The shallow, highly alkaline Lake Magadi is the southernmost of the Rift Valley lakes in Kenya. It lies in a semi-desert region where temperatures soar to over 40 C (104 F) during midday. A vigorous commercial enterprise which extracts sodium and calcium salts is supported by evaporation pans excavated into the lake, which is almost poisonously rich in salts because it has no external drainage. All of the rainfall runoff from the surrounding countryside brings with it dissolved minerals and ends up in Magadi (which, not surprizingly, means "soda" in Maa, the Maasai language). Since there is no outlet to the lake, the searing heat and fierce sun evaporates much of the water, leaving a concentrated salt solution. This is spread out over some 100 square kilometres (40 square miles) and the lake bed appears to be one enormous sheet of white.
A number of hot springs can be found around the periphery of lake, the most accessible being to the south. Water birds are abundant, most notably the chestnut-banded sand plover which, in Kenya, can be found only at this lake. Flamingoes are usually very prominent. The southern shore is one of the sites in Kenya of. annual gatherings of ornithologists who, during the northern hemisphere winter, set up skeins of fine "mist nets" to capture and ring-band some of the hundreds of thousands of birds which have migrated from the southern reaches of Europe to spend winter in East Africa. As you watch birds being extracted by expert hands from the tangles of a mist net, it is astounding to realise that their last port of call was quite likely near the southern steppes of Russia.
The trip to Lake Magadi is stark, beautiful and, thanks to the Magadi Soda Company, tarmacked all the way from the northern edge of the Ngong Hills. The road drops through a series of spectacular step faults down the eastern wall of the Rift Valley, from 2,100 metres (6,894 feet) at the Ngong Hills to 609 metres (2,000 feet) at the lake. Wildlife such as gerenuk and giraffe and fringe-eared oryx can be seen on the way.
Site for sore eyes:
On the way to Magadi, it is worth
stopping off for a look at Olookisaili, one of Kenya’s most important archaeological
excavation sites, on the shores of an ancient Pleistocene lake. There, Homo
habilis hunted a fauna much richer than today’s, and Homo sapiens may spend
a rustic night, in the self-help banda,s. Arrangements must be made beforehand
at the National Museums of Kenya office in Nairobi.
At Magadi itself, there is no accommodation available, unless you are fortunate enough to be invited to the Soda Company’s Club. However, camping is allowed although no facilities are provided. It is essential to bring your own water and other provisions.
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