Empakaai toward Natron
Key information: Empakaai toward Natron
- Walk from the stunning crater lake of Empakaai, perched on the edge of the Avenue of Volcanoes section of the Rift Valley, toward the low soda lake of Natron.
- Trek along ridges that descend steadily from the Ngorongoro Highlands to the bottom of the Rift Valley, providing superb views on the way over Maasai hamlets to the looming presence of the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai and, later, a thousand metres down to the hot, dusty floor of the great valley.
- This is Maasai country: observe their remarkably unchanged way of life as you pass their bomas and families herding their lean cattle.
- This walk is in remote mountains where you will have to be self sufficient. Come prepared.
- Walkopedia rating84
- Natural interest16
- Human interest6
- Negative points2
- Total rating84
- Note: Negs: Thick dust or mud in places
- Length: 1.5 days
- Maximum Altitude: 2,767m
- Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
The Gregory's Rift escarpment forms the western side of the northern Tanzanian section of Africa's great Rift Valley; at the centre of this is the extraordinary Avenue of Volcanoes, and at the centre of that is the perfect cone of the 2,878m Ol Doinyo Lengai, the remaining active volcano in the area.
This day-and-a-half trek starts on the narrow ridge between the remarkable Empakaai Crater, a collapsed volcano nestling a blue soda lake ringed by tens of thousands of flamingos some 300m below the rim, and the 1,500m drop-off down to the Rift Valley floor.
Having spent a cool night on the crater rim, you walk for four hours towards the Maasai town of Nayobi, around the Empakaai crater rim and then meandering around the upper ridges of the escarpment, along an infrequently used, hot and at times very dusty (or muddy) track. On the left is the magnificent caldera; on the other, the Rift Valley slumbers far below in a different heat. Gradually, you enter the Maasai world: perhaps meeting a herd of clinking cattle on their way to a high pasture, driven by Maasai children in their red and blue cloaks and beaded wrists, then viewing their tenuous boma farmsteads and their dusty little fields from a high ridge. This is magnificent walking, although unpleasantly dusty in the dry season (don't wear contact lenses!) and very muddy in the wet times.
You descend through overgrazed pastures to Nayobi, a dusty street lined with shops, all surrounded by boma compounds.
Brightly clad and bejewelled Maasai women form a gossipy queue at a spout to fill water containers which they are going to lug painfully home, as often as not a baby dangling from their bosom. The men loiter, talking desultorily, watchfully.
We lunched in the shade of a shed, watching the numerous herds picking at the lean grazing below the village while they wait their turn at the long concrete water troughs, all utterly unconcerned with the magnificent, sinister presence of Ol Doinyo Lengai rising vast behind the further ridge.
The trail now strikes north, across the cropped pastureland, past thorn-stockaded bomas, all the time following a ridge that descends, parallel with the rift escarpment, and always overlooked by the ominous Lengai, to a beautiful wood of yellow fever trees.
A kilometer or so inside the wood, the undergrowth becomes choked with grey ash from Lengai's 2007-8 eruption; we pass an abandoned boma, its roofs collapsed under the weight of the detritus.
We found our campsite in a clearing, a cauldron from the sun on the raw ash underfoot. We read and rested under an awning, picking up what breaths of air there were. In the evening, a group of young Maasai Morani (warriors) turn up with a goat paid for by our inspired expedition organizers, no doubt which they slaughter and roast, amid banter, singing, dancing (the famous Maasai jumping) and laughter, as the dusk gathers in the forest. They are dressed in their ceremonial garb and carry their razor-sharp spears. (The blacksmiths who make them also perform their rite-of-passage circumcisions). They are in a very good mood.
The next day's walking is thrilling. After half an hour or so, the path emerges onto a network of sharp winding ridges which are all devoid of life and a weird, sickly grey courtesy of Lengai's recent huge ashfall.
The trail follows a ridge that meanders off the highlands, down toward the hazy Rift Valley bottom and the shimmering salt pans of Lake Natron in the far distance. The views across this broken, barren landscape, towards the cliffs of Gregory's Rift on the left, and straight across to the elegant curve of Lengai's pale lava slopes to the right (elegant wasteland, related to Keith Richards?), are outstanding. You can smell the volcano's proximity.
You will meet no-one, except the occasional group of Maasai patiently trudging up the long trail toward the market at Nayobi, perhaps driving a heavily laden donkey.
The trail is often powdery dust, but the hillsides are covered in a brittle crust where ash and rain have interacted. They are often very steep, and you could make a long skin-stripping slide if you stumble.
You eventually reach the broiling, near-desert valley floor, at the start of Lengai's long, steepening slope. The trail winds across watercourses of bare rock, crossing the rough plain with its parched tufts of grass and tough little shrubs. Unless you are a glutton for punishment the experience-to-discomfort ratio gets worse the further you get you will meet a vehicle by the Natron Manyara road or earlier.
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Tanzania and Zanzibar -Cadogan Guides - Annabel Skinner
Tanzania- Lonely Planet Country Guide Mary Fitzpatrick
North of South: An African Journey- Shiva Naipaul
The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love andWar - Aidan Hartley
Filosofa's Republic- Thursday Msigwa
West With The Night Beryl Markham
Maps can be obtained locally, or on http://www.stanfords.co.uk/(There are no detailed maps available.)
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
There is no best time. Between June and early October is dry season, with parched landscape and dust, but otherwise good walking conditions. The rainy season (April and May) will be lush and beautiful, but misty on the highlands, rainy at times (no!), with muddy tracks and possible flooded streams. The weather can be unpredictable late October to March, although the landscape will be greener and this is a beautiful time of year.
Variable (see above). Come prepared for unpredictable weather and cold nights.
How you get to Tanzania will depend on your origin and plans. The nearest international airport is Kilimanjaro International Airport, near Arusha.
You will need a visa to enter Tanzania.
There is no public transport to Empakaai and the road is very poor, so a 4WD (best with a driver) will be necessary.
Those on organised expeditions will be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.
Empakaai is within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Park fees are payable for access, as are special campsite fees if you camp in the area.
See walk summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Mountain weather: Rain, cold and wind are possible at any time of year. Come prepared.
- Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
- Dangerous or unpleasant animals of all shapes and sizes, including snakes, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
- This is a remote country: You will have to carry all your food and other supplies and help will be hard to get if things go wrong.
- Health risks: This is a relatively under developed country and you will not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. There are many potential problems, including malaria. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems:All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to Important information for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can in theory do this walk independently, but will need some sort of guided expedition (or an experienced driver) to get there and back and most people will prefer a supported / guided expedition, with tents etc. brought in by mule.
Expedition organisers include:
- Natural High Safaris http://www.naturalhighsafaris.com/- we used them for our 2008 Tanzania trip and were delighted. Not cheap (nowhere is) but reasonable value.
- Explore! - http://www.explore.co.uk/- reputable and experienced organisers.
- Great Walks of the World http://www.greatwalks.net/(combined with Kilimanjaro).
- Klub Afriko Safaris http://www.klubafriko.com/
- Gametrackers (K) Ltd http://www.gametrackersafaris.com/
- Abacus African Vacations http://www.abacusvacations.com/(21 day trip)
- Walks Worldwide http://www.walksworldwide.com/
There is now serious accommodation in the vicinity, so some form of camping will be necessary if you are staying in the area.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with information on this walk. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- http://www.wikipedia.org/ Empakaai Crater and Ol Doinyo Lengai
Other things to do in the area
- Mts Kilimanjaro, Meru and the lesser known Hanang.
- Empakaai Crater trek. The superb and very active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai.
- A new trail on the rim of the caldera of Ngurdoto Crater.
- Udzungwa Mountains National Park is tough but beautiful.
- Walking safaris (within a day or, better still, overnight) are the best way to experience the reality of "nature red in tooth and claw". This can be the only option in some of the southern national parks, but it is not allowed within the northern ones. However, superb treks can be made outside the national parks.
- Boating safaris
- Riding safaris
- Driving safaris
Shopping, if you must
We are not a shopping website. But, anything bought from local people must be of some help to this desperately poor area. So, wallets out but try to avoid the more obvious rip-offs and big tourist-focussed set-ups.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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