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My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the fifth instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

We went back to our hotel cottage for our last night in Nairobi. The corners of our beds had been folded over and the blinds closed for the night, ostensibly a luxury that I never really got used to. Over the previous week a lot had happened. I made mental note of the level of pay of the average person around. From what I could gather, Lucy, the full-time housekeeper where we stayed, was paid generously at around 5000/= per month, an amount equal to around $70 US per month. On this salary, she was raising two children.

While we were in Nairobi, a plane had crashed short of the runway at Wilson airport, killing its occupants. The newspaper story indicated that people from the nearby Kibera slum had come out to try and rescue the occupants, indicating that this was something the residents were rather used to doing. Flying culture, it seems, is a little different there.

On this last night, also, the local newspaper showed not one, but two major corruption scandals breaking in the national government. The 'AdScam' corruption scandal in Canada that had brought down our government just a few weeks earlier seemed rather piddly next to these stories.

Our week in Nairobi had been quite the experience, but it was time for the next step. I arranged with John, the matatu driver, before going to sleep to pick us up in his car at Wilson airport at the end of our safari and take us back to Naivasha to chase the steam excursion we had learned about at the Nairobi museum a few days earlier. I would get my train after all.

I really had no idea what to expect on a Safari. The closest impression I had was of the cad in the South African movie, "The Gods Must be Crazy", with his completely open two-floor safari bus. Somehow I didn't think this is what it was actually going to be like. Whatever it was going to be like, I would find out in the morning.

We were thirty-six people going on Safari. Six people would be leaving part way through, and six others would be joining us, for a total of forty-two, but we'd have thirty-six at any given time. All of us crowded around the check-out desk at the Windsor sorting through the chaos of checking out a large group who could not take all their bags.

Everyone had repacked their bags so they would have no more than one suitcase and one handbag per couple, plus cameras and whatever other hand-held gear people wanted. Everything else had to go into a pile in the lobby of the Windsor to be taken over to my sister-in-law's house for the week, at which point we would try and figure out who was what's again and head off to the airport.

After a while, everyone's checkout was more or less sorted and we migrated outside to await our vans. Within a few minutes, a fleet of six clean, white matatu-type vans drove in like a swat team, with large antennas bouncing off the back-left side of each, sporting tennis balls in the middle preventing them from impacting the sides of the vans.

Each van could seat eight people, plus the driver, and held two spare tires, giving us a total of 12. With 36 of us, six vans meant that one could break down and we would be able to abandon it without leaving anyone behind, though two failing could be a bit of a problem.

We each chose a van and boarded it. Our van was driven by a large fellow named Dominic.

Our fleet of six vans departed the Windsor and began the hour long trek across Nairobi and out the far end. We passed Kibera one more time and continued out of the city on our way to the Aberdare, a major country club below Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in the country behind Mount Kilimanjaro, which straddles the equator and reaches an elevation of around 17,000 feet.

As we left the city in earnest we passed a sight I wasn't quite prepared for. Cyclists were merrily going about their business with rather incredible loads. One appeared to be a moving ball of hay with no bicycle or cyclist actually visible. Not too long after, we passed another cyclist with a stack of plastic trays easily eight feet tall on the back of his bike.

Eventually, we pulled into a parking lot with dozens of other safari vans at a little shop. It was mid morning and the temperature was already up. I was not particularly interested in the souvenir shop, the first of many we would see on our safari, but did make use of the stop to pick up a couple of litres of water at around 100/= per bottle, a fraction of the cost of water at the Windsor.

We stayed there for most of an hour before heading off toward Mount Kenya once more. We soon found ourselves on a two lane road with another two lanes dug up, clearly in preparation for a widening of the road. There was no evidence of any kind of work crew on the road, but it was nevertheless prepared. Particularly rough parts of the existing road were covered in rocks and old tires in an effort to prevent its use.

As we approached our destination for the day, we were once again reminded of the total absence of vehicle standards as we pulled up behind a dump truck climbing a hill with black diesel exhaust virtually obscuring the truck on an otherwise clear day.

Kenyan emissions standards

Mount Kenya came into occasional view and the height of it clearly demonstrated a phenomenon I learned about in flight school. Mountain waves created a curious little series of clouds coming off the top of the mountain. It looked like a sine wave with each iteration being a bit less intense until it was no longer visible some distance from the peak.

We parked at the Aberdare country club and learned that we would only be allowed to take one small bag with us up the mountain to the Ark, where we would be spending the night. Anything else should be checked and left behind at the Aberdare. It took a while to sort this all out, but we eventually did and wandered as a group, along with scores of other tourists and their safari groups, over to a building for lunch. I don't recall what we had for lunch, but I do remember some large birds being un-shy to help people eat bread-rolls after we had had our fill.

The whole group of tourists was herded onto three busses, our group managing, somehow, to all be in the same one, and we headed off to climb the mountain to the Ark.

We exited the Aberdare and went a little ways up a main road before heading onto a single lane unimproved back-road for the hour-long trip to the Ark. This road is the roughest road I have ever travelled on, and being in a tall bus made it a wholly unpleasant trip. We bounced and wound our way up the mountain, to an elevation of around 9000 feet.

We came over a hill and onto a straightaway on this road, and all came to a stop. There was a gap in the trees, and, across a valley, we could see the Ark's shape in the distance, with an elephant walking in front of it.

We continued on, arriving a few minutes later. We were unloaded by a raised wooden walkway, and after a safety briefing that included a warning not to exit the building at any time without being a part of an organised tour by park rangers, headed the few hundred feet down the walkway to the Ark.

The Ark is named after Noah's Ark and is ostensibly shaped like the biblical shape. It is boat-like, with each room containing two single beds on opposite walls and a small window, There is a rear deck that overlooks a watering hole and several viewing platforms around the facility from which to watch passing wildlife.

Each room is equipped with a buzzer and the staff sound them during the night if any of various rare animals come by. Different numbers of buzzes represent different animals.

Shortly after our arrival, the elephant left, not to return while we were there. A large variety of birds, bison, antelope, and domestic-size wild cats came through over the course of the evening, providing plenty for us to see on this first day of safari.

We went to the dining room for a sub-par dinner and then resumed walking around watching out various windows and viewing platforms as animals came and went. There were informational sessions held by staff that were quite interesting.

Eventually, we returned to our room. I climbed into my bed, and quickly jumped back out of it. Not only had our sheets been turned down here, as they had been at the Windsor, but part of the luxury is apparently putting a hot water bottle in the bed. After determining that this was the sole culprit to my bedtime surprise, I removed it and climbed back in for the night.

I don't recall the buzzer ever going off.

In the morning, Mount Kenya was visible a few miles to the north and was appropriately lit for photos. I took one good shot of it and then gathered my stuff together for our return back down the mountain.

We loaded up the busses in preparation for our departure, and just as the last people were boarding, some elephants showed up on the site. The general consensus on our bus was that the elephants knew the schedule of the tourists fairly accurately and only came out when it was quiet and touristless.

We took our long trek back down the mountain which was nowhere near as bad as going up it, perhaps because I had the night to mentally prepare myself for it, and returned to the Aberdare. I took the opportunity to get into a different safari van. My driver from the day before was a perfectly good driver, but I like to sit up front and talk to the driver and, well, mine wasn't very talkative. I had heard that a driver named Moses was a lot of fun, and got in next to him, with my wife and parents joining me in the back.

Moses was younger than Dominic and was a lot more fun. He had a lot to teach us, and I quickly learned that his name is actually Luku. Moses, Dominic, and the other drivers' names were their baptismal names used for the benefit of tourists rather than the names used among themselves, which in turn was yet another one that I cannot remember.

Moses is from the Mombasa area, on the coast of Kenya. He has a wife and kids who he sees occasionally between week-long safaris. He, like nearly every local I met, was among the happiest people I've ever met, seeming to enjoy every minute of every day.

Our convoy left the Aberdare after sorting out our bags and we headed in a generally northerly direction. After about an hour and a half we arrived at a curio shop with a big hand-painted sign out from that read, with a basic black map of Africa dominating the sign, "You are now on the EQUATOR Alt. 2265M". The "EQUATOR" was written in red across the centre of the sign with the first part at the top and the altitude at the bottom. The elevation at this point on the equator is around 7,431 feet, if you prefer that over the 2,265M from the sign.

At this equator checkpoint a local came out and, predictably, did the water demonstration, showing that 50-odd feet north of the equator, the water spun counterclockwise, while 50-odd feet south of the equator, the water spun clockwise. Under the equator sign, the water did not spin at all. To accomplish this, he used a small bucket of water with a small funnel, and a second bucket to pour the water into. As he poured the water from the full bucket to the empty bucket via the funnel, he added matchsticks to the water so that the direction of the turn would be visible.

While I saw a demonstration on Discovery channel some months later demonstrating how easy this is to fake, it was still a neat demonstration if only for the entertainment value.

After seeing this demonstration, we were encouraged to tour the associated shop where large collections of mostly not particularly useful souvenirs could be purchased at far above their actual value. Some people bought items, and then we had the next part of the show. Our names were collected, and the operator of the shop distributed certificates to each member of our safari stating that we had crossed the equator, for which she was richly rewarded with tips.

After around half an hour, we got back in our convoy and took off for the next stop: our first venture into the Rift Valley.

We came up to the top of a long hill and started down it, shortly coming to a series of curio shops and a lookout point. Our van, having become detached from the convoy, pulled off and we all hopped out.

The view of the rift valley from this point is not one that can be described. I have no words for it, and photos cannot do it justice. Way down below us the road we were on was visible as was a microscopic safari van which we figured was one of ours. The enjoyment of the view was short-lived however as locals with memorable teeth descended on us and tried to sell us more souvenirs. A woman tried to sell me a plate with a painting of the rift valley on it for 800/=, dropping the price to 100/= before finally giving up on me actually buying it. Feeling badly for her, but not wanting to buy anything, I retreated to the van where Moses assured me it was OK to ignore her.

As we departed the curio shop and lookout, Moses tried to raise the other vans on his radio to see where they were but they were out of range and did not reply.

We started down the hill eventually winding our way to the floor of the rift valley, arriving in a town whose name translates from Kikuyu as 'Hot Water'. After passing through this town, we took a left turn and continued a little ways before stopping at another mass collection point for safari vans. After a short stop we were on our way again, heading along the floor of the Rift Valley toward the town of Nakuru. I was not sure what awaited us there.

We arrived at the entrance to Lake Nakuru National Park nearly an hour ahead of the other vans. It turned out one of them had a flat tire behind us, and the others had stopped to help out.

As we waited, parked in the shade outside the gate to the park, we saw a number of new things.

I have seen dust devils around here, before, a couple of times in my life. A small column of dust a few feet tall sweeps up and blows away. It is not generally very exciting.

A little ways off, a zebra stood still, not doing anything in particular. As we watched, a large dust devil came up and swept by the zebra, which moved a few feet as it passed before resuming not doing much. As we watched, it became apparent that dust devils happened every couple of minutes somewhere in the area. In the distance, lake Nakuru was visible. The lake had a bit of a pink hue to it.

At the same time as the zebra was getting a dusting, a number of small, playful monkeys showed up. One of them climbed into a large unoccupied Land Rover's open window near us and exited the vehicle a moment later holding a piece of paper. It then ran off with its prize.

A few minutes later, another monkey jumped out of a nearby tree and ran madly across the field with another monkey in hot pursuit. It quickly became apparent that the first was holding a banana. Watching the monkeys provided us endless entertainment as we waited for the rest of the vans to show up.

Eventually the rest of the vans showed up and we entered the park, following curvy gravel roads toward the lake. We passed a flock of pelicans and an assortment of other birds. Shortly, the lake came into view and a stunning sight appeared before us.

Lake Nakuru's flamingos

As far as the eye can see, lake Nakuru is covered with flamingos. The whole lake is pink from the numbers of them. It defies the imagination.

We got out of our vans and walked around the beach near the flamingos. The beach stank but the view was amazing. I walked towards the birds along the beach and found that they were able to keep a constant distance from me as a group. As I walked toward them, they all moved at the same speed as me creating a gap in the flock. I could get no closer. Very few of the birds flew while we were there, so there was no chance of getting a stunning photo of the whole flock taking off.

After taking in this sight for a while, we collected back in our vans and prepared to leave. In the distance, under some trees, a number of adult rhinos were visible.

We took a wrong turn somewhere in the park and ended up taking a little while to exit, ultimately succeeding and finding our way back out to a main road. We left Nakuru for Naivasha where we would spend the night at a resort called the Lake Naivasha Sopa.

At this point we had not yet had lunch, though we were assured that when we arrived lunch would be waiting. It was around three in the afternoon. We drove north back out to Hot Water and headed west for Naivasha. Naivasha is connected to Nairobi on the map by a large primary highway, but on the ground this highway is still under construction.

The dry dust covered highway is roughly five lanes wide. We know this because, through blinding dust, we passed four other vehicles in a configuration from the north side of the road to the south side of the road that can be roughly described as: westbound, westbound, eastbound, westbound, eastbound. We frequently came to near complete stops hoping for the dust to settle enough to see the road in front of us. I took no pictures, my primary source of notes, through this stretch of road as I was more concerned with holding on for dear life.

There were several occasions where the condition of the travelling lanes, which were next to the highway under construction, was so bad that the ride was more comfortable if we simply went off-road, often zig-zagging all the way across the road looking for that pristine bit of dirt or unbroken pavement on which to travel.

Eventually, we passed a water truck wetting the road in an effort to keep the dust down. Following this truck were a number of women with large buckets trying to catch the free water. After an extended period on this rough road, we turned onto another highway, also under construction to go the rest of the way to the hotel where we would spend the night.

Just in case I thought the Naivasha highway was bad, this one made the previous one seem a bit like a cake walk. This highway was a wide, four lane highway, however it, too, was not finished. In this case, however, there were not roughly five travel lanes available for the bi-directional traffic, there was only one, and the dust and visibility were just as bad. The raised bed for the highway was not yet paved, and completely covered in large stones dissuading travellers from using it. Cars, trucks, and busses haphazardly shared one soft sanded ditch, resulting in heart-stopping meets between vehicles and zero-visibility criss-crossing of the unfinished highway at certain points where the safe side of the construction transitioned to the opposite side. Occasionally there were gaps wide enough to pass safely, but these were mostly ignored.

A photo my father took from the back seat captures the chaos very well, showing a fully loaded passenger bus on a severe angle hanging over the safari van in front of us. Moments later, this same bus hung over us to such an angle we literally were looking up not over, at it.

Naivasha's main highway

After a long, if not particularly far, drive in these conditions, we pulled into the Sopa. The passengers in all six vans reported breaking into spontaneous applause for the drivers at this point. Upon dropping us and our luggage off, the drivers all had to return along this highway to where they would be spending the night and one more time to pick us up in the morning. Being a safari van driver would be a shade more stressful a job than I would particularly like.

We entered the Sopa late in the afternoon, tired and hungry, and found no food available. We scattered to a number of sofas around the main lobby area and awaited the arrival of some grilled cheese sandwiches. They came slowly, as they were made, and we devoured them in short order.

Our rooms in this hotel were cottages, much like at the Windsor. At this site each cottage contained four large, luxurious rooms and was the last place we stayed which actually had televisions. We were strongly warned not to travel outside of our cottages after dark because of the risk of being killed by hippos. Armed guards would escort us at night.

My father went for a swim at the hotel pool, losing his brand new Transitions glasses which he had been using to great effect to reduce the influence of the intense sun on his eyes, causing a bit of a panic.

Dinner was a large buffet whose contents I don't recall. As we ate, some people in our group noted that outside the window to the dining room was an inoffensive looking but large animal: a baby hippo was grazing on the walkway. We learned that the hippos sit in the cool water all day in nearby Lake Naivasha, but come out at night to eat and will ram and kill people that get in their way.

With this happy thought comforting us, we recruited a security guard who took us under armed escort back to our cottage where we retired for the night.

The next morning we would head for the large region on the Tanzanian border called the Masai Mara, the home of the Masai people, and do our first game drive.

My Heart is Africa - the series

  1. My Heart is Africa
  2. My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum
  3. My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate
  4. My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding
  5. My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway
  6. to be continued...

Posted at 16:07 on October 26, 2006

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