Saturday, December 02, 2006

Lake Nakuru and Flamingoes




Sept First week : I arrived in Nairobi on Saturday evening and left to Johannesburg by noon of the following Wednesday. I would have been happy to visit Masai Mara again to meet my friends who are back from Serengeti with their little ones. But with just one free day of Sunday in Nairobi, Masai Mara was ruled out. With 5 hour drive either way, Amboseli national park next to mighty Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain with a game drive to meet lion, cheetah, elephants and hippos was also discounted and so was Mount Longonot and Lake Navisha- highest lake in the rift valley where without the presence of predatory animals, one can have a luxury to walk with herds of Zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, and giraffe

So our choice was narrowed down to Lake Nakuru - one of a chain of 8 lakes, a part of famous Rift Valley that stretch from Ethiopia to Tanzania via Kenya. Nakuru is 3hrs drive from Nairobi. We arrived at Nakuru in time for lunch and that gave us few hours to go around Nakuru national park to see pink flamingos, white pelicans, marabou stork and a variety of other water birds that breed in the lake’s alkaline waters.

Last time, I had visited Nakuru village on our way to Masai Mara. This time, I was inside Lake Nakuru, an area of 180 square kilometers - yet relatively one of the smaller national parks in Kenya. My Japanese colleagues who were first time visitors to Nakuru were in for surprise seeing pink horizon caused by a million flamingos that have squeezed in the shallow, wading lake's edge waters. Excitement was building up as we drove inside the park. But for me, this was pale in comparison to Masai Mara, a true spectacle I have ever witnessed on this earth. Kruger National Park in South Africa too is touted by South Africans, but I doubt if it can come close to Masai Mara.

At Masai Mara, we were a lucky to see the elusive, determinedly non-social black rhino shy of anybody in the sight but at Lake Nakuru, it was the turn of white rhino. Who didn’t budge either by the presence of our vehicle nor those birds that were pecking insects from his back? We had buffet lunch in the comfortable open environ of woods accompanied by background chirping of 400 plus species of birds in unison with rustle of leaves from quiet breeze that flew past the lake.

Time was short to find our own way in reaching for wild animals. Best time to see wild animals are in the early morning or late evenings. In the afternoon, they take rest and rarely venture out. Our Kenyan friend used his PR skills to become friendly with a park ranger who accompanied us in taking us to off beaten path to give us a glimpse of family of giraffe, buffalo, hippo and baboon. Our eyes were scanning tall trees for possible hiding leopard. But when we saw the herd of gazelles standing erect with their neck protruding in one direction, we knew a big one - was in sight. Smaller animals have this uncanny ability to spot the danger. At Nairobi national park, I had witnessed similar scenario and had alerted everyone that Lion must be in the vicinity. I was happy when we spotted pair of lion trudging indolently one behind the other. I was confident of seeing the event get repeated. At Nakuru, we circled in anticipation but I guess it wasn’t our day. A ride to a game reserve is never fulfilling unless one sees lion. It’s magnificent sight to see Lion walking in arrogant swaggering fashion with utter disregard to anyone around. He doesn’t need to fear from anyone. As he walks, only sign of irritation from him is by his occasional sweeping tail to shoo away flies. His big belly under his weight shivers as he straddles. His mane, an iconic symbol of his superiority in the animal world signifies his fighting ability, testosterone level, aggression, pride, and offspring survival. I felt sad that I couldn’t see my best friend in Lake Nakuru. However, ranger took us to the site where Lion had killed a buffalo just few days ago. A dried skeleton and horns was the only sign of evidence of the mighty battle that must have ensued.

We couldn’t go closer to the lake to see flamingos as we were worried of getting stuck in muddy water. You need an expert guide and driver to navigate your way through game reserve. Watching a singular flamingo in a zoo or park would be rather ridiculous with its straw-thin legs, strangely hooked beak, with his leg bent backwards while eating upside down, I doubt if it portrays graceful approach. But when they descend in millions, it’s another canvass altogether. En masse, they are transformed into a spectacle. When flamingos gather the resulting group is called a pat and the name flamingo comes from the Latin word for flame. And sure, they generate Pink Flame. But how do they survive in this alkaline water of Lake Nakuru? This is because flamingos are uniquely designed to survive in the caustic environment of volcanic soda lakes. Unlike any other bird on earth, flamingos’ beaks have evolved to skim tiny algae from the water’s surface. By swinging their upside-down heads from side to side or swishing water with their fat tongues, they siphon the lake water through filtering plates along the inside of their bills and trap algae. They can filter as many as 20 beak-fuls of algae-rich water in a single second. Flamingos breed every two years and out of the 500,000 hatch lings more than 300,000 survive with the average lifespan of the flamingo is 50 years. When flamingos take off, it’s a sight to watch. They fly with their necks fully extended. Getting airborne is not as natural as many other species. They run with their necks thrust forward, wings flapping in gingerly manner to stay afloat with great efforts. I am not an avid bird watcher, but Nakuru would be great place for wildlife photography enthusiasts.

Journey from Nairobi to Nakuru was a combination of smooth and rough ride. 30 Km dirt road (they must have completed by now) ensured that my bone joints proved its utility even in this mid age. As we entered Navisha, either side of the road had herd of families from -old grandma’s holding hands of little ones – to young couples - all of them going to the church. Despite being in tepid heat, every man was in his black suit and tie with hat; kids in colorful frocks –best attire reserved for his Sunday church attendance - depicted the depicted influence of church in Kenyan social fabric. Somehow, herd of black Kenyans on Navisha resembled me to white flamingos of Lake Nakuru. Flamingos were naturally fitted to filter clean water from alkaline algae, Christianity gave Kenyan villagers seek peace and salvation through drudgery of poverty, unemployment and HIV specter.

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