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.


  1. 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.

    health and safety courses

  2. 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.

    food hygiene course

  3. Thanks for the info. I've been looking for a several sites that could help me on some guidelines about cheap kenya holidays. Now I found it in your blog. Thanks for sharing!