Before I visited Magadi, all I knew about the place is that it’s always hot and trona is mined there. So when the chance to participate in the Waterfowl Census at Magadi presented itself, I gladly took it. Even though I was still broke from the previous trip. I’m always eager to visit a new place- travelling opens your mind and changes you in ways you can’t really explain in words. Let’s review my adventure there a few months ago, shall we?
Before I took the trip I was really stressed. The reason? Being broke! I was running short of cash yet I needed to put some aside for transport, buy snacks, and set aside contingency money. Would you believe it if I told you I resorted to looking for coins around the house to top up the little I had? No? I thought so. You may read my travel stories and envy me for going to many places. But I don’t always have my life together. Whoever said money can’t buy happiness should transfer it to my account.
Anyway I managed to scrape together barely enough coins and proceeded to pack my bags. I deliberately left out the sleeping bag since I knew it would be hot. Also the camping would be overnight so I didn’t want heavy bags. I don’t do too well in extreme temperatures but I really wanted to go to Magadi for the experience. I’d deal with the heat when I got there.
I left the house in good time and passed by the supermarket for snacks. Paid for them with my stash of coins accumulated over time. The bus ride was uneventful until the second last stop. The driver decided to turn into a different road. That diversion took me to the city centre- far away from my stop. Oh no! I would definitely be late. Walking through downtown Nairobi with a backpack is a scary experience. There had been reports of escalated cases of muggings the week before and to say I was freaked out is an understatement.
To walk or take a matatu to the Museum? Saving time versus saving money. I chose the former. The struggles of using public transport- sigh. Being left by the bus wasn’t an option. I arrived to find the KWS bus already there. We quickly loaded our bags and after 10 minutes or so we departed. What a close shave! We picked some people along the way. At some point we stopped in Rongai for those who wanted to shop. This town is in a sorry state. Right from the entrance, solid waste lines the roadsides. Drainage channels are choking in the stuff. Goats, buses, motorcycles and pedestrians compete to use the two lane two-way main road. Something needs to be done urgently.
You can’t get lost when going to Magadi unless you want to. Just follow Magadi Road until you get to the end. Since the ride would be long I was sure I would take a nap. But the breathtaking landscapes wouldn’t let me. Undulating hills make you feel like you’re in a wildlife documentary. The bare, rocky ground with sparse vegetation adds to the flavour. Human settlements are sparse. Looking at the environment, I have new-found respect for the Maasai. They walk for hours on end through such tough terrain without breaking a sweat!
We got to a place called Namukuru and the heavens opened. Rain in Magadi? That was news to me. I just hoped it wouldn’t get too cold. My prayers were answered. It was cool but humid. As we approached the entrance to the town, we were blessed with the most beautiful sunset I have seen so far. Sunlight streaked gently onto the hills and lake below. God really decided to show off that day. Finally we arrived at Magadi, welcomed by gusts of wind. We went up an incline and could see the pink settlement ponds glistening in the evening light.
The first agenda on reaching the campsite was to pitch the tents before darkness settled. We almost made it but the rain came down heavy. If water entered the tents we’d have a long night indeed. After the tents were up it was time to wait for supper, which didn’t seem to be ready fast enough. I was exhausted. I just wanted the day to be over. When the food was finally served we were all relieved and guys livened up. A short briefing of the next day’s activities followed, and then we dispersed. Some people stayed up until 3am telling stories. Not me! I planned to take a quick shower then go to sleep. That was not to be though, since the water supply was so low. That was the worst camping shower I’ve ever had.
Anyway when I was done I headed to the tent and just like Naivasha, we were 4 of us. We had to ‘sleep like matchsticks’ due to lack of space. Other than the hard ground the night went fairly well until…my tent mates began to snore. All 3 of them! The tent also became stuffy. I thought it was because of how many we were but upon going outside I realised it’s the natural humidity of the area. The night was long and full of terrors.
As usual we were up at 5am to get an early start. After breakfast we were divided into groups. This time I didn’t get the scribe position, meaning I would be counting birds. I like scribing as it allows me time to shoot. Blue-naped Mousebirds entertained us with their shrill calls before the bus arrived. Soon we were off to the census site. Again magnificent landscapes welcomed us. There’s so much beauty in Magadi. I felt like Mutua Matheka when he was in Iceland– so much to feast the eyes on. I couldn’t decide what to shoot and what to leave.
After a short briefing we started the exercise. But a challenge lay before us- we had to pass through a muddy pool of water. The bus couldn’t make it across. So we removed our shoes and waded through. It was no easy task. The mud was slippery and I was carrying shoes, binoculars and my camera. I freaked out at the thought of falling with expensive equipment. I suppressed the fear and crossed very slowly. We made it to the other side.
We couldn’t put our shoes back on yet, since there were other pools ahead. Walking barefoot on the sharp Shale stone is something I wouldn’t like to repeat, ever. We were privileged to see the Chestnut-banded Plover (aka Magadi Plover) which is only found in this area. Another special bird is the Caspian Plover. Little is known about its migratory routes.
The cycle of wading through pools, walking on sharp fragments and counting birds continued. We nicknamed our group ‘The Waders’. At one point a group of Maasai women approached us. They observed us for a while and the next thing we knew, they had set up beaded wares for sale right on the lake shore. Do they always walk with their goods until they meet potential customers? I wondered. The birds were in plenty: Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Marabou Storks, Egrets, Yelow-billed Storks, various species of Sandpipers and Plovers.
The sun was blazing like crazy. After a few hours we concluded the census and sat on a rock by the shore for lunch. We had an expansive view of the lake and surrounding landscape as well as juvenile flamingos feeding on one side. Soon it was time to head back. Our leader Kuria warned us to look out for the Puff Adder, one of the most dangerous snakes. It’s excellent at camouflage in the kind of vegetation that’s at Magadi’s shore. We walked in a single file, apprehensive about meeting snakes.
A jackal ran swiftly through the bushes. We came across antelope droppings which Kuria informed us are a form of survival food. He went ahead to demonstrate by eating the stuff. Gross! I can’t do it unless I’m at the point of starving to death. Wacha ikae! Walking to the bus seemed to take forever. The prickly Barleria shrubs grabbed at our legs. And then came time to wade again. Into the pool, onto lava- hot ground, then another pool. It was daunting but fun at the same time.
We got to the bus, our feet caked in mud. We picked up other groups on the way, one of which lamented having to cover a longer distance than assigned due to an error. They had no place to rest and everyone they tried calling didn’t answer the phone. Poleni sana. When we arrived at camp the first duty was washing my cakey feet then packing my bags. Lunch was served soon after. We sat on the verandah, the cool breeze providing relief from the heat. By the way, I was told that heat level was mild because of the rain. During dry days the temperatures are unbearable.
It was time to board the bus and head home. I felt like it was too soon. I would have liked to explore more of Magadi. All in all, I had a great time. Especially our team- The Waders- I believe we had the most fun. Other group members accused us of focusing on the fun rather than counting birds. I can’t wait for the next trip to Magadi, this time to experience the heat in full force!