Nestled south of the majestic Ngorongoro highlands in northern Tanzania, Lake Eyasi presents a captivating contrast to the sweeping savannahs and arid plains that dominate the neighboring national parks. The shores adorned with doum palms frame this soda lake, steeped in high levels of sodium carbonate and various minerals. As a seasonal, shallow, endorheic salt lake, its size fluctuates dramatically with the changing patterns of rainfall.
While it may not claim the spotlight for big-game encounters, Lake Eyasi offers an alternative allure. Here, bird enthusiasts revel in sightings of vibrant flamingos and majestic great white pelicans, while glimpses of hippos cooling in the waters punctuate the serene landscape. The evenings gift travelers with spectacular sunsets, painting the western Rift Valley with vibrant hues.
Yet, the true essence of a sojourn to Lake Eyasi lies in the cultural immersion with local tribes. The vicinity teems with diverse ethnic groups, notably the Hadzabe bushmen and Datoga tribes, who proudly uphold their ancient customs and ways of life. Their enduring presence imbues the region with a profound human spirit, granting visitors a rare glimpse into traditions that have withstood the test of time.
If you’re prepared to uncover the wonders at the heart of Lake Eyasi, get set for an adventure! Whether you’re drawn to vibrant birdlife, eager for cultural immersion, or simply yearning to soak in the tranquil landscapes, it’s time to unveil the keys to making the most out of your trip.
Hunting with the Hadzabe
The Hadza people, also known as Hadzabe or Bushmen, stand as the predominant inhabitants of Lake Eyasi, their roots intertwined with the region for nearly 10,000 years. Living a nomadic existence, the Hadza reside in camps that function as fluid communities of relatives, in-laws, and friends. Their adaptable lifestyle shifts from open-air sleeping beside campfires during the dry season to crafting simple domed shelters from interwoven twigs and long grasses when the rains arrive.
At the core of their cultural identity lies Hadzane, a distinctive language embellished with unconventional tongue clicks and glottic pops, while their traditional attire consists of dried animal skins. Despite the challenges of sustenance and survival in the bush, the Hadza exhibit a remarkable absence of typical worries associated with such a lifestyle.
For these traditionalists embracing a present-focused ethos, concepts like agriculture, animal husbandry, and food storage remain alien. Their day starts in an empty camp, venturing into the savannah to gather sustenance. Hadza women skillfully collect berries, baobab fruit, and tubers, while men partake in honey gathering and hunting, utilizing bows and arrows tipped with poison from desert rose plants for successful hunts.
A visit to the Hadza promises an immersive experience of their intriguing customs.
Witness the preparation rituals, where they adorn themselves with baboon fur headdresses and partake in ritualistic smoking of tobacco-like leaves from khaki bushes to invoke hunting luck. Watch as they craft arrows from sandpaper tree twigs and eagerly demonstrate fire-starting techniques. Engage in testing your skills with bow and arrow, all while being treated to captivating traditional dance performances.
An early morning arrival might even afford you the chance to join the Hadza on a hunting expedition around Lake Eyasi, while an afternoon visit could include a market rendezvous where they trade honey and fruits for knives, arrows, and spears crafted by Datoga silversmiths.
Engaging with the Datoga Tribe
The Datoga, another tribe inhabiting the region, trace their origins back to the Highland Southern Nilotes some 3000 years ago. Believed to have emerged from regions in Southern Sudan or the highlands of Western Ethiopia, they traditionally led nomadic lives relying on livestock for sustenance. Today, many Datoga have turned to blacksmithing, showcasing remarkable skills. Resourceful and creative, they craft copper and iron items using scrap metal from various sources, including machinery, cans, and tins. These intricately fashioned creations are either traded with the neighboring Hadzabe or sold to visitors.
Draped in timeless bead-decorated leather capes, Datoga women elegantly don weighty brass jewelry alongside intricate beadwork. Their earlobes extend with large ornaments, while distinctive facial scarifications grace the area around their eyes. Men, especially the affluent ones, weave polygamous unions with wives from diverse clans, creating multiple households to secure access to diverse agricultural and grazing lands. And children, held in high regard, serve as pillars of influence, enhancing the prestige of both women and men.
Visiting the tribe opens doors to engaging intimately with a Datoga family, immersing yourself in their daily customs and practices.
Witness the age-old tradition of maize grinding using stones and delve into transforming wheat into flour, a cornerstone of the Datoga staple, ugali. Step into the world of craftsmanship as brass, copper, or aluminum is melted to craft arrowheads, knives, and spears. Observe artisans at work, employing bellows crafted from goat hide to fan charcoal flames, and roam through the intricately woven traditional homes, known as bomas. And finally, seize the opportunity to acquire intricately crafted bracelets, witnessing their creation in real-time.
Read more: Datoga Tribe: Tanzania’s Skilled Blacksmiths
Birdwatching Bliss by the Lake
The setting of Lake Eyasi stands in stark contrast to the surrounding savannah, offering a more “tropical” vibe with its palm trees, umbrella thorn acacias, and sandpaper bushes encircling the water’s edge. Visitors often describe Eyasi’s atmosphere as “remote” and “otherworldly,” a distinct departure from the typical landscapes encountered during a North Tanzania Safari.
Though lacking the grandeur of big-game wildlife found in nearby parks and conservation areas, Lake Eyasi is a paradise for bird watchers. Its shallow waters foster an impressive diversity of breeding waterbirds, particularly between June and November. Notable inhabitants include vibrant flocks of flamingos and majestic great white pelicans. Along the shores, diverse species such as the African spoonbill, Fischer’s lovebird, gray-headed gulls, pied avocet, spurfowl, storks, barbets, weavers, and numerous other captivating birds can also be spotted.
During wetter periods when the lake swells, occasional glimpses of larger animals, notably hippos, grace the area. Seeking relief from the intense daytime heat, these creatures find solace in the brackish waters. However, as the dry season sets in, visitors are less likely to spot anything larger than an impala around the lake.
Exploring Lush Onion Plantations
In the heart of Eyasi lies a thriving tapestry of onion plantations, painting the fertile soils with vibrant green hues. Despite the challenges posed by Eyasi’s saltiness and seasonal changes, onion farming has seen a remarkable surge, thanks to innovative irrigation techniques drawing water from natural spring-fed wells.
What were once small, family-owned plots have evolved into expansive farms, defying Eyasi’s harsh and ever-shifting conditions. Today, Lake Eyasi proudly stands as the nucleus of Tanzania’s onion cultivation, contributing a substantial share, around one-third, of East Africa’s coveted Bombay Red and Red Creole onions. This bounty reaches far beyond Tanzania’s borders, finding its way to neighboring nations like Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan, bolstering Tanzania’s annual earnings by billions.
For an immersive experience, consider arranging a visit to these thriving farms. Here, you’ll witness firsthand the intricate farming techniques and have the opportunity to interact with the dedicated farmers who bring these vibrant fields to life. Amidst the fields, you’ll observe the relaxed yet diligent work ethic of the workers, taking respite under the sun while hand-harvesting onions—a truly unique aspect of this agrarian affair.
How to Get to Lake Eyasi
Lake Eyasi stands as one of the less-traveled destinations in northern Tanzania. Yet, given the region’s main draws—Mt Kilimanjaro and renowned safari hotspots like Serengeti—chances are high that you’ll find yourself in the north. When it comes to reaching Eyasi, the optimal route hinges on your travel plans.
If your aim is trekking Kilimanjaro or Meru, your base will likely be Arusha or Moshi. Arusha sits approximately 190km away from Eyasi, necessitating a 4-hour journey, while Moshi, 90km before Arusha, extends the travel time to 6 hours. Hence, a day trip from either town isn’t feasible, making an organized tour the most practical choice.
On the other hand, if a safari is on your agenda, integrating Eyasi into your itinerary—possible with customizable private safaris—or requesting your safari operator to arrange pickups or drop-offs in Karatu instead of Arusha, the usual departure and endpoint for safaris, are viable approaches.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of your options for reaching Lake Eyasi.
Option 1 – Embark on a 2-Day or 3-Day Tour from Arusha or Moshi
If your journey in northern Tanzania revolves around exploring Kilimanjaro or Mount Meru without specific plans for a safari, your base will likely be Arusha or Moshi. While a day trip to Lake Eyasi isn’t feasible, an enticing alternative is to join a meticulously crafted 2-day or 3-day tour departing from either town.
These tours encompass everything, from seamless pick-ups to accommodation and knowledgeable guides facilitating interactions with local tribes. However, this convenience comes at a premium. It stands as the priciest choice, and it feels regretful to journey to the Ngorongoro gate —the highlight of many trips— without exploring it. Hence, when opting for a tour, we strongly recommend selecting one that incorporates at least a visit to Ngorongoro as well.
— BY ORGANIZED TOUR —
Option 2 – Integrate Eyasi into Your Safari Itinerary
For those planning a safari adventure, consider selecting a tour operator specializing in customizable safari experiences. Communicate your interest in exploring Lake Eyasi and propose adding it as an additional stop between destinations or as an extension to your existing itinerary.
Your chosen safari operator will handle all arrangements, including securing suitable transportation—typically 4×4 vehicles given the road conditions. They will also coordinate with local guides to facilitate meaningful interactions with the Datoga and Hadzabe tribes, arranging immersive cultural experiences such as hunting trips with the latter. Ensure your tour package covers any necessary permits or entry fees for Lake Eyasi and the local tribes.
This approach provides unmatched ease, as Lake Eyasi seamlessly becomes part of your safari journey, fittingly positioned as you exit or enter Ngorongoro and Serengeti. Importantly, it doesn’t significantly inflate costs, as it’s integrated into your overall safari tour rather than being a separate transport arrangement for this specific excursion.
Option 3 – Explore Independently: Request Your Safari Driver to Drop You at Karatu
If integrating Lake Eyasi into your safari proves challenging, especially in shared safari scenarios, consider requesting your safari driver to drop you off or pick you up at Karatu, an alternative to the usual endpoint of Arusha. Conveniently located on the route, Karatu serves as the first settlement before entering Ngorongoro and Serengeti, making it an ideal stop before or after exploring these National Parks.
Karatu sits approximately 40km from Gorfan, a small settlement a few kilometers shy of Mang’ola, the primary village near Lake Eyasi. The road linking these places is rugged, necessitating a 4×4 vehicle. To access this area, arrange for a taxi or a passenger-carrying 4WD transfer, preferably through your accommodation. In Gorfan, visit the Cultural Tourism Office to plan activities, pay entry fees, and arrange accommodations. Your guide will rendezvous with you at your accommodation the next morning.
After the tour concludes, secure a taxi back to Karatu. From there, continue your journey to Mto Wa Mbu, which serves as the gateway to safaris for Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Parks, or return to Arusha or Moshi. These destinations are connected by a central road, potentially accessible by a dala-dala (local minibus), though inquire locally for specific transportation options. Alternatively, arrange a taxi for your onward travel.
Where to Stay near Lake Eyasi
Lake Eyasi is situated near the gateway to the Ngorongoro Crater, with the closest town along the main road being Karatu, less than 50km away. Choosing to spend the night in Karatu presents a viable option, and the next day, you can take a taxi to Mang’ola for the tour. Keep in mind that planning your activities and wake-up times is crucial when staying in Karatu to ensure timely participation in the Hadzabe hunting expeditions, given the additional travel distance.
Where to Stay in Karatu: Gibb's Farm, The Retreat at Ngorongoro, Foresight Eco-Lodge & Safari >>> Ngorongoro Farm House, Crater Forest Tented Lodge, Acacia Farm Lodge, Eileen's Trees Inn, Ngorongoro Corridor Lodge
For a more intimate lakeside experience, however, consider settlements such as Gorfan (Gorofani) or Mang’ola. Lodging options here are scarce, comprising just a handful of lodges and two campsites. While this area attracts fewer visitors, it’s advisable to plan ahead, especially if you prefer staying in a lodge rather than camping.
Where to Stay in Gorfan & Mang’ola
When to Visit Lake Eyasi
Lake Eyasi invites exploration in every season, each offering a unique perspective of its allure. However, a pivotal aspect that shapes the entire encounter is the lake’s seasonal nature, fluctuating in size and character based on the rainfall it receives throughout the year.
Dry Season (June to October)
In these months, Eyasi often appears as a parched lakebed, adding an other-worldly, ancient allure to the surroundings. This period sees Datooga herders and Hadza foragers traversing the lake on foot, while wildlife congregates around the remaining water sources. This makes it ideal for game drives and nature walks, offering better chances to spot animals.
Rainy Seasons (November to May)
Eyasi experiences two rainy periods. The short rains in November and December bring sporadic showers, while the heaviest rains from March to May cause the lake to expand and deepen, transforming the landscape into a lush expanse of grasses. Flooded banks attract hippos seeking respite in the brackish water, and birdwatching enthusiasts find ample opportunities.
However, keep in mind that the rainy season poses challenges. The dirt roads leading to the lake and tribes may flood and become muddy, affecting travel ease and limiting some activities.
Ultimately, the best time to visit Eyasi depends on your preferences. Whether you seek wildlife encounters, cultural immersion, or prefer certain weather conditions, plan accordingly to ensure your desired experiences align with the seasonal variations of the lake.
Lake Eyasi Map
Lake Eyasi serves as a rewarding detour from the typical Ngorongoro trip, offering a remote and distinct experience for travelers seeking something truly unique. Its vibrant activity and diverse offerings have transformed it into a destination worthy of its own spotlight. Whether appended to the tail end of a safari or intentionally penciled into your Tanzanian itinerary, Lake Eyasi promises an enriching adventure, an essential stop regardless of your plans or location within this awe-inspiring country.