18 March 2017

East Africa: Wildlife Paradise in the Rift Valley

The lakes of the Great Rift Valley are a paradise for birds, and none more so than Lake Nakuru.

It was hot and dusty by the time we entered Lake Nakuru National Park, but in a few minutes we were driving through cool forests of yellow-barked acacia trees growing around the lake.

I spotted a cormorant, a type of wading bird, perched on a park signboard that was posted right inside the lake. Recent rains had caused flooding and in several places along the water's edge dead trees were immersed several feet in water.

Lake Nakuru is known for a massive gathering of Greater and Lesser flamingos. Over a million birds usually congregate along the shores of the lake, but there wasn't single flamingo in sight when we visited. The conditions of the lake had changed because of increased volumes of water that minimises the growth of algae -- the only food source for the flamingos. When this happens, the birds fly off to other lakes in the Rift Valley such as Bogoria and Elementaita.

Nevertheless, there were lots of other birds to be seen such as great white pelicans, kingfishers, cattle egrets, different kinds of storks, Egyptian geese, and fish eagles with their distinctive cry.

The 118sqkm park is definitely buffalo country, with several herds grazing, basking in the morning sun, and cooling off in muddy pools. One solitary buffalo bull walked past our car flicking his tail aggressively. The lone buffalo is said to be more dangerous than those that live in herds.

Giraffe, zebras and different kinds of antelope live in the park; this is one of the best places to view white rhino that graze in the open plains. The black rhino, who prefer to browse among trees and bushes, are a little harder to spot.

Except for elephants, all the other Big Five -- lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino -- can be seen at Lake Nakuru. We were lucky to see a honey badger crossing the road early one morning, although it moved too fast to take a photo. Honey badgers have a ferocious temperament and get their name from their habit of raiding beehives.

The park is fenced because of its close proximity to Nakuru town, making it an unsuitable environment for elephants that can roam over 50km in one day.

Driving around, we noticed how housing developments come right up to the park boundary in some places. Conservationists worry that these, and nearby industrial developments, could be polluting the area and adversely impacting the water and the bird population.

Baboon Cliff is a popular spot for picnicking, and also because of the spectacular hilltop views of the lake. But beware of the baboons. A troop regularly hangs around, scrounging for scraps of food and sometimes brazenly snatching a sandwich from an unsuspecting visitor.

We drove down to the Makalia Falls, one of the rivers flowing into the lake, and came across a flock of hamerkop birds leaping around near a camp site. These brown water birds with hammer-like heads are about the size of chickens, but they build massive nests of twig that are sometimes more than a metre wide.

Lake Nakuru is about 160km north-west of Nairobi and one can make a day-trip of it. For overnight stays or as a stopover for lunch, there are two lodges inside the park and more options in Nakuru town. The park is under the management of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which operates a self-catering guest house that was formerly the warden's home before it was spruced up to take paying guests. There are also several camp sites around the park.

Lake Nakuru is a delicate ecosystem situated next to a growing town and hopefully, with proper management, it will continue to flourish.

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