Cresting the last hill out of Nairobi the horizon unfolds before you, a two hundred kilometer straight view to the west. The Great Rift Valley.
Beginning the descent you leave the last cool Nairobi breeze behind. The “rift” part of the name immediately becomes clear as the way down is no gentle valley slope. This is more of an abrupt drop. “Hill 1,” for lack of a better name, seems to be the worst. There always seem to be wrecked trucks at the bottom of it. My first return trip to Nairobi there was two mangled truck cabs crumpled at the bottom. There were a couple guys gathered around the second truck and as the wreck seemed a fresh one I stopped to see if they needed help. They told me they just needed a lift up the hill with a part they needed to fix. Could I help them? Naively, I was about to say “sure” when the hitchhiker next to me whispered urgently, “just go.” He was clenching his jaw and looking resolutely forward and not at all at the guys at the side of the road. He started flicking his hand insistently forward so I left them there. “They were just trying to steal a part from the truck,” he said matter-of-factly.
This particular hitchhiker was quite a bit more interesting than most. He spoke excellent English for one. Most hitchers around this area are Masai and you are lucky if they speak Swahili. You’re also lucky if it’s only one. Half the time it’s seven people and one guy has a goat. Anyways, James was a train conductor for the Magadi Soda Company carting the ash from Magadi to Mombassa. Quite often the trains would break down out in the middle of the bush either from slamming into an adult giraffe (or several from the way he made it sound) or just general mechanical failure where he would then be left stranded thirty to forty kilometers from the Magadi road. On more than one occasion he had to walk back to the road through lion, hyena, and buffalo filled plains to get to the road as the Company never put any emergency food or water in the train for them.
Further down the road as the elevation drops and the temperature increases, more of the geography that makes this place unique appears. The road curves through several miniature valleys within the larger valley. Dormant volcanoes line the horizon. Nearby one of these old cones is one of the many sites made famous by the anthropologist Louis Leakey. At many of the larger hills escarpments can be seen far in the distance, steep cliff drop offs that form the step by step descent to the lowest parts of the greater Valley.
Further and further down the vegetation dries out and dies off. The greens become brown. The soil becomes rocky. The distant landscape waivers in the heat. White rocks, like melted stone, hang in shelves. Carnivorous limestone? A bulbous brown land mass several hundred meters high called Ol Doinyo Nyokie appears as if some enormous bubble of liquid rock hardened in place. I’m lost in a geologist’s dreamscape with no textbook.
A donkey wanders into the road. I say wander but I am damn near sure it’s deliberate. Those damn sons of… well I won’t get carried away, but I’ll tell you the donkey is surely the nihilist of the mammal world. The one animal with seemingly no respect for its own life or anyone else’s. You could be going sixty right at a donkey, slam on your brakes (if the brakes are even working that month), come within a hairs breadth of breaking both the car and the donkey’s backs, and that donkey won’t budge. He’ll just stare at you like, “what’s the point? (Nobody remembered my birthday...)”
Three or so hours into the drive you reach Magadi. Magadi means “ash” in Masai. There’s a city just outside of Death Valley National Park in California called Trona, which is another name for the soda ash crystals they mine there, the exact same stuff they harvest in Magadi. I was there not too long ago so when I first saw Magadi from a distance I was struck by the similarity. Sister cities across continents if I ever saw it. Much like Trona, Magadi hangs under an undulating current of hot air. Lake Magadi is a mostly dry soda lake covered in the white soda ash that gives the town its name. Already being at such a low elevation the reflection of the lake’s ash doesn’t help the temperature much in the intense equatorial sunlight. Temperatures regularly reach 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) here. Flamingoes are routinely seen bursting into flame. The smell of the place isn’t much better as it is reminiscent of hot sulfur and bird poop.
For those curious soda ash, or more accurately sodium carbonate, is one of those ever-present industrial products that are used to make a whole bunch of useful things that no one had any idea existed were made from a smelly lake in Kenya (or California). It is used in things as varied as making glass, taxidermy, laundry detergent, dying, toothpaste, to induce dog vomiting, and for the production of “sherbet lollies” (thanks Wikipedia).
Mercifully the smell leaves you as you ascend a small rocky escarpment bordering the west edge of Lake Magadi. Sadly the well maintained and “paved” road is left behind as well. It is all dirt and rock from here on out. Navigation still remains un-necessary as there is only one road and no turns. Hard to get lost. This particular trip back from Nairobi is different. I notice a small dirt road heading off the main track not far after the short ascent from Lake Magadi. There is a small white sign indicating a nursery school or something like that. I had noticed the sign and road before, but had never paid much attention as it looked rarely used and probably short. I had made a very quick trip to Nairobi with Philip (one of our two research assistants) this particular time and the car was luckily not loaded down with hundreds of pounds of diesel, food, and other supplies. So I figured… what the hell, I’ll try the road.
My decision wasn’t entirely random. A month or so before I had found a small feature hidden in Google Maps called “Africa tracks.” Some helpful individuals had added their GPS track logs to a collective database increasing the map programs’ usefulness in our corner of the world incredibly. Many of our roads that we used on a daily basis were in this log and it helped out a lot when viewing the area. I had noticed a small track leading far to the north somewhere in the area just following Lake Magadi, but couldn’t at the time recall ever seeing any roads. The displayed track led to a mysterious second lake called Little Magadi.
Of course the knowledge of this place irked me for a good long time. What sort of place was this “Little Magadi?” why did it look like there was actual water in this lake? Was this some sort of beautiful oasis in our private wasteland? I couldn’t let this road go unchecked.
Half an hour later we had already passed the school mentioned on the sign and with it any vestiges of human habitation. The only thing that kept me going was a very faint track in the dirt and persistence colloquially referred to as “stupidity.” The terrain was pretty flat and rocky, no real geographic features to note, it wasn’t very suggestive of an imminent Shangri-La. Even Philip who is normally very supportive started doubting my maniacal urge to continue. Though just when we are ready to give up and turn back we crest the hill and there in front of us is an enormous lake. Really truly filled with water, actual visible blue water, and stretching for what looked like several kilometers in length. It was unbelievable. More unbelievable was that the road seemed to continue and I with it.
The lake was bordered by a large cliff or scarp to the west, the land mass our road was on to the east, and it stretched to the north out of sight. As the road continued we rose and rose above the lake and I soon realized we were on our own escarpment. This lake was bordered by two enormous cliffs. I realized that this was why no one knew about this place and more interestingly why the water persisted.
We went on and on and our road’s supporting landmass narrowed and narrowed. As we rose I could see that to the east there was another precipitous drop, this time leading to what appeared to be Lake Magadi. We were on some sort of perilous isthmus between the two lakes. I continued until I reached a single manyatta (basically a small Masai family unit/village structure) at the end of what I now saw to be a peninsula. The bomas were on the highest point of the very furthest tip. Sharp cliffs to each side, this family was precariously perched, but with what a view. To the west the deepest blue of Little Magadi and its scarp to the east Lake Magadi and the ascending escarpments of the upper rift valley. Massive dust storms swirled in the void below. The village at the ends of the earth.
I asked them what the place was called they said “Oloreshe,” or simply “Island.”
Back on the main road I make the only necessary turn of the entire journey, off of the road and into the bush. To the west the enormous Nguruman Escarpment a thousand meter cliff face jutting out of the horizon, the far border of the Great Rift Valley. The escarpment makes up for our entire four hour descent in one go as it erupts out of the landscape in one tremendous ascent. To the south Ol Donyo Shompole, the mountain that gives the area its name. To the east the Ewaso Ngiro, the “Brown River,” the small source of green in our dusty valley and the water supply to the massive soda lake to the south and west of us, Lake Natron.
In the haze between Mt. Shompole and Lake Natron a large volcano can sometimes be made out. Ol Donyo Lengai, “the Mountain of God,” which is actually within Tanzania at this point (along with the bulk of Lake Natron) had its last serious eruption in 1940 when ash was spread up to one hundred kilometers away. The ubiquitous volcanic rocks in the area are no doubt the leftovers of some massive ancient eruption.
Nestled underneath the trees and dust and haze is our camp. Six tents, six guys, two dogs, a cat, and the occasional donkey are all you’ll find here…