Volcanoes

Lake Nakuru [1]

Being 160 km from Nairobi made Lake Nakuru a favourite weekend escapade as it was well known for its prolific bird life. Unfortunately but at the same time inevitable, the strongly alkaline 62 km2 lake was an island inside farmland and its borders were clearly under pressure from the rural dwellers next door as well as from the town of Nakuru looming nearby and threatening this true bird paradise with its effluent. However, at the time of our visits the park offered unique birding opportunities.

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A view of the lake from one of the viewpoints.

The explanation of why there are soda lakes is geological. Rift valley volcanoes spewed alkaline ashes rich in sodium carbonate that the rainwater carried to the lakes. Those without drainage allowed the sodium to accumulate and the water became alkaline. All alkaline lakes are near a volcano: Lake Natron (Tanzania) and Lake Magadi (Kenya) are near Shombole and Olorgesailie respectively, lake Elmenteita near Eburu crater, lake Nakuru near Menengai crater and lake Bogoria near the Laikipia volcanic escarpment.

 

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Approaching the lake shore.

Lake Nakuru National Park, including the lake itself, has 188 km2 and it was created to protect the soda lake that gives it its name and that lies in the center of the Rift Valley following the arrival of more than 1.5 million of flamingos to the lake in 1960. In 1961 the famous American bird artist and author Roger Tory Peterson called the massed flamingos on the lake “the world’s greatest ornithological spectacle” and this prompted the authorities to declare it a National Park in 1963, mainly as a bird sanctuary.

Clearly the flamingoes, both the lesser flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus minor) and the greater ones (Phoenicopterus roseus) were still the main attraction at the time of our visits and they alone justified the trip although the park had an amazing bird wealth as well as several interesting mammal and plant species. The lesser flamingo, by far the most numerous, had dark pink plumage as well as a magenta beak with a black tip. The greater flamingo was larger and had a pink bill and a whitish-pink plumage.

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Mabel watching the flamingoes.

From afar and from the various viewpoints that surrounded the lake they could be seen as a wide pink ring enclosing the lake’s water and flying over the water continuously changing positions. Approaching the shore the ring would start vibrating and soon transformed itself in tens of thousands of birds feeding, displaying, fighting, taking-off, landing, being attacked by predators from both land (baboons and hyenas) and air (birds of prey of all sorts).

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Lesser flamingoes.

Surprisingly the two flamingo species do not breed in Nakuru and they are only there to feed, their numbers largely determined by food availability and this, in turn, depends chiefly on rainfall. If conditions are not right they move to other rift valley lakes, notably Bogoria.

The lesser flamingoes feed almost exclusively on the free-floating algae that grow only in alkaline water. These algae, known as Spirulina, had grown over thousands of years and the millions of flamingoes that feed on them are the final result. With their heads upside-down, their tongues pump the water that gets filtered in their specially modified spongy beaks trapping the algae. To thrive they need about 150g of food per day, that had been calculated to be a total of 150 metric tons per day to feed the more than a million birds that constituted the Kenya bird colony!

The greater flamingo, much less numerous, fed on shrimps and small fishes and they were present in most lakes, including sometimes in the freshwater ones.

For some visitors the lake was as beautiful as treacherous. The road around the lake was an innocent looking track made of volcanic ash and soda that, although it was dry, it was in fact very soft and muddy below. Some motorists ignored the warning signs and their car wheels would break through the thin crust and sink. They would then find themselves helplessly buried in soft and sticky ash and it was not unusual to find abandoned cars waiting for the park authorities to be able to enter with a tractor to recover them!

Although we admired the flamingoes, the great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) were our favorites. Their numbers estimated at nine thousand, they stayed apart from the flamingoes and mainly grouped at the southern end of the lake at the appropriately named Pelican Corner where, in a horse shoe formation dipping their heads in unison they would feed on Alcolapia grahami, an alkaline-tolerant fish very close to the Tilapia species. The group surrounded and gradually forced fish into shallow and warmer water, flapping wings and plunging bills to catch them along the way.

But it was flying that they were truly astonishing. When the air’s temperature started to increase they would take off and, like the vultures do, find the right upward-moving thermals and climb until they reached the right altitude and then they would move on like a squadron of bomber planes, hardly beating their wings towards other lakes such as to Naivasha to the south. Although they can be seen as ugly on land, they are one of the most graceful birds I have seen flying!

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Bird life was so prolific and abundant (more than 450 species of birds had been recorded at the time we were there) that a challenge we aimed for when we felt active enough was to get up early in the morning and return for “brunch” having spotted one hundred different species! Perhaps because we were not “true” birdwatchers we never achieved this goal but it was not rare to arrive at 80 species and above every time we attempted it!

Lake Nakuru is very picturesque as it is surrounded by several volcanoes: to the north is Menengai crater, northeast the Bahati hills, east by the Lion hill, south by the Eburu crater and west by the Mau escarpment. The road around the park was a great way of seeing the lake and its many features as well as seeing how close the farmers were on the other side of the fence!

It was a long drive to complete the circuit as the lake has a surface of 62 km2. The road went through rocky hills and our favourite were the Baboon cliffs that, in addition to the strong hyrax urine smell, offered great views across the lake. It was from there that we watched the pelicans fishing and flying.

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Defassa waterbuck in Nakuru.

Defassa waterbuck predominated in the areas of high grass and hippos were present in the northeastern corner of the lake where the alkalinity of the water was lower because of the entry of fresh water from the Njoro river and other springs. There was a small pod of hippopotamus living in that area. Nakuru was also a good place to see Bohor reedbuck and black and white Colobus monkeys.

Rotschild’s giraffes were successfully reintroduced in the late 70s and a rhino sanctuary was started in 1987 that was managed by our friend Jock, the one that we had met in Naivasha earlier. Unfortunately, despite several invitations, we never visited it as we were getting ready to move from Kenya at the time the sanctuary started.

The absence of lions and the few buffalo present made the park safe for limited walking and, although spotted hyenas would visit your camp nightly, they never troubled us and, over the several years we visited the park, we only saw a leopard once from the car while driving after sunset.

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Some of the few buffalo we spotted in Nakuru.

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We always camped near the main entrance at a grassy campsite under the shade of very large yellow bark acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) in the company of the beautiful black and white colobus monkeys as well as the less pleasant visits of vervet monkeys and baboons. The place provided great freshness and I recall spending long hours writing scientific papers there while Mabel put up with me walking about the camp always finding entertainment and finding interesting things to watch.

When our Uruguayan lady friends Elcira and Marta came to visit us in Kenya as part of their life-long world-trotting, Nakuru was the place we took them camping, precisely because of its safety and the spectacular sight of the thousands of flamingoes and other birdlife. It was a great success and we spend a long time watching the flamingo antics [2].

Nakuru has diverse vegetation including woodlands with sedge marshes, dry and seasonally flooded grasslands, and various types of dry wood and scrubland that occupy the land between the lake waters and the escarpment and ridges. Of note are the patches of large yellow bark acacia woodlands as well as the nicest Euphorbia candelabrum forest near the Lion Hill Camp.

 

[1] The meaning of Nakuru: “the place of the waterbuck”; “the place where the cows won’t eat”; “the dusty place”, “the shifting place”; “the place of smoke”; “the place of the dust devils” See: https://archive.org/stream/cbarchive_101865_meaningofthenamenakuru1960/XXIII_No.7__104__303_1960_Kirby_djvu.txt

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/08/the-joys-of-camping/

Traveling to Intona

While in Kenya in the 80s, periodic trips to the Transmara were required to run the tick and tick-borne disease fieldwork. At the beginning we took turns with Alan (Alan Sidney Young) for visiting the area but gradually -as I learnt the ropes- he delegated the work to me. As a consequence -not at all undesirable- my trips became more frequent and I found myself driving to Intona every two or three weeks, depending on my other commitments at Muguga.

We needed to personally check the on-going field work and to collect the data gathered on a daily basis by our herdsmen that we would later analyse when back at Muguga. Luckily we also had a veterinarian on the ranch that Joe [1] had employed before I arrived. His name was Kiza and he was a refugee from Uganda that really helped a great deal with our work and he would radio us if there were any issues that needed our presence and, in that case, either Alan or myself would travel to the ranch to deal with them.

Equally important was to replace our field workers as we had a roster that we needed to maintain. In particular the Kikuyu workers found their stay among the Maasai rather trying and they were always ready to go home! After a while I realised that the trip to Maasailand was almost taken as a trip to a foreign country by them, used to stay in the highlands and to cultivate their land. As the trip to Intona progressed, their conversation became less animated! The reverse was also true, they became happier as we got closer to their home area, particularly the moment the Kikuyu escarpment came into view on the eastern wall of the Rift valley.

The trip would start in the early morning from Tigoni (later on from Nairobi) via Muguga where I would collect the herdsmen on duty for the period. Then there were two obligatory stops: at the local market near Muguga for them to buy vegetables, mainly humongous cabbages to prepare the ugale “relish” [1]. Cabbages would keep well and they were very popular. The next stop would be to load fuel at the junction with the main road (Nairobi-Kampala). Only then we were ready to go.

During the rainy season we would follow the tarmac through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisii to Kilgoris and then to Intona. Only the last 40km were dirt but passable most of the time. This way would offer superb views of the Rift Valley and its lakes (Naivasha, Elementaita and Nakuru) as well as its volcanoes (Longonot and Suswa).

We would also cross the large and tidy tea plantations of Kericho where we would normally brake the journey to stay at the colonial Kericho Tea Hotel. Need I say that the tea was probably the best I have ever drunk.

The dry weather route to Intona would take us North through Uplands and then we would start winding down the Kikuyu escarpment, pass the small Catholic church built by the Italian prisoners of WWII to continue until we branched off towards Narok. We then traversed the Great Rift Valley from East to West. In those days the savanna was dotted with antelopes and the only signs of human presence were a few small shambas [2] at the start of the road and, a few km further on, a satellite station with its giant white mushrooms.

The road skirted the lava flows from the dormant Longonot and Suswa volcanic cones and then we would climb the opposite wall of the valley where, a few km later we would get into Narok. The latter was, as expected, a predominantly Maasai town and it was the last large town on the way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and beyond, where we were going. We usually re-fuelled and bought the last needed items there before continuing our journey

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Going out of Narok. Maasai cattle drinks at the dam while the traffic goes by. Note the red VW kombi, the dominant minibus at the time.

Out of Narok we would follow the road past Aitong –where the early trials against theileriosis were carried out by Matt and co-workers before my arrival- and continue skirting the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, until we reached the Mara River bridge. If time allowed we would go on, otherwise there was a nice camping spot by the Mara River, next to the Mara Buffalo Camp (prior to the bridge)  where we would spend the night under canvas.

While I camped, the workers would stay at the Drivers’ accommodation at the Camp, courtesy of its Swiss Manager that would let us use it. I usually invited the workers to come to my camp in the evening for a drink and noted that there were always an extra pair of people that would come with them.

The first time this happened I thought that they were taking advantage of my hospitality and I was surprised as I did not expect this from them. I was immediately proven wrong when, as soon as they arrived to my camp, the two “escorts” would turn around and return to the lodge only to return to fetch the workers one hour later. When I asked why two people came I was told that they feared the animals too much so that they would not walk alone in the dark under any circumstances!

The Mara River is the main natural barrier for the migration of wildebeest and zebra in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecological system. It ends its course at Lake Victoria with an approximate length of 400km after its origin in the Mau Escarpment in Kenya.

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Mara river in the Maasai Mara and inhabitants.

The river is the main water source for the large population of grazing animals both wild and domestic as it always carries water, despite its flow getting reduced in the dry season. More recently (after our departure) changes in land use that have caused decreased vegetation cover are triggering a faster run-off of rainwater and flooding has become more common, particularly in large parts of the Tanzanian Mara basin.

For the journey I never drove anything but a Series III Long Wheel Base Land Rover (the two door van type) and these were hard to ride but truly unbreakable. Despite traveling alone most of the time, I never broke down over the many years I did this trip. After a few journeys, I got to know the people at Kichwa Tembo Camp (Elephant’s Head in Ki-Swahili), one of the camps close to the Mara River bridge, and they were very kind repairing the occasional punctures that were my only concern!

After crossing the Mara River where there was usually a Maasai cattle traffic jam and, during the wildebeest season quite a number of wildebeest as well (both alive and drowned at the river), we climbed the Oloololo escarpment and, once at the top, we had a compulsory stop to take in the magnificent view.

Below us was the Mara triangle where the green ribbon of the Mara River could be clearly seen snaking its way towards lake Victoria. When the wildebeest were in the Mara the savannah was dotted with thousands of wildebeests and zebras walking in long lines as far as the eye could see. The scene of the poster of “Out of Africa” was filmed from the Oloololo escarpment, looking at the Mara Triangle below.

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The Mara river with the Oloololo escarpment at the back, seen from the air.

As we still had some way to go, we moved on on the now flat top of the Oloololo escarpment. After a few km the road would pass through wheat fields. This unexpected sight was the result of some Maasai communities that had leased their land to commercial farmers. Once we passed the wheat the road became a track that with great luck it would be dry and rough but more often wet.

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Harvesting wheat in land leased from the Maasai.

The area was waterlogged and driving was through sticky mud. The car wheels would get into two parallel from where you could not deviate! So, while you kept the car crawling in second gear you hoped that no one would be coming from the opposite direction as the crossing would invariably end with one (or both) stuck!

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Stuck on the way to the red hill on a Land Rover station wagon that I rarely used and about to use the spare to lift the car from the muddy hole.

It was on one of these wet drives that we met a Peugeot 504 [3] buried and, after lots of digging, pushing and pulling, we managed to get it going. Unfortunately while doing this we got stuck! I looked at the occupants of the Peugeot for their solidarity but all I saw was their backs and, oblivious to our requests of help, they ignored us and drove off leaving us to dig ourselves out for quite some time and therefore to arrive very late to Nairobi.

Further on the road had another infamous section: the red hill. As its name indicates it was a steep climb over a red muddy hill with a smooth and innocent-looking surface that when you were on it it was like driving on a gigantic soap. The car, despite the 4×4 would skid the way it felt like and all you could do was to hope that it would stop before going down over the side that looked like the end not only of that journeys but of all journeys! To go very slowly and to stop as soon as the car started to skid was the only way to negotiate it but it was not easy and required total focus.

If you were successful over the swamps and the red hill then you were almost there as, from then on, the road would be firm and you would arrive to Lolgorien. This was a small village where the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) had its veterinary project in support of the Government of Kenya. It was there that Gerhardt, a veterinarian, and Anne Marie, a laboratory technician, worked.

Past collaboration between them and Alan on the epidemiology of the cattle diseases in the Kilae area nearby, that gave Alan the idea of immunise cattle against theileriosis and brought him to Intona ranch.

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Gerhardt and Anne Marie bush lab. An amazing place in its simplicity and efficiency.

Gerhardt and Anne Marie successfully ran several interesting activities in support to the Maasai communities and they had an amazing field laboratory where they had all essential equipment, operated by generator and or batteries, as there was no electricity there at the time. It was a revelation for me to see how advanced work could be done under really basic conditions [4].

After passing Lolgorien the road did not offer great challenges but it was important to arrive at Intona before dark. Wild and domestic animals were very numerous while driving through the Maasai Mara and still plentiful once you travel through the Transmara and it was still common to find both Maasai livestock and herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles on the road! As the area was wooded, their presence was more hazardous as they would appear suddenly in front of the car!

It was during one of these occasions that we came across a herd of sheep and goats that suddenly decided that the grass was greener across the road. As much as I tried to avoid them, I knocked the last sheep when, suddenly it changed its small mind and decided to turn back! The herdboy in charge run away fast before we could talk to him. Tommi (himself a Maasai) laughed and said that he must have been truly scared and run to inform his father so we waited while the animal laid motionless in the  middle of the road.

As predicted, Soon his father appeared with a grave expression, followed by the boy a distance behind. A discussion between Tommi and the sheep owner followed and I was eventually informed that I was asked to pay a large sum to compensate for the loss while Tommi advised me not to accept it. I shook my head vigorously and the negotiations continued and things were heating up when, as suddenly as unexpectedly, the sheep moved, stood up, shook his head and run into the bushes to join its mates! We were all taken aback by the development and we burst out laughing at the situation to the clear relief of the boy, the responsible of the sheep! We agreed to only compensate the owner for small injuries and left fast in case the animal fell again not to get up!

The area around Intona had a high number of people injured in encounters with wild animals. Although the rivalry between the Maasai and lions may have accounted for some, buffalo caused the great majority. It was therefore not uncommon that, having motorised transport, we would be asked to take some injured person to the nearest hospital. In addition, cattle rustling was quite common and the Police (Anti Stock Theft Unit) were a tough lot and two or three times I needed to carry prisoners and even dead rustlers (corpses).

Back to the trip. After Lolgorien we would eventually cross the Migori River that flows in a south-westerly direction from south-west Mau joining the Kuja River in Central Kadem and ends in lake Victoria. On a lucky day, turning the bend before the bridge you could watch a family of the rare Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in the meadows by the water edge. They were mostly indifferent to the car and allowed us to have a good look before they slowly retreated into the riverine bush.

A few km further we would get to the large fig tree that indicated the entrance to Intona Ranch and soon cross the one plough furrow that was all that indicated its boundary! It was a full day drive but not all was over as I still needed to set up camp, have a shower, dinner and then get good sleep to recover from the long journey to be up the following morning at the crack of dawn to work with our cattle.

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The Intona fig tree.

Intona was under the influence of Lake Victoria and it usually rained in late afternoon. This was preceded by the most spectacular cloud formations and amazingly beautiful sunsets when the sun would go down through the cracks of enormous cloud formations. The drama would even increase when the burning of the land, prior to the rains, would take place. This would stain the sky with a red tinge that would give the landscape an eerie appearance, as the reddish sun rays would filter through the forest. If you were lucky, you could spot a flock of the large Silvery-cheeked hornbills returning to their roosting places by the Migori River.

The return journey would start as early as possible, after finishing the work with the cattle, always done during the early morning to enable them to go out grazing with the rest of the herd. There were two reasons for an early departure: avoid the afternoon rains while still on the dirt roads, either in the Transmara or in the Maasai Mara as well as to arrive in Kikuyuland before dark.

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Coming back from Intona we take a rest after reaching the Oloololo escarpment. The muddy waterbag hanging from the mirror tells the story of the journey.

The herdsmen that were due to go home did not need to be reminded and they were ready well before departure time as they missed their places and families. The ones that remained looked rather gloomy and, although I reassured them that I will return in two weeks, their moods remained somber until our leaving.

Mid afternoon would normally find us refuelling at Narok and, without wasting time, go on and cross the Rift valley. As the trip progressed the herdsmen would become more talkative and the moment that the Kikuyu escarpment came into view, they became excited and happy and they would start talking and laughing among themselves, no doubts planning their stay with their families.

Eventually we would climb the escarpment and enter in what was then still known as the “Kikuyu Reserve” to deliver the herdsmen to their homes. This was a long and tortuous drive through dirt roads to find their houses and, eventually when I was alone, the way out! As I am not too good at bearings, this would often take the wrong turn and get lost in the increasing darkness, delaying my return even more!

Although I never had a problem driving through the area, I recall an opportunity when I was driven by one of the ICIPE drivers that refused to drive inside it. He was from the Luo ethnic group, traditional enemies of the Kikuyus. He asked me to leave him at a shop on the main road and I drove, delivered the herdsmen and fetch him for him to drive me back!

 

[1] Ugali, a polenta-like dish-  is the main food in Kenya and other African countries. Maize flour is used and prepared using boiling water to form a semi-solid paste, served with a meat stew and/or vegetables known as relish.

[2] Shamba in East Africa is any field used for growing crops. (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/shamba)

[3] At the time, a 504 was “the car” to have in Africa and it was commonly known as “Simba” (lion in Ki-Swahili) for its symbol in the front grille.

[4] Known sarcastically among us as “ILRAD 2” comparing it with the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases of those days, a multi-million USD state of the art institute based in Kabete, Kenya.