one of our favorite sights

Saturday, January 5, 2013

December 2012 Travels

water hyacinth at Kisumu harbor

plowing after a rain

fig tree in Kakmega

Bush Buck in Mt. Elgon Nat'l. park

Mt. Elgon park

Colubus Monkeys

Mt. Elgon Park

Mt. Elgon park

Mt. Elgon park


Bush Buck


Canopy at Kakamega



Olive baboons at Mt. Elgon

climbing to see the canopy at Kakamega

cottage at Rondo

whacky stork

part of road to Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria sunset

Nile Perch! the big prize!

Our desire to get out of the city and check out some new places became stronger in December and we had the opportunity to combine a work related visit with a visit to an orphanage near Kitale for our church, and  visit Mt. Elgon,  which straddles  the border of Uganda.
Mt. Elgon is the second highest peak in the country, after Mt. Kenya. Since coming to Kenya, we had learned about the volcanic history of Kenya which of course offers many interesting geologic sites and features and Mt. Elgon National Park promised to introduce us to some of them.  Word was also that there was wildlife there and cool caves to explore. So, we were raring to go check it out.  We rented a banda, which are provided by the Kenyan Wildlife Services. Bandas are small buildings, sometimes huts, often made of concrete with a circular shape and a thatched roof. The bandas at Mt. Elgon were concrete block with a small kitchen and front porch. They were perfect for us. The three of us could stay the night, bring in our food and water, and have a nice peaceful sleep for $35.00. This is pretty cheap for the Kenyan National parks as many of the parks are centered around tourist safaris and are quite expensive even just to get in the gate. Due to its remote location, Mt. Elgon NP is not so heavily visited and therefore quite a bit cheaper. But, no less interesting, to be sure!
We were met at our banda by David, a Kenyan trained in hospitality who has been working for KWS for some years. He was delightful to talk to and full of helpful information. Since we were staying in a park which claimed to have some large animals,  I personally was a little nervous. In fact, upon our arrival at the park , after paying at the gate, we immediately saw baboons and Bush Buck antelope, which we considered a good sign. We took a short walk after arriving at the banda and heard some funky loud noises in the bush (rutting water buffalo?)  and saw several smallish antelopes and a lot of large animals’ poop. So we knew they were there! When we got back to our banda site, David had prepared a large bonfire for us so we made some dinner and sat around a lovely campfire, chatting with him for a bit. I asked him , since I really had no idea, what one does if one comes across a large animal and one is on foot (they actually recommend an armed guide but we were not interested in that). He said, in all sincerity, in beautiful yet heavily  accented English, “well, if it is a water buffalo, he is the most likely to kill you. You must quickly climb any available tree. However, if it is an elephant, you can just take off your clothes and run into the woods!”  Although I chuckled at this assessment I did demand a “plan of action” from my guys the next morning before we went out , seeing as how I’m not a strip and run naked through the woods or climb a tree quickly kinda gal. Michael thought my slight discomfort was humorous but I was very clear about my plan. “Play dead” was my plan. The men of course thought they could outrun a water buffalo so I just said “good luck with that!”
That night was beautiful  under the star strewn sky. It was super dark so the stars were particularly brilliant and we were able to use Liam’s “stargazer” app on his Ipod to find stars and the names of constellations. We all slept well too, as it was pitch dark and very quiet.  Michael and I got up early, at sunrise , to see what animals we could see and sure enough we saw some Bush Buck  and DikDiks in the glade near the bandas. We then got Liam up  and took a walk up the road which was surrounded by heavy forest. We were being as quite as possible so as not to disturb the animals. On that walk we saw some more African deer,  and to our delight,  a herd of zebra wandered out of the woods just as we returned.
David had convinced us that we could take our 4wd rental up to the base of the mountain peak and that it wouldn’t take as long as we had thought, so we had a quick breakfast, packed up and headed out , our first stop being the Kitum Caves, which the elephants are known to enter in order to dig for salt. Keeping our fingers crossed for elephants, we hiked up the lovely hillside, catching glimpses of Colubus monkeys in the trees on the way up.
The cave itself had sort of a tricky entrance but once inside there were signs of elephants having recently been there and you can see the lava tubes from 10 million years ago which formed when the volcano last erupted. So cool! We continued on our way, driving about 35 km up the mountain, enjoying the changing flora on the way up to our ultimate goal of 4000 meters, the air thinning as we went. We saw several more large Bush Bucks along the way and made several stops to admire the giant trees along the way. The road itself became little more than a path at some points and there was no sign of humans at all.
 After a couple of hours of driving we did find the trail to the top of the mountain, which was surrounded by  beautiful savannah and several  other peaks all around. We hiked a bit to the trailhead but as we approached it began to cloud over. My reaction to the climb was a positive “maybe” because it looked like 4 km of steep and stoney uphill which at that point in the day I was not sure I would be happy to do. Plus we knew we had to get out before dark. We headed up the rocky trail and it did become slippery and sort of invisible in places, but my heroic helpers, lent me a hand. After about an hour we stopped on a stone outcropping to drink some water and find the peak as there were several looming. I was not overly enthusiastic about continuing but Liam was, so he and Michael carried on promising to come back in 20 minutes. I sat on my rock and looked in awe at the scenery and listened for sounds of approaching wildlife. It is something else being out in nature when you know there are large animals about. I began to get a little worried when suddenly, a fog moved in and I could not see where the guys had gone.  I stood and called to Michael and Liam and got what I thought was a response back so I “chilled” for a bit and then finally, after another 10 minutes, saw them in the distance. We all agreed that we were not prepared to hike the whole way that day as it was late, we were tired and out of water, it was misting, and we didn’t really know at what point we’d find the peak.  We do plan to go back.
After resting a few minutes at the bottom of the hill, we hiked back to our vehicle and climbed in, prepared to descend the mountain and head for home. We couldn’t go fast, because it was wet and tight, and at one point we even got stuck. Michael sounded a bit concerned which was a red flag for me, but Liam and I were able to get us out by putting debris and sticks under the tires. Since we hadn’t seen any other people for hours, including park rangers, this was a little bit of an “uh-oh” moment;  we did get lucky I think. As we continued down we got lucky again, in finding standing smack in the middle of the road a very large giraffe, eating a late afternoon snack of Acacia tree. Giraffes are just so awesome and we were all tickled to come across her. We slowly got out of the car to get a better look and she just stood and watched us as we watched her. We walked a bit closer, took some photos, and just continued to gaze at her when finally, after about 15 minutes, she turned around and trotted off.  Such grace and beauty to behold. Just seeing her made it all worthwhile for me.

Christmas in the Rainforest
We were pleased and felt lucky to be invited to join the Mamlins (Dr. Joe and his wife SarahEllen who have been directing the IU Kenya program for quite awhile) over  Christmas in the Kakamega Rainforest at a retreat center called Rondo. We had expected to maybe take a trip to the coast because we are all missing water but things are a little tense on the coast and we couldn’t pass up this invitation. We had been to Kakamega before and really enjoyed being in the rainforest. Another cool thing was that the Mamlins foster son, Dino Martins, who is a quite famous entomologist, joined us. He is studying insects all over East Africa and has a wealth of knowledge about everything in nature, and is just a pleasant and interesting guy to talk to. We took several hikes with him as he was searching for specific bees and butterflies (pollinators are his thing) and we heard lots of stories about his other research projects which sound so interesting. He is currently working with Richard Leakey up in Turkana.
Kakmega is a 230 sq mile swath of rainforest in the heart of an intensely cultivated area. It has been protected since the 1930’s and is managed by KWS and a community forestry group. There is a lot of wildlife there and it is known for some particular animals, the Colubus monkeys, red tailed monkeys, blue monkeys, and birds, such as the Blue Taraco and Casqued hornbill. Since both Dino and the Mamlins were way into birding we did a lot of that. However, we Grevens, we have a particular fondness for monkeys because they are so active and funny, jumping from tree to tree. At Rondo, there are many monkeys in the trees around the yard, and in the early morning we would wake up to monkeys right up close to our cottage. So funny! One of the coolest things was the Colubus monkeys waking up the forest in the early morning, just before dawn. They have this wild low call and it starts somewhere deep in the forest and moves across it waking everything up as it gets louder and louder. Sort of chilling and spooky, but really awesome to hear every morning! We spent three nights at Rondo and had so much to do and see and talk about that it really made our first Christmas away from family and friends tolerable.
On December 26 we headed out to the next leg of our journey. As I mentioned, we were missing water, as we are “water people”, so we went  down to check out Lake Victoria, which is in the south western most corner of Kenya.  Lake Victoria is the second largest inland lake in the world (second to Lake Superior) and the largest freshwater lake in Africa. We love lakes, so we were excited to go and see it. We headed to an island on the far side of the part that is in Kenya, called Rusinga. Its biggest claim to fame is that it was the home of one of the early independence fighters/trade unionists, Tom Mboya. He was assassinated back in the early days after independence.
Most of Lake Victoria is actually Ugandan and Tanzanian, but the folks who live along the edge of it in Kenya are certainly dependent on it. It took us about an hour to get to Kisumu, a biggish city along the way.  From Kakamega to Kisumu,  the road was good, but after that the road deteriorated quite badly and it took us another 3 hours to get to the island. Sadly, the whole area just struck us as really poor. Poorer than this region, which says a lot. The folks are living very hand to mouth, they usually only have one growing season and the only industry they have is fishing, which they do in a very basic way. WE saw people carrying fish (Tilapia or Nile Perch ) on bicycles, by hand to the market and hawking them on the street. We stayed in a little beach “resort” owned by an older American woman who had married a Kenyan from that area and retired there (she had been widowed quite awhile). She is an artist and has created this nice place for relatively cheap, with a nice staff, cute bandas, and good food.
 However, the biggest and most interesting aspect of the visit was that we couldn’t swim in Lake Victoria!! We were so bummed. Well, people do swim in it, and of course the Africans get in it, but  because it has Shistosomeisis in it, which can cause all sorts of problems, we decided, although it was hot and steamy down there and very tempting, that it definitely wasn’t worth it.  So we checked out the island, birdwatched, saw two beautiful sunsets, slept peacefully in our bandas, ate well, and pondered the life of islanders who cannot use their lake for a tourist attraction. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful, but noticeably underused and presumably because of the shisto. No sailing boats out on the water (fishing dhows, yes), no snorkeling or other boating activities. Such a shame. And no doubt if it was a healthier body of water, there would be more money to go around on the island.
 But the bigger shame and startling discovery came on our way home when we stopped in Kisumu, which is a port town. Its port, and all the other ports of Lake Victoria are now covered in water hyacinth, which is an invasive species which was somehow introduced from Latin America about 20 years ago. It is everywhere in the harbors and bays and sadly it is killing the fishing industry, the tourism industry in the port towns, and it is very bad for the ecosystem of the lake. It is worse near Kisumu because they dump a lot crap in the lake too. So, our visit to Lake Victoria was both interesting and sort of depressing.
Happily, on the way home, we stopped at Ruma National Park, which is a lovely remote park down by Lake Victoria and surrounded by beautiful hills. It was truly picturesque and we spent several hours looking for wildlife. We were pleased again to be treated to the sighting of many giraffe, zebras, Impala, Topi, and Jackson’s Hartebeest. That was a lovely way to end our journey before getting back on the very unpleasant and bumpy road home.
Well, this is an extra long post, but I hope you have been able to enjoy it. I am including some book titles and websites that may help illuminate some of the above topics.
Happy New Year!
Walking Together, Walking Far by Fran Quigley, History of IU Kenya/AMPATH IU Press

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That was some post! I am impressed that you can spell "Shistosomeisis." All those animals are so beautiful. I always remember the first time I saw giraffes in Kenya: I cried -- I was so moved.

    I am curious about something you wrote about (well, may things but for now, this one): Did the people who live around Lake Victoria eat the fish? When we were there, I believe I remember that they did not eat the fish. It was something to do with belief systems, I think. But maybe our guide was just being inventive.

    It's snowing here and I just brought in some fire wood.