Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Voluntourism in Kenya and the Fabulous Flamingos of Lake Nakuru

Storm Clouds and flamingos over Lake Nakuru, Kenya - August 2002

In August of 2002, to celebrate my 40th birthday (11 months and 20 days after the fact) - I took a month off from work and participated in a little voluntourism as a research assistant at Lake Naivasha for Earthwatch's Lakes of the Rift Valley conservation project in Kenya. We lived in tents pitched on the grounds of the Kenyan Wildlife Service on the shores of the lake. It was fantastically down-and-dirty, sleeves-rolled-up, into the muck, dodging black mambas-buffaloes-and-hippos-at-every-turn work from sun up to sun down.

We had one day off - which we dreaded as the work days were thrilling beyond imagination- and all twelve of us volunteers pitched in and paid the local camp staff and research biologists to take us a few hours north and east to Lake Nakuru for a little "safari". Most of our work at Naiviasha was done on the hoof and we really did have to "run for our lives" quite a few times -- so it was nice to hang-out in Nakuru four feet off the ground in a couple of fast moving jeeps for the day.
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"the perils of a middle-of-the night trip in the dark to the distant outhouse would soon prove to impact our nightly Tusker Beer consumption
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Waterbucks and Pelicans - Voluntourism and Camping on Lake Naivasha

Living in slightly more populated Lake Naivasha we had our daily fill of cape buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, zebras, and waterbucks - all of which moved regularly through our compound and would often graze the grassy lawn after we had gone to bed (the perils of a middle-of-the night trip in the dark to the distant outhouse would soon prove to impact our nightly Tusker Beer consumption). But eventually we longed for a glimpse of the more charismatic megafauna of that part of Africa - the lions and rhinos and leopards and elephants that frequented the park at Lake Nakura -- we would not be disappointed.

Wading Black Rhinoceros and Pink Flamingos

The highlight of that incredible day for all of us would prove to be the flamingos. Lake Nakuru is a shallow alkaline lake that is home to one of the great bird spectacles on earth. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pink flamingos, both the lesser and greater species, flock to the lake to feed on cyanobacteria commonly called blue-green algae. I can't even begin to describe what it was like to happen upon this impossible sea of pink birds. And these old film exposures from the days before I had real photographic equipment don't do much justice either.

At the end of the day, enormous black storm clouds moved in over the lake without warning and we were able to capture a few shots as the last of the sunlight lit up these hundreds of thousands of pink birds in a haunting swath of light before the storm raged over the lake (top photo).
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