SURROUNDINGS SWALLOWED

Touring Lake Nakuru in the wake of rising waters

Floods have ruined infrastructure and escalated human-wildlife conflict

In Summary

• Lakes have been rising countrywide, and Lake Nakuru is among the hardest hit

• The main gate, staff canteen and warden's house are all submerged, trees are dying

Senior warden Collins Ochieng’ guides journalists on a tour of the lake. Behind him is the main entrance to the park. An alternative entry to the park on higher grounds has been opened
Senior warden Collins Ochieng’ guides journalists on a tour of the lake. Behind him is the main entrance to the park. An alternative entry to the park on higher grounds has been opened
Image: /KIBET CHEPTUMO/KNA

The hills surrounding Lake Nakuru offer tourists various vantage points to savour the lake’s scenic beauty. Spicing up this panorama are the pink-feathered birds that over the years have been an attraction to foreign and domestic tourists.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the Lake Nakuru National Park has been starved of visitors. Close to what used to be the main gate are tiny birds, hitching a ride on the back of a few zebras grazing. The ever-playful monkeys and baboons are on hand. Some gazelles might even be locking horns.

 

The park is home to the rhino, which is endangered. Other animals found here include lions, leopards, buffaloes, giraffes and waterbucks.

 

The park measures 188km2. “It has three official gates but one has been consumed by water,” says senior warden Collins Ochieng’, aboard a motor boat on the calm waters of the lake.

Lakes have been rising countrywide, and Lake Nakuru is among the hardest hit. The main gate and other buildings at certain sites are on the verge of being swallowed. The park’s management has been compelled to relocate the main entrance to the park to higher grounds.

The boat begins drifting smoothly toward the submerged main gate. The dominant trees here are of the acacia family. Around the shores of the lake and deep into it, innumerable trees have crashed into the water. It looks like their roots got so swamped with water, the soils around them turned into jelly and therefore couldn’t support the trees’ weight. A few of these trees have scanty leaves.

The boat’s engine is ignited. The coxswain gently weaves his way round trees fallen in water. Some of the acacia trees’ massive roots are exposed, having been flipped up as the trees crashed. A number of these trees had to be sawed to pave way for boat maneuvers.

The roof of the official gate is touching water. It was once on a dry patch of land. This is the first time KWS has had to move the main gate. There are two other gates which are still accessible: Lanet and Nderit. “We want to put up a gate on the northeastern side of the park,” Ochieng’ says.

The increased water levels began around 2013 or 2014. “But we noticed that as from March this year, the rate of rise has been very fast,” he says. “We’ve measured up to four metres in the increase of water levels in the park.”

 

The park’s infrastructure (roads, fences and buildings) have been destroyed. “All these are very expensive to repair,” Ochieng’ says.

 
The Marigat-Loruk road. Lake Baringo has broken its shores and flowed from the right across the road. There is a diversion on the left to Loruk before this flooded section
The Marigat-Loruk road. Lake Baringo has broken its shores and flowed from the right across the road. There is a diversion on the left to Loruk before this flooded section
Image: KIBET CHEPTUMO/KNA

OVER TWOFOLD EXPANSION

Pointing to a structure, Ochieng’ says, “That was the staff canteen and behind it was the warden’s house.” They are almost entirely submerged. Electric poles are standing in water.

“We’ve never experienced this before,” Ochieng’ says. “In the reverse, we’ve experienced the lake shrinking, such that it became less than 20km2.”

In 2014, the lake was 35km2. It is now 80. It has more than doubled, Ochieng’ says. He’s concerned the lake has spilled into community lands, causing some human-wildlife conflict.

“A hippopotamus and a snake do not know the boundaries of the park. These animals trespass into community areas,” the senior warden says.

Ochieng’ has kept abreast with the various theories that have sprung up from many professionals around the world to account for this phenomenon. Siltation, increased rainfall and the movement of tectonic plates in the earth’s crust are some of them.

As the boat powers its way towards one of the farthest points opposite the main gate, a rare sight comes into view. Countless greyish trees stripped of their foliage, present a somewhat somber mood. They appear scorched and look forlorn as they stand in water. However, the reflection of the blue sky and the white clouds in the water inject some beauty to the otherwise apocalyptic scene.

Picturesque hills in the far distance on either side of the boat look as if they are shielding the blue waters from draining away. 

Five seasonal rivers empty their waters into the lake. These are Njoro, Makalia, Nderit, Naishi and Larmudiak. Within the park, these rivers have been reduced to puddles of muddy water, with trees collapsed in them.

Different birds are chirping around, providing a welcome ambience to nature lovers. Some are flying just a few feet above the surface of the water. Others, outstanding in their black and white plumage, are flapping their wings, acrobatically balancing themselves on leafless branches propping up a few inches above the alkaline water.

“We have over 450 bird species,” Ochieng’ says. “The most popular are the pelicans, the flamingoes, the fish eagle and the kingfisher.”

No flamingoes have been spotted yet. “We have them but on the southern end of the park,” Ochieng’ says.

COMMUNITY LAND

Approaching the fence line, an estate called Baruti comes into view. The houses here were vacated after the area was inundated with water. “We have 151 houses affected by water in this area alone,” Ochieng’ says. The 2km fence line is also affected. “This is where you find the hippopotamuses, the snakes and the fish getting out into community land.”

The warden says there’s a standby team of rangers here. They prevent the hippos from getting out before they get very close to the residential area.

Boys will always be boys.  The lake’s spillage out of its former boundary into Baruti is seen as a swimming pool. It’s also a fishing pond. Ochieng’ says there are four types of fish. These include the tilapia niloticus.

The water is still rising. The Kenya Wildlife Service is determined not to allow this phenomenon, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, to cripple operations at the park. “We’ve decided to introduce other products that are suitable with water,” Ochieng’ says, adding that they will be rolled out in the next few weeks to lure tourists back.

At the moment, circuiting the park from within as the norm has been is impossible. Most sections of the internal road network have been flooded.

Alternative routes have to be sought to access the three viewpoints. Lion Hill, Baboon Cliff and Out of Africa are adequately elevated to offer visitors memorable landscape, with the lake sitting in the trough below. The yellow acacia woodlands on the peripheries of the lake crave for attention. The viewpoints also serve as picnic sites.  

At the moment, the Lion Hill viewpoint can only be approached from the Lanet Gate near Pipeline. This means visitors have to get out of the park and drive on the outskirts of Nakuru town. 

The Bus shuttle that was transporting residents from Nakuru town to the park was suspended due to the spread of Covid-19. “We are going to resume these services immediately we get clearance from the Ministry of Health, and as usual it will be over the weekends and public holidays,” Ochieng’ says.

The fee to the park for East African residents is Sh800 for adults and Sh200 for children, while non-residents are charged $30 (about Sh3,000) per adult.

The building where the staff canteen used to be. The trees inside the water are shedding all their leaves. Many have crashed into the water.
The building where the staff canteen used to be. The trees inside the water are shedding all their leaves. Many have crashed into the water.
Image: KIBET CHEPTUMO/KNA

OTHER LAKES

Lakes Naivasha, Elementaita, Kamnarok at the base of the Kerio valley, Baringo, Bogoria and 94, among others, have also experienced voluminous rises in water.

Johana Kariuki was born and brought up on the shores of Lake Elementaita. “This is the first time I’ve seen this,” he says. “This lake was almost disappearing. People used to walk across it and vehicles would even drive through sections of it.”

Before March this year, there was a clear demarcation between the lake and the acacia woodlands dotting the sides of the lake. Water has spread into the trees. Bird lovers will not be disappointed, though, especially if they have binoculars or powerful lenses.

The official gate at Bogoria Park is also submerged. The hot water springs have been smothered out of sight. The thousands of flamingoes that one would expect to see at Lake Nakuru are clearly hovering in attractive formations above the lake.

The Marigat to Loruk Road has been diverted just before Loruk due to Lake Baringo’s expanded shores across the road, submerging a number of buildings.

At other locations of Lake Baringo, crocodiles are swimming very closely to land. Women are engrossed in scraping scales from fish and slitting them to remove their intestines. For these women, the rise in the lake’s water levels portends a good catch.

Edited by T Jalio