A curiously off-the-beaten-path destination, Lake Natron represented a goal I had long ago conceded defeat to. Information on how to get there was limited, and any directions that did exist were quite vague. I’d read about bandits in the area, as well as the specific challenges some tourists faced in passing through the three gates that preceded the lake’s access. It all seemed quite daunting, and by the time I had arrived in Arusha, I had come to terms with the idea that a visit to the region would likely have to wait until my next African sojourn. Needless to say then, when Sophie announced that we’d be traveling there, I was caught completely off guard – and was ecstatic.
The morning of our departure, Zach and I were greeted by our driver and guide, Lumumba. The ride to the lake was long and bumpy, and the constant harsh jostling of our Land Cruiser sent copious amounts of dust into the car, stressing my already burning lungs and throat. Despite these discomforts, though, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the terrain change as we headed north to our destination. As we drove on, becoming more and more removed from the bustling city of Arusha, I found an intimacy with the landscape that I craved. I thought of my 12-year old self flipping through Origins, marveling at the picturesque African landscape that existed so far away. I thought of how I’d always imagined myself in this dry remoteness, breathing in the warm air and feeling completely alone with the Earth. Now, here I was. I’d dreamed of this day for nearly two decades, and as I stared out into the vast landscape, I became consumed by this memory. It was an incredibly profound moment, and I happily let it wash over me.
Ol Doinyo Lengai, which translates to the Mountain of God, is one of the defining features of the region. It immediately captivated us, looming intimidatingly over the valley floor. As we approached it we came upon one of Natron’s other notable features – God’s Depression. This impressive, desolate crater stretched across the expanse before us giving no real indication of its reverence. It wasn’t until later that we had discovered that God’s Depression was the site of sacred rituals performed by the Maasai; a winding, steep path led to its center where such rituals infrequently took place. The land surrounding it truly looked as though it was a painting. The depth of the scene was hard to gauge as bright earth tones bled together, deceiving the eye. It separated its visitors from reality, the scene in constant variance, changing with the turn of a cheek. It was exceptionally windy when we got out of the car to check out the crater rim, and clouds of dust blew in my mouth and eyes. Where in the world am I? I thought, as I watched a Maasai woman make her way over to me, jewelry in hand.
When we finally reached the campsite, it took no time at all for us to deposit our things and set up camp. Though it was already evening, we were eager to catch a glimpse of the lake. Jumping back in the car, we made our way out towards Natron, stopping at a small hill to appreciate the incredible views: the volcano, Lake Natron itself, and the Great Rift Valley Escarpment. This was the Africa I had dreamed about. I could have been staring at life-sized photos in a National Geographic magazine and I wouldn’t have known any different. The sun shone towards me, softened by the red and purple haze floating in front of it, and then descended, quickly disappearing behind the escarpment. I didn’t have my camera with me but I didn’t want it. I refused to witness this scene from behind a lens, which would have tainted an otherwise raw and sacred moment. Beauty, like that which lay before me, always drew me inward. Its realness resounded in me as I held my knees against my chest, listening to the sounds of Natron as it prepared for bed. I sat with this feeling for some time, delighting in my current circumstance, before letting it accompany me to sleep.
The next morning I awoke at our campsite to the sounds of the village and the dreamy blue sky. I stared awhile, watching the clouds pass by before making my way out to brush my teeth. Our plan for the day was to visit the lake, head to the Engaresero Hominid Footprints after a quick lunch at our camp, and then make our way back to the lake for sunset. Zach and I ate peanut butter honey rolls as we headed out, waving to the Maasai people as we passed.
Lake Natron was vast, disappearing somewhere along the Kenyan border. Milky whites and soft greys blended together to make for an indistinct skyline. I turned around, curious as to how the Mountain of God looked from this vantage point. Its enormity laid claim to the land, a designated and eternal caretaker whose governance was never questioned. I made my way closer to the water’s edge where flamingoes stood in the distance, blanketing the mirror-like shores in a bright pink hue. What I’d do to see this place from above, I thought. Time flew by as we chased the birds, determined to get close enough for a shot. The cracking, thick mud bonded to our shoes, slowing us as we marched up and down the shoreline.
Our next destination was Engaresero. Arriving at the site of the footsteps was surreal. While the prints were not quite as old as Australopithecus afarensis’ steps at Laetoli, they did belong to individuals indigenous to the land approximately 120,000 years ago. Walking along, I noticed there were prints of both adults and children, perfectly preserved by the layers of volcanic sediment which had frozen them in time. I took a moment to imagine what this scene might have looked like all those years ago, and nothing else seemed to exist around me in that moment. I vividly remember each movement and sensation as I traversed the ground below me. I felt my lips, dry and parted as they gaped at the site. I felt the inconsistency of my breath as I made sporadic, excited exclamations, oohing and awing at the different impressions. I felt my fingers as they unconsciously released the grip on my camera, slumping down beside what I believed to be the most impressive print. I felt the coarseness of the ground, tracing the contours of an individual’s single last impression made upon Earth. Africa has a tendency to make me feel small and insignificant, and this place was no exception. I often feel as though I’m the first to have arrived here – each new sight, taste, and smell a sensation belonging exclusively to me. It’s something I can’t quite explain, but never before had I felt so much awe and wonder. Tears welled up in my eyes at the realization that I’d never before witnessed a place quite like this. It took me back to gazing out the window of my flight from Tanga to Arusha, marveling at the overwhelming immensity of a place I knew so little of. Knowing I had just graduated with my degree in anthropology and that I was most excited about the footsteps, Lumumba gave me space to digest everything, patiently waiting outside the gate as the sun climbed higher in the afternoon sky.
Emotionally exhausted and reeling from what I had just seen, I was happy knowing that the day was soon coming to an end. I wanted to reflect on all that I was feeling and be alone with my thoughts, embedding the events of the day in my memory. At camp, though, we were met by young Maasai women and children who invited us to stroll the streets and play hand games. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I even learned some phrases in the Maasai language. It was crazy, but I really felt like we were building a rapport with many of the people at Natron and I couldn’t help but wish that we had a little more time to solidify our newly formed bonds. Their friendship made for an even more fulfilling trip, and I was thankful to have crossed their path, even in a moment when I craved solitude.
As we set out the next morning, I thanked the universe for having made this trip a reality. It left a lasting impression, one I’ll cherish and hold onto as long as I live. And though I may never see the Mountain of God again – that cracked, barren surface whose body gleams soft purple in the early hours of the day, I am thankful for its existence. It towered protectively over me during my stay, its surface reminiscent of an archaic river bed whose tributaries dance and weave together like the beaded works of the Maasai, always congregating at its feet.