Sunday, 30 January 2011

Kenya 2011: Crater Lake

Our next day saw us doing something new and exciting in Kenya: walking. Up to this point, we'd spent an awful lot of time in our buses, and a tiny amount of time in boats, but almost no time perambulating. It might surprise you to know that there are actually wilderness areas in Kenya that are safe to visit on foot. Unfortunately, this is in large part due to the havoc that humans have wrought; currently, there are only about 2000 lions and 500-1000 cheetahs thought to be living in Kenya; leopards are classified worldwide as "near threatened", though their Kenyan population is probably fairly stable; and wild dogs are vanishingly rare (3000-5000 individuals across 25 countries). Hyenas are about as common as lions, but extremely unlikely to attack a human. Most of these animals exist primarily in pockets, sequestered in parks and nature reserves that are, often, fenced off to prevent illegal fraternization between animals and humans (which can be dangerous for both parties). Hippos are, as I indicated previously, the most dangerous mammal around, but they are mainly active at night. Both species of rhino would be worrisome except that there are so few of them around, and they are so heavily guarded to prevent poaching, that chance encounters are unlikely. The same goes for elephants. That really only leaves one potentially problematic species: the cape buffalo. The major problem with buffalo is that they have a keen sense of smell, but terrible eyesight; this often means that there is a disconnect between the information they are being given by their noses and their eyes, which can make them a bit jumpy. Luckily, buffalo are so huge that they are easy to spy from a distance, and therefore avoid.

Thus, it was with confidence that we set out on foot to enjoy the scenery at Crater Lake, a private game park and lodge that had been established around a saltwater lake that formed in the aftermath of a violent volcanic eruption many thousands of years ago. Our drive there from the campsite had been pretty spectacular, giving us good views of jackals, hyenas, juvenile giraffes, and a few new species of ungulate. Unfortunately, we'd been in such a rush to reach the park that we didn't get to stop and look; thus, we were hoping for an equally spectacular walk around the lake in order to compensate. We started out by climbing up to the ridge surrounding the lake, which gave us an excellent view of the crater and its surrounding forest:

(Crater Lake. The lake is intensely saline despite being replenished solely by rainwater. This is a result of its substrate, which contains massive amounts of salt that dissolve into the water. Its pH makes it the perfect habitat for the algae and invertebrates beloved by flamingos. We saw several of the birds wading chest-deep in water with their heads and necks completely submerged, scooping up bill-full after bill-full of food.)

Our position on the ridge was directly under a massive swarm of insectivorous birds swooping madly through the sky; swifts, saw-wings, swallows, and martens all dived crazily after insects. Looking down at the forest below, a couple lucky students saw a hornbill fly form one perch to another, and we all saw (and heard) small flocks of parrots and lovebirds high in the canopy. Far in the distance, two dik-diks (the smallest species of antelope) snuggled together under a bush.

Our walk around the lake was led by a very knowledgeable guide who was particularly enthusiastic about sharing information on plants. Most of the instructors on our course were animal-oriented, so it was great to have someone emphasize more botany. Unfortunately, our group was so large, and the guide was so quiet, that most of us were unable to hear what he was saying. On top of this, the narrow pathway made it impossible to inch any closer. Throughout the morning, we struggled to keep our students together and moving in the right direction; those who couldn't hear the guide often stopped to watch animals or take photographs instead, and pretty soon there was a (growing) half-mile gap between the first and last person in our group. It didn't help that one of the other instructors and I kept dawdling at the back in order to do birdwatching in the quiet that was left after everyone else has passed in front of us. By the time we had descended from the rim and made our way into the trees, we were getting phone calls from the other instructors to tell us to get our group moving so that we could depart for the next outing. It was a real shame to curtail birding just then, because the forest was a tantalizing explosion of sound--squawking, cooing, screeching, singing, hooting, and all other vocalizations imaginable were emanating from the canopy; amazingly, the animals making the noises were virtually impossible to locate, so I still have no idea which species we'd encountered.

As infuriating as it was to leave the Eden that was Crater Lake, it was made even worse by the knowledge that our next stop was, of all things, a flower factory. Remember how I said before that people were very sensitive about how water from Lake Naivasha was used? Well, one of the biggest industries in the region is flower farming; as you might expect, the growers use massive amounts of water in their greenhouses and fields. We were visiting one of several facilities owned by Homegrown, a company that supplies flowers to famous UK retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Spar. Purportedly, Homegrown is very eco-friendly; we were there to hear all about their "green" flower-growing techniques. As a behavioral ecologist, this is not exactly the sort of thing that I usually find all that interesting, but the students were all conservationists and so we needed to give them a broad range of experiences in Kenya.

When we showed up, we were all asked to don protective gear prior to beginning our tour of the facilities:

(Students slipping into something a bit more comfortable at the Homegrown factory.)

I'm not exactly sure what the purpose of the protective clothing was, and I know we all felt like fools wearing it. However, once we walked into the air-conditioned interior of the plant, it felt wonderful to have an extra layer of clothing on; in order to keep the flowers looking fresh, the managers kept the ambient temperature at something barely above freezing.

We were shown all phases of the flower preparation process: arrival of the flowers from the greenhouse, quality-checking, leaf-stripping, storage, bundling into bouquets, wrapping in cellophane, and packing in cardboard boxes for shipment to the UK. Our escort for this stage of the tour was the factory manager. Next, we were handed over to the president of the operation, who gave us his spiel in one of the greenhouses. He was a wiry little guy who had to stand on a stepladder so we could see him. Despite his diminutive frame, he had a commanding presence--he gave the impression of Crocodile Dundee mixed with Yosemite Sam. He was one of the few white Kenyans that we met during our trip, though his many years in the harsh Kenyan sun had turned him something a bit darker than "white."

Surprisingly, the Homegrown tour was actually very interesting. The owners clearly pay attention to ecological/conservation issues; they have to, because their customers are increasingly more concerned about buying "green," and also because "green" techniques can both save and make money. The factory had a massive wetland system set up to allow them to recycle and reuse something like 40% of their own water (e.g., from flushed toilets and sink taps); this permitted them to take less water from Lake Naivasha. All flowers were grown organically--meaning that they only used pesticides sparingly, and the pesticides they did use were "natural." One of the coolest things we were told about were the wasps they had cultivated to combat aphids. The wasps were natural predators of the aphids, and were endemic to the local ecosystem; using the wasps was cleaner and more environmentally sound than applying a pesticide, plus they could sell the wasps to other growers and make a profit from their environmentally-sound technique. I have long thought that the way to sell environmentalism and conservation to the masses is to connect as many things as possible to value--show people why it is useful and profitable to be green, and they will do it. The flower farm seemed to be a good example of how those techniques really can work. I just hope we weren't given too much of a spin-doctored story.

Back at camp, we had the afternoon off. I spent it catching up on sleep before heading back down to the shores of Lake Naivasha for a bit of relaxed birding. On the way, I encountered a couple of the other instructors and wandered off with them for an unanticipated stroll through calf-high grass. This is an important detail because I was only wearing flip-flops, as I'd planned to stick near the cabana; this left my delicate little toes completely exposed. Of course, as you might expect given my unprotected condition in an off-road environment, I managed to plant my foot down onto an ant hill--not once, but twice. On both occasions, I was immediately attacked by angry soldier ants who proceeded to grip my flesh tightly in their incredibly strong pincers. It is amazing how something so small can inflict so much pain.

Later that evening I got a respite from camp food by having a date with my husband down at the cabana. The restaurant serves pizzas baked fresh in their brick oven, and I was absolutely thrilled to taste something that almost everyone on the trip was craving by the end of our two weeks in Kenya--cheese. It was delicious. It was also nice to compare notes on the trip with my husband, who had been spending time in other parts of Kenya, and who also had several previous years of experience in the country.

One of the things we chatted about was my recent encounter with the binocular-using kids at the chameleon farm, which got us talking about Kenyan, and African, kids in general. Everywhere we went, children at the sides of the road would stop and wave to us as we passed by. In some of our more remote destinations, there was a good chance that we were the first white people they'd ever seen; in other places, whites were a fairly regular occurrence but were still interesting nonetheless. The friendliness of the kids really did tug at your hearstrings, especially after you became more familiar with their daily routines. During every one of our morning drives--many of which began long before sunrise--we passed scores of children walking to school along remote dirt roads, dressed in their immaculate uniforms and carrying heavy bags of note- and textbooks. Some of them walked several miles, which is why they had to set out so early; I didn't see a single one of them with a flashlight to light the way. Many of them would walk in groups, holding hands, skipping, laughing, playing as they went. In the afternoon, we saw the same scene in reverse. In the evening, the kids were often sent out to fetch water or other necessary items. I can't tell you how many times I saw an elementary-aged child--some no more than 7 or 8 years old--hauling a full 5-gallon jug of water; many of them used that uniquely African technique of balancing the container on their heads as they walked. I'm a strong, healthy, full-grown adult, and I wouldn't even want to carry a 5-gallon container into the next room, let alone the next town, and I certainly wouldn't do it with a smile on my face the way many of these kids did. I don't mean to make it sound as though the kids led the lives of slaves--we also encountered them during their down time. One striking thing was their dearth of obvious toys; the most common one I saw was the old colonial stick-and-wheel thing that I often saw in the possession of young tourists at Colonial Williamsburg:

(Thanks to for this photo.)

Despite their lack of any fancy gadgets, the children were obviously happy, in a glowing sort of way that you almost never see in the US or UK. There really is something to be said about running around outside (and, probably, avoiding junk food). Of course I know that there are also unhappy and unhealthy children in Kenya, and that many of the kids we saw lead very difficult lives; the point is, there was an awful lot of unabashed enthusiasm and joy amongst the children that we encountered, and it was very heartwarming.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Kenya 2011: Waterbirds and hippos and chameleons, oh my!

Now that my body had settled into the rhythms of our long, hot days in Kenya, I was feeling a bit more chipper about life. Mind you, I wasn't exactly thrilled to wake up at 5:30 AM and take a cold sink bath by the light of a flashlight held in my teeth, but I was more tolerant than I had been before. On this particular morning, I had a brief chat with my husband over the phone, since he and his group of students would be arriving at our campsite later in the day and we needed to coordinate our schedules.

While his morning would be spent on a bus, mine was to be dedicated to take a boat trip around Lake Naivasha in order to see waterbirds and, hopefully, some snoozing hippos. I didn't mention before that our campsite actually overlooked the lake; from our front porches, we could look down and see fish eagles perched in the trees along the shore. To get to the lake, all it took was a 5-minute walk down the (very dusty) hill. The lakeside featured a small cabana with a bar and restaurant, as well as a hotel that allowed our students to pay 300 shillings (about $3.50) to swim in the pool. Between the restaurant/camp/hotel area and the shoreline stood a chest-high electric fence, designed to keep humans safe from hippos. You may think this sounds unnecessary, but the most deadly mammal in Kenya is not, as you might guess, the lion or the leopard or the buffalo; it is the hippo, that short-sighted, short-tempered, standoffish brute with massive and incredibly powerful jaws. Surprise a hippo while it is grazing at night, and you may not live to tell the tale.

During the day, however, hippos generally just concern themselves with napping, so it is fairly safe to take to the water, as long as you tread (so to speak) carefully and maintain a respectful distance if you do see one lounging about. The entirety of Lake Naivasha is no more than 5-6 meters (15-18 feet) deep, and in many places is even shallower, so we knew we had a pretty decent chance of encountering a hippo at some point. The shallowness of the lake and the richness of its fish population also make it attractive for many species of bird, our other main quarry of the day.

While listening to the safety brief prior to setting off, a few of us who were lucky enough to be looking in the right direction at just the right time caught sight of a giant kingfisher, which was a good first bird for the day. The impressive thing about these guys is not their plumage (they look fairly similar to the belted kingfisher found in North America), but their size--imagine a crow, then picture it hovering over and diving into bodies of water in order to snatch up fish. Impressive. The lake was also home to malachite and pygmy kingfishers, which whiz around like, and are not much bigger than, hummingbirds; I saw a couple zip past but was unable to get a good look in order to make a confident identification.

Out on the water, I quickly discovered that our boat driver was not only incredibly talented at navigating through thick and seemingly impenetrable beds of water hyacinth, but also quite good at identifying birds. I found this particularly wonderful because I generally have difficulty with all birds associated with water--shorebirds, gulls, terns, ducks, even waders, all of which often can look surprisingly similar. Our guide was able to (correctly, as far as I could tell) name birds after only the most fleeting glance, which really took the pressure off me (since I was supposed to tell our students what we were seeing). I asked him if he'd been taught about the birds as a boy, and he told me that actually he stared learning them only 4 years ago, when he first got the job; everything he knew had been gleaned from visiting birders who hired him to drive them around on the lake. Obviously, he was a quick study.

I always find it very peaceful to be on the water, and the scenery at Lake Naivasha was quite lovely:

(A view of the shore from Lake Naivasha. If you look closely in the center of the screen, you may see hippopotamus ears sticking up out of the water.)

The hills and mountains surrounding us had all been formed by volcanic activity, or were, in fact, (dormant) volcanoes. The lake itself is supplied by a stream of fresh water that flows up from beneath the rocks and, of course, by the rain. Because there is such a delicate balance between the moderate amount of water that trickles in to keep the levels up, and the vast quantity of water that evaporates under the blazing sun each day, the locals get quite touchy when anyone comes in and tries to siphon off the water in any large quantity (more later on this issue).

As promised, the avian life around us was quite abundant. We saw both species of jacana, cool little birds that have gigantic feed adapted to allow them to walk across the surface of lily pads floating on the water:

(African jacana; we also saw lesser jacanas.)

There were also oodles of pelicans and herons, a few ibises, and a couple storks. We encountered the yellow-billed duck, which is Africa's answer to the mallard:

(Yellow-billed duck taking flight. Picture courtesy of

One of the things I enjoy about birding in different countries is not just the diversity of new and different species, but also the similarities you find to species back home. When you see the family resemblances, you begin to understand how closely related things are despite the vast distances between them. I wish that more people understood how this applies not only to animals and plants, but also to people.

We did also see a few hippos while we were out on the water, but most people failed to get very good views. The problem with hippo-watching during the day is that the animals spend most of their time completely submerged, rising to the surface every few minutes to take a breath. In fact, they can do this even while they are unconscious. On a related note, baby hippos are adapted to suckle underwater, without ingesting or accidentally breathing water. I learned these and other facts when doing a little hippo research the night before our boat trip, so I was able to amaze and edify the students with my wealth of hippo knowledge. It was one of the few moments during the trip that I actually felt like a legitimate teacher.

The "grand finale" of our boat trip was a visit to a known fish eagle roost--come to think of it, probably the same roost that was visible from our campsite. Here, the birds had been trained to swoop down and collect bait (a large dead fish) that had been thrown out to lure them in. Each of the birds dived in in fairly spectacular fashion, then quickly retreated to the trees to munch on its snack:

(Fish eagle coming to collect its payment.)

It was a pretty impressive display, and not one that I've ever seen for any species of eagle in the wild. All the same, it felt a bit too wrong for me to fully enjoy it--you go to see wild animals because they are, in fact, wild, not trained circus acts.

After we got back on dry land, it was time to hear a lecture on communication in conservation. Happily, the talk was delivered in one of the conference rooms at the hotel, and we were able to purchase nice cold Cokes before sitting down. These tasted wonderful after 2 hot hours in the sun. As it turned out, the caffeine was also a nice bonus, since the talk was a bit on the dull side. I had been pretty excited to hear what the speaker had to say, since I am so interested in science communication. Ironically, though, this particular speaker was not very dynamic, and soon there were drooping eyelids all over the room. Several different people were jolted back into consciousness after their limp hands released notebooks and/or pens that clattered loudly to the ground. It was a relief to finally be released so we could head back up the hill for our lunch.

Our afternoon trip involved a trek out to a flower and chameleon farm somewhere on the far side of Naivasha, about an hour and a half away. Shortly after departing our campsite, on the outskirts of town, our bus passed quite a scene on the side of the road; we were a bit perturbed, to say the least, to discover that one of the buses in our convoy was at the heart of the activity. There it was, surrounded by people banging at the windows and shouting; the whole scene was being surveyed by at least two members of the Kenyan army, both holding semiautomatic rifles. Quickly, our driver pulled over, exited the bus, and ran back to join the fray. The drivers of our other buses did likewise, leaving seven buses-full of frightened mzungus completely unprotected. Given the size and apparent anger of the mob behind us, we were feeling very uneasy. However, the excitement was over about as quickly as it started, with everyone suddenly smiling and shaking hands and getting back in their seats. Our driver informed us that all the "protesters" had been military recruits on their way to an army facility; their escorts had apparently wanted to show off a bit, and had therefore pulled over our bus for no reason. Once the driver requested that the local police (who had the real authority) be called in, the military backed down and we were sent on our way.

The drive to the chameleon farm, which began with some interesting pastoral scenery, quickly passed into the awkward and uncomfortable phase as we left paved roads and found ourselves on some of the most pothole-ridden tracks imaginable. It appeared as though none of our drivers actually knew where they were supposed to go, and our driver (who was in the lead) kept having to stop and ask locals if we were on the correct road--a road which, I should say, basically appeared to be somebody's incredibly long driveway. Then, at last, we arrived at the gate. At this point, we had to wait about 15 minutes while we negotiated our entry. For some reason, everywhere we went, we seemed always to have to wait an eternity to gain entrance to places, even though our trips had been arranged months in advance, had been double-checked a few days before our arrival, and had been confirmed on that morning. I am told that this is a third-world-country thing; all I know is, it's really frustrating.

The point of visiting the chameleon farm was to learn about how some local businesses are trying to establish and maintain healthy relationships with local wildlife. Throughout Kenya, illegal harvesting of wildlife (either dead or alive) has long been a problem, particularly because the poverty is so extreme that people will try anything, regardless of the potential punishment they might face if caught. The chameleon farm had been established in addition to a preexisting business--a flower farm. Conveniently, the owners of the farm could simply seal off some of their greenhouses, introduce a few wild-caught specimens, and then let them breed and prosper on their own. It was a nifty little system allowing the farmers to make quite a bit of money off each chameleon sold without having to invest too much capital up front. Even better, they only sold chameleons that were three or four generations removed from nature; thus, from a relatively small selection of wild chameleons, they had produced a fairly good number of captive-bred individuals who never knew what they were missing. It may not be a flawless plan, but it certainly is better than poaching.

I'm sure the farm owner/manager had fascinating things to say about all this, but I was unable to hear anything from my position at the back of the group. Interestingly, this is not because I was all that far away; rather, it's because Kenyan people speak amazingly quietly. Time and again, we encountered this problem when our group sat down to hear lectures from the locals. I mentioned this to our documentarian, who had been filming and recording all of the talks. She said that the sound level meters confirmed my observations--in some cases, the Kenyans were at least half as loud as we mzungus were, requiring her to adjust the recording volumes. I have no idea if there is some cultural explanation for this.

Luckily for me, the visit to the farm included not just an oral portion, but also the opportunity to go into the greenhouses and search for chameleons. After trying for a few minutes to locate one of the reptiles on our own, we finally had to get assistance from one of the farmers. He reached into the bushes and pulled a chameleon out right in front of our eyes, which was incredible; we'd obviously been staring at it all along but had been fooled by its camouflage. We were given crickets to feet to the chameleons so we could see their tongue-reflex action; we were also allowed to pose with our new friends:

(A horned chameleon deciding whether it's worth the effort to flick his tongue out and catch the cricket. In the end, he decided to forego the snack.)

(This guy was pretty lethargic whilst sitting in the bush, but suddenly got very energetic after being allowed to roam all over our shoulders and heads. I don't think it was so much the shared warmth as the urge to find refuge from these strange, two-legged beasts.)

After I was done torturing the chameleons with my attention, I headed back up to the buses to chat with a couple of the other lecturers, who were charming a group of local children by showing them how to use binoculars and scopes. I think that several of the children (if not all) had never used binoculars in their lives; nor had a couple of the adults who were accompanying them. The surprise and delight on their faces was unmistakable; it was impossible not to feel happy just watching them. Two new children came up shortly after I arrived and, seeing my binoculars still around my neck, one of them said "Give me!" I was surprised that the kids knew any English, but it makes sense that they would be familiar with that phrase--it can be used with great success on many tourists. After I handed over my binos, I watched the two children trade them back and forth; while one looked through them, the other would patiently wait until it was his turn. I was impressed with how unselfish they were, and fair: Both children used the binoculars for about the same amount of total time, then handed them back to me when they were done and walked off without a word. The whole encounter was so matter-of-fact it felt like a business transaction.

During the bus ride home, I asked my bus driver about the shirt he was wearing--a Cleveland Indians baseball jersey. He told me that he likes baseball and sometimes plays it back home in his village. Imagine his surprise when I told him that the team whose jersey he was wearing were my own "local" team from back home in the US! I am perpetually surprised by what a small world it is.

After we returned to camp, we had dinner and then an hour-long seminar, in which the students discussed some of the conservation issues that we'd encountered thus far in the journey. I was very impressed by how many of them were absorbing so much information; it would have been easy to simply come and be a tourist checking off species on a list, but these guys were obviously paying attention and thinking hard.

Eventually, my husband and his students arrived, though they'd been incredibly delayed by a broken-down bus. The students were forced to set their tents up in the dark, which is always a chore and a challenge--you can't see where the ground slopes, where your tent poles go, or whether you're about to step down on a giant acacia thorn. As it turns out, darkness also makes it quite dangerous to make trips to the bathroom, as I was to learn later that night. I used a shortcut to climb back up to my banda, and because I wasn't shining my flashlight up high enough, I failed to see a branch that was hanging right at eye level. Luckily my eye was shut when I made contact, but the blow was hard enough to make me see spots, and to immediately raise a huge egg on my temple. I quickly developed a throbbing headache in response to the blow and I tried to examine myself in my tiny mirror in order to see how serious the damage was. The lighting was not good enough for me to make any judgment calls, so I went to bed with my fingers crossed that I would wake up whole and healthy in the morning.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Kenya 2011: Lake Nakuru

Needless to say, after managing to get almost no sleep the night before, I was not particularly thrilled to wake up at 4:45 AM to embark on our first day of safari in Kenya. I took some consolation in the fact that, because I had a private banda with my own running water, I was, at least, able to start my day with a refreshing sink bath and clean hair. Enjoying, as I was, the privilege of being able to clean myself, I took a little extra time to get over to the mess area for breakfast. Imagine my surprise when I arrived, a mere 10 minutes after breakfast was scheduled to be served, and found that there was no food left. Consider the fact that I'd skipped the previous evening's dinner because it was completely unpalatable. Consider also the fact that nothing affects my mood more than a lack of food, except maybe a lack of sleep. Now you are beginning to understand the attitude with which I greeted the third day of my trip in Kenya.

Luckily for me, one of the highlights of Lake Nakuru is its incredible diversity and richness of bird life, and there are few things that can improve my mood like doing some good bird watching. I was able to add several species to my list just while standing in the parking lot outside the gates to the park, which is always a good sign. Of course, other taxa were also on hand:

(A vervet monkey in the parking lot at Lake Nakuru. I always think that monkeys are incredibly cute from a distance, but then a little creepy up close--they are so humanoid, kind of like little precocious human babies, but with fur and long tails.)

For the first time, we popped up the roofs of our buses so that we could get a good view of the terrain:

(Our convoy entering the park.)

The open roofs allow you to obtain an unobstructed view of the wildlife and also get a much more distant view of the habitat, so you can spy things on the horizon. The only problem is that it can get a bit rough if (when) the vehicle drives over bumpy ground; without the seat and the seatbelt to anchor you, you will almost definitely bang into the bus or your fellow passengers. We quickly learned that the best thing to do was sit down as soon as we saw a hill, a patch of mud, or a pothole. In the beginning, we also occasionally ducked down in order to avoid particularly thick patches of dust that had been kicked up by the vehicles in front of us. After a while, though, we realized what a pointless battle that was (after we returned from Kenya, it took me three days before I was no longer Q-tipping red Kenyan soil from my ears).

The first animals we encountered inside the park were several species of antelope (impala, Thomson's gazelles, Grant's gazelles) and baboons. For some reason, I found myself completely uninterested in the antelopes, though I am normally pretty excited to see any new species for the first time. Perhaps this is because most of the specimens we saw were behaving in a fairly boring manner (they basically did nothing but munch on grass and occasionally scan for predators). Regardless, it's a shame that I ended up ignoring them for as long as I did, because they're actually very striking in a graceful, delicate sort of way. It was much easier to enjoy the baboons, who were engaged in all sorts of interesting activities. We saw baboon troops often during our journey around Kenya, but they never got old; there's always someone eating, someone fighting with someone else, someone grooming someone else, a baby or juvenile romping around wreaking havoc, a mother with a baby clinging on to her stomach, a male putting a subordinate in its place. And, again, you can't help but feel that you're watching tiny, furry humans:

(Adult and young baboon feeding at the side of the road. The adult here has almost, but not quite, perfected the quintessential baboon pose: Tilting the head sideways and looking back over one shoulder in an air of disdainful contemplation. This posture makes them seem like spoiled rich people who can't believe you've had the audacity to disturb them. Indeed, the baboons at Lake Nakuru generally appeared to think they owned the park, strolling across the road in front of our vehicles and getting out of the way only at the last possible second, affecting a posture that said, "You can go when I'm ready to let you go.")

I was immediately quite smitten with the baboons and so was staring at them quite intently through the window. By chance, I happened to be studying one who glanced up and looked back at me, causing us to make eye contact. Anyone who's ever seen documentaries about primates knows that this is a very serious occurrence--eye contact can be seen as a challenge, which can either be infuriating or frightening to an individual depending on its social rank. In this case, it appeared that the baboon in question was subordinate, as its response to our "moment" was unmistakably one of fear and discomfort: It jumped up and jerked back simultaneously, glancing nervously to each side, retreating from the roadside and carefully averting its eyes. I felt guilty for being so scary, but I was also excited to have had such a "connection" with a wild animal.

The next couple hours were devoted to birdwatching at various points along the perimeter of the lake. Because it is both shallow and saline, it is a prime spot for flamingo feeding and we saw thousands of the birds (of both the greater and lesser variety) standing knee-deep in the water. There were tons of other species, as well, from waders and shorebirds to terns, gulls, and raptors. I'm not sure we fully appreciated the spectacle until we saw it from above:

(View of Lake Nakuru from a lookout. The light-colored dots along the shoreline are mostly flamingos. In the small pool towards the right, there were a couple of ibises, and I think there was even a lounging hippo.)

As you can see from the photo above, the park includes quite a bit of grassland, scrub, and trees, which attract and provide for many non-avian species of wildlife. We also saw zebra, water buck, white rhinos, giraffes, and buffalo, to name a few:

(A procession of buffalo. One or two of them were giving rides to oxpeckers. I found that particularly exciting because every documentary about African wildlife always seems to feature oxpeckers, so it was great to see them in person. Now, if only I could have watched egrets sticking their heads in crocodiles' mouths in order to clean their teeth...I suppose that just gives me a reason to go back and visit again.)

Another species that immediately plucked my heartstrings was the warthog. Yes, this really is one of the most unattractive animals you can imagine, but it's unattractive in the "so-ugly-it's-cute" kind of way. Also, I have never seen an animal (including humans!) with such a proud, pugnacious posture. Everything about the body language of a warthog says, "Yes, it's me and I'm awesome, what are you going to do about it?" The young are also exceptionally appealing, partly because being smaller only makes them cuter, but also partly because they are so obviously mischievous. Adults and juveniles both seem incapable of locomotion that doesn't involve at least a trot; these animals seem constantly to be in motion, jogging, cantering, running, and always with their tails held straight in the air as though they are indignant over a recent insult. I would show you a picture of this, but nobody on earth (including myself and every other person whose photographs are cataloged in Google) appears to have obtained a decent photograph of this phenomenon. Suffice it to say, it is a priceless view. Also, did you know that the local word for "warthog" is "pumba," as in the name of the warthog in Disney's The Lion King? (While we're on this topic, did you also know that Simba's other friend, Timone, is a meerkat, who would never be found in the ecosystem featured in the movie, and that the captive singing bird is a toucan, who is not even from the correct continent? At least Disney got the warthog thing right.)

We spent several hours driving around the park; as midday approached, we were seeing fewer individuals and fewer new species. But, as if to produce evidence that Kenya is never dull, our driver soon set off in a breakneck pace after having a quick chat (in a local dialect) with the driver of a passing vehicle. We had no idea where we were going, but it was pretty obviously somewhere exciting. Eventually, we rounded a bend and came across a huge gathering of vultures, circling in the sky and perched in a massive tree. Obviously, there had recently been a lion kill, and these guys were ready to move in and clean up:

(Ruppell's griffon vultures and African white-backed vultures pouncing on a recently-abandoned carcass.)

When we first arrived, it appeared that this was the source of all the excitement, and that was fine with me. Vultures are probably my favorite group of birds (I know, warthogs and vultures, what kind of person am I?), so I was pretty excited to see these massive birds in action for the first time. But, as it turns out, the lions hadn't gone far and, as we watched, the last female to leave the kill came back as though she was undecided about having a bit more to eat. Then she turned away again, and as we looked off in the distance beyond her, we saw a string of her pride-mates walking off towards the horizon. At this point, our driver went into "earn-a-great-tip" mode and started speeding down the road, dodging all the other vehicles around us. After taking a turn and careening around a few bends, we suddenly found ourselves in front of the line of females we had previously been viewing from the back; the foremost female was walking towards us at a leisurely, unconcerned pace. I am still not sure whether our driver anticipated where the lions would walk or just got incredibly lucky, but several of the females sauntered so close to our car we could have (with a bit of flexibility) touched them through the window:

(Not the best photography in the world, but it shows how close we were to the lions--the white at the bottom is the nose of our vehicle...and my camera does not have a very powerful zoom.)

The whole time I was watching this scenario, I was thinking two main things:

1) None of it seemed real. My mind knew those were lions outside my door, yet I could not shake the feeling that I was watching a documentary. During the run-up to the Kenya trip, I kept thinking that it would be really amazing and powerful to see certain species of wildlife, such as lions, up close in the wild. It never occurred to me that it would feel exactly the same as seeing them in zoos or wild animal parks. Until there is absolutely no barrier at all--until you unzip your tent in the morning and find a lion lounging on your doorstep--it really doesn't feel "wild" at all. From the safety of the car, Kenya does not feel much different than, say, the Columbus Zoo. Weird.

2) I really didn't feel comfortable with the way we were interacting with the wildlife. I was in one of about 10 vehicles that eventually showed up at the scene, each battling to pull up a bit closer to the lions so that the occupants could get the best views and pictures. It felt incredibly intrusive. I kept wondering if our presence was altering or shaping the lions' behavior in any way; the idea that it wasn't was almost as disturbing as the idea that it was, since that would indicate that the animals were habituated to the presence of humans--that they were not quite as "wild" as they could be. Especially odd was the fact that our driver (who was, by the way, a maniac--a point which I will return to in future posts) was perfectly happy to leave after a few minutes, and chase down other, potentially more exciting, quarry. Even worse, everybody in our bus seemed to think this was a good idea. Now, I think it's perfectly acceptable to leave even the most wonderful sighting after 5 minutes or so, because that's kind of a rule-of-thumb in the ecotourism world in order to minimize disturbance. However, you can leave the immediate scene but withdraw to a binocular-friendly distance in order to watch the animals from afar; or, in our case, we could have gone back up to the site of the kill and watched the vultures. Instead, the whole scenario just boiled down to checking off one of the "Big 5" from our checklists and then moving on to track down one of the remaining four. So much for communing with nature or learning about animal behavior. Little did I know that my patience about this issue would be even further tested later in the trip.

After seeing the scene of the lion kill, it seemed appropriate to stop and have a bit of lunch for ourselves. For much of the trip, we were able to return to our campsite at lunchtime and have a hot midday meal; occasionally, though, we had to eat a packed lunch. This was our first experience with that format, and it was certainly interesting. Each person was given a large "pancake" folded in half twice (really, it was like a crepe, folded into the shape of a sno-cone), a hard-boiled egg, a packet of tea biscuits, and a juice--except that only 40 juices had been packed for 60 people, so many of us didn't get one. Our party also included people who could not eat eggs, gluten, and/or dairy, which meant that several people had little or no food to eat. To compound this problem, it was nearly 2 PM and breakfast had been served (to some of us, anyway, *ahem*) 8 1/2 hours previously; a few people had packed snacks and generously shared them with the rest of their bus-mates as we'd been on safari, but at the end of lunch many bellies were still grumbling.

After the meal we resumed our safari, but it was a bit half-hearted. By that point the heat was fairly intense, so most of the wildlife had retreated somewhere unobservable in order to nap until it got cooler. Those animals we did see were, again, the same species we'd been watching earlier, and we'd arrived at a more vegetated part of the park where our view was often obscured by shrubs and trees. As you might expect, there were many interesting birds in this habitat, but it was practically impossible to get our driver to stop so we could look at them; when he did stop, it was often just for a couple seconds, or was more of the "rolling stop" that you use at stop signs when it's 3 in the morning and nobody else is on the road. This was utterly infuriating, but, as I was to discover after chatting with people from the other vehicles, it was also the norm. The drivers are trained to give tourists what they want, but in most cases that is lions, leopards, giraffes, and rhinos; the average tourist couldn't care less about a bird unless it's extremely close, large, colorful, or rare. Thus, in trying to please us in the standard way, the drivers were actually failing to please us, and no amount of cajoling seemed to alter their behavior. (Lest you think I am being too critical of our drivers, let me say that in future blogs I will have wonderful things to say about some of them...just not this one, who really was a maniac. I once almost throttled him with my bare hands, but you will have to wait to find out about that.)

Our perfunctory after-lunch safari came to a rather rapid end, as we were hurriedly making our way to a back gate that conveniently let us out next to a curio-shop-plus-cafe. Throughout the trip, we did not stop at any curio shops that did not have attached cafes; nor did we stop at any cafes that did not have curio shops. These places are clearly made for the visiting mzungu, and we all knew it, but we all did the typical mzungu thing anyway and spend loads of money there. It's impossible not to. For one thing, they sell Coke--often, refrigerated Coke--and by the time you get there you are so thirsty and so hot that you would steamroll an old lady in order to get to the counter faster. For another thing, they have toilets--many are even flush toilets, with seats and/or toilet paper--and after hours in the bus you usually have to pee. Finally, for some reason, you just cannot avoid the urge to buy souvenirs. The more distant and exotic the place you're visiting, the more you feel the urge to buy something to take home as proof you were there; since Kenya is pretty distant and exotic, people had practically started souvenir shopping before they'd even gotten out of the buses.

We made a second shopping stop on our way back to the campsite, this time to a supermarket in Naivasha. This visit was truly a godsend, for two reasons. First, we could stock up on snacks to supplement the awful food we were being served by our cooks. I purchased two tins of fruit (oddly, the only canned fruit sold in the store was pineapple, which was one of the most common fresh fruits sold at local produce stands) and, in a stroke of genius that I would later celebrate, a jar of peanut butter. The second reason I was completely overjoyed to stop at the supermarket was that my bladder was absolutely bursting; I knew there was no way I could last the rest of the ride back to our campsite. Unfortunately, the store didn't seem to have a public toilet anywhere, so I had to go ask one of the clerks if there was a restroom I could use. That (male) clerk referred me to another (male) clerk, who then took me to a third (female) clerk, who escorted me into the bowels of the store, past many staring eyes, to what was obviously an employees-only restroom. I am not sure that I would have been given this privilege if I had not been a white foreigner who was assumed to have a lot of money, but I was extremely thankful. During our trip, the locals commonly showed us this type of kindness and thoughtfulness, and I do think that it was motivated by more than just the proximity of our money.

Back at the camp, we had a bit of spare time before dinner, so I wandered around doing a bit of birding. I also had to lead an informal seminar discussion among the students on my bus. Being both a behavioral ecologist and a conservationist, I thought it would be interesting to try to get these conservation-oriented students thinking a bit more about animal behavior. Thus, I asked them to consider some of the behaviors we'd seen during the safari, and talk about how they might inform or influence conservation strategies. For instance, some animals were primarily found in herds/flocks, while others were loners; this can influence, among other things, land use patterns and breeding behaviors, which are important things to consider when planning the size and shape of a reserve. I was rather surprised and disheartened to find that the students didn't really understand why it was important to think about behavior, or appreciate how a knowledge of animal behavior might be important when doing conservation work. The ensuing (off-topic) conversation somehow led us to a discussion--almost an argument--about how traditional cultural practices often counteract conservation efforts. I was again surprised by people's remarks--this time because nearly everyone was extremely narrow-minded and seemed to see things only in absolutes. I think this was a combination of naivete, idealism, ignorance, and maybe some misconception; whatever it was, I found it very disheartening.

Luckily, I received a bit of a pick-me-up at dinner. Our trip leader had pulled the chef aside to explain the concept of vegetarianism and to complain about the small portion sizes. As a result, we had an enormous quantity of delicious vegetarian lentil curry with fresh, homemade chapatis. With a belly that was finally full, and with eyelids that were leaden, I retreated to my banda for a bit of reading and a much-needed night of rest (spiders or no spiders).

Monday, 24 January 2011

Kenya 2011: Nairobi to Lake Naivasha

After the long day of travel required to reach Nairobi, you would think that the buzzing of the alarm clock would come way too early the following morning, especially given that Kenya is three hours head of UK (my body's) time. What you'd be failing to consider is the fact that, by the time the alarm went off, I'd already been lying listening to Hadada ibises screech outside my window for at least a half hour. As much as I love birds, that was not a pleasant way to wake up. It was good to get acquainted with this particular species early, though, since it was probably the most common bird we saw during our trip--flying overhead, sitting at the shorelines of lakes, grazing in fields with the cows, roosting along the skyline at night, hanging out on people's rooftops, etc.:

(Hadada ibis, which can easily be discerned from its relative, the glossy ibis, since it has iridescence only on its wings and not over its entire body. Thanks to P&H Harris and the website for this photo.)

We spent the morning gearing up for the day's main objective--dividing ourselves into two major groups depending on type of MS degree, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology or Conservation--and then dispersing to Mt. Kenya and Lake Naivasha, respectively. For the students' benefit, we had organizational meetings to introduce ourselves and answer all their questions; we also sat through an incredibly long and detailed talk given by a Kenya Wildlife Service official (it was the first of several incredibly long and detailed talks we would endure, given by people who obviously knew a lot of interesting information but didn't have much experience sharing it with students). At last, it was time to head out, and I was assigned to my first group of students: Bus 5. Several of these students had participated in the First Aid course I'd been forced to take to prepare for the trip, so it was nice to see some familiar faces. It turned out that one of the girls got incredibly carsick, so I was forced to relinquish my front seat and take up position in the second row back, thus increasing the likelihood that I might get sick instead. Luckily--indeed, miraculously--I managed to avoid carsickness on this and every other ride during our 2-week stay in the country. Given the state of the roads, the lunacy of some of our drivers, the propensity of livestock to dash out in front of the vehicle with no warning, and the fact that I can get ill in a 5-minute drive to the grocery store, this really was an unbelievable achievement.

Driving through the city was interesting because it was our first look at the kind of hustle and bustle that occurred in Nairobi during the daylight hours. This was our first exposure to the street vendors who walk around in the middle of the streets--literally, in the middle of busy roads and intersections, regardless of how much traffic was hurtling past. This was also the first time we noticed how the sight of our white skin invited a flurry of activity at the windows of our vehicles, since it was generally assumed that all white foreigners needed and wanted to spend an excess of money.

One of the things I also noticed, with a bit of surprise, was how many people--women, in particular--walked around in traditional dress:

(An example of the sort of traditional dress we often saw. Note the bright colors and tulip-shaped skirt with matching blouse. Many of the dresses also had giant, puffy-shouldered sleeves, and the women often wore a matching head wrap. I'm sure all of these features have names, but I was unable to find out what they are.)

I was also shocked at how many men were wearing full suits and not even sweating in the 80- and 90-degree heat. Likewise, a number of individuals were sporting long pants and long sleeves and even sweaters and coats. Everywhere I looked there were people with knitted winter caps, even in the middle of the day. This was truly mind-boggling, considering that I was sweating while wearing shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops.

Another surprising feature of the scenery was, as I mentioned previously, donkeys. In a single day, I saw more donkeys than I'd seen during the preceding 29 years of my existence. Sadly, many of the city donkeys looked a bit worse for wear, but their country counterparts were noticeably healthier. What was particularly odd about the donkeys was that they often appeared to be completely free-range--you'd look out the window to just find them meandering along, untethered and un-looked-after, munching grass along the way. For obvious reasons, the number and variety of livestock increased the further we drove out of the city; soon there were herds of goats, flocks of chickens, pigs, those strange, bony African cows that look nothing like their European and American counterparts, geese, and turkeys.

Inevitably, we passed a slum-like area on the outskirts of town, but I have the feeling it was more a place where incredibly poor people live than a place where dangerous criminals reside. In an American city, for instance, its counterpart might be the "wrong-side-of-the-tracks" area where a few homes are condemned and all the others have peeling paint, as opposed to being an actual ghetto or project. Whatever it was, it was certainly bustling, in a surprisingly homey sort of way--children playing, women washing clothes and preparing food, residents of both sexes manning stands where they sold charcoal, fruit, sugar cane, and other assorted wares. Our brief drive-by was enough to make it obvious that most (if not all) of the homes had dirt floors, no running water, and little to no electricity; many appeared to be hand-made from scraps of metal and wood found discarded somewhere in the city. Consider again my suggestion that this was not the worst condition to be found, and that it was fairly similar to conditions we observed among thousands (probably millions) of other people encountered during our trip; consider also the fact that, in Kenya, this was not considered abnormal or unacceptable. Just goes to show how vastly different the cultural norm can be in countries that, in other ways, have many things in common.

Not everything we saw was sad or dilapidated, though. There were native plants everywhere we looked, along the streets, in front of buildings, in-between homes. The flowers were in bloom in a myriad of colors, and giant palm trees and succulents were sprouting everywhere. The buildings were painted in a rainbow of happy hues, and much of the architecture reflected the fact that Kenya was once a British colony. Although there was a general air of minor run-down-ness, everything was so bright that it exuded a unique sort of charm and welcome. If you have ever been to the Caribbean, you will know what I mean (only there it is the harsh sea winds that contribute to the run-down-ness, rather than the intense heat and dust of Kenya).

Our journey out of Nairobi and into the countryside makes more sense if you see a map of the area through which we were traveling:

(A map of Kenya. To the northwest of Nairobi you will notice Lake Naivasha, where we camped for several days, and Lake Nakuru, the site of our first safari the morning after our journey out of Nairobi. Getting to both lakes requires driving into the mountains (which are not much higher than Nairobi, at 1729 meters above sea level) and then dropping down into the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of humankind.)

We drove for about an hour and a half through an increasingly pastoral landscape before taking a potty break at a lookout with an amazing view of the Great Rift Valley, over which an impressive storm was brewing:

(The Great Rift Valley. Off to the right you'll notice thickening clouds that presaged a dust-defeating rainfall. The sounds of thunder were rolling across the valley while we stood and watched the storm come in. I was excited that, just like Toto, I might get to see iconic "the rains down in Africa" after fewer than 24 hours in the country.)

During our stop, we did some some impromptu birding and easily managed to see about 10 species in as many minutes, including one of the country's famous sunbirds. We also saw house sparrows, proving that they really are pretty much everywhere that people are. Just before we piled back into the buses, we caught sight of some Sykes' monkeys sneaking around in the bushes. As my husband says, there is something fantastic about hearing a rustle in the vegetation and looking up to see not a squirrel, but a monkey.

We finally reached our destination at around 3 PM and had an incredibly late lunch. By that time I was absolutely starving, having last eaten at 7 AM, but I was so transfixed by the bird life in the camp that I had to put food on hold for a little while longer. One of the new species I encountered was this fellow:

(A purple grenadier, one of the many waxbills that I was to eventually see while birding in Kenya. How can one bird need so much color? This, and the incredible diversity and richness, is why it's fun to birdwatch in the tropics.)

At dusk, we walked down the hill to Lake Naivasha and did a bit more birdwatching by the shoreline, while also keeping our eyes open for any hippos that might be coming in to shore to begin an evening of herbivory on the lawn. Alas, no large, charismatic African mammals surfaced just yet, but we were alerted by the locals to the presence of a pair of Verreaux's eagle-owls. Although the lighting was poor, we did eventually find the massive birds perched in the top of a giant snag, getting prepared for a night on the prowl.

Back up at the camp, we listened to a short talk on flamingos so that we would be prepared for the thousands we'd see during our trip to Lake Nakuru the following day. Dinner was served just afterward but it turned out to be the same, uninspiring, non-vegetarian-friendly thing I'd been forced to eat at lunch, and I just couldn't make myself partake. This was to prove the beginning of a long and arduous struggle that many of us had during the trip. The cooks could not seem to understand the concept of vegetarianism, which, in all fairness, I completely understand--in a country and on a continent where people routinely starve to death for lack of food, why would anyone turn down perfectly good meat? Nevertheless, with my incredibly sensitive stomach, the threat of having to lock myself in a long-drop outhouse, and the necessity of successfully weathering long hours on the road in a small bus with 6 students, I just couldn't take the risk of feeling ill. At the same time, I could only tolerate so many meals of plain, overcooked pasta and a spoonful of cooked carrots and peas, no matter how hungry I was. Fresh fruits and vegetables were sorely missed. Luckily, I had packed several days' worth of snacks, so I was able to sort myself out for a while, at least.

Besides, I was so tired by this point that I didn't even care that much about eating anyway. All I wanted to do was sleep, but this didn't turn out so well, either. As exhausted as I was, I found it practically impossible to drift off. Partly this was because, as far as my body clock was concerned, it was still only 6 PM. It also didn't help that, as I was preparing for bed, several giant house spiders appeared on the walls of my banda (cabin):

(At the risk of sounding arachnophobic, which I am not, or just simply wimpy, let me just state for the record that these were not welcome visitors.)

I knew, in my biologist's brain, that these spiders didn't want to have anything to do with me. They just wanted to go outside, spend the night hunting for insects, then tuck themselves into a dark corner once the sun came back out. All the same, instinct kicked in and told me that I needed to be wary and vigilant, because spiders do not make good neighbors. I pulled my bed out from the wall (as though they couldn't have crawled up the legs if they'd wanted to), I curled myself into a little ball in the middle of my sleeping bag, and I pulled the covers up over my head. I still couldn't sleep. After enough time had gone by, I eventually had to pee. Then I had to pee again. And again. This is the rule of camping: When the bathroom is far away, outside, in the dark, and it's cold, you will have to pee at least thrice as often as you normally would at home. Because I had my iPhone on next to my bed (it was serving as my alarm clock), I watched the sleepless hours slowly tick past. All in all, I got about an hour or an hour and a half of sleep, at most. Unfortunately, this did not put me in the best mood for enjoying Lake Nakuru the following day; fortunately, the rest of the trip was so busy that this was the last time I would have any trouble falling asleep.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Kenya 2011: A visit to the motherland

Because I am the luckiest person in the world, I was invited to be a guest instructor-slash-chaperone on a conservation-oriented field course to Kenya, despite the fact that I've never been to the country or, in fact, any other country on the continent of Africa. In my defense, I do actually do conservation research, thus I was (theoretically) capable of making some sort of contribution to the education of the 50 or so Master's students on the trip.

I immediately accepted the invitation, and only later investigated details of the trip and the country. To my surprise, I found out that Kenya can actually be a dangerous place to travel to, a fact of which I had previously been unaware. As is the case in most developing countries, travelers should not be ostentatious about jewelry or gadgets (such as my beloved traveling companion, the iPhone), and should keep a close watch on their money, credit cards, and passports. I was a bit unsettled after discovering this, but then I remember that this was pretty much the same warning I was given before my high school trip to Paris, where thieving Gypsies had a reputation for preying upon members of my school's annual French class field trip group.
Kenyans may also steal from tourists in more subtle ways--vendors routinely charge "mzungus" (a slang term for outsiders of European descent) exorbitant fees for products and services, though prices can be reduced via haggling, if you are willing.

Humans are not the only danger in Kenya, of course. In a country with leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, lions, and hippos, animal attacks are not unheard of, though are probably unlikely for the average, careful visitor, who generally experiences nature from a comfy seat in a 4x4. Across all of Africa, the most common and feared animal is the mosquito, and antimalarial pills must be consumed for the duration of a visit to Kenya. Likewise, it is necessary to get vaccinations for, at a minimum, yellow and typhoid fevers; hepatitis and rabies vaccines are also recommended. Cumulatively, this requires over a half dozen (sometimes very uncomfortable) shots and a couple hundred dollars. Once in the country, additional health-related precautions are required; it is only safe to drink bottled water or water that has been boiled, even when simply brushing your teeth. Fruits and vegetables should only be consumed after being thoroughly washed (with disinfectant) in clean water, which means that the average traveler should only eat produce that has been cooked or has come from a can (a true shame in a country with such a bounty of fresh papayas, pineapples, mangoes, and plums, sold to you directly through your car window).

Even the most careful traveler may still succumb to some foreign bug or another, so most tourists are advised to pack a small pharmacy including, at a minimum, anti-inflammatories and anti-diarrhea medication. A personal supply of toilet paper is also recommended, as the bulk of public toilets are not outfitted with this particular amenity. Nor, for that matter, do most of them have seats or even commodes:

(Standard toilet found throughout Kenya; this one was at Lake Nakuru. Elsewhere in the world, this style of toilet may be referred to as a "Turkish" or "Indian" toilet, or, more generally, a "long drop." I prefer the incredibly eloquent name I gave these a young girl--"hole-in-the-ground" toilets, of which I have had a life-long fear; for obvious reasons, I was forced to overcome that phobia in Kenya.)

Surprisingly, one can become accustomed to this setup rather quickly, though ladies will likely have to take an unexpected crash course in aiming.

Since our trip was all about biology, ecology, and conservation, most of our time was spent communing with nature and sleeping in tents. This required a host of other important supplies, including sunglasses, heavy sunscreen, powerful bug spray, flashlights and/or headlamps, sleeping bags, travel pillows, travel towels, emergency first aid and sewing kits, and both warm and waterproof clothes for early mornings and late nights. It's also a good idea to have a hat, since the near-equatorial sun can really blaze down on your unprotected scalp. The length of the entire trip was 2 weeks, but space limitations required that each person bring only a single standard-size hiking backpack or similarly-sized duffel/suitcase. For the most part, this meant that everyone packed 15 pairs of undies and socks but then recycled the rest of their clothing. I was able to fit in 15 different tops, but only 4 pairs of pants, which meant that I, like most of the students, had to do a bit of in-sink laundry along the way.

Most tourists will require a visa in order to enter the country, though it is not necessary to procure one ahead of time using the conventional visit-the-embassy or send-in-your-passport method. Conveniently, travelers can simply visit the visa desk once they land in the airport (which, in my case, was in Nairobi), and purchase a visa for a reasonable $25 US (by which I mean, you actually pay in US dollars, despite the fact that the country's currency is the Kenyan shilling; go figure). The process is surprisingly quick and easy. When I went through, the only delay was associated with the immigration officer's surprise at my unusual and difficult-to-pronounce name. After having a chuckle over it, he told me he'd need to practice it for a while so he could say it better next time. Oddly, next to the immigration desk was a flat-screen TV showing news footage being broadcast live from elsewhere in the airport; the body of a deceased Kenyan national had been flown back into the country and was being picked up, in the midst of much media coverage, just a few doors down from where we stood.

The next important thing to take care of was currency. I had known that the visa would be purchased in dollars, so I entered the country with my own currency in pocket. The easiest way to get local currency is simply to visit an ATM and withdraw money directly. The only problem with this, as I soon discovered, was that I had no idea what the exchange rate was and therefore had no idea how much money I was actually withdrawing. Fortunately, I knew that there was quite a high dollars-to-shillings ratio, so I initially withdrew 5000 shillings, or approximately $60. On the transaction receipt, I saw that I had a remaining 225,000 or so shillings in my account; after doing the math, I realized approximately how much I'd withdrawn, and that it wouldn't be enough for the whole trip, so I took out another 10,000 shillings. It was nice to look at my wealth in terms of "thousands" and "hundreds of thousands" of units, however briefly and misleadingly.

In the course of locating the ATM and procuring money, I had my first encounter with what was generally a ubiquitous phenomenon during our trip: People who really want your money getting up in your face in an attempt to sell you something. In the two minutes it took me to walk from the terminal door to the cash machine, I was accosted by at least a half dozen people promising to get me where I needed to go, help me find whatever I was looking for, and insisting that I could trust them. Later on, these individuals would be replaced by people selling items rather than services. At first, it is very unsettling and uncomfortable for a Westerner, since, for the most part, we do not have encounters like this in our daily lives. However, it quickly becomes the norm and you find it much easier to firmly but politely tell people to back off and leave you alone.

Because of the timing of our flight, we happened to arrive in Nairobi at night, which was to our advantage. During the daytime it is teeming with traffic--cars, bikes, people on donkey-drawn carts, pedestrians. A haze of smoke hangs over the city, thanks to wood fires and thousands of environmentally-unsound car engines. The air is filled with the noise of vehicles, hawkers, birds, calls to prayer (60% of the population is Muslim), and whatever else you can think of. Your eyes can be as overwhelmed as your ears; buildings, clothes, animals, and plants are all found in a huge variety of intense colors and textures. But at night, the city is relatively calm and quiet, so we were able to proceed directly to our hotel, looking out the car windows at Hadada ibises roosting in the tops of trees. It's not a journey I would recommend for people who don't know where they are going and/or don't have a trusted driver. As we were to see the following day during our drive out of Nairobi, the city contains some pretty severe slums; an accidental wrong turn or a scheming chauffeur could easily land you somewhere you'd much rather avoid.

It is probably a good time for me to say that none of this really surprised me all that much, perhaps because I'd recently visited a similar developing country (Brazil), had recently read an in-depth book about the slums of Mombai, and have experienced a lifetime of images of the worst of Africa (an unfair media technique which, on the up side, makes all the normal bits of the continent seem very upscale). On one hand, as a traveler you are often tempted to compare your destination with your origin; on the other hand, there are some times when you know that these two places are in totally different categories. This is definitely the case with Kenya and, as far as I can tell from discussions with other travelers, much of Africa. Things there simply happen in a different way, at a different pace; your expectations therefore shift. The toilets are a good example. When you leave home you think a great toilet is one where you wave your hand in front of a sensor and have it flush automatically for you; in Kenya a great toilet is a long drop that has a solid concrete floor instead of a rickety wooden one, or simply one that doesn't have pee splashed around the foot rests. That's not a complaint or a judgment of the situation, but simply a fact of life.

Our Nairobi hotel room is another case in point:

(A picture of my husband's and my Nairobi hotel room. Notice the MacGyver-like jerry-rigging on the mosquito net on the right--that was necessary in order to make the netting long enough to actually reach the mattress; I was pretty proud of my problem-solving skills. Also notice the water bottle in the foreground--an essential part of the Kenya experience!)

It was, by US and UK standards, probably in the one- to two-star range, but by Kenyan standards had three or four stars--this despite the fact that the bathroom featured only a shower, which only had cold water (a foreshadowing of the following two weeks), and, like elsewhere, the water was not potable. There weren't spiders or bats or toads in the bathroom, as there were elsewhere (which, really, I would think any good field biologist should enjoy), there was a solid concrete floor, doors and windows that locked, mosquito netting over the beds (remember, this is a country where people still die from malaria because they have no netting at all), electricity with extra outlets for plugging in electronics, and even a television. I was informed by my colleagues that normally the Nairobi hotel visit comes at the end of the field course, when students more readily appreciate its humble charms since they are comparing it to the previous two weeks of camping, rather than to their homes back in the UK. As I said--one's expectations completely change.

In my humble opinion, this is, in many ways, a good thing. For one, it forces you to realize the luxuries you have back home that you completely take for granted--electricity, heating, air conditioning, a refrigerator, running water, a lack of life-threatening wildlife, etc. For another, it also forces you to realize that there are millions of people who live at what Western society would call a substandard level. You have to think about why that is the case; it's a complex mixture of biology, anthropology, history, and contemporary politics and economics. Furthermore, you have to evaluate whether that level really is substandard. In some ways, it obviously is--nobody should go without running water, or not have access to something as cheap, simple, and life-giving as a mosquito net. But in other ways, it isn't--for instance, despite the prevalence of monetary poverty (again, by our standards), the Kenyan people are miles ahead of the Americans in terms of setting conservation goals, protecting natural resources, and attempting to resolve human-wildlife conflicts--and they are both aware, and proud of, this achievement. It all comes down to what you value, and to what is actually physically necessary for a comfortable and happy life; with the exception of a basic amount of food and water that is required to sustain the human body, these things are up for interpretation and can shift throughout one's lifetime. One of the fascinating things about traveling is that, in seeing how others live, you better examine your own lifestyle from someone else's perspective.

As you may see by now, a trip to the motherland (or, as my husband calls it, "Mama Africa") can be a thought-provoking experience. But it is impossible to think too deeply at midnight after a full day of travel, which was my condition when I arrived at the hotel in the Nairobi. Thus, after having a brief buffet dinner (including some forbidden fresh fruit, because I felt like living on the wild side) and a quick cold shower, I was more than ready to sleep under the mosquito netting and gather a bit of energy for the long journey to Lake Naivasha the following day.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Valley of the Giants, Western Australia

Driving south from Denham to Denmark took remarkably longer than we anticipated, thanks to traffic congestion, windy roads, the ever-present threat of suicidal kangaroos, and misguidance from the world's worst GPS unit. This was a real shame, because some of the country that we were tensely racing through, in an effort to get to our accommodations before closing time, was incredibly lovely. The further south we drove, the more lush the habitat became, with rolling hills and patches of forest and meadows with ibis grazing alongside the cows; this was certainly not the arid Australia that you have seen painted in earth tones in movies such as Crocodile Dundee or Australia. We passed through some incredibly quaint towns, the likes of which you might almost expect to find in New England--old-fashioned looking main streets with stylish boutiques and restaurant/cafes. This unexpected bit of country chic derives from the fact that this region is part of Australia's wine country and therefore entertains visiting yuppies who come for holidays consisting of fine drinking and dining and a couple nights in posh country cabins. I only wish we'd had more time to browse the shops and have a snack, because it all looked quite enjoyable.

As a consolation prize, however, we received an incredible celestial show while driving through a rather open part of the landscape. Just before diving into the forest for good, we caught side of the moon rising over a distant ridge. It was unbelievably huge, clear, and intensely bright. I would have taken a picture except that it's the kind of view that never translates well into a photograph--the best kind of souvenir, since it's irreplaceable.

In the end, we didn't make it to the Nornalup Riverside Chalets office before its owners went out for a night of dancing, but they were kind enough to leave our key in the door so we could let ourselves in. At the end of a long day of driving, our chalet was quite a nice find:

(My husband outside the cabin on the day of our departure.)

The refrigerator and pantry had been stocked with tea supplies so we could have a nice relaxing drink after arriving; we'd brought leftover food with us from Denham, so we didn't need to worry about cooking. Perhaps more importantly, the bathroom featured a jacuzzi-style tub so that I could have a nice bubble bath. The best feature was the wall of sliding-glass doors leading onto our patio; not too exciting at night, but in the morning I was able to draw back the curtains and watch all the birds from our lawn down to the river at the foot of the slope in front of the chalet:

(Our lawn, leading down to a small garden and the Frankland River.)

Lots of interesting avifauna pranced about in our yard, and I barely had to work to add several new species to the trip list, including waterfowl, songbirds, and parrots.

Just as we were preparing to make our way out to the main local attraction--the Treetop Walk, the whole reason I had wanted to visit--we experienced a sudden downpour. However, we were on a tight schedule and were determined to see the sights while we could, so we donned our rain gear to brave the weather. While I was waiting for my husband to get ready, I spied the namesake of our chalet ("The Blue Wren") flitting about the flowering bushes just outside our door--a male splendid fairy wren, soon joined by his female:

(A male splendid fairy wren, photograph courtesy of

I was so excited and enthralled that I didn't even think of grabbing my camera; fairy wrens are famous amongst behavioral ecologists, as well as being such delightfully attractive birds that even the least ornithologically-inclined person would have to coo a little at the sight of them. I later bought a fairy wren bookmark so I could commemorate the event.

After I recovered from the excitement of the fairy wren sighting, we took off for our adventure in the nearby tingle tree forest, where a series of platforms had been erected so that visitors could enjoy the wildlife without stomping on the trees' sensitive roots:

(The Treetop Walk, as seen from the treetops.)

I had been anticipating this particular trip since reading Bill Bryson's account of the attraction, but the minute I started walking up the ramp into the tree canopy, I began to feel incredibly nervous. The whole framework vibrated with every footstep I took, and I was aware of the slight swaying of the boardwalk as I moved. The warning signs didn't make me feel any better, either, though I knew I was just being overly-sensitive:

(I spent the entire time counting the other people near me, and moving along at a precision pace designed to maintain my distance from other visitors.)

However, as our Jurien Bay landlady had said, the platforms had been perfectly safe for many years prior to our visit, so there was no reason to think that they would collapse on the very day we happened to be walking on them. All the same, I was feeling a bit too vertiginous to fully enjoy myself, which was a shame because it really was a unique experience. At least my husband had the pleasure of recording some video footage of me looking green about the gills, and subsequently showing it to everyone to prove what a big baby I can be:

(Documenting my white-knuckled approach to creeping along the walkway while gripping both railings simultaneously--as though that would make any difference if the platform actually did collapse...)

Once we'd finished walking in the canopy, we also got the chance to trek around on the forest floor, still on an elevated boardwalk. We could poke our heads into the trunks of the tingle trees, which go hollow after many years as a result of insects, humidity, and sometimes fire/lightning; it is the massive, incredibly strong roots that keep the huge trees standing despite their top-heaviness. I have never been to California to experience the redwoods, but standing in the tingle tree forest was a pretty good start.

(Me, enjoying the view inside the base of a hollowed-out tingle tree.)

By the time we'd done with our tour, the weather had begun to improve enough that we could consider renting a canoe from our landlords in order to paddle up the Frankland River. In fact, by the time we hit the water, the sun was actually poking its head out of the clouds and causing us to work up a bit of a sweat as we wielded our paddles. Or, should I say, as my husband wielded his paddle--despite my experience kayaking, I'm a pretty terrible canoeist, and I seem to do more harm than good in terms of affecting our trajectory, so I was limited to only the occasional paddle and instead spent most of my time looking for bird life. This gave me the opportunity to spy some impressive cockatoos hiding in the trees, which is much more fun than paddling, anyway.

(Sunset on the Frankland River--not a bad view.)

After we returned to the chalet and stowed the canoe, we spied kookaburras stationed in our front yard. All the locals told us what a pest species the kookaburra was, since the birds were quite happy to live near humans, and were so successful that they pushed other species out. Regardless, I found them pretty interesting to watch, and soon my husband and I were both entranced by the sight of a family of five of the giant kingfishers dive-bombing the lawn in order to catch subterranean insects. While a couple of them preferred to hunt from perches, like "normal" kingfishers, several others stood on the ground with cocked heads, just like American robins, listening for sounds of movement and then doing dramatic little hop-dives in order to plunge their bills under the soil to grab prey.

The following morning we had to take off fairly early in order to begin the long drive back up to Perth to drop off the car and check in for the International Society for Behavioral Ecology conference. There isn't too much to report about the remainder of our trip, which was spent being nerdy (and, in my case, contracting a stomach bug, as per usual when I am traveling). However, I should say that Perth seemed like a remarkably clean and safe city, such that none of us felt uncomfortable going out for dinner and drinks after dark. There was also a lovely shopping area several blocks away from the conference center, where I went to pick up some groceries and buy some native-made souvenirs for friends and family back home. We located this area on our first night in town as we traipsed about looking for place to eat. Imagine our surprise to find a little bit of home in the middle of this distant city halfway around the world:

(My husband poses under an English shield at Perth's London Court.)

There was also a huge staircase leading from the sidewalk near our hotel up into King's Park; this was called Jacob's Ladder, and was reminiscent of the massive, similarly-named staircase back home in Falmouth. Unlike Falmouth, however, Perth featured an interesting restaurant called "The Greenhouse," which, as you can see, is a very apt title:

(The Greenhouse was, literally, a "green house," in multiple senses. I'd hate to be the horticulturalist responsible for taking care of the plants at the top of the wall!)

As attractive and interesting as we found Western Australia and its inhabitants, we were still happy to head home after three weeks away. It wasn't easy to leave all that sunshine and warm weather, though, in order to return to cool breezes and rain. Now we just have to find another excuse (or just the time and money) to return and explore the remaining 99% of Australia that we didn't even touch!