Sunday, 6 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Solio Reserve

During my flight to Kenya, while I was browsing through the in-flight magazine, I noticed that a Kenyan lodge, Solio, had been listed as one of the most luxurious places to stay when visiting Africa. Imagine my surprise when I later referred to our itinerary and noticed that we would be visiting Solio--albeit not as lodgers (I doubt the University of Exeter would have been willing to pay the $600 or so required per person per night), but as day trippers.

We left camp early so we could take the long back entrance to Solio, which is not only a lodge but also the most famous rhino preserve in the country. In fact, the land upon which Solio stood had originally been set aside solely for the purpose of providing protected space for African wildlife; the lodge was only added within the last year or so in order to give the preserve a means of income for keeping their conservation efforts going. Thus, while we were hoping to see a few rhinos during our visit, our main purpose was to go and chat with the managers about how they balanced conservation and capitalism.

The benefit of taking the long back entrance was that it passed through miles of completely open grassland, spotted by the occasional lonely tree or line of fencing; we also periodically passed herds of cattle, which were another money-making part of the Solio enterprise. The habitat was perfect for open-country bird species, such as lapwings, bustards, secretary birds, and kestrels. The down side of taking the back entrance was that, to get there, we passed over the worst--meaning bumpiest and most pothole-y--roads we had yet encountered. It was a huge relief to finally get to the gate that let us into the reserve and its much nicer, flatter dirt roads. In some cases, the relief was literal, since we also had the chance to stop off and use an outhouse before our long drive commenced.

To the credit of our students, this was one of the only occasions that I ever heard anyone actually complain about the facilities (or lack thereof) in Kenya. It's true that this particular outhouse was pretty unpleasant--it was completely made of wood, including the rickety slats over the hole in the ground, and the entire thing was leaning at about a 15-degree angle; the slant was so severe that the door could no longer close, giving the user a lovely pastoral view of the fields beyond. Despite all this, the major complaint among the students was the smell, which they thought was rather severe. Maybe my bladder was so insistent that I no longer cared, or maybe my olfactory equipment had already been permanently damaged by all the other outhouses we'd already visited, but I didn't think this particular toilet was any worse than the others we'd had to use previously. In any case, when we made another toilet stop later in the drive, most students showed a marked preference for simply squatting behind a bush, and I'm not sure I can totally blame them.

After several days of only adding a few new species to my bird list, Solio was a breath of fresh air. One of the most spectacular sights was a group of 20 or so lesser kestrels sitting together on a row of fencing. Usually rather solitary birds during their breeding season in Europe, these guys were happy to keep each other's company while wintering in Africa. Seeing one kestrel is always a treat, as they are such beautiful little birds; seeing almost two dozen together was priceless:

(Companionable lesser kestrels. Not only is this not my photo, but it is also not even taken in Kenya--we didn't see too many power lines where we were--but it illustrates a minor version of the kind of spectacle we saw in Solio. Thanks to for the photo.)

Another incredible sighting was secretary birds; we saw both sexes, together and individually. The first time we ran across one, we had pulled up behind another bus that had stopped so everyone could investigate something off in the distance. We couldn't figure out what people were looking at. One of my students finally noticed a distant figure and said "What's that?! It's an animal that looks like a person...but it isn't!" The rest of us thought this was a pretty ridiculous description, but then when we finally found what she was looking at, we all had to agree; it was an animal that walked very similarly to a human, but was too skinny and horizontal to be one:

(Female secretary bird; if it were a male, it would have black plumes sticking up off the back of the head. Unfortunately, while we could see these well through the binoculars, we were way too far off to take any good pictures. Thanks to for this photo.)

These guys are amazingly tall (up to 4 feet), and their movements can sometimes be surprisingly human. After this encounter, every tallish thing we saw in the distance was immediately suspected of being another secretary bird. In some cases, these sightings turned out to be cranes, storks, or herons; in other cases, they were people working out in the field, or even just fence posts.

By the time we finally entered the main part of the reserve--which was obvious because of all the fences and armed guards needed to keep poachers away from the rhinos--we were speeding along in order to make up time; we'd spent so many hours looking at birds that we were in danger of missing the rhinos, who were less active during the hottest part of the day. Shortly after we passed through our second (or third? there were so many) set of protective gates, the habitat became more rhino-friendly; there were large patches of trees and shrubs where browsers like the black rhino could find leaves to munch on, in addition to areas of grass that provided plenty of food for grazers like the white rhino. Almost immediately, we spotted individuals of both species, sending our drivers into a flurry of ridiculous activity. Even calm Peter suddenly tore off through the grassland in an effort to get close to the rhinos before they took off. Because we were driving off-track, I was terrified that we'd fall into a hole and break an axle (as has happened before on previous Kenya trips); it didn't even occur to me until later that we were also possibly trampling over all sorts of other animals in our haste, including snakes and birds and any other thing unlucky enough to be between us and the rhinos.

To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed by the sight of the rhinos, even though I know how rare they are (particularly the black rhinos). Again, I couldn't help but compare the experience to previous visits to zoos and wild animal parks, especially a recent experience I'd had at The Wilds in Ohio, where I'd fed a captive-reared rhino by hand and gotten the chance to touch its rough, dry hide. Since all the original Solio rhinos are imported, it's actually a fairly accurate comparison to make. When Solio was established as a reserve, it was ranch land devoted solely to domestic herds. All current game species were reintroduced there after the land was set aside for conservation purposes; black rhinos were imported all the way from South Africa, since overhunting in Kenya had demolished their local population numbers. The animals at Solio are more successful at breeding than elsewhere; the reserve now hosts several hundred individuals, a number that is much higher than the carrying capacity of the land. However, Solio periodically provides rhinos to other parks and reserves, and shortly after our visit they were scheduled to relocate many animals, thus easing the burden on the local habitat.

I was much more impressed by our fleeting view of a crowned eagle. This massive bird is the biggest eagle in Kenya, which is how we were able to identify it. All we saw of it was its tail and its massive talons grasping the branch on which it sat; soon after we trained our binoculars on its perch, it took off and flew low over the horizon, out of view. It was a shame we didn't get to see more, because it's a truly impressive animal; however, just a glimpse of its bulk was enough to make you feel awed.

Also awesome was the Solio lodge itself. We made our way there in order to have a Q&A with the manager, who takes care of the business aspects of Solio, and the game warden, who really is more of a security guard than a biologist. We sat around the lodge for about a half hour before the manager and warden showed up, giving us ample opportunity to enjoy the deck, the hammock, cold Cokes at the bar, and a couple of cranes who came up to eat at the bird feeder:

(Two grey crowned cranes eating seed off the rock table. They were pretty much completely unafraid of the 50 or so students sitting 15 feet away, furiously snapping photographs. Their crowns make them look a little goofy, but they move with incredible grace; it's a captivating sight. I only wish we could have been around when they were performing their courtship dances.)

I also liked the artwork in the lobby:

(Who knew dung beetles could look so classy?)

When the manager and warden arrived, they were very calm and gracious as students asked them all sorts of "hard" questions--most of them seemed to have made a decision beforehand that there was something not quite right about the reserve, so they wanted to catch the Solio people out in a lie. This was a judgmental attitude that I noticed throughout the trip and found very tiresome after a while. The students had a weird mixture of complete naivete and absolute cynicism, so that at the same time they thought they could come up with a perfect solution for all conservation problems, they also believed that all current seemingly perfect solutions were driven by darker designs. I'm sure this is true in some cases, but the students' unerring disbelief could be infuriating. In the case of Solio, at least, it seemed as though the people in charge were trying very hard to BE green while also MAKING green--which, after all, is a necessity for continuing to pay for everything that keeps the rhinos safe. We learned that a single rhino horn is worth about $75,000, which translates into an amount of Kenyan shillings that could keep an entire family fed for many, many years. It's no wonder that desperate people are willing to risk prison and even death in the off chance that they might get their hands on this precious commodity; the Solio team has to constantly think of new ways to improve and enhance their defenses.

What I found unbelievable was the layout of the guest quarters. The lodge was surrounded by separate buildings ("cottages") for guests, of whom only 12 could stay at any given time. Each cottage faced in the same direction as the Solio patio--out over an expanse of grassland where zebras, giraffes, antelope, and occasionally rhinos would come to graze. It was, unquestionably, a lovely view. However, guests' ability to see this view 24-7 was facilitated by having one entire side of the cottage made out of sheet glass; the bathroom, bedroom, and living room were all completely open on one side:

(The exterior of a Solio cottage. Thanks to for the picture.)

I'm sure all Solio staff were instructed to never walk around to that side of the cottage, but even so, if I were a guest, I'm not sure I could ever relax enough to sleep or pee, knowing that at any time someone could wander into my yard and see everything I was doing. Then again, I don't make nearly enough money to stay in Solio for even just one night; maybe the people who can afford the experience are so used to paparazzi that they are used to such invasions of privacy.

Our visit to Solio lasted until mid-afternoon, at which point we made our long and bumpy way back home. I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in my tent, reading and checking in with my husband to see how his trip was going. I still wasn't feeling incredibly well, and had skipped yet another meal or two. By this point, I could tell that I had begun to lose weight as a consequence of the inedible cuisine and my own lack of appetite. I was feeling extremely grateful for the moment of inspiration that had prompted me to buy those Snickers bars in Naivasha; they had been my main source of fuel over the past couple days. I knew I would have to force myself to eat the next day, though, since I would need some calories in order to give me the energy to walk up Mount Kenya.

Later in the evening, we all trekked to the campsite lodge, where our trip leader had arranged for a local traditional dance group to come perform for us. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I certainly did not anticipate seeing a fire-eater or dancing animals included in the act:

(The comedic part of the act--this guy was the biggest ham but he was also quite entertaining, and very talented. His body was nothing but lean muscle from all the contorting and balancing that he did. In addition to the fire-swallowing, he also did a routine where he balanced an empty bottle (or two) on a stick held in his mouth; he then replaced the bottle with a soccer ball.)

(A strange part of the evening during which the dancers came in wearing animal suits--a gorilla, another ape of some sort, an elephant, and an ostrich. They then grabbed audience members to dance with them; that was a recurring theme of the performance.)

Although these parts of the evening were perhaps the most memorable, the most notable were the bits where the group actually performed traditional songs and dances. The voice of the lead singer was absolutely amazing--captivating and crystal clear. It was difficult not to tap your feet to the rhythmic portions of the performance. As it turned out, much more than foot-tapping was encouraged--while the performers had periodically grabbed audience members to participate in their numbers, all of us were required to join in on the last song, which was a "circle dance" (kind of like a conga line looped around on itself). Almost everyone was reluctant when they first stood up, but by the end of the night people were laughing as they wiggled and stamped around. It was a good warm-up for the physical activity on schedule for the following day.

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