Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Living by the Lakeside

Lake Victoria - Part II 

Wanting to be alone with the elements, I stepped out of my tent early morning, only to find some local inhabitants already by the lake. That the resort did not block access to them and let them go about their activities (not unlike the hippos) of filling water or fishing was heartening. Yesterday’s darkening sunset lake now looked open and inviting. The burnished amber wash of yesterday was replaced by pleasing tones of grey and blue as the sun’s first rays lit up the skies. Dhows with white sails could be seen dotting the horizon like many giant pelicans floating on the surface. Nearby, Luo fishermen, their ebony bodies glistening, prepared to lay their nets with the Radio FM spewing news and songs, incongruously, in the background. That in no way diminished or detracted from the symphony of the birdsongs that filled the air.

Black-headed Gonoleck
I was contentedly watching waterbirds – the African pied wagtail, the pied kingfisher and egrets, when, seeing that I was the only “tourist” around, some local boys approached me promising boat rides on the lake. I tried to ward them off gently, but they persisted. Just then an unfamiliar harsh call arrested my attention, followed immediately by a melodious song. After a bit of find-me-if-you-can game, a black-and-crimson bird revealed itself in a tree, nearby. Seeing my interest in birds, one of the boatmen identified the songster as a Black-headed Gonoleck and went on to extend an invitation for a boat ride to Dunga wetlands, a bird haven and he had me.

The boat ride by the Luo duo - Michael and Peter - opened up a fascinating world of the Luo people, the Dunga fishing village, and flora and fauna of the wetlands. In a country where vegetables grow bountiful due to exceedingly fertile soil and yet meat is more popular, the Luos (the tribe that lives by the Lake) are faithful to their bony fish fare. There is a vast array of endemic fish species in the Lake among which tilapia and catfish are the local favourites. Few decades back, Nile perch was introduced in the waters as a solution to combat mosquito menace with disastrous effect. Today, the exotic Nile perch has become the dominant species at the cost of hundreds of local varieties upsetting the fine ecological balance of the water sere.  

Hamerkop of the hammer head
As we cruised past the papyrus- and reed-fringed lake we saw fisher-folk examining and sorting the catch they had netted. They gladly shared their spoils with the egrets and sacred ibises that were seen helping themselves from the nets. In contrast to these unfussy birds, the Hamerkop is quite demanding, or discerning, if you like. It goes for prize catch and is often willing to fly miles to distant waters to garner fresh fish. In Nairobi, I sometimes hear the hamerkop’s screechy trill as it flies high in the skies, though I rarely see it. It has always stirred my heart evoking romantic images of distant voyages – real and imagined. The fisher-folk have a special regard for this bird, almost as if it were their deity. 

Hamerkop nest
As we sail further leaving behind the fishing village with its denizens we can see Napier and Hippo grass by the edges and trees with Hamerkop nests, the latter found more commonly here than in Nairobi. Hamerkop nests are an architectural feat. Humungous for a bird the size of a fowl, it sits like an upside down pyramid, a mini-tent, in the crotch of a tree. As far as the fishermen are concerned, the hamerkop is a king among birds who is given to extravagance, though it also works king-size. The bird collects riff-raff - polythene bags, cotton, wool or other fabric fragments - and all manner of trash to bulk its nest which is primarily made of mud. Thus it also serves as garbage cleaner. Unlike other birds that start building nest towards the breeding season, the Hamerkop is at it daily. Michael tells us that the nest has three compartments, one of which is a guest room. Since the fastidious bird flies miles in search of fish, it often needs to rest and the guest room is that transit facility where any stranger Hamerkop is welcome to stay! Disused or abandoned nests are occupied by Egyptian Goose or even snakes, Michael adds.

Yellow weaver birds are weaving in and out of the rushes chattily, a yellow-billed stork is fishing in shallow waters in the privacy of the dense freshwater mangroves but it is the pint-sized malachite kingfisher that holds our attention. I have to tweak the telephoto to zoom in on the bird, iridescent in its purple-orange plumage. “It can’t get any bigger than this,” says Michael who is a fount of information on birds and whose sonar senses can pick up the slightest sign or sally to pinpoint a species. A sausage tree comes into view with its fruits dangling pendulously. This fruit is very useful to the Luos, but unlike the Maasai who brew beer from it, the Luos use it for medicinal purposes. Michael explains its symbolic significance to his tribe. He says: “when a fisherman dies at the lake and his body is not found within a week then a sausage is buried in lieu of the person, near his home, in a ritual.”

As I am listening in awe and admiring Michael’s anecdotes and stories, he starts grunting like a hippo. He is greeting the hippopotami huddled together – nostril, ears and eyes peering over the water surface – and after a brief interlude all of them grunt back in unison. Hippopotami are known to cause maximum human deaths in Africa and they often reside close to human habitation, so this proximity to them was worrying. But Michael dispels our fears and insists that these are “Happy Hippos” who do not harm the fisher-folk and that both live in harmony. Kenyans are known to relish hippo meat and when questioned about the delicacy, Michael had this to say: “We do not kill hippos; it is not even easy to do that because of their thick skin. But hippos fight amongst themselves and when an animal is injured it comes out of the water. When an injured hippo dies like this, the entire village has a feast.”

This is a tribe that is flamboyant, loves its football and fish, and takes immense pride in its culture and music. But above all, the Luos are very warm and friendly people. One boat ride seems to have brought me closer to them and their world than any guide book could have. This tribe has won my heart, for sure. 

The Luo duo -Michael and Peter
Peter making a papyrus basket

For more photographs check the following link:

Also read: Freshwater Lake that's a Sea - Lake Victoria - Part I

Friday, August 26, 2011

Freshwater Lake that's a Sea

 Lake Victoria - Part I 

It began with the search for the “Source of Nile” – the holy grail of human exploration. After all, the Nile Basin in Africa has cradled civilizational secrets in its bosom for centuries.  It was believed that whosoever controlled the Source would rule this part of the world. The quest entailed explorers and missionaries from Europe who scoured the “Dark Continent” to finally reach the shores of a lake. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that it was this hunt for “Lake Victoria”, which is the Source of Nile that cast the die for the story of Africa to unravel and reach the rest of the world.

The tree is at the Source
Road goes uphill to Speke Memorial

Last year, I traveled to Jinja in Uganda to ‘explore’ the Source. It was stupefying to note that the Nile spurts from an innocuous spring from whence the river continues its journey for 6000 kms before it drains into the Mediterranean. It was the British explorer John Speke who was credited with the discovery of the Source of Nile, and who, presumptuously, named it Victoria after the Queen. Incidentally, my Kenyan friend, Sitawa Namawalie – environmentalist and poetess - scoffs at the audacity of the colonizers in usurping and claiming their lakes and history… and rightly so. For the local inhabitants, of course, the Nile existed forever, long before Speke. A century-and-a-half later, I too stood dazed - at the Speke Memorial Obelisk - the spot where Speke stood gazing, in awe, at the narrow gulf that magically transformed into a river.

And yet, while the Speke Memorial was not out of place, what was indeed odd was the presence of a bronze bust of Mahatma Gandhi.  It is said that the Mahatma’s ashes were dispersed in the Nile, though why this should be done is a bit of a mystery. As I was watching this memorial and wondering about it, some young girls, local tourists, expressed their displeasure. One of them said within my earshot: “I don’t like it, why should this be here; it is our country…of Blacks.” The vestiges of Idi Amin’s legacy still persist in some pockets of Uganda, it may seem.

 The Source having being ‘discovered’, the Great Lake now seized the British imagination leading to the grand idea of a Railway cutting across the hinterland connecting the Lake to the East African coast. The reasons were strategic, the vision romantic and the implementation full of adventure and toil. The Uganda Railway did not reach the shores of the Source (at least, in its first incarnation) as envisaged but ended on the eastern shores of the Lake in present-day Kisumu, in Kenya.  The “Lunatic Line” as its detractors nicknamed it, actually presaged the birth of a Nation – Kenya. As British Commissioner Charles Eliot remarked:  “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but this railway actually created a country”.

 This time round, I am visiting the Railway’s lake terminus, Kisumu to see the Great Lake that the Nation owes its existence to. Also, my son’s French teacher, a Kenyan Indian from Kisumu, had ignited my interest when she said that you can’t say you have been to Kenya if you haven’t seen the sun set over Lake Victoria!

After a delightful road journey through spectacularly scenic Kerio Valley and a nature walk through Kakamega Rainforest, we reached Kisumu just in time to take in the sunset. The Sunday trippers were there in good measure and just as the sun started descending low on the horizon deepening the aura, a hush fell over the gawking tourists… almost as in a sanctum sanctorum of a temple. Straggling flock of egrets wending their way home provided for great composition to the cameras summoned with alacrity. As the magnificent amber ball dipped into the lake and drowned, in a montage of memories I recalled many sunsets I had seen over many places over the years. That the moment induced introspection and contemplation, itself, made this sunset very special.

Kiboko, is Kishwahili for Hippopotamus. Our tented camp, Kiboko Bay, was bang on the lake shores and after sunset we could hear the grunting of the residents in the distance. From my earlier sojourn by Lake Naivasha, I was aware that the hippos would come out of the water at night to graze, but unlike at Naivasha, the owner did not deem it fit to warn his guests of the same. At night, as I was just drifting into a daze, I heard the inevitable ominous snort-grunt very close to me. From my tent window, in the dimly lit environs of the camp, I saw the dark outline that resembled a battle tank, no less! I could have touched the hulk if I wanted. Afraid of my own laborious breathing and wood-creaking movements I sat transfixed watching the kiboko’s every move. One guest lumbering in late night was caught unawares and I could see him frantically calling out to the askari (sentry) who nonchalantly shooed the animals away. The hippos scrambled to the lake’s edge only to be back again, shortly. They had to feed themselves, you see; after all, it was their territory.The next day brought me closer to the world of the lakeside denizens, but that is another story for another day.

Lake Victoria is the second-largest lake in the world, in terms of surface area. In that respect, this freshwater lake is more like a Sea. The dynamics due to its dimension ensures that. It glues Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya together, in more ways than one than just geographically. Ships transporting cargo of soap, plastic and cooking oil ply from Kisumu to Mwanza-Tanzania and Jinja-Uganda. The Migingo Island in the Lake is a bone of contention between Uganda and Kenya, and often hostilities arise over its occupation and ownership. But, for the local populace on its shores, the Sea spells livelihood and life, itself.

Also read: Lake Victoria - Part II (Living by the Lakeside)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crossing Mara Waters

A Photo Essay 

Every year after the long rains, in July, hordes of wildebeest migrate from Serengeti in Tanzania to Masai Mara in Kenya following the scent of sweet grass leaving fallow ground in their wake. These ungulates may not recognize or heed borders but they do have to acknowledge the thread of river Mara that slices their route to greener, rather "redder" pastures, as they travel in search of lush red oat grass. The migration of millions of wildebeest and along with them, zebras, has been going on for as long as man can extrapolate backwards. The epitome of this unique pilgrimage of gargantuan proportions is the river crossing.

Today, we are at Maasai Mara, for the third year in a row, to witness drama extraordinaire on Earth.

...and the nearly 200-km long Mara river is the centrestage of this epic journey.

The Mara river is an entire ecosystem in itself and is, mainly, "kiboko" territory. That is the local name for hippopotamus. Hippos wallow in the water for large part of the day and come out to feed on grass at dusk, for which they travel miles.  Hippopotami are the most dangerous of all animals having caused maximum deaths in man-animal conflict in Kenya!

The Nile crocodile is the other resident of Mara river. It lies submerged under water difficult to detect and at other times motionless basking in the sun for all to see, like this one. Either way it instills fear in the hearts of the game that come down to drink water. Crocodiles - at times six feet long - ambush animals that visit riverbanks.

A marabou stork (right) and a white-backed vulture hang around the river to scavenge on dead animals killed by crocodiles or those that drown during the river crossing. The prospect of easy meal has them reside here temporarily.

After two days of 'game driving' at Mara, finally we see wildebeest (and zebras) gather on either flanks of the river, their anxiety matching ours. Will they or won't they... (cross the river)?


Having reserved vantage viewpoints the audience is waiting, expectantly. The only thing that rivals the coming together of the wildebeest during migration time is, perhaps, the migration of tourists from all corners of the world! To be honest, the tourist influx, off late, has become intrusive. Errant tourists in the larger park premises (as against the conservation zone where we were) bend rules and get into no-go zones, unscrupulously willing to pay 'hefty' fines of  $100, at times, even interfering with the wildebeest movement. Transgressions such as these need to be curtailed assiduously. The only way to do that is to limit the number of lodges within the park and hike the park fees (they are already steep) and fines to 'obscene' levels.

Over million years, wildebeest have been migrating over the endless plains of Serengeti into Mara by bridging the river and there are some 10-15 fjords at which the herds prefer to jump and swim across. The assembling of the herds at a ford is by no means a guarantee that they will cross there. By some telepathic communication the herds wait for the opportune time, sometimes, inordinately, and there is great suspense in the air. The driver-guides, on their part, communicate with each other to tag the coordinates of the gnus. With  years of experience of having 'read' and 'analysed' the behaviour of gnus, they criss-cross the tourist lanes even as the gnus lead tourists on a 'wild-beast' chase!

The gnus led us up the garden path several times and after a fair deal of back and forth we get to this arena where action seems imminent. The suspense is building by every passing moment.

Kicking up dust for the scramble to the river

Zebras accompany the herds of gnus and often pave the way for river crossing

We waited with bated breaths as the zebras came close to the water's edge only to buck back nervously afraid of dangers lurking beneath. Much braying and scuttling is taking place by the edge and after nearly 15 minutes it looks like the zebras are not going to muster enough courage, after all, to take that plunge, today.

Before they decide to wade through the water, the zebras  lick the water or taste it for signs of danger in  form of predators. Perhaps, this lot senses the presence of a Nile crocodile and is, therefore, hesitant to take the next step.

While the zebras deliberate endlessly, the wildebeest that are huddled on top finally descend towards the riverbank...

...and the first one takes the plunge without much ado. Like our driver-guide says: "the gnus are stupid, they will jump without thinking..." But perhaps that 'stupidity' is what is needed to get the juggernaut rolling.

The zebras are still debating...

Meanwhile, the first batch of the gnus have already swum across without a mishap...

...and finally the zebras take heart and follow in the wake of the wildebeest.

and how!

and the crossing is underway full swing...

As more and more wildebeest and zebras jump into the river, hurriedly, eddies of dust swirl about hazing the landscape. 

Finally, after an hour-long drama, the gnus and the zebras have managed to cross the river without falling prey to crocodiles' snares or hippos threatening tactics.

Elsewhere, earlier, we saw this sight of a zebra crossing boldly right in front of a gigantic Nile crocodile... the crocodile had indulged in gluttony and could not be bothered for the moment. As it is, crocs feed once a week and can live on their fat for a long period. 

This is a sight at another river crossing site. Carcasses of wildebeest lay strewn as marabou storks and vultures (Ruppell's griffon, Lappet-faced, White-backed, and White-hooded)  tugged at them, mercilessly. The stench and the sight were revolting but these uncouth scavengers deserve kudos for they are also the "shudras" (cleaners) of  river Mara. 

All in all, we were witness to a "clean" river crossing without the attendant macabre action and we were happy to have been spared the gruesome details. No crocodiles bringing down gnus and no other land predators like hyenas and lions waiting on the river banks like Yamadoot or death personified.  

Wildebeest superherd dotting the horizon. This is how the plains of plenty - Maasai Mara - look through July - October before the gnus depart on their onward journey back to Serengeti.