Immersion in Lake Ol Bolosat and Other Stories

In January this year I’d really wanted to go for the Waterfowl Census at Lake Ol Bolosat, Nyahururu. I had even been selected. But I let the chance go because I was swamped with assignments for an interview. I felt bad missing the trip but I was tired of being broke- hopefully I would finally get a good writing job. And I did. Not the one I was being interviewed for, but another one ( I was determined to go for the July census despite the cold. Read on to find out how it went…

Author's packed travelling bags.
All packed and ready to go…

Visiting new places is always exciting for me, I like seeing what our country has to offer. Lake Ol Bolosat was this year gazetted as a protected site which made me even more eager to go. This is despite my dislike for extreme cold. Nyahururu is famed for its biting cold, and here we were going during Kenya’s cold season. It was already cold enough at home (Thika), would I survive Nyahururu? There was only one way to find out.

White-faced Whistling Ducks in pond.
White-faced Whistling Ducks at Thika Sewage Works.

On the morning of the trip it was drizzling. I could only imagine the cold at our destination. I arrived at the Museum in good time and found guys waiting for the vehicles. Due to transport issues we only had 2 cars this time- a minivan and a small personal vehicle. We were to leave at 11 am but can you believe at 12.30 pm we hadn’t? Those in the minivan weren’t allowed to exit the Museum before a gate pass was signed. They ended up driving around the compound several times waiting for the pass. So much red tape!

Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
Chilly weather that awaited us at the lake.

We finally left at around 12.30. I was in the small car and I got to learn a lot about conservation challenges from my fellow passengers. The Waterfowl Census for example has been affected by inadequate transport for volunteers, money issues, hosts at the venue not being ready to receive volunteers and petty politics. Conservation work needs money and willing participants. It’s sad that there are those who are so eager to contribute but efforts are hampered by office politics.

Landscape at Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
Breathtaking expanse at Lake Ol Bolosat.

The cold continued to intensify. When we got to Kimende, the fog was so thick and came low up to the ground. We even had to drive with headlamps on. I opened the window a bit and put my fingers outside. They almost went numb instantly! Yet there were people walking and tending their livestock. How? The situation remained the same until we reached Karai, where the fog lifted. When we got to Naivasha we stopped at Njambi’s for lunch. The portions are large, I didn’t finish mine.

I wonder how Nyahururu residents survive this cold.

Immediately after lunch we were back on the road. Part 2 of the ride was quite long. My fellow passengers narrated stories about drama they’ve encountered on previous census. One of them being getting lost for several hours while at Lake Ol Bolosat, only making it back to camp after nightfall. Several hours later we arrived in Nyahururu. The landscapes are amazing. The roads, not so much.

Lone house in a grassy field.
Such lone houses reminded me of Mutua Matheka’s Iceland experience.

The minivan went to KWS Nyahururu station to set up camp while the rest of us shopped for supplies at the local market. This took so long that by the time we finished my head was pounding. We got to camp, helped the rest in shelling peas for the next day’s lunch and took piping hot cups of tea. As the chefs prepared supper, we went through projected slides to learn more about waterfowl. The info was interesting but my feet were killing me and the cold was determined to show us who’s the boss. When it was announced that supper was ready, we rushed to the serving area and that was the end of the slides presentation.

The lake is a mix of marsh and open water.

Most people went to sleep immediately but I stayed by the fire with a few. The plan was to leave only a few hours for sleeping since I didn’t want to be cold for long. Thank God I had carried a hot water bottle which saved me that day. At midnight I went to the tent and was confronted by condensation on the (Nature Kenya) sleeping bag. Yes! Since when did dew form inside a tent? It was going to be a long night. I added layers of clothing: an extra pair of socks, fleece trouser under the trouser I had, two more tops, a beanie hat, hoodie and scarf. I took out my own sleeping bag at the very last moment, put it below the other sleeping bag and slipped inside.

Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
My group’s starting point for the census.

I slept better than I imagined and soon it was 5 am- time to wake up. The cold wasn’t playing. Thankfully breakfast tea was steaming hot, and the fire at the cooking area was still going. We were divided into groups of two since volunteers were few this time. This meant we cover larger areas than if we had many groups. That was the first challenge. We got into the vehicles and headed towards the lake. I was in the minivan this time. We dropped the first groups and then the van got stuck in the mud. As we navigated our way out, two children came out of an iron sheet house to watch. One of them was barefoot on the wet grass! In freezing weather! I couldn’t believe it.

People walking towards lake Ol Bolosat.
Walking towards the lake…if you live here you’ll wear gumboots always.

We got unstuck, headed to where my group was to be dropped. When we alighted we forgot the data recording sheet in the van…and had to call the driver to wait for us to get it. This morning was full of drama yet the census hadn’t began. Finally we got the data sheet and headed out on foot to the lake. A Cape Robin-chat braved the cold, singing out from an electricity wire. We passed through people’s farms until we got to the main ‘road’. It was so flooded, muddy and had hippo tracks in some sections. The ranger assigned to us walked so fast that we lost sight of him st times. “What if a wild animal confronts us and the ranger is far away?” I asked Amina, my fellow group member.

Muddy road in Nyahururu, Kenya.
Pathetic state of the roads leading to the lake.

Grey Crowned Cranes called in the distance. We trudged through the mud and water for about 40 minutes by which we were tired even before starting the census. Sitting on a fence was a male Long- tailed Widowbird eating grass seeds. It was so beautiful, like a creature from a fairy tale. Finally we arrived at the lake. At the least the sun had begun to shine so it wasn’t too cold. We began counting & recording the bird species: Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Common Moorhen, Black-headed Gull, Yellow- billed Duck, Gull- billed Tern, Cattle Egret, Intermediate Egret…

Lady walking on the shore of Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
A rare photo of sun shining in Nyahururu. 🙂

The challenge was hearing birds calling in the reeds far into the lake, but we couldn’t see them. There must have been so many that we didn’t record. Where we encountered deep water we had to take detours through people’s farms. Some farms went up to the water’s edge. This is illegal since that is riparian land, and on a protected site of all places. My feet were tired and heavy since I was wearing gumboots. Yet we still had a long distance to cover. Climbing over fences, passing under barbed wire while trying to record species and take photos felt like a Survivor Africa training.

Reeds in Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
The reeds where birds were hiding.

At some point we heard hippos grunting in the water. We moved ahead quickly, only to hear them again. It’s like they were following us! The adrenaline rush powered us forward. We came across a farm damaged by hippos. All the plants had been destroyed. Serves the owner right for encroaching on riparian land! A few minutes later we came to some irrigation channels draining rain water into the lake. What happened next was the scariest event of my life.

Part of a farm damaged by hippos.
Part of a farm damaged by hippos. The holes are hippo footprints.

I tried testing with one foot to determine if it was shallow to walk through, just as the others. My foot kept going in, then my whole leg. Next thing I knew I was completely submerged. I tried stepping, but there was no ground to step on. I panicked. I was actually drowning! I grabbed the grass on the side of the channel but my hands slipped. Could I be staring death in the face? Amina and the ranger had gone ahead of me. My attempts to shout for help were hampered by water sweeping over my head.

Grass at Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
Beautiful tall grass at the shore.

I shouted again. Then I remembered that when drowning it’s important not to panic, since this  might lead you to being carried away. I tried to stay calm and reached for the grass again. Amina and the ranger came running and pulled me out of the water. I was alive, okay but wait. My camera. It was strapped across my chest when I fell in. It was soaking! Quickly I switched it off, removed the battery and memory card then detached the lens. Oh My God, I thought. My camera could be dead! Next was my phone, we switched it off, removed the cover and dried it as much as possible. Amina carried my camera in her bag as I squeezed water from my clothes.

DSLR lens with water damage.
R.I.P to my lens…

All the clothing layers I’d worn the previous night were wet. We continued walking, and met another group a few minutes later. We had been so close to finishing the exercise when I drowned! The ranger in the other group was kind enough to lend me his jacket. I removed the hoodie and all my tops to wear the jacket. My snacks were soaked, so Amina offered me her bread. A Mourning Dove called overhead, as if to mourn the sad incident. We were so tired, yet we had to walk to the main road for the minivan to pick us. Rain clouds taunted us with the possibility of being rained on. African Fish Eagles called in the distance.

Author after the drowning accident.
A drowning survivor’s uniform. (Photo by Chesire).

My feet were even heavier since they now had water from my dripping trousers. My hip joints ached like the time I went around the Mt. Longonot crater. I was so exhausted that I felt like crying. We were saved by a man driving a pick-up truck, he gave us a lift in the back. The minivan found us at the main road, we entered and headed to camp. I told the other groups in the vehicle that I had drowned but they didn’t believe until they saw my soaked clothes. Rain began to fall, and intensified when we got to camp. I was freezing!

Lake Ol Bolosat, Kenya.
The lake extends to the distant shore, where the line of vegetation is.

We took lunch and prepared to head back home. This trip taught me a number of things.

  • When going to Nyahururu, carry many layers of clothing and a hot water bottle.
  • If you’ve been assigned a ranger on any trip and (s)he is walking too fast, ask them to slow down. They need to be near you in case of emergencies.
  • If you happen to encounter an emergency (not just drowning), try to keep calm. This helps you think of a safe way out. Panic distorts clear thinking.
  • If your camera falls in water, switch it off immediately, disassemble everything and keep it dry until you get it to a technician. My camera survived, but the lens died. At least I didn’t lose everything.
  • Back up photos from previous shoots before a trip. If anything happens to your equipment, at least the images are safe.
  • Prayers before, during, and after a trip aren’t just a formality. God saved me that morning. (I don’t know how to swim).
DSLR camera and lens.
My camera and lens in the ICU (rice helps to dry electronics).

All the photos in this post are those I took with my phone. As crazy as it sounds, I’d like to go back to Lake Ol Bolosat, this time with diving equipment! 🙂

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