Greek mythology describes Medusa as a horrifying creature who can turn anyone who looks at her into stone. Perhaps Tanzania’s Lake Natron would better be named Lake Medusa because of its horrifying ability to turn living things into haunting statues.
Located in northern Tanzania, near its border with Kenya, Lake Natron is immediately identifiable from its unreal pink color. Unlike Australia’s Lake Hillier, which is also pink but relatively harmless to people, Lake Natron is not a place where you would want to take a dip.
The lake’s color and name comes from natron, a naturally occurring substance consisting primarily of sodium carbonate. Sourced from volcanic ash from the Great Rift Valley, natron exists in such high quantities that the water is highly toxic to most forms of life. Temperatures in the lake can reach 140° F (60 °C), and its alkalinity is between pH 9 and pH 10.5 — nearly the same level as ammonia.
Even without the high temperatures, the water is hazardous. Just a small amount of water on human skin will cause caustic burns. What it does to those who drink the water or fall into it, however, is the most horrifying.
The high levels of calcium carbonate solidify in and around animal flesh, turning the unfortunate creatures into statues.
Photographer Nick Brandt captured the phenomenon in photos when he discovered perfectly preserved birds and bats on the shoreline. “I could not help but photograph them,” he says. “No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, and like birds crashing into plate glass windows, they crash into the lake.”
One bird that is not harmed by Lake Natron’s harsh conditions is the flamingo. Flamingoes can thrive in a place such as this because of their tough skin and scaly legs which prevent burns. They drink the fresh water from nearby springs or geysers at the edges of the lake, and in dire situations, they can filter saltwater with special glands in their nasal cavities. As an added bonus, their strong stomachs allow them to feed on the toxic algae found throughout the lake. As a result, Lake Natron is the nesting ground for about 2.5 million flamingoes. Their bright pink plumage only enhances the already-pink surroundings.
As for the rest of us, the lake is a curious place to visit, but unless you have pink feathers, be sure to keep your feet safely on dry land.