24 March 2009


Departure day of the SAAB conference, and these early mornings remind one that this is not a vacation; in keeping with that schedule, the crew piles into the land cruisers for a trek to Lake Nakuru Nature Center for a short game drive. Nakuru is famous for its flamingos and pelicans, and less so, for the pollution from the local industries which overflows from the sewers, making its way into the Lake. It’s certainly not unique to Kenya that natural wonders are being corroded by our negligence and overpopulation demands on resources and infrastructure.

Getting ahead of myself here, it was such a pleasure to ride in a vehicle with a crew of environmental experts that could fill me in on facts about everything from fertilizer (they were very patient with my relentless interest in this topic) plant uptake and release of nitrogen, etc. Nakuru was magnificent, pelicans are so cool, flamingos so weird, and the guarantee of seeing rhinos very exciting. It is the dry season, and the dust (a mixture of a fine igneous ash, guano and pollution) kicked up by the circling cars is so irritating that it robs some of the pleasure of being in this magnificent place. We are planning to stay on in the lodge; as most of the SAAB crew is flying out of Nairobi, haste is suddenly in order, and our caravan rushes into the compound in a cloud of dust, hasty goodbyes are exchanged, and the group is off.

Our plan had been to do an afternoon game drive, but fatigue, heat, and desire for a bit of time off convince us to spend an afternoon of leisure. (And did I mention they had a decent internet connection?) So it’s pool time for those willing to brave the equatorial radiation, and reading in the shade for those of fair skin. Meals prove to be very good: lots of vegetable dishes with good variety- mediocre desserts, but who needs all that sugar, right? Interesting that in this lodge, the guides are not segregated as has been the case in other facilities, so we ask Dennis to join us. He is the second guide we have had from Nature Expeditions, http://natureexpeditions.com/, and as good as Chris- very sharp eyes, which is essential, and knows every animal we see. The SAAB tour was run by a different operation, and that guide, though likable, was definitely not as observant. It’s so easy to miss the animals if you don’t know the indicators.

Lake Nakura
Early morning game drive begins with a martial eagle, followed by some baboons with babies. Chimpanzees and gorillas interest me more, but it’s hard not to feel close with other hominids. Finally, we get to see white rhinos, so named because as grazers they have wide mouths, as opposed to the black rhino, a leaf browser, with a narrow mouth. In the distance, a pair of lions make their way across the plain, causing the inevitable caravan of safari vehicles, and we are not far behind. It’s a pair of brothers with a fresh warthog kill. The warthog ("Kenyan Express") has a short memory (or so the guides all tell us) and will often forget that it was just being stalked. So, it will reappear from the burrows it has appropriated from the mongoose, only to be grabbed by the waiting lion. Very exciting to see them so close, and we follow their tangent until they cross the road right in front of us.A poor jackal also trails them hopefully, but they ignore him completely, and he finally sits down in abject frustration. For me, the only thing better would be actually seeing the process of a kill- having studied wolves and the trickle-down effect of their dance with prey, seeing the process in this ecosystem would be fascinating. Without the top predators, the whole system falls apart, as was evidenced by the rejuvenation of Yellowstone with the return of el lobo. (Almost anyone who lives in suburbia in the USA wishes they had a few wolves around to control the deer population.) After the kings had disappeared to feast on a little pig, we returned to see the rhinos we were watching, magnificent, though not as exciting, especially since they kept their mouths to the ground. Hard to eat enough grass to sustain that much body mass.

After lunch we take a different route around the Lake, and see a colobus monkey in a tree; we then proceed toward the Lake, where a couple of rhinos are peacefully munching the grass. Despite my exhortations, they refuse to lift there heads, so we move over to the water's edge where innumerable flamingos and a few other species are congregating. Suddenly, we here a giant roar of 1000 birds ascending from the water’s surface, and the rhinos are running toward us (but not aggressively.) Apparently an inconsiderate safari car had driven too close to the birds and rhinos and startled them, but what a great opportunity to get shots of the rhinos in motion. They are so fascinatingly prehistoric.And speaking of fascinating, after milling around a bit, a group of about 8 flamingos form a line like a group of square dancers and start a ritual squawking, then repeatedly look left and right in unison, then all flash the colored patterns on their wings. Some of them proceeded to wave their endless necks and heads at each other, sometimes knocking heads. It was hilarious and bizarre, one of the strangest rituals I have ever seen. I was even able to capture some video, which will be uploaded in the near future. Stay tuned...

Departure from Nakuru.
Dennis and I decide to go out early to hopefully see the elusive leopard. To shoot wildlife, one needs endless patience (short supply of that here), the proper equipment (mine is OK, not ideal), and quick reaction to the sudden event and conditions. And there is no knowing what will cross your path. This morning we were not lucky- a few birds I had not seen was the extent of our experience. Dennis, hoping for the grand finale, was disappointed; but you have to go out and be happy just to be there. Otherwise, it’s another stress, of which we all have too much. The dust I could have done without.

After a quick breakfast (one more crepe please) we are off to Nairobi, roads not too bad. Tensie must meet with the director of our safari company, Nature Expeditions, as Rainforest Alliance certifies eco-tourism. Here I should insert my plug for them: knowledgeable, friendly, prompt, and of course I had plugged the individual guides in previous posts. If you go to Kenya for safari I would highly recommend them.

That night we ate supper with the director of the United Nations Environmental Program, Achim Steiner and his wife Liz; a real treat to talk with people that are leading the fight and thinking about the big picture. They mentioned the Nairobi trash dump as a place of interest and my ears perked. Supposedly 10,000 people live and scavenge there, and interesting experiments in sustainability are being performed, such as a shower that is heated by methane, produced from the excrement of the residents. Nothing like a garbage dump to get me excited. Of course the urban myth is that you walk in and don’t walk out, but my experience has taught me that the people who live in these places are shy and decent, and when treated with respect, respond in kind. The Steiners knew a Dutch woman running a community group that works in the facility, and gave me the number so could call the next morning.

I called Ms van Dijk at Sarakasi Trust, http://www.sarakasi.org/, which teaches performance arts to kids in the slums and provides a venue for presentation. She connected me with Maurice who teaches acrobatics in the Korogocho slum next to the Dandora Dump and agreed to go in with me, in spite of the horrible stories he had heard. The Nairobi River separates the dump from the slums, and a more polluted estuary you have never seen. Our first encounters were with people washing plastic bags in the River for resale.They forded the River like it was a pristine babbling brook, but I was determined not to wet my shoes in that sludge. So we walked along until we found a place we could hop from old tire to mound of unidentifiable plastic to other shore, and proceeded into Hades. Everywhere things were burning, the air filled with acrid smoke. Hideous giant Marabou Storks seemed to dwarf the humans next to them as they sifted through the garbage. An old lady used a piece of bent rebar to rake through the ashes of the never-ending fire to find any pieces of metal she could sell. Everything was shades of grey from the ashes to burnt pieces of metal to her coloration after so many years of being there. The smoke would suddenly envelope, obscuring everything, then clear to reveal people engaged in various foraging activities. But I never felt frightened or threatened. On return to New York I would discover that the Blacksmith Institute rates it as one of the most toxic places on Earth; it felt that way being there. What an intractable problem. I have been in similar places around the world- God knows why I would want to. Maybe my interest is because this is the bottom of the consumption chain, like the container of rubber duckies that fell into the sea and ended up in the bellies of the whales.

Return to New York via London meant two 8 hour flights; what a joy. Of course there is the time-zone issue, but more than that, there is a necessary readjustment of time/culture frame. In a way, life seems so much more real there: we are all panicked about the economic crisis, not that any of us really understand the credit default swaps that got us into this mess. And we keep throwing mountains of money at nebulous corporations which we know don’t deserve it, but we are afraid to let them fail, lest they take down our fragile boats in the wake. Meanwhile, in Kenya they are digging the dirt, growing the tea, protecting the animals for the tourists, and waiting for the influx of Obama fans who Kenyans hope will pay big money for a trip to the hometown of the father.

No comments: