Jaza train to pools of salt

Posted On 7th January 2016
I have never held locomotives in high regard. My last trip on a train was a lunatic experience-literally. Not only did the carriages bound for Mombasa break down severally, but they never arrived to the intended destination. After an agonising twenty hours, I had to make due with Mariakani for the final stop. It was with a pinch of salt, therefore, that I boarded a train to what would be a salty destination-literally. Getaway was headed to Magadi, the filming location for Fernando Meirelles's film The Constant Gardener, which is based on the book of the same name by John le Carré, although in the film, the shots are supposed to be at Lake Turkana, which are actually at Lake Magadi. The visit to the  town located southwest of Nairobi in the Kenya Rift Valley at Lake Magadi was also sabbatical of sorts given that my primary school teachers had impressed on me that the area produces one of Kenya’s most important export commodities-soda ash-that has been mined there more than a century. In case you are wondering, soda ash is an essential constituent in the manufacture of glass and the production of detergents and industrial chemicals. The lake is also the source of a commodity that man simply cannot live without-salt. What my teachers failed to mention, nonetheless, was that Magadi is one the most scenic retreats possible in the country.

The terrible road to this otherwise great place makes the roughly two-hour drive feel like an unending nightmare. So on one cloudy morning, rather than brave the brutal Magadi road, a group of like-minded travellers pooled resources for a train trip organised by Lake Magadi Adventures, the touristic arm of Tata Chemicals Magadi (TCM), Africa's largest soda ash manufacturer and the second largest producer of soda ash in the world. Joining in the trip was Honorary Secretary to Nature Kenya and birder extraordinaire Fleur Ng’weno and her brainy daughters Amolo and Bettina (Photo credits: Bettina Ng’weno and Courtesy). After bus transfer from the capital, the rovers boarded the train from Kajiado terminus to the wonderful lands of Lake Magadi. An earlier visitor describes the passenger cars best, “the cars are a time capsule of the 1920s: straight-backed bench seats, sturdy windows that pull up to open or push down to close, held fast with worn steel pins that springs once made easy. Peeling paint scratched away by bored travellers, bare yellow light bulbs stand out where light fixtures are missing – the car is very clean, old and used. The train leaves the valley floor, climbing the steep cliff overlooking the lake. The narrow-gauge train would regularly be pulling fourteen tanker cars filled with soda ash destined for Mombasa on the coast. The three passenger cars tacked to the end would stop at Kajiado and return to Magadi with empty tankers. The narrow-gauge cars are equipped with standard gauge wheels that fit above the narrow ones. These wheels are lowered to engage the wider tracks at the junction of the Magadi and Mombasa lines. The train makes its four-hundred-mile trip to the port at Mombasa to ship soda ash to India and Southeast Asia.”
The uneventful ride occasioned by several stops to savour the ever-changing scenery and wildlife took approximately four hours before check-in at the select Magadi Sports Club and Lake Magadi Tented Camp stuck stark in the middle of a stunning albeit scorching wilderness made up for all my train fails. TCM Company owns more than 220,000 hectares, a vast swath of land that stretches to the border of Kenya with Tanzania and touches Lake Natron. The resourceful Lake Magadi is in the heart of this chunk of land. The township is actually an island inside the salty lake and it is accessed by road and rail via causeways — raised railways and roads over the heavy salty water.

There are several alkaline lakes in Kenya; Lakes Bogoria, Natron, and Magadi, which are all similar to one another. The latter, which we were bound, is the southernmost lake in the Rift Valley. The saline-alkaline 32 kilometres long and three kilometres wide lake located about 240 kilometres east of Lake Victoria is the most mineral-rich of the soda lakes. It occupies the lowest level of a vast Rift trough and its bed consists almost entirely of solid or semisolid soda. It was explored by Captain E.G. Smith in 1904, who found the outline irregular and traversed by great ridges. It is located 2, 000 feet below sea level and has a surface area of 100 km2 and a depth that ranges from 1-5 m. It has a pH of 10 and alkalinity of 380 mmol L-1.  The lake acts as a sink for seasonal streams. Several streams, both cold and hot, the latter heavily impregnated with soda, flow into the lake, while all about springs of soda water gush up through the caked crust, dyeing the waters a vivid pink. The geography and geology of Lake Magadi is such that it is among the few places on earth where trona (a naturally occurring mineral that contains sodium carbonate compounds) can be found at the surface. Magadi's high temperatures and long sunny days cause the solution to concentrate by evaporation eventually giving rise to more trona. Thus, the trona deposit in Lake Magadi is constantly renewing itself by natural means. Some of the biggest deposits of trona are underground; the world's biggest trona reserve can be found at Green River, Wyoming in the US. The lake is recharged mainly by saline hot springs of temperatures up to 80°C that discharge into alkaline “lagoons” around the lake margins, due to the little surface runoff in this arid region.  During the rainy season a thin layer of brine covers much of the saline pan, but this evaporates rapidly leaving a vast expanse of white salt that cracks to produce large polygons; in some places the salt is up to 40 m thick. The baking salt plains stretch into horizons of shimmering heat haze, while the shallow lake heaves with the pink waves of nesting flamingo. The otherworldly atmosphere is compounded by the intense heat and the isolation
 Rainfall in and around the Rift Valley drains underground and is heated geothermally. The hot water dissolves chemical compounds of sodium that occur in the underground rock strata and the solution comes to the surface in the form of hot, mildly alkaline springs which can be found all around the edge of the lake. This natural basin on the ground with bubbling hot waters was our highlight after sundown as we bathed off Mother Nature’s healing springs. It is, unfortunately, too hot to venture out during the day. The water is believed to have medicinal value to the skin curing ailments such as skin rushes, pimples and acne, dry skin conditions and also helps in strengthening the bones in the body. After a few hour’s worth of massage, I can attest to this.
Lake Magadi is a popular destination for many animals due to the fact that it is situated between Masai Mara and Amboseli National Parks, but very few animals actually have any contact with, or live in, the lake itself. Game to be encountered includes giraffes, wildebeests, Somali Ostrich, Beisa Oryx, Zebra, long necked antelopes, the Gerenuk. Other wild animals though rare to be seen during the day include the hyenas, lions and elephants in the Shompole conservancy.

The lake is, however, a popular destination for wading birds including flamingos, heron, pelicans, and spoonbills. The birds congregate in streams of fresh water that run into the lake because this water brings in large amounts of diverse food. Bird rock where birds congregate each morning only for felines to fell them is one vantaged point to make sightings. Fleur, who coordinates regular morning Bird Walk was kind enough to share her sightings indicated in the sidebar. There is only one species of fish that can actually be found in the lake itself. Tilapia grahami, a type of small tilapia, have adapted to live in the harsh conditions of the lake, and are normally found in the lagoons on the lake’s periphery. In the midst of a full algae bloom, the waters of Lake Magadi run red. This incredible sight was amplified by an exploration of little Magadi, a detached part of the main lake. 

On our way back we went through Kamukuru centre with its evergreen mathenge trees, esonurura with its  mabati kiosks before rushing past Ole Tepesi market that opened up to other attraction Mt Olorgesailie and the intriguing 50 acre archaeological site on Magadi Road about 52km to the north east of the lake by the same name. World renowned as the “factory of stone tools” and the only place on record possessing an impressive number of Acheulean hand axes and the largest stone tools, the site gives evidence not only of local importance but also of international significance. At the Museum one can take a walk to see the actual site and the discoveries made here. It also is a bird watcher’s paradise citing the highest number of migratory bird species in Kenya. The main road access to Magadi is directly from Nairobi by bus, matatu or private transport, via Kiserian. 
If you still have doubts about how beautiful Kenya is, try Lake Magadi.


Observed by Fleur Ng’weno, 22 August 2015, 6:15 - 6:45 pm.

Names from Checklist of the Birds of Kenya, 4th Ed, East Africa Natural History Society, 2009.

Ducks & geese

Egyptian Geese

Cape Teal


Lesser Flamingo


Yellow-billed Stork

Marabou Stork

Ibises & spoonbills

African Spoonbill

Herons & egrets

Great White Egret

Little Egret


Great White Pelican

Pink-backed Pelican

Stilts & avocet

Black-winged Stilt

Pied Avocet


Blacksmith Plover

Chestnut-banded Plover

Sandpipers & relatives

Common Greenshank

Little Stint


(there were several other sandpiper species, but it was too dark for identification)

Birds of Magadi Sports Club and nearby tented camp

Observed and compiled by Fleur Ng’weno August 22 (pm) & 23 (am), 2015

Names from Checklist of the Birds of Kenya, 4th Ed, 2009.


Lanner Falcon 

Pigeons & doves

Speckled Pigeon

African Mourning Dove

Namaqua Dove 


Slender-tailed Nightjar (heard at night) 


Blue-naped Mousebird 

Barbets & tinkerbirds

Black-throated Barbet


Fischer’s Sparrow Lark 


Common Bulbul 

Chats, wheatears & flycatchers

Spotted (Morning) Palm Thrush

African Grey Flycatcher

Sparrows & petronias

House Sparrow

Chestnut Sparrow

Yellow-spotted Petronia

Weavers & relatives

Red-billed Quelea