Visitors to Kenya can begin to get a feel for the country almost immediately after disembarking from their plane. The first noticeable characteristic is the heat, which, for those coming from the UK, is a welcome change; this is particularly true for travelers who, like us, are escaping the grey of winter. Also obvious is a difference in the pace at which things are accomplished, as well as the way in which they are done. As is the case in many developing countries—and, perhaps, anywhere that is sluggishly hot—tasks can take a good while to be completed. There were only a few people who elected to purchase their tourist visas in Kenya, but those who did had to wait a very long time to make it through the line to the officials’ desk. Being able to purchase a visa in the airport is, however, something of a luxury; unlike many other countries that require you to mail in your passport prior to your journey, Kenya allows you to make your arrangements on the day you arrive.
Outside the terminals, even in the extremely urbanized airport environment, Kenya’s magnificent biodiversity is immediately on display. Particularly noticeable are the many bird species perched on rooftops and swooping over the parking lot: swifts, swallows, starlings, storks, and sparrows are but a few of the genii represented. It’s a good thing that there is so much avifauna to feast one’s eyes upon, because getting out of the crowded airport parking lot can be a long and harrowing experience; bird-watching offers a pleasant diversion.
As of January 2013, Nairobi and its environs are exploding with construction; everywhere we looked, we could see buildings and roads being improved or added. Although the Kenyan shilling was recently reported to have fallen relative to the dollar, the economy is clearly still healthy. The atmosphere over the capital city, however, is not: A thick and noticeable smog hangs over Nairobi thanks to all of the unclean fuel that can be seen belching from Kenyan vehicles—particularly trucks and the many minibuses that transport residents between home and work. It is a shocking and unpleasant sight to anyone who has come to Kenya as an ecotourist and/or conservationist.
Partially offsetting this, though, is the magnificence of Kenyan flora in bloom. The most recent rainy season has lasted longer than normal, which means that the University of Exeter’s field course overlaps, for the first time, with a significant amount of blooming. Everywhere we look, there are splashes of yellows, pinks, purples, oranges and reds; visiting the blossoms are equally colorful bird species such as bee-eaters and sunbirds, feasting on nectar and insects both.
(Elephant statues at the KWS headquarters)
Although the field course participants were feeling fairly exhausted—as the result of an early morning, followed by a long bus ride, followed by a long wait in the airport, followed by a mostly sleepless overnight flight—our excitement to begin our tour of Kenya flushed us with enough energy to enjoy the first of our stops: the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) headquarters in Nairobi, not far from the airport. There, we listened to Dr. Ed Kiriuki’s brief introduction to the KWS, its activities, and its goals. Perhaps the best way to summarize the message of the talk is to paraphrase the point made in its final slide: People will conserve what they love, love what they understand, and understand what they are taught. Thus, the organization is attempting to achieve conservation goals by fostering education and understanding of wildlife among Kenyan citizens.
(MSc students pose with Dr. Kiriuki after his introductory lecture.)
Next on our itinerary was the drive from Nairobi to Top Camp, our home away from home for the first several days of our trip. Top Camp is located on a hillside above Lake Naivasha, and our journey there takes us along the escarpment that separates the plateau on which Nairobi sits from the Great Rift Valley below. Each year, we stop midway through our drive in order to take in the scenery from an overlook (where we can also purchase caffeinated beverages to add some pep to our step as we struggle with jet lag). The last couple of years have seen cloudy weather over the valley, but the sun was out in full force this time around, facilitating postcard-perfect photography. The overlook is also an excellent place for bird-watching; among other things, we saw African citrils, olive thrushes, variable sunbirds, common bulbuls, and red-billed firefinches.
(The stunning Great Rift Valley–seen, for the first time during my experience on the field course, in full sunlight.)
After this literal and metaphorical high, many people sleep away the next couple of hours as we make our way across the valley to Naivasha. The only thing that hinders cat-napping is the gratuitous number of speed bumps liberally sprinkled throughout each town; while these do ensure that drivers slow down in areas where they encounter the largest numbers of pedestrians and bikers, they also make journeys very uncomfortable for passengers (especially those seated in the back of the bus!). A good rest is helpful, since our arrival at Top Camp is quickly followed by tent-erection, which sometimes seems to be the most mentally challenging event of the entire trip.
(One of our camp-mates; nearby in the bushes are her recently-hatched chicks)
The reward for completing this task is a boat trip on Lake Naivasha. Each year of the field course, the lake’s water level has increased steadily; this year, our boat drivers took entirely new routes that emerged after former wetland areas became flooded. Because the shoreline is now under shade, hippos feel comfortable emerging from the water during the day—giving us ample photo opportunities. The large amount of water seems to have altered the avifauna somewhat, leading to both lower abundance and diversity in comparison to previous years. That said, we were still able to view a large number of birds on the water, in nearby trees, and soaring overhead; examples include fish eagles, a marsh harrier, yellow-billed storks, both pink-backed and great white pelicans, and African jacanas (to name but a few). As always, there were also several families of hippos in the water, floating just under the surface with only their eyes, nostrils, and ear-tips visible.
(Evidence of Kenya’s turbulent volcanic past looms over Lake Naivasha)
(Fish eagles along the shore of Lake Naivasha)
(Great white pelicans, which have descended upon Lake Naivasha in droves this year thanks to its very high water level)
(MSc students enjoying an aquatic safari on Lake Naivasha)
We followed the boat tour with a brief discussion of everyone’s favorite and least favorite experiences this far in the trip, then turned everyone loose to shower, sleep, move in to their tents, and/or have a few drinks at the lakeside bar. It is always a very long day (or two, depending on how you are counting!), but one that is so full of new sights/sounds/smells/experiences that it is still an enjoyable beginning to our 14-day adventure.