Kenya Field Course Diary

lawrence ball kenya field courseIn early January 2014 I spent two weeks travelling around Kenya visiting national parks, private reserves, and community and NGO projects. Alongside my masters degree peers we engaged in a steep learning curve, experiencing first-hand a number of current conservation and environmental policy case studies.
Tuesday 7th January

jomo kenyatta international airportWe arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at about 10pm and then travelled by bus to our accommodation for the next three nights. We had brought tents but it was late by the time we arrived so we slept in beds for the first night. Luxury.

Wednesday 8th January

tentsWe woke at 6 the following morning and head out on our first game drive. Throughout the trip we would collect an overall species inventory, the bus with the longest list would win a prize! For each game drive we would then record mammal and bird species, in some instances we also employed distance sampling methods, quite difficult when you’re whizzing along at 40mph, trying to avoid bashing your ribs against some poorly placed bolts on the vehicles bodywork. Although, it was great being able to stand up and get a good view of the landscape from the bus’s open roof. We were extremely lucky to see White Rhino on this first game drive. On return to the lodge we checked out of our rooms and erected the tents on the neighbouring lawn.

in some instances we also employed distance sampling methods, quite difficult when you’re whizzing along at 40mph

We were joined by Enoch Mobisa throughout our journey, a conservationist and social scientist, who on our first day, began by explaining the technicalities of focus group research methods. Later that afternoon we travelled to a small rural village and undertook a focus group aimed at discussing human-wildlife conflict arising from living close to Nairobi National Park. There was certainly room for improvement, but we gleaned some nuggets of information from the hesitant participants about lion-livestock conflict and wildlife-livestock disease transmission. It was an interesting experience, as was the journey back to the lodge – we took a bumpy downhill route to the village which the vehicles couldn’t climb back up resulting in a very long detour.

Thursday 9th January

I had decided to sleep in my hammock last night – was a bit cold, didn’t do it again. We boarded the buses for game drive number two. We came upon a small lake, with a couple of hippos and some wetland bird species. We returned to the lodge with a few more herbivores and birds on the list and tucked in to brunch.

We were lucky to get a unique insight into an early stage bottom-up community project

Cape TealThat afternoon we had another shot at a real-life focus group. This time we broke in to male and female focus groups which proved to be much more effective. Smaller group sizes allowed for more personal discussions and coaxed out contributions from the participants. This particular village was planning to set up a community-run conservancy. They were hoping to build a bespoke lodge and run safari tours. They wanted to protect their ancestral lands. We discussed alternative tourism markets; gap-year expeditions, mainstream wildlife research and bespoke flora tours. There was a flaw with the plan for mainstream safaris – a lack of big game. We left having improved our focus group research technique from the previous session, and with a lot of food for thought. We were lucky to get a unique insight into an early stage bottom-up community project.

We took a scenic game drive back to camp and prepared to depart the following morning.

Friday 10th January

rift valleyWe set out for our next destination, Lake Naivasha. Along the way we stopped at a view point that looked out across the Rift Valley. We arrived at Lake Naivasha in the early afternoon and took a tour of Florensis flower farm. We discussed the environmental and economic impacts of the huge cut-flower businesses here. The flower farms themselves were far larger than I had ever expected – we received a talk at one farm in an endless seven hectare expanse of red roses, and this was just one corner of several huge polytunnels.

flower farmAfter the flower farm we drove to Fisherman’s camp where we would be staying for the next two nights. The camp is situated right on the lake shore; black and white colobus monkeys are active in the trees during the day, and during the night hippopotamus come ashore to feed on the grass. There is ample bird life – wetland birds are the highlight here. Several species of heron, egret and kingfisher can be seen in just a few minutes.

ColobusThat evening we relaxed at the bar and caught up with the other groups that were taking different routes through Kenya looking at other aspects of conservation biology and ecology.

Saturday 11th January

Hell's GateAn early start saw us up and out before dawn. We were undertaking distance sampling for herbivores today in Hell’s Gate National Park. This park is special because it is one of very few where you can explore and get close to the wildlife on foot. After testing our individual distance estimations, and assigning the best to the task, we set off on a leisurely 7km stroll through Hell’s Gate. The park got its name for the pair of massive red tinged cliffs framing a geothermal interior of steam vents and bubbling springs. Giraffe, zebra, eland, grant’s gazelle, thomson’s gazelle, warthog and impala were everywhere – we also found cheetah scats and tracks. The stunning scenery and abundance of wildlife made for a truly magical experience. After our sampling we climbed in to the upper reaches of the valley and walked along deep sandstone gorges – it was here they filmed some of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider film.

ZebraWe drove back to camp via the geothermal station – we must have looked strange to the locals – our heads poking out of the bus roofs, not looking at wildlife but at a power station.

We had planned to take a boat ride across the lake that evening but masses of floating vegetation had clogged the shoreline and the boats were struggling to get out. We decided to leave it till the morning and spent several hours bird watching from the shore instead – the floating vegetation had attracted a diverse assemblage of species.

we must have looked strange to the locals – our heads poking out of the bus roofs, not looking at wildlife but at a power station
Sunday 12th January

Egrets

The shores were clear when we woke up so after breakfast we took a boat ride on to the lake. The bird diversity was incredible and at one point we could see three African Fish Eagles. There was a fully submerged JCB digger which had been caught out by the rising lake levels – it was the highest it had been in 30 years. A highlight of the boat trip was getting cornered by a large hippo which popped its head out and snorted at us – our boat driver cursed (an English word beginning with ‘F’), and then revved the engine to full wallop, skirting round to the right of the beast sparing only a few metres.

NakuruAfter the boat trip we boarded our buses and drove the short distance to Lake Nakuru. The lake was in full flood and the main road through the fully fenced park was under several feet of water. We took an alternative route, and began a game drive through the park. Here, there were rhino and buffalo in abundance and some buses even glimpsed a leopard. We stopped by the lake shore and received a talk from a park ranger from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). He was an interesting, well spoken and honest chap open to all our questions about wildlife conservation in Kenya. Our low-key campsite that evening was overrun with baboons when we arrived but they soon scattered off over the fences in to the surrounding grassland. That evening we all gathered together, as we were doing most evenings, to discuss the environmental issues we were seeing first hand in Kenya.

Monday 13th January

equatorWe were travelling to Mount Kenya today. We drove out of Lake Nakuru National Park adding more and more species to our lists and then settled down for the six hour journey ahead of us. We stopped at one of the many curio shop and café establishments the drivers chose to stop at, this one was on the equator. We paid a small fee for a man to demonstrate how water drains in opposite directions due to the Coriolis effect on each side of the equator – unfortunately it’s a trick; due to the way the water is poured in the first place.

We arrived at Naro Moru River Lodge that afternoon and set up camp. We would be staying here for the next four nights. The lodge was impressive to say the least – swimming pool, squash courts, volleyball court, tennis court, the list goes on… shame they couldn’t have fixed the showers which gave a mild electric shock every time you turned the tap.

Tuesday 14th January

White RhinoWe spent the day at Solio Ranch. The 17,500 acre ranch is a fenced, privately owned protected area geared toward rhino conservation. The ranch is recognised as one of the most successful private rhino breeding reserves in Kenya. Buffalo, zebra, giraffe, eland, oryx, impala, waterbuck, Thompson’s gazelle and warthog can all be seen here. We received talks from two of the managers of the ranch mainly addressing problems with poaching. We did also get an insight in to the problems with management of private reserves, difficulties of working with authorities and the local community. As Solio has the highest density of rhinos in the whole of Kenya it is a prime target for poaching. Perhaps this is an advantage as it allows for targeting of anti poaching efforts to one area, although the problem does require a large amount of financial, logistical and human resources.

The ranch is recognised as one of the most successful private rhino breeding reserves in Kenya

That evening the lecturers had put together a pub quiz. Hilarious. And we won! And the tree hyraxes were calling all night.

Wednesday 15th January

mount kenya farmWater is a limited resource in Kenya and so we spent a day discussing water resource use in a catchment beneath Mount Kenya. We began the day with a talk from a non-governmental organisation working with local communities and farmers to sustainably use water resources. River and Water Users Associations (R/WUA’s) are being set up to divide spring water evenly between users. We went to see a small river from where water was being piped and visited a small holding where a local farmer was producing low yields of crops for export. Every last inch of the farm was being utilised, and in a seemingly sustainable way. We then visited a large scale farm where water was being used in a seemingly unsustainable way – misting sprinklers on in the heat of the day; most of the water must have been evaporating! We returned to camp that evening and held a heated discussion in various groups representing different stakeholders. We had an early night because tomorrow we would climb Mount Kenya.

Thursday 16th January

Mount KenyaWell, we would do a cheeky 22km round trip from the Naro Moru Mount Kenya Park Gate to the Bandas Hiking Trail Met Station before climbing more steeply to the edge of the alpine zone. Stunning views and fascinating vegetative communities!

Friday 17th January

african wildlife spectacleWe were up and packed away for a half 7 departure to the Maasai Mara. We drove through the Aberdare Mountains which were beautiful, although much of the land near the road and settlements was a mosaic of crop fields and orchards. When we arrived at Mara North Conservancy we were greeted by vast herds of game; elephants, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest and so much more – the megafauna was here in abundance. The Mara had not let us down one bit. We decided to have a crack at distance sampling at high speed – not so easy.

nightjarWe arrived at our campsite at dusk that evening. I don’t know how the drivers found our camp spot – we were in the middle of nowhere. I spoke too soon, two of the buses had no arrived, they were lost a few kilometres away. After about half an hour we saw headlights in the darkness. We set up camp, ate dinner, were introduced to the park manager and then took a short night drive through the bush close to camp. A nightjar was the highlight for me, although another group had spotted lions. I had yet to see any big cats in Kenya.

Saturday 18th January

hipposEarly the next morning we discovered how close we were to the wildlife last night. Just 5 minutes walk from camp was the Mara River and at least 16 hippos. We returned to camp for breakfast, then boarded the vehicles to head south into the famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. On the way we encountered lions and cheetahs – finally some big cats! We stopped at the famous Mara river crossing point where great herds of more than 1 million wildebeest and zebra cross crocodile infested waters to follow the rains. Due to drought in Tanzania the herds had remained in Kenya this season, or returned after only a few weeks – usually they would return in April.

Just 5 minutes walk from camp was the Mara River and at least 16 hippos

We held a discussion on ecotourism at the Riverside Camp, as the name suggests next to the River Mara. A few hours in to the evening the background noise of the river changed to a roar within a few seconds. There had been much rain over the last few days and it had finally caught up with us – a flash flood. The river had got several metres deeper but luckily remained within the banks.

Sunday 19th January

Lion Jackal

We set out for a morning safari and immediately came across spotted hyena. As we continued driving more and more individuals were spotted, quite spread out over several kilometres. We continued following the track traversing a long and shallow hillside. Finally when we came over the brow of the hill and the reason for the hyena presence became clear. An adult male lion was feeding on a several day old buffalo carcass. It was incredible to see the scavengers lining up; jackals were bold and hung around close to the lion, vultures waited patiently in a circle and the hyenas littered the surrounding hillsides. I was keen to stay and wait for the lion to leave, so we could witness the succession of scavengers but we were soon bouncing off across the bush to see several more male lions. This high density of adult males seemed strange. Perhaps we were interrupting the establishment of new rulers – there were at least two pairs of males (probably brothers) and a couple of single males. It would have been nice to have been a fly on the wall. Over the remainder of the drive we got close to giraffe and elephant and added a whole collection of new bird species to our list.

It was incredible to see the scavengers lining up; jackals were bold and hung around close to the lion, vultures waited patiently in a circle and the hyenas littered the surrounding hillsides

That afternoon we visited a Maasai tourist village. We had a go at jumping for wives and throwing spears, looked around inside a traditional Maasai house, we were shown how to make fire and most of us haggled for some colourful jewellery or shawls. On the walk back to camp we stopped off at the nearest town shop and bought a few crates of Tusker beer. Back at camp we put together tips for the drivers and then settled down in the bar for our last evening in Kenya.

Check out the my journey through Kenya on my Punkt interactive map click here

Top 10 Photos | Kenya Field Course

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