The last time we were in Africa, we failed to see a rhinoceros. If there was a place where we thought we stood a good chance of seeing one or two of those animals up close on this year's trip, it was Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, the second stop on our six park tour in Kenya and Tanzania. On our last morning at our camp outside Masai Mara National Reserve, we found out that Simon, our server at mealtimes, was from Nakuru. We asked him if we would see rhinos at Lake Nakuru.
His response: "Yes. It's a fenced park."
He's right. Nakuru is fenced.
His response: "Yes. It's a fenced park."
He's right. Nakuru is fenced.
It took us six and a half hours to get from Nairobi to Masai Mara, including the last 2-1/2 hours on a dirt road in the process of being converted to a paved road. We went out the same way we went in, meaning for the second time in three days, we'd get a two plus hours long African massage thrown into our vacation package for free. Score!
If we thought our ride to Masai Mara was long, we were unfortunately in for a slightly longer one to Lake Nakuru. If you ever make the same trip we did to Kenya, be prepared for a lot of sitting in cars. The trip to Nakuru took us about nine hours, albeit with a planned stop for lunch and an unplanned stop to change a flat tire somewhere on the 2-1/2 hour long dirt road portion. Luckily we had two spares. We stood within about 100 feet of some dude chopping trees on the side of the road with an axe in the middle of nowhere while our driver and guide took care of the flat. After maybe 15 minutes we were off again.
|The edge of Lake Nakuru with the dead trees killed by the rising water levels.|
Lake Nakuru National Park is a totally different sort of environment from the one we found at Masai Mara. No endless plains of grass here. Instead we found a lot of the same sort of African bush type landscape that we found in Botswana along with some more densely forested parts. It's also a lot smaller than Masai Mara; at just 73 square miles it's only about 15% of the total size of the endless savannah we saw from ground level and aloft just a couple of days prior. Oh, and there's a saltwater lake too. A big one. Hence the name.
Saltwater lake meant one thing to us: flamingos!!! In case you are not familiar with our history with flamingos in the wild, let me bring you up to speed. A little more than three years ago, we took a December trip down to the Florida Keys and the Everglades. We saw a ton of alligators but zero flamingos. Turns out we planned poorly and went to the wrong part. But that miss (and the associated accompanying regret) affected us. We were determined to see flamingos in the wild from that moment.
Fast forward about a year and a half to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. On our last full day in the Islands (after not seeing any in Africa the first time between those two trips I might add) we managed to watch two flamingos feeding in a lagoon for 30 to 45 minutes. I wrote at that time that seeing these two at sunset almost made up for the misses in Florida in 2014 and Africa in 2015. I lied. I still wanted more. So in what seemed like a sure thing, last January we made our way down to the Rio Lagartos Biosphere in the Yucatan in Mexico. They are supposed to have 50,000 non-migratory flamingos there. We saw less than 50. Not less than 50,000. Less than 50!
Lake Nakuru had the potential to make up for all that. But we got some discouraging news when we arrived. Over the last couple of years, increased rainfall and snow runoff due to climate change has irreversibly changed Lake Nakuru. As the Lake has absorbed more water, the salinity level has decreased and the water level has risen. Neither is good for the flamingos and the rising water level is especially not good for the trees that used to be by the side of the Lake but are now dead in what is now the edge of the Lake. They need freshwater; they can't survive in the saltwater. The scene (shown above) is eerie, especially in the light of a coming storm that we saw in our first hour or so driving around in the Park.
Despite the climate changed Lake, we did see flamingos at Nakuru. A lot of flamingos. But we didn't see them close enough to make out individuals and they weren't blanketing the Lake in the thousands like we heard they used to. I saw some fuzzy glimpses of the strange parading mating dances they engage in through my camera but not enough to even get a good picture of them with a line of pelicans in the foreground. The flamingo quest would go on. These things are elusive. This didn't satisfy my need to see them in the wild.
|The best flamingo pic of the trip. The quest to see these things up close in large numbers continues.|
We got a lot luckier with Nakuru's other famous residents. Simon was right. We did see rhinos. A lot of rhinos. And up close too.
There are two species of rhino living in Africa, the black rhino and the white rhino. They are distinguished from one another in a variety of ways, including how they walk with their young and the shape of their body. But the easiest way for me to tell black from white (because both are grey in color) is by the shape of their mouth. White rhinos are called white rhinos because of an English speaking misinterpretation of the original name given to these creatures; they were originally called "weit" which is an Afrikaans word meaning wide because the white rhino has a wide mouth. The black rhino, which was called black because there was a white one already out there I guess, has a hook shaped lip. Granted, this type of identification only really works up close, although the white rhino tends to graze on grass while the black tends to eat leaves off shrubs so if they are eating, you may be able to name one from afar.
Both species are endangered. There are approximately 5,000 black rhinos in the world today. 95% of these can be found in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. White rhinos are a little more plentiful, although only in the southern subspecies. There are approximately 20,000 southern white rhinos out there in the wild and they, like their black cousins, are also most frequently found in Kenya, Namibia, South African and Zimbabwe. We were in a good spot to find both black and southern white rhinos, if you consider looking for one of 5,000 or 20,000 individuals across more than one million square miles an easy task.
A couple of notes on the white rhino. The southern white rhino was thought to be extinct in the 19th century, a victim of poaching for trophies and their horns, which some cultures consider an aphrodisiac. Then in 1896 about 100 were found in the wild in South Africa and the conservation effort to save the southern white rhino started in earnest. This species clawing its way back from 100 to 20,000 is for sure a huge success story. Unfortunately, the same thing can't be said for the northern white rhino. As of the writing of this post, there are only three known members of this species alive in the world and I read the other day that one of the three is sick. They are all in captivity in Kenya.
We saw our first rhinos (yes, plural) almost as soon as we passed through the gates of Lake Nakuru National Park. Two single white rhinos and a mother and baby which our guide told us were black rhinos but which disappeared soon after we saw them. Yes, we lost sight of what would likely be a 2,000 pound animal and her baby on what was mostly a flat piece of land. Africa's like that sometimes.
In my first post about this trip, I described the difference between a National Park and a National Reserve. We enjoyed a lot of freedom in Masai Mara National Reserve to follow animals, mostly due to the vast network of established or semi-established roads or trails. We did not enjoy the same freedom in the Parks and we felt the effects of the more restricted rules almost as soon as we arrived at Nakuru Yes, we saw four rhinos, but by the time we had driven down a one way road to get closer to the closest two in our view, the mother and baby were gone.
For a first sighting of a rhino in the wild, having what looked to me to be a really good sized male walk slowly in front of our car and then graze leisurely about maybe 100 feet away was a thrill. These things are absolutely huge and they are like tanks. They are large like hippos (larger actually) but they don't look fat like hippos do. I'm confident if this animal decided to charge our car it could have easily capsized it. It's amazing they can survive and get this big just munching on grass all day.
We got to Nakuru just before 4:30 pm so couldn't linger too much around our first rhinos. We needed to make it to our lodge, which was located in the Park but a good distance away, before dark. So we left behind what we hoped wouldn't be our last rhino in the less than 24 hours that we had to spend in the Park.
|Jurassic Park Moment No. 1. Late afternoon with Lake Nakuru in the background.|
I had felt pretty confident that we'd see some rhinos at Lake Nakuru. It is, after all, what they are known for. But 11 in the first day? And on the move the way they were when we saw them? Nothing really set me up for a sighting this good.
|A closer look at Jurassic Park Moment No. 1 showing three very large white rhinos.|
If there was any criticism to offer of our first day of rhino sightings, it would be that most of them were pretty elusive and the sky was kind of overcast. Sure we got an up close look at one as soon as we drove into the Park but after ambling in front of our car, he kept going away from us. I feel terrible even just writing these words. Most people would be lucky to see the kind of sight we saw that late afternoon and here I am complaining about it.
But then again, how does seeing two groups of rhino (both with babies) in the early morning sunlight with pretty much nobody else in the world around sound?
I wrote in my blog post about Masai Mara that I went to Africa this year with a top ten list of unseen species. Rhino was number one. The looks we got at a mother and baby and then two more adults and another baby were some of the best looks we got at any species on this trip.
There's a lot of value sometimes in getting up early for a game drive in Africa. There's also a lot of value in staying really near (or inside even) the park you are going to drive around in. Combine an early start with a camp really near some wildlife and you might get the kind of experience we had with these rhinos first thing in the morning.
It is pretty difficult to appreciate just how big some animals on our planet are. You just have to get up close to them. For most large animals, that means you have to either get to a zoo somewhere or find a way to get to Africa. And zoos are in no way comparable to what you will find in the wild. There's no substitute for watching a large mammal free of captivity living without restraints or restrictions. It's amazing that there are people out there who want to kill these things just so they can say they killed one.
If you are a poacher, by the way, I don't really know how proud of yourself you can be for killing a rhino. These creatures are so gentle and docile that it doesn't seem like much of a challenge. We drove right up to the mother and baby shown above and watched them eat maybe 20 feet from our car. Sure, we were checked out by mom before she resumed tearing grass out of the ground (and it was so absolutely quiet that you could hear the sound of every bite) and went about paying like zero attention to us. It was the sound and the proximity that made this animal encounter perhaps the most intimate of the entire two week trip.
|Three white rhino. You can see the wide mouth really clearly in the lead rhino in this picture.|
|Baby rhino. Maybe the best look we got at any baby of any species on the trip. And there were a lot.|
Depending on what species are around a kill, there's a pecking order to determine who gets a shot at the carcass in what order. Animals that can kill are the first to get their fill, followed by the scavengers, although animals that can kill other animals will happily slide into the scavenger spot if they are hungry enough or just feel like it. Hyenas can kill and they can scavenge. They can chase away the jackals and the birds and maybe even a cheetah and they are definitely no match for a lion. But after everyone has picked the skeleton clean, the hyenas are the only ones who can finish the job off. Because they can actually eat the bones.
|Looking sneaky. They pretty much always do.|
On the prettiness scale, the hyena has to be one of the ugliest animals out there. I've written in the last two weeks about the Big Five, the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. The spotted hyena, which is the only species of hyena we saw, has the distinction of being one of Africa's Ugly Five, a far less notable and desirable list to occupy. Their sneaky, hunched nature combined with their scavenger's mentality and sometimes maniacal looking faces gets them on a list with the wildebeest, the lappet-faced vulture, the marabou stork and the warthog. Not exactly a great list to be on.
I was dying to see a lot of hyenas on this trip. I don't think they are that ugly but they are for sure one of the less noble looking animals we found. On our way down to Lake Nakuru that Wednesday morning, we came across maybe seven or eight of these animals moving through the yellowish grass that almost matched the color of their fur. We saw a lone hyena and then a group of two adults with a younger pup and then four more gathered around what had obviously been a kill site.
Although these hyenas were pretty close to our car and didn't scatter when we approached and stopped, it wasn't what we saw that morning that was notable, it was what we heard: the crunching of bones, a slow creaking of something solid followed by a crack as the skull of an animal gave way beneath the might of the hyena's teeth. If it was the late morning or afternoon, we likely wouldn't have seen these animals by the side of the road; it would have been too hot. But we for sure wouldn't have heard them breaking bones down into food; there would have been too many other noises, most likely from other vehicles with tourists like us in them. We got extremely lucky I think.
|Breaking bones. Big bones. Look at the teeth!|
If you ever get lucky enough to see a rhino in the wild, you may see a little bird on each one seemingly inseparable from its large host. These birds (which you might also see on African buffalo) are red-billed oxpeckers, so named for their red bills although they also have yellow-rimmed eyes with red pupils which are pretty striking against their brown feathers. The cover picture of this blog post shows a closeup of the one we saw on the mother rhino in the early morning. These birds feed off the insects that they find on the hides of large herd animals, including rhinos. They will eat flies and maggots but their favorite food are ticks, which are typically filled with blood. I assumed that the oxpecker assumed a symbiotic relationship with the rhino, with the bird getting a moving cafeteria of sorts and the rhino getting rid of unwanted pests. Turns out that's not necessarily the case. The birds really want the blood and they have been known to keep wounds open on their hosts just so they can keep feeding on the food they love the most.
Pretty macabre stuff. I'll leave you with that thought. On to Amboseli.