Saturday, 28 January 2012

Lake Nakuru National Park

The Journey
We proceeded towards Nakuru from Hell’s Gate National Park and we had a time line to meet. The lodge is inside the park and we had to reach before the gates of the national park close. All of a sudden the weather changed – the sky came bursting down with the famed late afternoon showers so typical of the tropical climate. The driver was quick to share this piece of gyan with us newcomers: we cannot travel through rift valley without experiencing the rift valley rain. It is indeed the weather and the fertile nature of the land with rich volcanic deposits that gives it its forests and grasslands, in turn making it a habitat for its teeming wild life. It was very difficult to see our way in the downpour but the driver kept going at a slow pace. And then all of a sudden, the sky cleared up again and he pushed on the accelerator.

On the last stretch, we passed through a series of spiny candelabra trees on both sides of the road. From first look they appear to be like giant sized cacti (although there are plenty of differences, e.g. candelabra has toxic latex, cactus does not have latex). Despite the proximity to the lake, the vegetation was very much that of a semi arid land (now we know the reason for the name; Nakuru means dusty place in Maasai language). Euphorbia growth near lake Nakuru is one of the largest stands of this tree in Kenya.

After around one and half hours of driving (from Hell’s Gate National Park – rain slowing us down to some extent), we reached the bustling Biashara or business street of Nakuru town. The town is the capital of the district by the same name and the provincial capital of Kenya's Rift Valley province, with roughly 300,000 inhabitants, and currently the fourth largest urban centre in Kenya. A road bounded by pink flamingo shaped lamp posts pointing to the direction of the lake guided us to the national park. The flamingo lamp posts were what our driver remembered vividly from his last trip of the town (not with us) and he was eager to show them to us. From his description, I was wondering if we would see real birds by the road side, till of course I saw the lamp posts.

Welcome to Nakuru
We reached the park well in time before the gates closed. My heart leapt up with one look at the wide blue snowy sky and the expanse of the savannah under it (it was only our second time in savannah since Nairobi National Park). The tall grasses indicated that they took very good advantage of the sun light directly reaching them in the absence of a tree canopy. The thorny trees with their umbrellas broke the monotony in the pattern of the grasses. I have read that the trees have the umbrella shape to absorb the maximum sunlight with minimum leaves. Starlings, white browed robin-chat, sunbird, fiscal let us have a fleeting look at them as they whizzed past above. The weather felt pleasingly damp from the earlier rain – with a few drops still lingering on. And barely had we entered, a herd of Thomson’s gazelles forced us to stop as they made a dash to cross the road just ahead of us. All of us especially Adi were thrilled with this lively welcome meted out to us. A thought struck me at the same time, these animals have no shelter from the rain. I guess they love the rains - if nothing else for the food it brings.
Scarlet Chested Sunbird
White Browed Robin-Chat
Ruppell's Long-tailed Starling

A section of the lake soon came into our view. At an elevation of approximately 1750 metres above sea level; flanked by volcanic craters, hills and escarpments; Nakuru is a small, shallow (maximum depth is about three meters), soda or alkaline-saline lake located in a closed basin without outlets (volcanic alkaline ashes containing sodium carbonate were carried by rainwater to turn it into a soda lake). I wonder how it would feel to travel ages ago (however recent compared to earth’s age) when Naivasha to Nakuru with their neighbour Elementaita formed a single deep freshwater lake; before tectonic, volcanic and climatic activities split them apart. The primary biota in Nakuru is similar to that in other saline lakes, dominated by blue-green algae; this makes it attractive to flamingos who feed on this algae. But the lake has a comparatively low concentration of salts (compared to the 'real' soda lakes) and hence it also supports a fish population including alkaline-tolerant fish, which attracts other fish eating birds like pelicans.

Dance of the Pelicans
All our eyes were on the lake when we spotted an extraordinary phenomenon – great white pelicans (Kiswahili Mwali) sweeping the water in unison in a rather attractive pelican version of synchronised swimming or rather synchronised fishing. And it was not just one group, but groups after groups doing the same dives together lifting their backs displaying the otherwise invisible black flight feathers. We immediately asked the driver to stop. What a sight it was. I got more insight later when I surfed the internet: a cooperative group known as pod, scoop or squadron of pelicans works together in a horse shoe formation in shallow and warm waters, driving fish into ever decreasing circles using their bills and sometimes by beating their wings. After that it is too easy a task for the birds to scoop the fish up in their fishing nets – their own huge yellow throat pouches. Believe it or not when fully extended, the bill can hold up to 13 litres. I would love to catch a pelican drinking by opening its bill to collect rainwater – some people have been fortunate to witness this.
Great White Pelicans
Synchronised Swimming of Pelicans

The King
After we had our fill of the pelican dance, we proceeded to the lodge via the shortest way following the sign boards. We soon found out that the way was blocked with a huge fallen tree, which was impossible to remove with our limited strength. And of course it is not allowed for us to get down. So we came back to the gate and took a longer route to the lodge. In hind sight the detour was destiny at play to arrange our first meeting with a pride of lions in the wild. I was the first one to spot two lionesses sitting under a tree less than fifteen feet from us towards the side of my window. I had to quickly hush Adi up as to not disturb the lionesses when he started screaming “Simba” (being familiar with the name from Lion King character; the Kiswahili word for lion is actually Simba). With trees being so sparse, the ladies must have a tough time finding the shade of one. Contented and full, they barely noticed our presence. And then we noticed something else besides the lionesses, there were tourist cars as far as we could see and many more heading this way. Everybody was straining to get a good look at the lionesses – through eyes, glasses and/or camera lenses. That is when we had our first taste of the commercial nature of Kenya’s tourism. The tourists out number the lions by far and the poor animals have really no place to hide in the grassy savannah. Within one kilo meter of where the lionesses were sitting; there was again a congregation. The concentrated tourist cars helped us to spot the male lion with his favourite lioness for the moment, far away on a big boulder scanning the world from top. I felt myself humming the lion song from Adi’s animals' CD: “the mane dude is the king”!

The Cultural Night
We reached Nakuru Lodge and immediately fell in love with the place. Properties in Kenya lack anything but space and nature. Right outside reception was a bougainvillea creeper completely intertwined with a candelabra tree, bright flowers springing out from a mass with two different kinds of spines! The resort is so spacious that going to our room carrying Adi proved to be a challenge for me (need less to say Aamir got the easy task of handling check in formalities while I carried Adi to the room). The room was well placed on the outskirts of the acacia-commiphora forest and we reached just in time to catch a breathtaking view of the setting sun in the faraway hills. Adi liked the window very much - it had flamingos painted on it!

One of the best things about a night in the forests is star gazing – there are so many of them; and as your eyes adjust to the darkness and far away glitters, you see so many more of them that there seems to be hardly any space between the two of them (I hate to be in a house with no flat roof like the current one in Nairobi, I am missing out on the Nairobi night sky which is still very starry when compared to other urban skies).

We had an early dinner and Adi and I were all set to hit the bed when I got a call from Aamir informing about a cultural show that was just about to begin. Well I was not going to miss out on that, especially since we were yet to witness an African cultural program (later we have come to realise that it is very much a part of the package for most three star plus resorts). Aamir was very displeased since he had to travel all the way back to the room - I was not willing to go to the reception area alone in the dark carrying Adi. We soon found ourselves tapping to the rhythm of Kenyan drums. The most widely used musical instrument though was the human voice; dancers and percussionists being the singers as well. And soon there were others who joined in the shakes and twists – Asian tourists not to be left behind. Though the dance was very energetic, the dancers did not appear to be too involved – boredom set from routine I guess. Back in the room when I finally did lie down, I contemplated on the extra ordinary day that we have had from Naivasha to Nakuru; and looked forward to what the next day would bring.

The Morning Safari
I woke up to a bright day the next morning and immediately felt like stepping outside. I was rewarded with the sight of a speckled pigeon sitting on a palm tree. There were bird calls all around, but I cannot put a name to a voice. Finally when it was time for breakfast, I woke up Adi and Aamir and got them ready. Our driver, who had stayed over at the same lodge, told us he had an interesting night, connecting with the other drivers – all discussing their employers. I immediately steered the discussion to safer subjects – I wondered what all he had to say about his employers!

Nakuru National Park is a relatively small national park (around 180 square kilo meters) and with the help of the signboards, it was quite easy to navigate even for first timers like us. But a four wheel drive is a must. The morning safari started with two horned African rhinos (Kiswahili Kifaru) – both white and black – not spotted together I must add. The word "White" in the name "white rhinoceros" is a mistranslation of the Dutch word "weit" for wide, referring to its square upper lip suitable for grazing, as opposed to the pointed triangular grasping lip of the black rhinoceros, designed to eat on trees and shoots. And the black rhino isn't really black, it is grey. With longer and sharper horns, the black rhino appeared to be more menacing and reclusive than his “whiter” cousin.

We then hit upon a big bunch of olive baboons. They are very easy to mark out with their green grey coats, black dog-like faces, tails curled in the shape of inverted ‘U’s and bright red behinds. They were all around - on the ground; perched on trees; moving on fours; foraging for food; engaging themselves in various communal activities – and of course cousin grooming and tick cleaning were part of it. Baboon being one of Adi’s favourite creatures, he was quick to show off “scratch scratch scratch like a monkey”. We left behind herds of wild buffaloes (Indians have been so used to seeing buffaloes all their lives, they don’t really count them as “animals to see”!); impalas with black ‘M’s on their rear; dark Maasai giraffes; white stocking clad Rothschild giraffes and a pair of grey crowned cranes as we wound our way to the lake.
Olive Baboon
Maasai Giraffe on the left and Rothschild Giraffe on the right

In the Esteemed Company of Ballerinas and Supermodels
The lake was now very much in our sight; but what was more striking than the lake was the pink necklace around it. I was wondering are there really that many flamingos to make the shore line appear pink from a distance – it can’t be that. But it was indeed the case! As we got closer, the details of the bird spectacle filled up in our vision. As far as we could see there were gregarious flamingos (Kiswahili Heroe) – mostly pinker 'lesser flamingos'; but a handful of bigger whiter 'greater flamingos' as well – walking in water, feeding on algae, balancing on one leg, flying, learning to fly - all over the place. Greater flamingos are bottom feeders while lesser flamingos are surface feeders, making it possible for them to co-exist in the same lake without competition. I have heard that given the right conditions there could one million plus flamingos near the lake. We asked the driver to stop and got down, since it looked like a place where people can get down. The driver confined himself to the car initially, but got down once he was convinced that it was really “allowed” to get down – though only after people had got down from at least five other tourist vans. We immersed ourselves in flamingo watching. They looked elegant and delicate with their long legs and sleek ‘S’ shaped necks. And when they did fly, they made their bodies so straight with no trace of the ‘S’ what so ever – they appeared to be different birds all together. The words from the flamingo song in Adi’s birds’ CD instantly flashed through my mind:
“They walk like ballerinas on the stage”
“And even when they fly, they do with such style, the supermodels of the sky”.
The cycle of life never ceases to amaze – the algae that flamingos feed on are created from their own droppings mixed with the warm alkaline waters! Carotinoid pigments from flamingo food gives the pink colouration in their feathers. The birds are also equipped with a filter that keeps them from consuming too much salt, which otherwise could be toxic.
Lesser Flamingos
Greater Flamingos

Paradise of Birds and Animals too
The flamingo horizon was dotted with few grey herons and grey headed gulls here and there (actually I got the names of birds and differences between greater and lesser flamingos only after I checked with a guide who had come as an escort with a tourist group). Our camera failed at this bird’s paradise (the trip being our first out station safari I was not wise to daily charging of the camera) and we were like – oh we will miss to capture so much. Our driver turned out to be our saviour. He had come prepared for the safari and had a decent Canon digital camera with him. He had no choice but to part with his camera for the rest of the trip and in it went our memory card.

We had to maintain a safe distance from the lake shoreline and hence the flamingos but pelicans and marabou storks were close by. And it was hard to tell whether there were more lesser flamingos or more great white pelicans in our sight. Pelicans congregated mostly around the poodles or small swamps of water near the lake or the dry land around these poodles. They would land on these poodles and then some more friends would join them, followed by some merry wings fluttering and sun basking. The marabou storks (Kiswahili Korongo Mfuko-shingo) with their huge sizes, long beaks and pouches (that is where the similarities with pelicans end and very different pouches too, the right term for marabou stork’s pink hanging throat pouch is an air sac) were also sun bathing around in their skinny white legs; big black cloak like wings sometimes spread to get more of the sun. There are some things that they share with fellow scavenger birds like vultures – bald heads to eat carrion (and creatures that are alive as well) without getting its feathers blood soaked - and their ugliness! Nature has cursed its scavengers with their ungainly looks, not fair at all considering the importance of the function they perform. And believe it or not, large fluffy undertail feathers from this ugly stork were formerly used for feather trim on fans and clothing. This has resulted in the common term “marabou” being used for such feather trim. Today however, “marabou” is mostly made from other bird (like turkey) feathers.
Marabou Storks - check out the gular sac; Pelicans at the front

Animals are not excluded from the birds’ paradise. Grant’s zebras and wild buffaloes were grazing in front of the bird studded back drop. I have read that whatever the environment and even under extremely poor conditions, zebras have been blessed to always look sleek, fat, and contented – well in this case the conditions were favourable as well, thankfully at least somewhere they are favourable. I am yet to hear (or make out) the zebra "barks". It is fascinating to watch the stripe patterns when more than one are standing together - no two are alike! Though it may seem easy to spot a zebra in the middle of the grasslands because of its stripes, but the stripes can actually confuse a predator. We spotted something else – one or two zebras were rolling themselves on the ground rubbing their backs with legs kicking up in the air – back scratching is no easy job for some!

Veni Vidi Vici
As much as Adi loves to be in a moving car, after long rides he loves to be exploring on his own feet. So he was very happy when we had the birds’ stoppage. Our driver in continuation of previous day’s attempts, tried to make him do something adventurous like sitting on the hood of the car. When the howling began, the driver was quick to put an end to his pursuits. Adi once freed from his clutches got himself busy collecting pebbles and drawing in the mud. One of us always had an eye on him, sometimes from a slight distance. Soon I got a rebuke from one of the tourist guides “Mamma don’t leave mtoto alone on an African safari”. Well alone was not the right word since we were in the midst of a sea of tourists. I learnt then like in India, in Kenya too, expecting mothers and moms with infants and toddlers were showered on with unsolicited advices from all quarters, well intended but probably lacking in the need and/or based on incomplete knowledge.

On the way to the pelican spot, we had felt the commotion of a huge group of east Asian tourists, all the vans trying to coordinate amongst themselves. And when they landed on the spot one by one, all hell broke loose. The cacophony of the birds was out-“decibeled” by the noise that they made. Out came the national flag and the pelicans watched with their mouths hanging as this flag unfolded, followed by a series of shutter clicks as the group photograph was shot from various angles. Veni Vidi Vici! 

I took a good look at the birds and the savannah when the time came for good byes. I felt truly expanded after this intimate experience with nature. As we headed towards the resort for lunch, to our complete disbelief our cautious driver broke the speed limit of the park (too eager to get back to city life I guess) - soon to be reined in by wild life officials. Post lunch we immediately started off for Nairobi to catch up with the mundane things that we had left behind. But I guess doing the mundane every day gives special meaning to the days that break the pattern.

We had visited Nakuru in July 2011 and my friends who came from India had visited it in Dec of the same year. Since there were heavy showers in Oct and Nov, the soda nature of the lake was practically diminished by Dec. It had turned into a freshwater lake by then and the migratory flamingos had moved on towards “saliner” lakes like Oloiden, Bogoria. Though my friends were able to spot only a few greater flamingos in the lake (and no lesser flamingo), they were richly compensated by their sightings of spoonbill, hammerkop, plover, egrets riding rhinos, ibis, cormorants, yellow billed storks, saddle billed stork and many other fish eating birds. I have heard that this is a cyclical phenomenon in the lake and it would turn back into a soda lake soon, but there are a few naysayers who believe that it is permanently turning into a fresh water lake. Well I hope we will have some opportunity to verify it for ourselves in 2012!

When we went to Rocky Mountain jungles in the US, they appeared so sanitised – there was not even an insect any where. Then there are the Indian jungles – which are some where in the middle of the spectrum with abundant insects and preys but mostly elusive predators and even more elusive birds. And then we have Africa – vibrant and throbbing with life at each nook and corner. You have Thomson’s gazelles running from the rain, zebras charging to cross the road, birds with colours and shades beyond imagination – wherever you look, there is LIFE. You wonder there ARE really all these many animals and birds surviving in the world. And the fact that these places are so near urban cities and towns is unbelievable – Nairobi National Park at twenty five minutes drive from our home, Naivasha/Nakuru at 2-3 hours drive from Nairobi. Beauty still preserved to a great extent – but you wonder for how long - we are all busy working to undo what has been created with the greatest care. Nakuru lake had almost dried up several times during the past fifty years due to known and unknown reasons. It feels terrible to know about the flamingo deaths in the last decade and city's sewage treatment plants' effluents discharge into the lake. In recent years the flamingo has been classified as “near threatened” due to its susceptibility to small changes in its fragile habitat. Will Adi be able to enjoy the esteemed company of the supermodels when he is ready for his safari?

PS Some of our photos are available here:

1 comment:

  1. Lake is a natural water catchment on the flank of large volcanic calderas in the heart of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It is surrounded by fascinating volcanic sceneries: North by the Menengai crater, North-East by the Bahati hills, East by the Lion hill, South by the Eburu crater and West by the Mau escarpment.