Early morning, as the sun rises over the Indian Ocean, a warm glow spreads out across the land. Starting slowly, a burning ball of fire emerges & rises out over the horizon, light unfolding out over the open ocean & twisted clouds dancing with the beams of light around the morning sky. The world begins to awaken on this fraction of the globe. Ghost crabs are stirring below the sandy shore, poking their eyes out for the first glimpse of the day. The world above can be a treacherous place, but it is a world of wonder and abundance. At first glimpse of the strange large creature staring back at him, the crab quickly scurries back underground, sometimes bobbing up and down like a curious lizard before finally retreating into the safety of the world below. Small seabirds sweep the shoreline looking for tiny morsels and maybe even an unsuspecting crab. The tide is high and the sharp coral outline of the water’s edge is completely engulfed by the tidal surge. Down below the scintillating ocean waters, a different world of sea turtles, sting rays, colorful reef fish and even the migrating whale sharks swim playfully in the currents as they begin to feel the encroaching rays of the sun.
I imagine the countless sunrises & sunsets witnessed by the numerous sailors and explorers, who have travelled these historic seas and coastlines, treasured the bounty of the seas, learned the shapes of the protective reefs below, and exchanged cultures, goods, people & technology across the centuries. In many ways this coastline is not so different from any coastline in south asia, the carribean or even the pacific. But with the splendors and hardships that spread out behind to the west and up and down the long stretch of coastline of this vast and curious continent, there is an air of something new, something unique…This is Africa!
The flight in was seemingly uneventful. Leaving a great reunion of trekking buddies and what I can only describe as my Indian family in their lovely home in Delhi, I headed on to the airport and after a few late night hours in the Mumbai airport I was off to Nairobi. After a short flight throughout the night, we began our descent as the morning sun raced towards us around the earth’s surface. Except that this was not Nairobi, the palm trees made that evidently clear. We had been diverted to Mombasa due to a slight inconvenience at the Nairobi airport that morning… namely that the entire terminal had been set on fire and in one quick flash was turned to ashes. After a two month long investigation in coordination with international partners and the FBI, they are claiming it was an electrical fire…just like Jack Black in the movie “Orange County”… Welcome to Kenya!
I was happy to be dealing with the confusion of being in the wrong airport in a new country with a plane full of Indians. If these were Americans, or Europeans for that matter, which there were many waiting in the airport delayed from the start of their once in a lifetime safari adventures, properly decked out in all the essential safari gear, we could have had a mutiny on our hands. But the Indians seemed very nonchalant about the whole thing. One man quipped to me that they were used to these sorts of things and it actually made him feel more at home. That’s the spirit! So after a bemusing few hours at the airport, the bags were sorted, the busses were loaded and the hundred or so of us weary travelers were off to Nairobi on our complimentary 12 hour cross country bus rides, tracing the old railway line from Mombasa upcountry to Nairobi straight through the heart of Tsavo, once home to the man eating lions which brought the British & Indians such headaches while trying to tame the wild lands and construct the railway.
After a few days getting settled in Nairobi, the hub of East Africa, we were off to Lake Naivasha for a few relaxing days along the lakeshore and the first glimpses of the rift valley as we ventured deeper into the African continent. Within an hour outside of Nairobi, the escarpment drops off suddenly down into the Great Rift Valley, an aptly named rift in the earth’s crust running from the Jordan River and Dead sea in Israel, through the Red Sea into Ethiopia and the Afar Triple Junction, then parting around Lake Victoria and stretching across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and before spreading down to Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and home to more fish species than any other freshwater body on the planet. Formed from the slow splitting and pulling apart of the tectonic plates beneath East Africa, the Great Rift Valley is home to some of the most diverse wildlife and ecosystems on the planet, including vast sweeping plains like the Masai Mara & Serengeti, with roaming herds in the millions and some of the final frontiers for big game like Lions, Rhino’s, and Elephants, great lakes like Turkana, Tanganyika & Malawi, with unique bird & aquatic life, and massive volcanoes, home to some of the only remaining glaciers in Africa, like of Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya.
Lake Naivasha is the closest fresh water lake to Nairobi and just next door to the interesting rock formations and geothermal activity of Hell’s Gate National Park. We stayed at a lovely little campsite along the shore of the lake, with a wonderful variety of bird life including pelicans, herons, and fish eagles exploring the shallow waters edge. A short boat ride along the lake shore exposes the hoards of hippos stacked lazily on top of each other throughout the shallows. The hippos have an interesting symbiotic relationship with small birds called oxpeckers who are often seen perched on the back of hippo, rhino, and buffalo, feeding off of small insects and parasites while helping to keep clean and protect their larger cousins. However upon further research into this relationship, scientists have found that the birds get a bit greedy with this food source and tend to peck at small wounds on the hippo’s back in order to keep the wounds, and their feeding grounds, open for business.
Naivasha is also home to about 85% of all of the flower farms in Kenya. Floriculture in Kenya is a $1 billion industry and one of the country’s main exports, sending around 150,000 tons of cut flowers, predominantly Roses, abroad every year and supplying about 40% of the annual flower imports for the European market. Naivasha flower farms are predominantly run by former European settlers and although flowers are one of the country’s main export earners and the industry is responsible for directly employing almost 100,000 people, some issues have surfaced related to the flower farms treatment of laborers, pollution and negative impact on the lake’s ecosystem. The flowers are grown in along the lake’s shore year round in greenhouses which draw on a free and continuous supply of water from Lake Naivasha for irrigation. Each day hundreds of potential workers line up at the gates of the farms hoping for some kind of temporary job if only to earn a day’s wages of a few dollars. With the increased employment opportunity brought on by the success of the flower farms, the population around Lake Naivasha has boomed resulting in ever more encroachment on the lake. News reports have highlighted possible health concerns of workers from working in greenhouses all day and breathing in chemical fumes along various cases of reported worker abuse. Furthermore, the water level of the lake is much lower today than it has been historically, although it has begun to rise again in the past decade, but also the wastewater from the flower farms, after various doses of chemical treatment can be easily seen pouring back into the lake. Environmentalists and local fisherman point to the direct pollution from agro-chemicals as the main cause of pollution and weakened fisheries in the lake. Some flower farms, like Oserian, the oldest flower farm in Naivasha, have taken a closer look at their impact on the surrounding ecosystem and attempted to address these concerns. They claim to have a high quality water & sewage treatment facilities and have also vastly reduced the amount of chemicals they use in production since 2005 by utilizing things like spider mites & steam as natural pesticides and fungicides, but the “eco-friendly” flower farming industry still has a ways to go in Kenya.
After the weekend, I parted ways with the crew from Nairobi and set off for a day hike up to the perfectly conical peak of the long dormant volcano, Mt Longonot. From the crater rim there were great views of the impenetrable crater forest a few hundred feet below surrounded by the steep rocky crater walls. If bigfoot ever fled the forests of Oregon upon seeing “the world’s only bigfoot trap”, he may be hiding out in this forest… From Naivasha I was on my way to Nanyuki, a small town at the western base of Mt Kenya, to visit a friend from the FMS program in Monterey, CA. The ride was a few hours on two different matatu’s winding up and around the Aberdare Mountains, a range known as the headquarters of the Mau Mau leaders who sought respite in caves during their brutal uprising and the more deadly response by the British in the 1950s. Just before reaching Nanyuki, I crossed over the equator back into the Northern Hemisphere for the first time in Kenya. When the snowcapped glory of Mt Kenya’s rocky, jagged peaks finally shown out through the clouds, rising up to 5199m (17,000ft) from the deep green forest & farm lands surrounding the base, it was hard to imagine that we were literally on the equator in the heart of Africa.
Nanyuki, is a quiet and pleasant little town and at an altitude of about 1900m (6,250 ft) it has a very pleasant climate for being on the equator. Although Nanyuki is a jumping off point for one of the popular trekking routes up to the Mt Kenya summit, the main reason for my visiting Nanyuki this time around was to see an old friend and learn more about the start-up he was working for called Eco-Fuels Kenya. The company has a really great idea for turning a naturally abundant local resource with no other known uses into a valuable input, essentially creating value where there was none. An indigenous tree to the central highlands of Kenya called the Croton Tree, or Mukinduri in the local dialect, produces a small croton nut that drops seasonally all around the Mt Kenya area. This nut happens to have an extraordinarily high oil content which makes it prime for biofuel production. Conveniently again, the engineering process that produces the biofuel from the nut, also produces a moist cake residue and dry husks as a byproduct which can then be mixed to produce a natural organic fertilizer. EFK has a collection system set up where locals collect tons of the Croton nuts that are littered around forests and farms in the region and can earn supplemental income for every kg they collect. With a simple text message the collected bags are picked up, weighed, and transported back to EFK’s factory where they can then be pressed into the biofuel and organic fertilizer that is now being sold around the region.
Although Mt Kenya was looming ever present in the background for the week I was in Nanyuki, I decided I would return for the climb later in the year when the weather was better and so for now I headed off towards another unique mountain range and hiking region in East Africa. Towards the Rwenzori Mountains, so called “Mountains of the Moon”, in Western Uganda…