Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.