You can see the photographs I'm raving about below by clicking here
Situated south of Nairobi, its southern tip jutting into Tanzania, Lake Magadi is one of the hottest and least hospitable places on earth. Its water, if that it can be called, is a thick solution of caustic soda and other salts called trona, which make it undrinkable even for cattle or donkeys. The Maasai, who live around the lake, view it with a mixture of respect and fear, though mostly with indifference: many times I was told that even falling into the lake would cause all my skin to fall off.
I last drove down to Magadi in theory to check out a hotel for my work, but actually to take photographs of soda formations I remembered from 1996 which I hadn't then snapped as I'd run out of film.
We arrived in Magadi Town ten minutes later, and I let him off at the market. Magadi Town is a weird anomaly: perfect tarmac, perfect little buildings, no litter, lots of fences, and everything owned and run and regulated by the Magadi Soda Company. The concentration of the alkaline soda crystals is what 'feeds' the Magadi Soda Company (formerly owned by ICI), which has become the world's second-largest producer. A train line links the lake with Mombasa on the coast, where tonnes of refined soda are sent for export. The company's workers, mostly from elsewhere in Kenya, are handsomely paid by Kenyan standards: free housing, no bills, and $1000 a year per worker, or so I was led to believe.
They sign you in at the gate, and you have to state in the log book who you've come to see. I wrote 'soda'.
It was so hot, just like last time when my friend turned bright red and we got worried because she wasn't sweating, so I had to take her back (we were walking) and fill her up with warm Coca-Colas in the township's only locally-owned bar. Today, the temperature easily pushed over 45ºC. Gusty wind, cool higher up, burning hot around the lake level, spinning up spirals of orange dust and dirt that looked like smoke on the other side. Had to be careful with my camera to avoid it getting too hot, and my saliva was turning frothy in my mouth.
I took many photographs, first from a high bluff overlooking the lake, of flamingoes down on the shores flocked around a small hot mineral spring, the mud there covered with a green film of algae. Other shots, from the same position, of a dozen of so flamingoes flying in formation over the deep green water between the crusted shoreline and the vast orange-pink-beige-red icing of crystallised soda in the centre of the lake: colour and form.
I took so many photos, I was feeling pretty ecstatic by the end, very hot, red-faced, and happy. Again, I felt the pull of deserts (a love for me since 1988, when I cycled across the Sahara). I realise it's not at all only the metaphysical beauty that pulls me in. It's the desolation, the bare, unadorned beauty of land, of minerals, elements - of nature's structure unadorned, uncovered by forest or grass or people or settlements. Naked rock weathered, or mud dried by the wind and the sun, and then cracked by the same with water, or eroded by wind-blown dust and grains of sand. It's also the heat, the constant sweating, the hot wind one inhales, along with the dust, and the smell of cattle and donkey and goat dung, and the acrid fumes from the pink soda-rich water.
On the way back, before the roadblock and its gate, some salt pans on the left of the road. In these shallow basins, strange patterns left by evaporation as the water level fell, at each stage leaving a new, irregular crust of salt and soda, usually in several shades of pink and orange, but sometimes white, these covered with water - dreaming patterns. Chaos and fractals inevitable. Ever since I heard the phrase "chaos theory", while I was a student in the late 1980s, the idea of chaos as a natural rule has played an important part in my life. At first, I spent several years trying to reconcile the concept of chaos with my personal philosophy, and almost failed, had it not been for my tardy realisation that not everything could be explained by rational (or logical) means. Nonetheless, the idea - and the visualisation - of chaos, has remained paramount in my mind, especially in terms of photography.
So it was that the shores of Lake Magadi, with their weird salt crystal formations and abstract streaks of colour and texture were immediately attractive. The patterns, albeit appearing complex, were very simple, being as they were the expression of microscopic crystalline and animal (diatom algae) forms rendered visible on a larger scale. Imagine a slightly irregular line. Begin accreting thin films of crystalline material along one of its edges, and repeat it many times (imagine, if you like, repeatedly dipping a mesh into molten wax to eventually make a candle of many skins). The irregularities soon become exaggerated. Or, perhaps, the stress on (and imperfection of) the line comes to a breaking point, which shows itself with a 'dip' in the line of accretia, which itself accentuates and eventually multiplies, forming whorls and cusps and arcs. The effect, ultimately (or at the stage I saw and photographed it) is a connected series of arcing lines, each striated like the rings of a tree. And scattered here and there, other crystalline patterns growing around pebbles exposed by evaporation, or grains of dust and sand. Thinking of pearls, too, about the single grain of sand that engenders.
A little further on, three small pools of pink water drying. Viewed with the sun behind me, these had little colour and no form. On walking round the first pool, however, the reflection of the sunlight made visible some incredible patterns: at the rim, a thin crust of crystallised soda, curved, exactly the same patterns as in agate, exactly the same as in the fractal Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. More photos. Lost in my passion, I was nonetheless aware of people - Maasai - passing by, to and from the hills where they graze their cattle and Magadi Township where the company let them use a special enclosure ("No bicycles allowed in the market") for buying and selling a few dried mangoes and vegetables. One passer-by I saw out of the corner of my eye, an elderly woman, seemed as fascinated as she was confused at the pink-faced man's strange behaviour. I was walking around very slowly, treading carefully like the flamingo on the other side of the causeway on the brittle soda, staring at the ground through the zoom lens of my camera. I guess I might have been talking with myself, or else muttering or grinning. After some ten minutes, I looked up and saw the woman still there, near my car, staring with furrowed brow towards me, one hand pushed into a cheek. I waved, and she just kind of smiled. Then I moved my arms beside me, and lifted up my palms, you know, to mean "What?!" I smiled too, though.
Seeing her still looking quizzical, I walked up to her and motioned taking pictures through the camera. She laughed, still not understanding. "Okay, come with me, I'll show you what I see," I said in English, and she seemed to understand and followed. By the pools, she didn't look impressed, until I got her to stand in exactly the right place to catch the sun's reflection on the crusted pool rim. "Like flowers, like your dress," I said, pointing, touching her arm. She laughed, and understood, I think.
I went back to the car to reload the camera, and as I struggled with the new film which got jammed in the casing, she took off her head-scarf. I started to focus the camera. "No, no!" and she shook a hand. No? No, she wasn't ready yet. Holding her scarf in one hand, with the other she brusquely pulled down the top of her dress to bare her breasts. Arranging her necklace between then, she then stretched her back straight and stared into the lens. I couldn't help laughing, and she too. Is this what wazungu demand, or is this what the Maasai think we want?
Later in a bar, the Dutchman owner joking: "Forty shillings? You should have given her eighty, and she might have shown you everything!"