In previous years, we have left Top Camp early in the morning in order to travel to Lake Nakuru in time for an early game drive. Part of the fun of staying in the park is that you can rise early and head out into the field before the sun is even up—no long road trip to get there, no long wait at the gate while the tickets are sorted.
We were so organized this morning that it was still dark for the first half hour or so of our drive, during which time we could hear many tantalizing noises, but could not see anything in the murky forest or grassland. One of our first sightings was a bird that had been a common find the evening before: an augur buzzard. We eventually added several other species, perhaps most exciting of which was the grey-headed helmet-shrike; the family that we encountered was located in almost exactly the same place where we had seen the same species last year, suggesting that the birds were maintaining a prime territory in the park.
(Morning at Lake Nakuru)
(We had a fantastic long-crested eagle sighting right by the side of the road)
Although the students were particularly keen to spot another leopard, we ended up seeing the other big cat in Lake Nakuru: lions. Actually, we wound up with two lion sightings, the first of which was made possible by a tip from another safari driver in the park. Our driver, Elijah, received a phone call and told us that there was potentially something very exciting just up the road; indeed, we found three lions lounging in the shade of a large tree. The students were so exciting about the lion sighting that they were willing to speed right past a group of feeding rhinos in order to get there. Incredibly, the second sighting occurred just outside the fence of our campsite. There, lions had made a kill during our absence, and two of the cats were defending their prize from a half dozen jackals and some greedy-looking vultures; they were also being dive-bombed by a brave pied crow. It was quite a surprise to come home to such exciting activity right on our own front porch, as it were, though also a little unnerving to think about how easily the large cats could have hopped over our fence if they’d really wanted to (though why would they with such an abundance of their natural prey available?).
(This is not just a photo of a beautiful landscape; look closely and you may spot some lions lounging under the tree in the center)
(A family of white rhinos–probably the same ones we’d seen the previous evening down by the shoreline of Lake Nakuru)
(We also saw many baboons, of which the students are now very wary because of their experiences at Baboon Cliff)
(Bitter apple nightshade, a plant commonly seen growing by the roadside in Kenya)
We eventually had to tear ourselves away from this natural soap opera in order to have a late breakfast and pack up in preparation for our trip to Naro Moru, our home for the next 3 nights. The drive is not the longest we undertake, but it can still be a little tedious, so we broke it up into several portions separated by brief recreational breaks. Our first stop was at Thompson’s Fall Lodge, where we looked at the waterfall, observed a chameleon that had serendipitously been located near the toilets, and enjoyed some chilled Coca-Cola out of glass bottles—one of the greatest pleasures that can be experienced in the middle of a hot and dusty Kenyan day. Not long afterwards, we stopped again for a picnic lunch at a shop located on (or more likely near) the Equator. The shopkeepers let us use their toilets and chairs/tables because they know that at least some of us will purchase souvenirs; they also earn a small fee by doing a demonstration of how water (supposedly) spirals in different directions when poured on different sides of the Equator.
Having already visited, and shopped in, Kenya twice before, I had not intended to purchase any souvenirs. However, a carved cat caught my eye as I walked through the store, and I could not resist purchasing it. At the insistence of one of the sales people, I haggled very weakly, bargaining him down a mere 300 shillings. Later, however, I made up for this by haggling for another souvenir like a pro; it is the first time I have ever managed to do this, and I am quite proud of myself. I wound up buying two items for 1200 shillings instead of a single item at the original named price of 3700 shillings. A minor portion of the final price—200 shillings—was sneakily pocketed directly by the salesperson, who told his boss at the register that the entire transaction was only 1000 shillings. I don’t mind that at all, though a part of me feels a little guilty about bringing down the price of the items so low. It’s true that shop owners grossly inflate the cost of everything in order to make as great a profit as possible off tourists, but it’s also true that even the exorbitant price is something that I can easily afford—and something that could significantly influence the quality of life for all those who ultimately receive a piece of that payment. Like many aspects of tourism in Kenya, it is a conundrum.
After our lunch break, we made the final push for our campsite. Our route took us past the far side of Solio Game Reserve, which we would be visiting the following day. Solio has a number of unusual and interesting species—including camels (which I assume are semi- or wholly domesticated) oryx, which I have heard about previously but not spotted until today. As much as our eyes were on the animals on the other side of the fence, we were also watching the horizon, where we could see Mount Kenya looming before us behind a massive storm front. We experienced a brief period of intense rain, but luckily this cleared up before we arrived at Mountain Rock Lodge and began to set up our tents.
Mountain Rock is a rather luxurious campsite, where hot showers are the norm rather than the exception, and where there is a bar where students can buy drinks and relax in front of a roaring fire while waiting for dinner to be prepared. Before that could happen, though, we heard a brief talk from Kenyan staff member Martin Odino of Wildlife Direct, who discussed the avian diversity of Kenya and his efforts to conserve it. Throughout the trip, Martin has been known as the person to help with bird identifications, and this presentation offered him an opportunity to show how he applies his expertise.
Post-presentation drinks were followed by a late dinner, after which the students prepared themselves to experience the excitement of trying to sleep through the cacophony of tree hyrax calling.