Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kenya Calling – Brewing Baringo

At first sight, seeing from the upper escarpment, shrouded within the afternoon hot haze, Lake Baringo does not appear exciting or in any way unique; except that the water body is dotted with several tiny islands and has good amount of forest cover all around. It is the end of our Turkana trip and after the long, dry, dusty spell from Maralal I am only too glad to spread my legs just about anywhere. Lake Baringo seems to be better than ‘anywhere.’ By then I was back in the beer guzzling couple’s dusty SUV hence slightly better off than my truck-bound companions, whose posterior flesh had taken severe beating till now.

The road winds down towards the lake and I am delighted to see the never ending row of volcanic and metamorphic rock to my right, ideal though hazardous rock climbing site. We finally reach Marigat (the main settlement in the area) and take to the broad tarmac road. We cross the entry gate, where we pay the fee and then proceed towards Robert’s Camp where we would be putting up for the night. Those who could afford would stay in the luxurious lake view cottages and those who couldn’t (includes self and the four cherubic Charlie’s Angels) would camp in the camping ground by the lake shore. The only hitch, as one of the cottage-bound friends cautioned, that the hippos and their families often stroll up during the night on the camping ground to chomp on juicy grass and therefore I shouldn’t be pitching my tent near the water or anywhere in the vicinity of delicious grass. I wondered how I would know if the grass upon which my tent stands is delicious to hippo palate. Crocs come up too, he further elaborated. If his intention was to dissuade me from camping then he completely failed. Since the prospect of either being chomped up by a hippo family along with grass or finding a croc inside my tent at night for company seemed so delightful that I decided then and there to pitch my tent right on the water and find out what happens. Now here is the story.

When I enquire about where I can camp, the fat Camp keeper directs vaguely towards the lake shore where there are other tents and several 4X4 are parked. I plunge through the tents (of all shapes and colors, amusing me to no end as I am used to super alpine extreme altitude tents) and camping tables and chairs and finally emerge into a considerable amount of clearance where there are no tents or human presence at all. I am in the middle of hippo grazing ground and it is right at the edge of the water. I look around and realize that all other campers are well outside this invisible periphery, as if there’s an unseen boundary wall, ahead of which no one camps. My eyes glint in anticipation.

There’s nothing that says I can’t camp close to the water, though there’s a notice board right in front of me, declaring, ‘Caution, Hippos and Crocodiles are dangerous.’ As if I didn’t know, I mutter to no one and proceed to pitch my tent in a way that the front vestibule literally opens into the water, exactly in the middle of the grazing ground. I want to ensure that when the hippos and crocs do stroll up and out of water there’s no way they can avoid my tent. A moth-eaten safari guide book had already told me that to escape hippos one must be silent and let them get on with their job, whatever it was. One must never startle a hippo, no matter what, even if it was about to sit on your head. And I did have ‘close encounters of the hippo kind’ experience from before, so I feel confident as I whistle into the wind and get the poles out.

The lake water lapping in front of me is beautiful and stretches out like a silvery carpet merging and disappearing into the blue hills yonder. The breeze is unusually pleasant and harmonious to my vagabond spirit. I feel like spreading my wings into the wind and simply fly away into the hills. Suddenly the air is redolent with a great flapping noise and I look up to see a fish eagle poised for its catch, flapping its wing upon a skeleton tree branch. I drop everything and grab my camera just in time. The eagle sweeps down like a dead stone and in a flash pounces upon the water, emerging the next moment with a shimmering jerking fish clutched in its claw. I let out a burst and capture some great action shot. And then I begin to see the other birds.

Lake Baringo is a fresh water lake located at around 1000 m elevation. With an area of around 130 sqkm it has nearly 470 recorded species of birds and many animals including hippos and crocs. It is a major source of freshwater fish for the industry and has few endemic ones as well. The lake is fed by three rivers and also from the escarpments of Tugen Hill and Mau Hills. It has several inhabited islands, the largest being Ol Kokwe and few of these islands has resorts as well. It is a major tourist attraction and is considered a paradise for birdwatchers.

I observe the fish eagle as it devours the fresh catch perched precariously atop the naked branch of a skeleton tree. Then comes a pied kingfisher, followed by a heron and an assortment of weavers and starlings. A group of Hammerkops shiny up and down the thick branch of a tree like a group of truant kids, falling atop each other. With my tent pitched I look for the hippos, but they don’t show up. I shoulder my camera and go for a bit of exploration.

I walk along the water, dipping my feet intermittently, as fishes fly out and jump up eyed by eagles and egrets from above. I find a grass filled bog where one of the campers is fishing with a thin line. He points out to me a pair of log woods floating at a touching distance. They are crocs with spiny backs I realize much to my satisfaction. The place is full of skeleton trees, sprouting out of the water at random like silent sentinels and they contrast beautifully against the deep blue sky. I love such trees and so does a friend, so I click the skeleton trees by the dozen. Few tourist boats, with people encased in orange life jackets pass me by and I observe sadly the amount of cacophony they generate in the name of fun. Soon the dusk rolls in painting the sky even deeper hue of blue and green.

The evening is far too pleasant and even as it gives way to night, I don’t feel like turning in. I cook up a simple meal and park myself on a chair at the water’s edge in complete darkness, watching the starry sky and listening to the nocturnal animals pass by. I join the angels for a while at ‘Thirsty Goat’ (the bar) along with our truck driver Michael where he regales us with his traveling stories that are larger than life. I return to continue my solitary vigil by the lake. At some point I retire and drift off to sleep inside the tent. The wind is nearly cyclonic and the tent flaps keep battering into my dreams.

Now before I had pitched my tent, our driver Michael, had briefed me thoroughly how a chomping hippo sounds and also double cautioned me that I must not even breathe if they were around. Since a hippo is otherwise harmless but they are very curious and excitable. They are herbivorous but they bite into anything that upsets them, including humans and their bite is worse than that of any predator. When hippos graze and eat, and they really eat, they make a grunting kind of noise, which can also be confused with a snort.

Suddenly, even as I am dreaming a faceless dream, my tent is filled with hippos grunt. I wake up with a start into the pitch black tent and immediately smell the wild hippo scent. My first instinct is to switch on my headlamp and step out but then I decide to stay quiet and get a grip on the situation. A little while later with my head clear of sleep, I glance down to my watch and realize it is around 4.30 am. I can hear grunts from at least five different animals. Perhaps a hippo family with two adults and three kids, I muse. They sound alarmingly close and suspiciously joyous. Perhaps they can smell me and plan to mix me up with the grass. And then suddenly I feel my tent move physically. I know it is impossible as I am inside. But it feels like that. And then something brushes against my face. I recoil alarmingly brushing my face hastily. I still dare not switch on the lamp, so I grope around my face and realize that the tent fabric, which earlier was at least 12 inches away, is now pushing into my face. This is weird I wonder in the darkness. How can the tent become tinier during the night? While to my other side the tent wall is as far as it was. I again feel blindly with my hand and as I realize what it is, a cold chill runs down my spine. The ample back of a hippo is pressing into my tent fabric from the outside and it is his posterior that is making the tent wall cave in. I am sure the animal has no idea that the tent is there or that it has an occupant. It could either soon decide to sit on it totally or just tear the flimsy fabric with its teeth thus exposing me to the herd. And then I actually stop breathing.

I have no idea how long do I sit transfixed in this manner, not daring to move or breathe or even blink. I have no idea what the situation is outside, I don’t hear any human voice, there could be more hippos all around my tent and I decide that I am far safer inside than outside as long as I stay silent and play dead. Light slowly begins to filter through the tent as dawn begins to spread her wings. The hippos are still around and I stay silent as snow on a mountain top. Though I feel that I might be in some sort of danger I don’t really see the danger I am in. Silence is my ally and I pray for the hippo gods (if they have any) to direct his disciples to another patch of grass since I feel the alarming rise of my desire to answer nature’s call. And just at that moment, my mobile rings.

Instantly I pick it up lest it angers the hippo outside and whisper to my friend on the other end and quickly cut the line. I switch off the mobile and wait. Within the next few minutes that seem to drag forever, I sense the hippos moving away as the grunting noise fades and then stop altogether. I allow few more precious minutes to pass before I unzip my tent flap and peek outside. What I see stuns my eyes and dazzles my mind in a manner that I completely forget nature’s call and straight away jump outside like a paraplegic armadillo with my camera dangling behind.

The sky is awash with the orange-crimson of pre-dawn while two giant hippos watch me through slit eyes from beneath a skeleton tree growing out of the water. The hippos, though close, seem harmless and I step close to take few pictures. They remain submerged in the cool water and just keep me in their sight. I turn towards the hill at the horizon where sun is about to break surface.

An egret perches on a branch nearby as if worshipping the sun and prunes her feathers like a vain woman (that’s the reason why I am certain it was a female).
Then walks by a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl looking dreamy and drowsy as only owls can followed by a pair of storks and hornbills. The sun begins to rise and suddenly the forest around comes alive with hundreds of birds chirping, ducks wading, sunbirds hopping and people waking up. I point out the hippos to others and soon enough there is a sizeable crowd ogling the couple in water. Around 7 am, arrives our boatman with whom we had struck a boat-ride deal the previous evening.

He pushes the boat into the water, and we all hop in, passing close to the hippo couple who don’t even give us a second look. The boatman is a young boy and ready to give us the ride of our lives. He rattles out information about the lake, the fishes and the birds. We soon enter a grass covered channel and sight bee-eater, kingfishers, eagles, crocs, heron, more hippos and egrets, cormorants, storks, and numerous other birds I can’t identify. At a place we sight three pied kingfishers engaged in a morning conference, chattering and chirping away to glory. And then we speed off towards a distant island. The boat cuts across the blue water, causing ripples in our wake and I ride in the front to take on the lovely lilting breeze and the glow of the morning sun. We reach the island and go around it, finding a pair of young boys fishing at one point. They wave at us and we wave back. Then it is time for us to return. We hop off the boat and I proceed to pack my tent as my other camping friends had already gone for breakfast.

The place is incredibly beautiful and I find it hard to go away so soon. I slowly gather my tent and my meager belongings into my sack and then dump them in the car. I decide to skip breakfast and take one last walk besides the lake. I walk towards the further edge where I hadn’t gone before. And there I come upon a delightful family of Egyptian goose. The parents are leading a bunch of half a dozen young chicks, few really young with barely any feather on their baby skin. I follow them from a distance unobtrusively.

The chicks are cordoned and guarded by the parents from either end as they hop and skip making high pitched squeaking sounds all along. A young one suddenly wobbles and crashes to ground head first and immediately stands up by itself dusting the sands from its skin like a terrier. Another opens its rosy beaks and cries for food till the mother drops something in it. Then they go into the water. Two chicks are hesitant as the strong wind ruffles their wings and tiny hair. They arch their backs and stand up on their legs like human, braving the wind and shaking their tiny heads as if in a daze. The entire show is utterly comical and totally adorable. The young chicks finally gather enough courage to follow the parents and their siblings into the water. They frolic and splatter, swim and smatter like human. Then they drink the water and return to the sandy shore. Once again they form a long line and walk away.

As time is nigh, I tear myself from the lake shore and meet up with my friends who are basking around the pool with pina-coladas (complimentary farewell drinks I suppose). Even as we are leaving the place I spot a group of superb starling, lilac breasted roller and a rare species of hornbill. I follow the hornbill with my camera as it hops and skips through the grass denying me a clear shot, though it doesn’t fly away. I am sure it is used to seeing people around. Few glossy ibis hang around as do a group of chirping doves. Finally it is time for us to leave and I board the car with a heavy heart. Suddenly I remember something and dash off into ‘Thirsty Goat’ to grab a bottle of soda. It’s not possible, as the manager had told me the previous night that one comes to Robert’s Camp and doesn’t guzzle at ‘Thirsty Goat’. It’s almost a ritual. That accomplished I soothe my troubled heart and hop into the guzzling couple's car.

The guzzling couple put on a loud raucous music, loud and belligerent enough to silence the savannah and we dash off towards the city of Nairobi into the new year of 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Always off the beaten track. Your love for wildlife (people, included) comes through your writings...

    We visited Baringo-Bogoria (not your kind of adventure perhaps) but it is fascinating to know the Baringo lake lies at the bottom of the Rift Valley and Tugen Hills nearby have fossil rich sites. Did you visit Koobi Fora when in Turkana?