Sunday, 22 January 2012

Kenya dig it?

My recent journey to Kenya has helped me learn a very important lesson: In the run-up to a big trip, it is best to avoid stresses associated with taxes, paychecks, and employment. These can leave you so grumpy and tense that it becomes difficult to enjoy yourself.  That was certainly the case with me for the first several days of our safari, during which a black shroud of misery obscured my view of the country. Alternatively, it is also possible that I saw Kenya not through a more negative lens, but a more realistic one, because of my lower level of cheerfulness and optimism relative to last year. Or, maybe it was a combination of the two.

(Pathetic fallacy: angry weather seen from the escarpment leading down into the Great Rift Valley)

After all, Kenya is a country of juxtapositions. It's is a wonderful place full of fabulous wildlife and bright colors and fascinating cultures. On my first visit, these are the qualities that I focused on. It was like going on a first date with a potential partner--I was feeling generous and optimistic and concentrated mainly on the positives. But now that time has passed, I've been forced to acknowledge some of the less favorable traits on display, including serious issues like extreme poverty, social inequality, human-wildlife conflict, and corruption.

Fortunately, I wasn't completely overwhelmed by the bad things--just less able to overlook them than before. One thing that quickly began to improve my attitude was the compilation of my 2012 Kenya Bird list, an activity that began during our visit to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) headquarters shortly after our arrival. Despite the fact that the KWS is located in the middle of Nairobi, its grounds host a variety of species, such as white-browed sparrow weavers, African paradise flycatchers, speckled mousebirds, and variable sunbirds. We also had a good talk from a KWS official who started the conversation about the difficulties of preserving wildlife in a country where many people are so poor that they see poaching as their only option for obtaining materials for fuel, shelter, and sustenance; the obviousness and importance of this tension is one of the main reasons that we take our biodiversity and conservation students to Kenya in the first place.

(Lovebirds in a snag at Lake Naivasha. There are three types of lovebird in the region, and all three could be found in this single tree: Yellow-collared (a pair of which is shown in the center here), Fischer's (hiding out of sight on the other side of the trunk), and a hybrid of the two (at top)).

The drive from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha was strangely similar to the one we had last year, right down to the sprinkles that started falling once we began to descend the escarpment down into the Great Rift Valley. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this meteorological paralleling was a trend that would continue the entire trip, in the form of rain at the Met Station on Mount Kenya and showers in the Masai Mara. For me, the most striking aspect of our car ride was seeing, again, the signs of extreme poverty throughout the Kenyan countryside. These had not escaped my notice last year, but this time around I found them particularly depressing. It is hard to watch an elderly woman walking bent in half, lugging a heavy load of brush on her back; it is equally sad to see elementary school-aged children struggling to carry 5-gallon plastic bottles of water home from the pump, or raising their hands to try to hitchhike somewhere with complete strangers. From both aesthetic and ecological viewpoints, one especially unappealing sight was the endless refuse littered along roadways, piled behind buildings, and dumped in the centers of towns.

(Masai giraffe, seen browsing on greenery at the side of the road)

Thankfully, my doom and gloom attitude started to improve by the time we reached Top Camp at Lake Naivasha. We were greeted with a freshly-cooked meal and finally had the chance to shower and stretch our legs after so many hours in one vehicle or another. Over the next few days, we used Top Camp as a base from which to visit many of the same destinations as last year--Crater Lake, Hell's Gate, and a local chameleon farm, to name a few. The weather leading up to this year's trip was much rainier than it was last year, so there were noticeable differences to the flora and fauna. For one thing, the grasses were much higher and greener, which of course had a big impact on all the species that have to worry about stealthy predatorial cats sneaking up on them. This meant that we saw fewer of some animals and more of others, and that they were distributed differently throughout the habitat. Another noticeable difference was the increased amount of avian breeding behavior. It seemed that everywhere we went, we saw adult birds engaged in nest-building behaviors, chick-rearing activities, or elaborate displays to prove their worthiness to mates. Kenya's incredible species richness and diversity were prominently on display.

(I thought I was taking a picture of three zebras looking in the same direction. They thought they were posing for pornography. I didn't notice the difference in opinion until one of my companions politely pointed it out to me after the fact.)

We also had the opportunity to experience wildlife in a more up-close-and-personal way this year--especially during our stays in a campsite in the middle of Lake Nakuru National Park and a ranger station in the Mara North Conservancy. The first site had a small fence in order to keep out potentially dangerous animals such as buffalo and rhinos, while the second was completely open and required night guards to keep an eye out for our safety. When we first arrived at the Lake Nakuru camp, there was a rhino grazing on grass within 10 m of the fence. At the Conservancy camp site, we spotted fresh elephant poo in the field where we pitched our tents, but the real excitement didn't start until nightfall. We pulled out flashlights in order to look for the eyeshine of nocturnal mammals, and were treated to close (but safe!) encounters with hyenas, white-tailed mongooses, a porcupine, and (probably) a genet. Lots of tiny glowing red eyes near the garbage tip turned out not to be mice, as we'd first suspected, but giant hawkmoths emerging from the trash. One particularly neat find was a pair of turtledoves snuggling together on a roost just above my tent--our second roost spotting of the trip, the first having occurred on Mount Kenya, where we saw a pair of mountain greenbuls avoiding the cold rain by sheltering together in a bush.

 (African fish eagle patrolling its territory at Crater Lake)

This year I was also treated more to the sound of African wildlife. At 3 AM during the last night of our stay at Naro Moru, a pack of hyenas whooped just outside our campsite, setting off a flurry of alarm vocalizing from nearby baboons and monkeys. On the final evening of our visit to the Masai Mara, the distant rumblings of lions permeated our riverside bandas (I'd never have recognized them without the assistance of my roommate Sarah). Other firsts included sightings of lions in trees (supposedly a rare occurrence, but one that we witnessed during three of our four lion encounters), good glimpses of hippos out of water, the feeding of a parasitic cuckoo chick by its adopted (and much smaller) sunbird parents, and some gigantic hares fleeing from our vehicles. For some reason, we also saw a number of copulating livestock (particularly donkeys), but I'd just as soon forget about that.

 (Young Masai warriors in a jumping contest to prove their prowess)

Last year I was sick battling a mysterious stomach illness when the rest of my group went to visit a Masai manyata in order to learn more about its residents' cultural practices. This time I was able to go along, which didn't exactly please me--I was worried it would be more of a theatrical performance than a genuine anthropological learning experience. On the whole, though, it was surprisingly pleasant. For one thing, we walked to the village from our campsite, which gave us a rare opportunity to do some off-road navigation of the African countryside. Another bonus was the chance to freely photograph people, which was virtually impossible throughout the rest of the trip (see below). It was intriguing to see Masai houses, which are made predominantly of cow dung, up close, and see how they are positioned in a circular arrangement in order to form a cow "pen" in the center of the village. Although the Masai were at worst civil, and at best very friendly, I'm convinced they must have mixed feelings about being treated as human curios; I'd love to know how they actually feel about visits from groups such as ours.

(Simultaneous sunrise and moonset at Lake Naivasha)

Although I was invited on the Kenya trip to act as an instructor, I took advantage of the opportunity to act as a student and learn some photographic techniques from another staff member. However, one of my biggest frustrations with the trip is our inability to stop and document/experience some of the most iconically Kenyan sights that we see--women wearing traditional dress (although there were also a surprising number wearing Prom-style dresses in the middle of the day--weird), vendors selling produce by the roadside, children walking to and from school while holding hands or with their arms around each other. Those are the images that I would really love to post here, since they are the sights that give the country its charm, warmth and flavor. Unfortunately, we are largely unable to photograph these things because it is dangerous for us to make unexpected stops in unprotected places--not as dangerous it would be in northern or eastern Kenya, near rebels and pirates, but still dangerous. Where we do stop, we are warned to keep our cameras hidden since it is not uncommon for people to attack photographers and destroy equipment if not given copious recompense for appearing in images.

(White rhinos. Thanks for the rear view, guys!)

Sadly, I think our trip is doomed to be remembered best for its catastrophic ending--a gastrointestinal illness that took out about a quarter of our group on the day we were due to make the long drive from the Mara to Nairobi before flying back to the UK the next afternoon. We're still not entirely sure if it was food poisoning or a virulent stomach bug, but I can personally attest that, whatever it was, it was horrendous. On the morning that it claimed its first victims, I could tell that I would eventually succumb, but luckily I managed to hang in there until we reached the luxury of our Nairobi hotel (with warm running water, flushing toilets with seats, and electricity!). Other people weren't so lucky, and I am not sure how they managed to bravely endure the seemingly endless bus ride to the city. All I know is that it's been 6 days and I am still struggling to eat solid foods. What a delightful souvenir (then again, I got sick last year, too, so this wasn't exactly unexpected).

Overall, despite my initially dark attitude and the dreadful medical emergency at the end of the trip, it all went quite well. We didn't have nearly as many food or transportation issues as last year, and the scheduling allowed us to get more comfortable amounts of sleep. The fantastic wildlife and enthusiastic students eventually won over even this grumpiest of instructors, and I yet again feel fortunate to have been included on the annual excursion.

For more photos from the Kenya 2012 trip, visit my Kodak gallery.