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.

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