Camping with Buffaloes in Lake Nakuru

Last week’s Going Places on Tsavo East documented just a fragment of our recent 2,000km trip round some of Kenya’s best national parks. The family friends we were hosting were in the country for just two weeks, but we were determined to showcase as much of Kenya’s varied landscapes and wildlife as possible. Before the long drive down to Tsavo, we decided to squeeze in a couple of nights in Lake Nakuru National Park – an obvious choice for its proximity to Nairobi, and its abundance of wildlife.

It also provided an opportunity for our guests to camp, something that they hadn’t done since the ‘80s in the south of France, surrounded by cows rather than buffaloes. We opted for the Makalia Campsite, by the Makalia River in the park’s southern tip. There was nobody else there when we arrived late in the afternoon, so we picked our spot beneath a lone cabbage tree in the far corner of the campsite.

The caretaker, Felix, showed us around the camp’s recently renovated facilities: new shower blocks and flushing toilets – welcome additions in the eyes of our guests who were reluctant to use the old long-drop toilets.

We had the place to ourselves for about half an hour, before a small herd of buffaloes gathered on the riverbank just a few metres from our camp. I’ve had my fair share of encounters with buffaloes at the Makalia Campsite; on a previous visit our torches illuminated a pair of bright red eyes in the bushes, which we assumed belonged to a genet, or something equally innocent, so got up to investigate. A few seconds later a large bull reared its head sending us scurrying back to the safety of the campfire.

On this occasion, we assumed the buffaloes were just passing through, but they lingered, browsing nearby shrubs rather than grazing – a consequence of the dry season. Our guests had been reassured by my brother, Andreas, a professional safari guide, that it was perfectly safe to observe the buffaloes from a distance, and that they only posed a threat when startled.

Andreas had to heed his own advice a few hours later, after we’d all gone to sleep. He had pitched his one-man tent without a flysheet between our two cars, and in the middle of the night jolted awake because of a movement outside. He looked up and sat face to face with one of the buffaloes, staring at him in the moonlight just a foot from his tent.

He knew she’d seen him, and that if he made any sudden moves she could plough straight through the tent. He sat still, and she eventually broke eye contact and stuck her head into the open boot of one of the cars, rifling through the rubbish we’d forgotten to throw away. As soon as she disappeared he got out, shut the car door, and squeaked a far from reassuring ‘It’s OK’ to our wide-eyed guests in the neighbouring tent. It took him a while in the morning to forgive me for leaving the boot open, but also because an opportunistic genet had snuck in and nibbled on the bread.

After eating what was left of our breakfast, we headed out for a game drive, following a clear set of lion tracks along the southern boundary of the park. We didn’t spot the lion, but came across a number of old carcasses by the fence. Andreas explained that predators often use fences to hunt, by cornering prey and restricting their avenues of escape.

We made our way to the lakeshore, through the acacia forest in the heart of the park. Here we found a very quintessential Nakuru scene: five white rhinos grazing, including a five month old calf, a handful of greater and lesser flamingos, flocks of pelicans and cormorants – with the backdrop of the shimmering lake and the baboon cliffs in a haze in the distance.

There were also plenty of indications of the recent rise of the lake’s water level: a submerged road marker a few hundred yards from the lakeshore, and the skeletons of drowned acacias. Nobody knows for sure why the water level is so high; theories span from an unidentified groundwater inlet to afforestation initiatives on the Mau Escarpment – the largest catchment in the country, and the source of seasonal rivers that feed the lake.

Our admiration of this scene was interrupted by the very distinctive, hair-raising whoop of a hyena. We tracked it down and stumbled across a dozen spotted hyenas in a frenzy, each inching forward towards the fresh carcass of a buffalo, testing the patience of two fat sub-adult male lions. One of the lions ambled over to a shady spot, vomited, and then sat back down next to his brother. An astute hyena crept round and proceeded to eat the vomit, which he too then spewed out. And with that, we left to find a spot for lunch.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation