Crater Lake: Caitlin’s Perspective

Our first night at Top Camp brought intense rainfall; the sound of the water droplets hitting the tin roof of my banda (hut) sounded like pellet gun fire. The skies were grey but dry during breakfast the following morning, causing us to think that our scheduled hike around Crater Lake would be muddy but dry. We saw a variety of species—impala, giraffes, baboons, and warthogs, to name a few—on our drive to the lake. About half way there, the skies opened up again and let loose with a torrential downpour. Our hike was to begin at a lodge there, and the staff were kind enough to quickly prepare 50 cups of tea/coffee to keep us occupied while we stood under awnings and waited for the rain to stop. Intrepid biologists as we all are, we used our time not only to imbibe some extra caffeine, but also to watch birds out on the lake; we spotted little grebes, pintails, greater and lesser flamingos, and, eventually, a hamerkop.

(A Masai giraffe eating by the side of the road that runs between Top Camp and Crater Lake)

(Rainy Crater Lake)

(A mushroom growing at Crater Lake–a sign of just how unusually damp the terrain is right now)

When the clouds had finally rained themselves out, we divided into groups and were escorted in different directions around the Crater Lake reserve. The land is an interesting mix of habitats and species, which allows us to see a wide variety of organisms during a single outing. The lake is surrounded by lush tropical forest, which climbs up the walls of the craters and eventually gives way to rocky scrub growth around the crater’s ridge; the exterior of the ridge slopes down gently into a grassland area where domestic livestock mix together with wild ungulates such as wildebeest, buffalo, zebra, and various gazelles.

(A herd of impalas frightened away by our approach)

Lake guides are careful about keeping hikers at a safe distance from the grumpy buffalo, but they are surprisingly low-key about allowing visitors to approach “safe” species for photo opportunities. Conservationists should probably be wary of such situations—they can increase the animals’ stress levels and lead to unhealthy levels of habituation—but I think most people tend to get overwhelmed by the excitement of being that close to an un-fenced-in animal.

(Footprints of a small ungulate)

(Cinnamon-chested bee-eaters. The male fed the female a dragonfly as a nuptial gift, and then the pair mated.)

(A black-and-white colobus monkey perched high above the lodge at Crater Lake.)

(Unidentified rodent–rat?–outside the lodge at Crater Lake.)

(Unidentified but beautiful flowers in bloom at Crater Lake.)

On our way back to Top Camp, we stopped at Oloiden Bay to eat a picnic lunch. We first visited Oloiden last year in order to get a glimpse of flamingos, which we’d expected, but not seen, at Crater Lake. Flamingos eat microorganisms that prefer saline environments, and this year’s impressive rains have diluted the local water to the extent that the pink birds are having trouble locating their food source; as a result, the number of flamingos at Oloiden was maybe a quarter the amount observed last year—if not more. We could still see a pale pink patch of birds off in the distance, though, along with a glossy ibis, more grebes, a ruff, and some little stints.

After a short afternoon siesta, we regrouped in order to hear a lecture by a local scientist/consultant with experience in meteorology, hydrology, and flower farms. He told us a bit about the still mysterious water flows associated with Lake Naivasha (its sources are known but its presumed outlets have yet to be found) and discussed the trade-offs associated with flower farming (the farms provide tens of thousands of jobs, plus housing, medical care, and education, but also use and pollute the lake water). His seminar provided the perfect introduction for the following day’s activities: visits to local flower and chameleon farms.

(Stick bug found in our campsite after our return from Crater Lake.)

(Marabou storks roosting at the lakeside near the site of our guest lecture.)

The previous evening’s clouds were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we could see millions of stars whose twinkling was undiluted by anthropogenic light pollution; this was definitely the African sky that Paul Simon poetically sang about on his album Graceland. Having only recently learned that it is possible to view Jupiter’s four largest moons (the Galilean moons) with only a pair of binoculars, I made sure to use this opportunity to do a little star- and planet-gazing with the help of my iPhone astronomy app, Night Sky. It was a majestic way to end our first full day in the field.