Saturday, 24 October 2009

Heading into the Great Rift Valley

We leave Uganda for Kenya and, more specifically, a campsite just outside of Eldoret town. At 2300m and on the edge of the Rift, the climate here differs considerably from our last stop in Kampala. There’s a chill in the air, in fact, it’s positively nippy – not the weather you’d expect in Africa. At 4am it starts to rain. Hard! The following morning, the mist is thick and it’s raining still. As we drive, we can barely see 10m. It’s utterly miserable so our panoramic views of the valley deep below are somewhat marred. On a day like this it’s hard to believe that further north the country is experiencing its worst drought in 120 years: cattle are perishing, people are dying.

We start our descent into the Great Rift and the weather begins to clear. The Rift Valley is a huge tear running down East Africa caused by two tectonic plates pulling apart. Slowly, over millennia, it’ll rip this section of East Africa into two. As we inch down the steep, windy roads 

– Henry stopping occasionally to check the brakes – the climate changes dramatically: it’s drier, the trees are sparser, the ground changes from a deep red to a dusty, pale brown.

We traverse the base of the valley, heading for Lake Baringo (Baringo is Swahili for lake so this place is literally called ‘Lake Lake’). Here the land is parched: the goats are slender, the cows are baring their ribs, the rivers are dry. There’s been no rain here since March so everyone is waiting desperately for the rains that are due over the next few weeks.

At Lake Baringo we’re staying at Roberts Camp. Signs everywhere state that it is a nature reserve and that you enter and camp at your own risk because wild animals roam. And the animals that roam here are hippos – one of the most dangerous animals in the world.

We set up camp in the blistering heat, keeping our tents close to one another to discourage hippos from grazing in between them. Our tents are close to the edge of the lake – so close, in fact, that you can see hippos lounging in the water from the comfort of your tent.

That afternoon we head out onto the lake on a motorized canoe to catch a glimpse of the plentiful wildlife that inhabits this lake. The weather is scorching, the lake perfectly calm. First up is an encounter with the family of hippos we’d seen from our tents. Getting within a few metres of these beautiful creatures is, like the mountain gorillas, one of those special moments in life. Hippos, as you’d expect, have mastered the fine art of wallowing. They neither tread water nor stand upright but somehow manage to lounge quite comfortably in their large family groups.

Further along the lake we come face to face with countless crocodiles well hidden amongst the reeds that line the edge of the lake. As we approach they slip silently from their resting sites into the water.

It is at this precise point that the boat I was in starts to sink. Water begins to slosh about our ankles. Our guide is quick of the mark at locating the hole. He promptly plugs it with a very small piece of bolster wood then, with an old t-shirt, he begins to bail us out.

After this minor delay we continue on, spotting some of the many birds that are regulars at this lake. When our guide throws a fish in the water we get a striking close up of a fish eagle as it dives from one of the steep cliffs at the water’s edge, plucking the fish from the water.

Our tour ends in the fashion typical of most of my experiences on water (Whitsunday Islands, Lake Titikaka). The weather suddenly changes: dark clouds rapidly accumulate, there’s thunder, there’s lightning, the waves pick up and there’s rain (yes…there hasn’t been rain here since MARCH!) Our small boat battles its way through and we all breathe a small sigh of relief when it finally reaches shore.

Evening falls and we sit eating at dusk. Suddenly we hear the distinctive deep, guttural rumblings of hungry hippos emerging from the lake in search of food. An adult hippo must consume 40kg of grass each evening to exist so as soon as the sun begins to set they make an appearance on the shores of the lake to feed. Unfortunately, as there have been no rains since March, the grass is parched so many of the hippos have been going hungry. Lately, the staff at Robert’s Camp has been leaving hay out for the hippos to graze on so their nightly appearance is virtually guaranteed.

The lights on our head torches don’t phase them so we are able just to sit in silence watching and listening as the family go about their nightly routine. Going to bed, we can hear the hippos grazing about our tents: the muffled breaths, the grunts, the grass being torn from its roots. All that separates us from these magnificent African creatures is a thin piece of fabric. As I lie in my tent listening intently, I realize that I’ve had another amazing 12 hours in Africa.

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