Policy on the move: Rift Valley to Lake Nakuru
After saying our farewells to Oscar’s Camp, we set off through the bustling metropolis of Nairobi towards our next destination: Lake Nakuru National Park. Being a Sunday, the residents of the city were all out in the streets looking immaculate in their finest dress. The air hung heavy with dust and diesel fumes, and the roadsides were littered with rubbish, indicative of the lack of waste disposal infrastructure, never mind recycling provision. It’s fascinating to observe the endless assortment of hand-painted, brightly-coloured independent shops, providing every kind of service imaginable. It is quite normal to see artisans building furniture out of wood next to mechanics welding metal and seamstresses sewing new items of clothing. The age structure of the country is also very apparent, with the majority of people we pass being no more than forty years old. We observed a huge higgledy-piggeldy township on the outskirts, with rusty, ramshackle houses and evident poverty, contrasting starkly with the air-conditioned, security –controlled shopping centre that we stopped off at just minutes afterwards. This juxtaposition gave a brief insight into the extreme range of income levels found here.
The road wound out of the city and the horizon opened out into the magnificent Rift Valley. We stopped at a viewpoint, breathless at the scene before us: a vast tectonic plate divergence stretching as far as the eye could see. It is awe-inspiring to think that the advent of humanity began in this place.
The landscape changed as we descended into the valley and soon we were passing huge, arid, fenced farming enclosures, interspersed with prehistoric-looking candelabra trees. Upon our arrival at Lake Nakuru National Park, we were given a lecture by the Deputy Warden of the park with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), who presented an overview of conservation in Kenya. It was interesting to get an alternative perspective on the role of KWS in conservation to that which we received during our focus groups.
After the talk we were more than ready for an afternoon game drive around the park. Diffuse golden sunlight set the grass aglow and backlit an incredible variety of wildlife inside this fenced national park. Common zebras, herds of impalas and Thompson’s gazelles grazed peacefully in the open meadows, whilst a troop of baboons sprawled across the road made our passage very slow.
There is a huge resident population of 5000 water buffalo, many of which were found on the shores of the lake, beleaguered by oxpeckers and accompanied by cattle egrets. The shores of Lake Nakuru itself are eerily thronged by the skeletons of the trees which have been consumed by a recent rise in water level (a phenomenon with many theories but no conclusive explanation) and are rich in bird life. We paid a brief visit to the viewpoint, which afforded spectacular views over the lake and were also rewarded by baboons marauding the vans for biscuits! With the light levels fading we made our way towards our camp, but not before spotting rock hyraxes, a slinking black-backed jackal, lilac-crested roller birds, pairs of tiny dik diks in the undergrowth, Rothschild giraffes moving gracefully in the shadow of the trees and a spotted hyena prowling across the plains.
We spent the night in an unfenced campsite which was a new experience for the group. We huddled around the camp fire, very aware of the fact that there were buffalo just beyond the edge of the firelight’s reach. Thankfully there were armed guards protecting us, but it was still a very primal experience knowing that we were so close to so many potentially dangerous wild animals, and falling asleep to their calls. Some of our group set up a number of camera traps on the edge of the campground overnight. These revealed that buffalo, the cat-like gennet and camera-kissing baboons had all visited us during the night!
The following morning we rose before the sun had a chance to rise and experienced our most incredible game drive so far, with several first sightings. As a fiery sunrise painted the sky we spotted a pair of secretary birds in the top of a tree, which then made their way towards us through the grass atop long spindly legs, their beady eyes on the lookout for snakes.
Through the trees a flock of vultures were finishing off the remains of a carcass, which had also been spotted by a spotted hyena, which came trotting across the plains towards them. We were afforded a view of the oxpeckers up close when our van drove through a herd of buffalo and we all drew breath when southern white rhino were spotted through the undergrowth.
As we made our way towards the lake shore, we were suddenly aware of the gaze of a long crested eagle atop an acacia tree and managed to draw close enough to see its piercing amber eyes below a crown on black feathers. More Rothschild giraffes grazed along the road side merely metres away and Thomson’s gazelles ambled across the plains. On the approach to the lake we encountered not only more white rhinos, but to our delight, two male lions who raised their sleepy heads from their grassy pillow to look straight at us with seeming indifference.
The lake was a mirror to an azure, cloudless sky, and we all disembarked from our vans for some bird watching under the beating sun. Being saline, Lake Nakuru draws an incredible array of birds, and the air was thick with their calls. These included a flamboyance of several hundred greater and lesser flamingos feeding in the shallows, macabre-looking marabou stalks, pink and white pelicans, cormorants, blacksmith and crown plovers, Egyptian geese, African fish eagles, skimmers, augur buzzards, ospreys and even a hippo wallowing in the distance. It was a truly beautiful spectacle, and a privilege to witness. As if this wasn’t enough, on our way back to camp before making our way to our next destination, our driver spotted our second leopard of the trip, walking through the grass in broad daylight! Needless to say, we were all extremely excited, astounded at what we had witnessed in just a few hours.