Happy World Wetlands Day! Every year on 2nd February this day is marked to create awareness on the importance of wetlands and the need to protect them. This year Kenya is holding the celebration at Lake Olbolosat, the only natural lake in central Kenya. I was to go for the Waterfowl Census that was done there on 21st January but missed out due to commitments. However, I managed to attend others and had so much fun. Case in point being the Naivasha/ Elementaita one.
I had been looking forward to this for a whole year. In 2017 I only made it to the Bogoria/ Nakuru census, so this year I was determined to go for the 3 that I missed. When the call for volunteers was made in November I eagerly signed up for Naivasha/ Elementaita, Olbolosat and Magadi. Although we were informed that not everyone who signed up would go since priority was for the experienced counters, I had this stubborn faith that I’d make it. And I did.
The travel date was 12th January, and we were to leave the Museum at 2pm. I aimed at leaving home at 11.30 am because using public transport takes forever (sigh). Unfortunately this time I was late. I prayed for a miracle the whole way. If the bus left me, that was it. At 2.15 pm I was still at Garden City and my heart began to sink. I was really late. The last hurdle was walking from Ngara to the Museum with my heavy bags. Still praying. You can imagine my relief when I arrived at 2.40 pm- to find the bus wasn’t even there yet.
I caught my breath as we chatted with fellow volunteers. The KWS bus came about an hour later and we were off. It was a smooth journey with people sharing stories and jokes. At quarter to six we pulled in to Naivasha Hippo Camp. Even before we were out of the bus, Edwin (one of the organisers) instructed us to collect firewood for the bonfire later that evening. Into the little adjacent forest we went, only to be assaulted by Safari ants! We had to keep stomping as if performing a traditional dance. Next was pitching tents and shelling peas for supper.
The evening began to bite and that’s where hot tea and the bonfire came in handy. Soon it was supper time and we dug into the food. After that guys bonded around the fire while others went to sleep. Just as my tent-mates and I were settling in for the night, the ants decided to visit so we had to move the tent. We were 4 people in a 2-man tent, the ground was hard even with mattresses and the famous Naivasha cold wouldn’t relent. Let’s just say we had a long night.
The next day we were up at 4 am. It’s important to have an early start to get many birds and avoid the late morning to afternoon punishing heat. After a quick breakfast we were divided into groups and boarded the vehicles that ferried us to Lake Elementaita. When I say the cold was pinching, it’s no joke. At least this time I was well armed with warm clothes unlike last year. An hour later we arrived at the Soysambu Ranch ready for the census. A stunning sunrise started us off as we met with volunteers from other organisations. We boarded the vehicles again to go to the specific areas for each group.
My team got down to it and immediately we were confronted by a tough terrain. Very rocky and full of prickly plants. The birds were in plenty: Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, various kinds of Sandpipers and species new to me like Macoa and Southern Pochard. I thought the pricklies were a challenge but I hadn’t seen anything yet. In some sections the grass was dense and taller than us, yet we had to pass through there! Someone gave a story of how people in a previous census encountered bad-tempered buffaloes in such grass. I was grateful we had 3 rangers with us, only to be told the rangers in the story fled when their rifles misfired!
At some point we heard some animals moving in the vegetation. I got ready to bolt but our leader informed us it was just a herd of Waterbuck fleeing. Thank goodness! We continued counting birds, hiking through bushes and encountering buffalo tracks by the shore. I felt like a participant in the Survivor Africa show. I think our group got the toughest section. Soon it was lunchtime. We sat on the rocky lakeside, devouring our snacks under the blazing sun. We wrapped up the counting and proceeded to meet the other group so as to return to camp. They called to tell us they had met a buffalo. And we had to go in that direction!
We finally met the other group and walked to the vehicles- again passing through rough vegetation. By the time we were done my legs were tattooed in scars since I had worn shorts. Off to camp we went for lunch and a short break then a short birding session on Lake Naivasha. A light drizzle almost cut us short but ended quickly. I saw a pelican for the first time up close- a dead juvenile by the shore. The adults must be huge then, since this fella was already quite big. A herd of buffaloes menacingly approached us but we chased them away by clapping and shouting.
We returned to camp to rest before Sunday’s census. I was exhausted from the tough walk and it took a lot of effort to get up in the morning. A quick breakfast later, we were divided into groups and dropped at our locations. Some would cover Lake Naivasha while others took Lakes Sonachi and Oloidien. I’d hoped to get one of the latter but didn’t. However, my group was one of those using boats and I was excited for the new experience. As soon as the boat set off, I realised I was feeling a bit woozy. To counter this I tried not looking directly at the water.
I was multitasking in full gear: scribing (recording bird species), shooting on phone, shooting on camera and trying to maintain balance on the boat seat. Wah! The breathtaking landscapes and dead trees near the shore provided some relief. We spotted so many species: African Fish Eagles, Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans floating like little boats, Yellow-billed Storks, African Spoonbills, Giant Kingfishers, African Darter, and Great and Reed Cormorants who were the most dominant.
Occasionally we’d come across hippos. Some would disappear under water and I was so freaked out at the thought of one turning up right next to the boat. These guys are vicious! Thankfully our skilled coxswain steered us away from the beasts. A ranger was also present in case of any danger. With time the morning chill gave way to warm sun. We had 3 sections to cover and by the end of the first my glutes were sore from the hard seat. Still we soldiered on.
We covered the first two sections and to our surprise met the other group who had covered section three. It was a relief to be done. It was fun for my first boat ride but also daunting. Especially when the vessel bobbed up and down. I imagine it must be petrifying for the immigrants trying to enter Europe by sea, under terrible conditions and without security personnel to help. We compared notes a bit with the other group, took some photos and headed back to shore. This time the wind was frigid especially since we were at high speed. I wonder how much cold fishermen feel while out here.
The KWS bus took us to the camp where we had lunch, took down the tents and got ready to leave. Those of us using the bus didn’t go until several hours later. There’s one group that almost ran out of fuel while on the lake, so they had to find a spot to refuel then continue counting. A second group began counting at the wrong place thus ended up covering a much longer distance than intended. We had to wait for these guys so we could leave together. My head was pounding like a blast mine. The heat was searing. I just wanted to get home. Especially since I had an early interview the next day.
We discussed our findings for a while. One group had found people engaging in illegal fishing. Sad. The Oloidien team had a bounty of African Fish Eagles- 24 individuals. Seems they’ve got a safe haven, and that’s great given the threats faced by birds of prey in Kenya. When everyone got back it was finally time to depart. We boarded the bus, leaving the amazing calls of African Fish Eagles behind. I arrived home at 7.30 pm, worn out but thankful that I’d made the trip.
If you’re looking for a getaway near Nairobi, try out Naivasha/ Elementaita. It’s just a short drive from the city- around 2 hours. So much beauty awaits to be experienced and will leave you with beautiful memories. Keep it here for my next post about another incredible Waterfowl Census experience, this time in Kiambu County. Stay tuned!