Lake Nakuru – up the eastern rift

The second leg of our Kenyan photographic safari with Wild Eye in April this year was to Lake Nakuru National Park which is 156 kilometres north of Nairobi. The trip takes between three or four hours depending on the traffic.

The Great Rift Valley is an immense geological feature in East Africa, formed over the past 35 million years. This giant split in the landscape was the result of two tectonic plates separating. Africa’s Great Rift Valley is one of the world’s most distinctive geo-morphological features, cutting through the continent from the Red Sea to southern Mozambique along two parallel fault lines. The rifts vary in width from 30-100 km, and are between several hundred to several thousand metres deep at some points. The rift has two sections in East Africa, a western rift through Uganda and an eastern rift through Kenya.

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” ~ Wendell Berry

The next image is taken from the main road looking west onto Lake Naivasha across the eastern limb of the Rift Valley. Lake Naivasha is a fresh water lake so is used for fishing and agriculture.

Kenya’s eastern Rift Valley has a string of eight lakes, from Lake Baringo in northern Kenya to Lake Magadi in southern Kenya. Some lakes are recognised as Wetlands of International Importance, and all are Important Bird Areas, with several being within UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites. The Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley includes three alkaline lakes which are overlooked by dramatic escarpments, volcanic features and associated geothermal features such as geysers, fumeroles and hot springs. Major differences in the lakes occur in their dissolved salts, varying from freshwater to hypersaline. The Eastern Rift Valley, south of its largest freshwater, Lake Turkana, features a string of smaller and shallower alkaline lakes. The three lakes are Nakuru, Bogoria and Elementeita. These alkaline lakes provide unique feeding habitats for East Africa’s famous Lesser Flamingos.

The alkaline lake waters support the prolific growth of green algae (Spirulina platensis), the main food of the itinerant Rift Valley population of Lesser Flamingos. The alkaline Rift Valley lakes are among the world’s most productive ecosystems and, although these harsh environments are relatively species-poor, they feed extraordinary numbers of birds. The most famous is Lake Nakuru, known worldwide for its huge flamingo populations and an enormous variety of other birds, which come to feed there. This lake is characterised by substantial water level fluctuations, along with highly variable ion concentrations.

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” ~ Wendell Berry

We spent five days exploring the wildlife in the Lake Nakuru National Park. Lake Nakuru is part of the Naivasha–Elmentaita–Nakuru basin, a region where the Eastern Rift reaches its highest elevation. The lake lies in a graben between the Lion Hill Volcano and the Mau Escarpment, the west wall of the Rift Valley.

The beautiful Lake Nakuru National Park is surrounded by wooded and bushy grassland. Nakuru means “Dust” or “Dusty Place” in the Maasai language. Lake Nakuru National Park was created in 1961 around Lake Nakuru, next to the town of Nakuru.

The Rift Valley is subject to ongoing plate tectonics and crustal movement which affects the lakes. The lake levels, have been rising recently due to above-average rainfall. With rainfall in the Rift Valley Basin being on a rising trend, hydrologists expect higher lake levels in the future.

The effects on lake ecologies are a concern as flooding increases lake turbidity and dilutes the saline waters of alkaline lakes. The water cycles of Rift Valley lakes are changing as water is taken out for use and because the catchments and land surrounding the lakes are being degraded. Forests are being converted into agricultural land, there is increasing urbanisation and people are encroaching onto riparian and wetland zones. These catchment changes reduce rainfall recharging of underground aquifers, and cause more sediment-such as soil-to run off into rivers. This sediment reaches and accumulates in lakes and reservoirs. This can clog natural underground freshwater outlets, in which can cause lake salinity and levels to rise. The deposited sediments also build the lake beds and lift lake water levels.

In May 2020, Lake Naivasha reached its highest level since 1932. Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, and Baringo have also risen to their highest levels in decades, inundating roads and building infrastructure.

“But before the understanding comes the wonder. Comes the delight. And that is the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected. The only real skill involved in this perfect birdwatching moment was the willingness to look. It was not skill that gave me the sight; it was habit. I have developed the habit of looking: when I see a bird I always look, wherever I am.” ~ Simon Barnes

The Lesser Flamingos constantly commute between the soda lakes in East Africa in search of food. Their preferred food, the cyanobacterium Arthrospira fusiformis, usually establishes dense populations in saline-alkaline habitats. The abundance of algae in the lake attracts vast numbers of flamingos to gather and feed around the shore. The number of flamingos on the lake varies as water and food conditions change. A very good vantage point from where to view this phenomenon is from the so-called Baboon Cliff.

In 2010, the park already had several Eastern Black rhinoceros, being the largest concentrations in the country, as well as a number of Southern White rhinos. Both the Kenyan subspecies of waterbuck are commonly found in the area too, as are warthogs, baboons and other large mammals.

The area was gazetted as Lake Nakuru National Park in 1968. During 1977 some Rothschild Giraffes were translocated from western Kenya to the park and was followed in 1984 with the establishment of the park as a first government managed rhino sanctuary. Two years later, in 1986, the chain link fence around the park was replaced by an electric fence and in the following year the whole park was declared a rhino sanctuary.

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can”. ~ John Muir

The lake is world-famous as the location of one of the greatest bird spectacles on earth – millions of fuchsia pink flamingos feed on the abundant algae which thrives in the warm waters on the shores of Lake Nakuru. Despite the lukewarm and alkaline waters, a small fish, Tilapia Grahami has also flourished in the lake after being introduced in the early 1960s.

“The wonder of this region is that after rain storms some lakes turn fuchsia pink, and at times in other lakes, the flamingoes paint the shores fuchsia pink.” ~ Mike Haworth

The lake is very saline so is surrounded by a grassland of highly adaptable alkaline grasses. These grasses do not seem to worry the rhino or buffalo populations.

Wherever there are buffalo there are usually lions. We found a female near a buffalo kill with her three cubs who were happily playing in the wet grass among the fever trees next to a marsh.

“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls….” ~ John Muir

Lake Nakuru National Park stretches over 188 square kilometres. Lake Nakuru itself is protected under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands. The park was enlarged partly in an effort to provide a sanctuary for the rhino, including the critically endangered Black rhino. An area of 188 km (116 miles) around the lake is fenced off as a sanctuary for the protection of giraffes as well as both Black and White rhino.

“Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” ~ John Muir

The fact that the town of Nakuru is right on the border north and eastern to the park is disconcerting but once in the park you lose all sense that there is a town on its borders. The fact that the wildlife is thrives in this park and there is a growing human population on the park’s border is testament to the park’s conservation and security efforts.

We visited the park during the ‘long rains’ in Kenya so we never got a sense that it was a dry dusty place. There were thunderstorms each afternoon and the flat area around the lake made it quite marshy and wetland oriented. One of the key features of this park is its vast fever tree forests, the character of which I will show in the next few posts.

Lake Nakuru was quite different to Amboseli. There is a significant difference in elevation, and the wildlife is mostly different as are the birds and the vegetation.

There is an incredible variety of wild places to visit in Africa. Kenya offers a wildlife photographer an unlimited palette of colours, shapes and moods with which to play.

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapour is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” ~ John Muir

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

4 thoughts on “Lake Nakuru – up the eastern rift

    • Hey Neal great to hear from you. So pleased you are back and strong. You gave us all quite a scare. Very glad you are back with us in every way. That rift valley is an intriguing part of the world. Methinks more exploration is required!!Take care and best wishes, Mike

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