Along the Great Rift valley lies a type of unique ecosystem particular to this part of Africa. Lake Magadi, a soda ash lake, is one such ecosystem. However, the most famous one is Lake Natron, which we haven’t visited and hope to do soon.
The Geology of Lake Magadi
These soda ash lakes form due to volcanic activity and high precipitation in the Great Rift Valley region. Lake Magadi, Lake Natron and many other smaller alkaline lakes in the area are specialised homes for flamingoes, including the threatened Lesser Flamingo.
How Climate Change Affects Lake Magadi
However, the landscape of these lakes is changing, significantly affecting flamingo populations and their movements. Our Kenyan guides were quick to identify climate change as the culprit. However, scientists can only speculate on the exact cause.
In Kenya, the climate change experienced is not drought but rather increased rainfall. Some climate scientists have proven that this results from excessive groundwater exploitation in India for agriculture. This water, trapped under the ground for millennia, is being released rapidly and increasing precipitation levels on the other side of the Indian Ocean, in East Africa. This dilutes the salinity of the soda ash lakes which the flamingoes depend on to survive.
Our Hike to Lake Magadi
In 2020, we saw for ourselves how climate change was affecting Lake Magadi during our trip to Kenya. Our hike to the lake was the last portion of our six-day trek through the Loita Hills region in South Western Kenya. I had read a lot about East Africa’s soda lakes and was very excited to get to see the flocks of flamingoes in feeding in bright pink water.
Getting to Lake Magadi
Of course, visitors can get to Lake Magadi by car, but this would take a lot away from the experience of visiting the region. The beautiful stark landscape of the area is best appreciated on foot.
Our adventure to Lake Magadi began at the Entasopia guest house, in Kajiado, many miles away. The day got off to a rough start. After getting up at 5:30 in the morning to make sure we could complete most of the hike in the morning, our guide found out the car we had hired would not start.
How hard could the solution be? Surely there must be another car we could use.
Unfortunately, there were no available cars in the vicinity – the nearest one was in the neighbouring village, and we had to wait until the owner woke up. By the time we took off, it was already mid-morning.
Eventually, we got to the starting point of the final stretch of our six-day hike – a large watering area for all the villages nearby. Like something out of Star Wars, it was an interesting scene, with people and animals all gathered in this marvellous desert-like landscape filling up on the most precious resource here – water.
Just as we were about to begin our hike, a Maasai man came up to our guides, and they started to have an excited conversation between them. We couldn’t understand exactly what they were talking about, but we guessed that there was some problem with the road ahead.
The Flooded Salt Pans of Magadi
We nevertheless could not turn back and continued venturing forwards. For lunch, we would hike up to a lookout point on our way to Lake Magadi. This hike was beautiful, in a stark, alien way. I remember the dry, golden grass reaching high up my knees and the sort of tranquil silence that happens in the heat of the day when all the animals are resting.
Eventually, we came to an outcrop overlooking the land below. The view was breath-taking, and I could not help but stare at it in wonderment. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The land below us was utterly flooded, covered with pearly green-blue water. At the lake’s edges were many pink specks – scores, upon scores of flamingoes, were here, feeding on the algae rich waters.
I now understood the problem the Maasai had warned us about. The road that cut across the landscape, forging ahead towards Lake Magadi’s usual boundaries, was completely submerged. The only way across was a long pipe, about two kilometres in length. There was no way to cross the water by walking on the pipe, not with all our provisions. We would have to go around.
Lake Magadi had come to Meet Us
Interestingly, we were technically at Lake Magadi, for the lake itself had spilled out to come and meet us. Aeons in the past, when East Africa was a wetter place, Lake Magadi and Lake Natron were joined as one large water body. Some scientists believe this is what is happening to many of the Alkaline lakes in East Africa at the moment.
Although the day was already scorching, high up on the outcrop, there was always a pleasant breeze. There was also an acacia tree, which provided just enough shade for everyone. Under it, we all felt quite relaxed.
All of us rested, except the cook, Steve and our guide (also called Steve). Steve, the cook, immediately took out his pots and pans and began cooking on a small clearing right at the edge of the outcrop. I marvelled at how he did things – balancing the gas canister on a rock and using exposed rock faces to balance bowls of vegetables and potatoes. With this setup, he began making our mid-day meal. For a moment, I felt like we were in a reality TV show about extreme cooking.
Walking on the Salt Pans
I was reluctant to leave my shady, cool spot under the tree, but we had a long way ahead of us and had to get moving. So get moving we did.
We began by walking along the edge of the flooded salt pan. The view from below was very different from the one above, although no less magnificent. It was also a surreal landscape, with the ground covered in a thick white crust of salt and slippery clay. As we walked, our shoes crunched and squished in turn on the strange terrain below our feet.
A Flamboyance of Flamingoes
The most fabulous thing, however, were the flamingoes. There were hundreds of them, flying to and fro on the lake, hovering a mere few metres above the water. As they flew, they were almost perfectly reflected in the still, salty water below.
I knew that when it came to flamingoes, this was the moment. The high rainfall that had created this beautiful flooded plain with its hundreds of flamingoes would also have diluted the water at Lake Magadi’s usual boundaries. I knew we would not find many wading birds there. As far as flamingoes were concerned on this hike, the moment was now.
A unique experience
It was unbearably hot – so hot we could feel the salt from the ground steaming up into our eyes. However, the surroundings were so magnificent I did not mind the heat one bit.
I knew what I was experiencing was something entirely out of the ordinary. Usually, water did not flood the plains. None of our guides had seen it flooded like this before. To not only see it but to walk on it, was a truly unique experience.
If the Maasai can pass, so can we
Soon, we came to the very edge of the temporary new boundary of Lake Magadi. Here the land was mostly muddy, with occasional pools. Johnny looked across the shining flatland and pointed into the distance. Miles away, I could see some trees shimmering in the heat. That was where we had to go.
“Are you sure we can cross this mudflat?” I asked. I could see many shiny pools of salty water between us and the trees from where I stood.
“Sure we can.” Steve, our guide said. “Look.” He pointed to the ground. I saw there were the tracks of a motorcycle. “The Maasai have come here on motorcycle, if they can do it, we certainly can too.”
Despite the intense heat, the adventure of crossing the alien landscape was exciting enough that I didn’t mind it. We even came across some elephant tracks, which I got quite excited over. The thought of seeing an elephant crossing these majestic, empty expanse made such a poignant mental image in my head.
In the end, the crossing was not too challenging. Apart from having to jump over some large puddles and land on slippery mud, the walk across the flats was pretty straightforward. Our hiking shoes had soles thick enough to get through most of the pools.
Back on Land
Once we were done with the salt flats, we came to a raised piece of land covered in long, golden grass, dotted with acacia trees. The terrain here was tricker, as the grass-covered many high boulders underneath and we had to be very careful while walking, least we make a misstep and twist our ankles. The going was slow.
Although we were getting tired, Johnny showed no signs of flagging. He was filled with energy and was excited to show us the land. Along the way, we spotted a couple of giraffes and some zebras grazing in the high grass. It was an incredible feeling, walking through the bush, surrounded by such majestic creatures.
Getting to the factory at Lake Magadi
The going was slow for us, walking in the high grass, so our guides took us to the road that lead to the factory at Lake Magadi, and we walked along with it. Although the landscape was boring since we were walking along the road, I was glad for it. It was already mid-afternoon, and I was exhausted from walking in the high grass, fearing I might twist my ankle with every step. It was a nice change to be able to see the groud I placed my feet on.
Following the road, we soon came to the permanent part of Lake Magadi. It was an impressive lake, with a large soda ash processing facility along its banks. The edge of the lake also harboured a few flocks of flamingoes, although their numbers were not so great, due to the recent high rainfall which had diluted the lake’s alkalinity.
Camping in a Maasai Village near Lake Magadi
We arrived at our last campsite just before sundown. After miles on the road, I was looking forward to dropping my pack and taking it easy under the shade. After hiking for a bit into the bush, we caught sight of a Maasai manyatta. These were of a slightly different style to the ones we saw in Enkototu. The villages we had seen earlier did not have their households delineated with a fence of any border. We only recognised them as a collection because of their proximity to each other. Over here, near Magadi, the style was different.
The manyattas were surrounded by a thick fence of thorny branches, presumably to keep wild animals from entering the compound. There are wild animals everywhere in the Loita Hills, but it was around here that we saw signs of the big ones, like elephant and giraffe.
Maasai children under the African Sunset
As usual, the children here came out to greet us, but they were bolder and loved to have their photograph taken. While trying to capture the lovely, fiery sunset, the children gathered themselves into the shot and began posing. We were delighted they felt so comfortable in front of the camera and insisted on having us take their photo. It was such a joyful, spontaneous moment.
The night we spent here was an interesting one. We met a young Maasai woman who went to university in Nairobi. She was sassy and wouldn’t lay off making fun of our guides and porters. She stayed here in her village until the university reopened again after being closed for moths because of covid-19. It was an interesting meeting for me, as it revealed how Maasai culture has already begun to embrace women’s empowering for many years now.
Reflections after Lake Magadi
Our six-day hike through Loita Hills, starting from Maji Moto and ending off at Lake Magadi, was a truly incredible experience. We truly enjoyed being with our guides and having met all the incredible people that hosted us. During the hike, I felt how dynamic the Maasai people are – they genuinely bridge both a traditional lifestyle and a fast-changing modern way of thinking. And also, of course, there was the unique landscape that will forever be seared in my memory.