tanzania is better known.

The pool at Lake Natron Tented Camp. Looks a lot more luxurious than it was,
yet felt much more luxurious than it looks. 

(photo credit: Moivaro.com)

Mark did a quick change and we headed back to the pool. I sat on the edge and stuck my legs in, watching Mark swim laps with the other guest we had seen earlier. We found out he was visiting from China and was here to climb the volcano, having already climbed Kilimanjaro earlier that week. He was here with a group peak bagging in Tanzania and Kenya and, as far as we could figure, completely ignoring the animals and other attractions Africa had to offer. To each his own I guess.

Birds were everywhere in the trees over camp.
A colorful kingfisher looks down at us.

After the swim we walked back to camp and took a shower, more luxury than we had thought possible on this trip. The showers were dark rooms made of rough wood poles with a thatched roof, a small window cut into the back for ventilation. The water came from large black tanks warming in the sun on the roof. There was no temperature adjustment, just on and off, but the weather here was so hot and we were so sweaty and dusty it felt magnificent. I stood under the water much longer than necessary just enjoying the smell of soap; when soap smells so intoxicating, you know you've gone too long without it.

Back at camp we dug through our suitcase looking for something presentable to wear to dinner. We were still the only campers there, but we had plenty of company. A herd of goats grazed all around us, escapees from the Maasai herds that lived in the area. Periodically one of the staff would walk through, shooing them out of the campground.

Mark relaxes before dinner, watching the goats eat theirs.
It seemed to take forever for six o'clock to come. We gussied up as best we could and walked over, trying not to be the first to arrive (but of course we were). Mbiraru met us and sat us down at a table for two, a white tablecloth and actual ceramic plates and silverware. Luxury! He brought us some bottled water and drinks, then returned holding a gigantic leather-bound menu from which he read the evening's fare. "Tonight, we have a four course meal planned for you: Tuna salad, pumpkin soup, beef over potatoes and vegetable, and chocolate almond for dessert." Sounded good to us!

The restaurant. Notice the lights hanging from the rafters: bat heaven!
Other guests started filtering in, mostly in large groups that were obviously traveling together. As it got darker, large orange-colored bats flew in and flitted in between the rafters, attracted by the bugs that were gathering around the lights. We thought they were fascinating, not to mention helpful as they scooped up moths fluttering overhead. A mother and daughter sitting near the bar were not as fascinated. Closer to petrified. Possibly horrified. They kept insisting the staff get rid of the bats, to which the waiters smiled and tried to assure the ladies they were harmless. The two were not satisfied with that answer and insisted on sitting outside the building, where unbeknownst to them the bats were flying even closer to their heads in the darkness, snapping up bugs that were swarming there. We watched this from our table and snickered into our napkins. (We later learned these were Yellow-winged bats, one of five species of false vampire bats, something I'm sure would have driven the two ladies into a full on panic attack.)

It was a pleasant dining experience. The pumpkin soup in particular was excellent, seasoned with unfamiliar and wonderful spices. Every member of the staff was Maasai, dressed in the traditional robes and jewelry, which we thought was a refreshing change from the polo-shirt-and-khakis-wearing lodge workers we had seen in other parks. A boisterous group of Australians (is there any other type of Australian group?) were sitting at a long table behind us, ordering rounds of drinks and shouting about their upcoming hike on the volcano the next morning. The place was filling up.

The bar, with it's hand-carved tree trunk with custom liquor bottle holders, scotch on the far left.
Since there was no electricity in this area, a generator hummed in the distance from over by the kitchen. It supplied power for the lights and the big chest refrigerator that held the beer, water and sodas. As the guests filed in we noticed they each gave their cell phones to the barman, who plugged the phones into an impressive array of power strips that bristled with charger cords and splitters. It reminded me of the scene in Christmas Story where Ralphie's father plugged the tree lights into the wall. I was waiting for giant sparks to fly out and the whole place to go dark (it never did).

All good things must come to an end though, so after Mark finished his glass of scotch (which he had been planning since spying the Glenfiddich bottle behind the bar on arrival) we paid up and walked back to camp, our stomachs ready to burst from the four courses, three more than we had been accustomed to lately. Back at camp the goats had gone home, but the bats were happy to keep us company.
One of the curious Yellow-winged bats hanging out above our camp.
The next day we spoke to Mbiraru while we sat at the bar slurping Cokes. He was the assistant manager there and was doing the books while he doubled as bartender. He told us the camp was built by an Englishman, but later sold to a local Maasai man who employed workers from the surrounding villages and trained them on the job. It was nice to know the locals were profiting from the place; most if not all of the lodges we had seen in the parks were foreign owned. Mbiraru told us he learned English in school, but picked up many more languages while working with the tourists. He said he probably knew fifty ways to say hello and goodbye, using english as a default. We asked him how he knew we were American right off the bat, before we even spoke to him. He said after awhile you just know (although he admitted he thought we might be Canadian at first but went with American at the last minute). As we sat there we noticed he switched effortlessly between languages when other groups approached him. It seemed mind boggling to me, but he said he'd been at the job for several years and it came naturally now.

Ol Doinyo Lengai rises up on the southern edge of Lake Natron, where groups of hardy tourists are guided to the top by groups of patient and long suffering guides.
A group of angry sounding Chinese tourists were sitting in the restaurant behind us, talking with their tour guides through the group's interpreter. We got the scoop in a hushed tone from Mbiraru: Apparently the group had hired a company to take them to the volcano. Halfway up, one of the group decided it was too hard and turned back. That woman was accompanied down the mountain by one of the guides, where the two of them waited at the car until the rest of the group returned, leaving the rest of the group on the mountain with only one guide. The woman had wanted the guide to drive her back to camp—a 10 kilometer drive—then return and hike back up the mountain to help the others on the descent. The guides argued (in the most diplomatic way possible) that it was not part of the contract to drive the route twice. In addition, it was a lot to ask a guide to hike the arduous trail twice, considering the difficult terrain (slippery pumice and ash) and it was not safe to do so alone in the dark. The Chinese interpreter insisted they would not pay the bill, that they were unsatisfied with the tour.

It seemed they were at an impasse. The guides sat with tired looks, swiping the sweat off their foreheads, unsure what else to say to convince the group. This all took place at two in the afternoon. The volcano hiking trip had started at 2:00am to avoid the heat of the day on the black, treeless volcano. Everyone was exhausted, with the exception of the Chinese interpreter. She seemed to revel in the conflict, sure that she would win this round. Finally a driver showed up with a printed copy of the release forms, where it clearly stated the tour guides were in the right.

I felt sorry for the poor guys. The tour company got paid, but I highly doubt the guides themselves were tipped for their services. We wanted to buy them a drink, but they disappeared as soon as they settled up, probably strait to their beds since no doubt they had another group of prickly tourists to ferry up the mountain in the morning. What a way to make a living.

Goats surround us at breakfast, Lake Natron Tented Camp.

I think Lake Natron was my favorite stop of the trip. It was a beautiful place to rest up for a bit before taking on the next round of corrugated roads. Even better, we had time to get to know the local people and get a sense of what it's like to live in Tanzania.

Rattling around in our Land Rover on game drives? Thrilling.

Finding out the Maasai actually have pockets sewn into their robes to hold their cell phones?

Priceless.