As the boat putters to the shore, my pre-dawn start is catching up on me. The full English breakfast occupies my thoughts, and I feel sleepily content. At the tiller, Louis, too, seems to be drifting off. Suddenly there is a great revving of the engine, and our boat heads towards the landing site at an alarming speed. Behind us, an ungainly hippo lurches out of the water and gives futile chase. Louis gives me a wry smile and says, “I didn’t see that.”
It’s an abrupt ending to our slow meanderings along Lake Baringo’s western shore. For more than an hour, we’ve quietly observed the diverse bird life – canny hamerkops which build nests of several rooms with a tiny entrance to evade predators, seven or eight different types of kingfisher, long necked cormorants which perch on branches in crucifix pose, their wings outspread to dry.
But there’s an eerie quality to the morning; forlorn and dying trees rise from the water, and waves gently lap around ravaged buildings that once stood on dry land. Baringo and Bogoria, two of Kenya’s most northerly Rift Valley lakes, have endured troubled times in recent years; rapidly-rising waters engulfed pastures and homesteads, and threatened the survival of tourist lodges.
Now the water levels are now receding, and visitors who shunned the lakes are trickling back. And there are ample reasons to do so. Baringo has some of the most varied birdlife in the country with more than 450 species, while flocks of flamingos are again gracing Bogoria’s alkaline waters after an absence of several years.
Respite at the lakes
Back in 2008, my boyfriend and I took a road trip through northern Kenya, an arduous drive that resulted in two punctures, the theft of our wheel nuts and a mechanical breakdown. We stopped at the lakes for some respite.
We arrived late to Bogoria and were, the wardens told us, the only people in the park that night. We set up camp in the darkness, and awoke to hundreds of thousands of flamingos grunting and honking just feet from our tent.
Time was short, and we reluctantly moved on. Our next stop was Roberts’ Camp on Lake Baringo, and we stayed in one of their signature tree houses, a charming wooden cabin on stilts set back a few hundred yards from the shore. Near the water, a crocodile basked in the sunlight, its jaws agape. A group of us gathered in a semi-circle to gawk at the creature; I wonder now why we were so bold.
Within a few years of that trip, the waters at both lakes (and at Lake Nakuru, to the south) started to rise. On my return, nothing prepared me for the sight of our tree house, now a shattered husk. Its frame remains, the stilts sticking out of the water, showing just how far the water advanced. From the boat, Louis points out the Baringo Country Club, a once popular lakeside retreat that is now a bleak, hollowed-out row of concrete structures.
Bogoria suffered, too. It lost its circular lakeside road, and a new, much rougher track guides one above the eastern shore to bubbling hot springs, where scalding plumes of water jet up high into the air. Somewhere on the other side of the lake, the camp that I recall so fondly lies under metres of water.
Nevertheless, this lesser-known lake is seeing a regeneration of sorts. I had long wanted to return, but was discouraged by reports that the flamingos had left (because the alkalised content had become too diluted to sustain the Spirulina algae on which they fed). Many had gone to Lake Natron in Tanzania.
As we pulled up outside Bogoria’s main gate, Kenya Wildlife Service rangers warmly greeted us, and I suspected we were the first visitors that day. We drove across the lunar-like landscape and I saw little that I remembered. Then we saw the first flamingos. I had expected a few, but there were thousands, and as we drove along the cliffs overlooking the lake, we looked down on long stretches of pink-fringed shoreline. In spite of everything this national park has endured, I believe it still remains the most spectacular setting in Kenya for these birds.
Brimming with guests
Baringo, too, is enjoying a return of the good times. The evening I arrived in early December, Roberts’ Camp was brimming with guests, and kitchen staff frantically fielded dinner orders. It felt as if the last few years might never have been. Some changes are arguably for the better. Samatian Island, a high-end lodge on the lake that closed down for a while after extensive water damage, has reinvented itself as a more affordable, self-catering property that is proving highly popular.
Yet, these are simply busy interludes, and the relatively remote location of these lakes is one reason few come here. It is also what makes them so beguiling. Bobbing along in a small motorboat on Baringo, we have the lake more or less to ourselves. Our only human encounter is with a lone fisherman, his legs dangling off either side of a flimsy-looking boat made out of lightweight balsa wood. It is immensely peaceful.
Later, I scrabble in the cliffs to the west of the lake, wandering at dusk through small shambas as bleating goats are herded into their pens for the night. My guide lifts up rocks and pokes a carpet viper, a disarmingly tiny snake with a venomous bite, while the scout we sent ahead rushes towards us, grinning, and gingerly holding aloft a fearsome-looking scorpion.
“It can’t get any higher.”
As I relax over a pre-lunch drink at the secluded Island Camp, Perrie Hennessy, my ebullient host, juggles bookings for the New Year period in between snatches of conversation about life on the lake.
“We kept thinking, ‘it can’t get any higher’, but it kept on coming,” Hennessy, a long-time hotelier who bought Island Camp in the middle of the lake in the 1990s, recalls of the recent deluge. “Everyone thought we were flooded and had closed down.” Months after the waters had started to recede, guests would call up, asking if the camp had reopened. “But we never closed,” he says.
Nevertheless, the property lost its beach, its reception and four of its bedrooms. Over at Roberts’ on the mainland, they had to line the Thirsty Goat, its popular bar and restaurant, with sandbags. That didn’t deter its most determined patrons, who moored their boats alongside the bar.
“It was a much larger place,” says Murray Roberts, who took over the running of the camp in 2013. “We had seven more buildings, and they are all gone. It’s been pretty hard.”
Roberts grew up on Baringo, and a childhood game was to dare each other to jump over the backs of basking crocodiles. With overfishing, few would do that now. By the sixties, he recalls, the waters had risen so high that his mother, Betty, had to move to the upper storey of her lakeside home.
Theories for the most recent rise in the water levels are as varied as they are under researched. They include the suggestion that tectonic plates shifted after a small earthquake, or that cyclical siltation from rivers has pushed up the water level, to the view that steady precipitation over the past few decades has caused the underground water table to rise, creating a swell of pressure that has turned outlets into inlets.
“Nobody really knows,” admits Roberts, who puts it down to siltation. “But I’d lay bets on the 50-year cycle.”
A decade ago, researchers were talking about the lake drying up. It was possible to walk from Roberts over to Island Camp, and parts of the lake were just a couple of feet deep. New islands appeared in the north of the lake, exposing an elephant carcass, complete with tusks, dating, its though, to the turn of the 20th century.
It’s hard to imagine that now.
Back at Roberts, I take myself off for a walk along the shoreline, weaving my way through the reeds and occasional debris left by the floods. In some respect, something precious has been lost at these lakes, but I don’t feel as downbeat as I might have expected. Coming here again has reminded me that some changes are superficial. The essence of these lakes is the peace, the beauty, the wildlife. All that still remains.
The writer was a guest of Roberts’ Camp.