kenya: nakuru

On awaking from Treetops, we travelled on, to Lake Nakuru. One night is enough for Treetops - the experience is intense enough to make a lasting mark, no matter what you see. We travelled south again, crossing the equator for the third and fourth times (firstly north from Nairobi to Samburu, then south from Samburu to Treetops; the road from Treetops to Nakuru arced just over the median and descended south again). Another curio shop; this one more interesting than most (the produce is of a very high standard, and McDonaldsian in its frequency of appearance; for the most part, seen one roadside curio shop, seen 'em all) due to the experiment we partook in - north and south of the equator sign, pour water down a funnel into a basin and it will swirl in opposing directions; do it "exactly" on the equator and it goes straight down. All very impressive at the time and perhaps complete nonsense; even with some extensive web browsing I've been unable to figure out what on earth is going on there and whether it's a con or not. In any case, it's entertaining, we got a certificate for crossing the equator, and parted ways with a comparatively small amount of money.

More bouncing around on interestingly surfaced tracks, and we end up at Lake Nakuru. Here our confidence with the itinerary falters; we were pretty sure we were supposed to be at Lake Naivasha, which has its own island with 'tame game' that you can walk around with (if you have the time, which we didn't anyway), but Nakuru was a fabulous replacement. Here you have an attractive and plush parkland set around a saltwater lake, populated with white and black rhino, beautiful grazing zebra, lions, warthogs, and monkeys; and around two million flamingos hugging the waterline.

This is a simply bizarre and overwhelming experience. The noise, the smell, and the vividness of the imagery and expanse you are faced with is quite mind-blowing. Focus on any section of the beach and try to consider the amount of flamingos on those few metres, and the mind is already lost. Amplified to the extent of the beach that we were on, multiplied by the huge swathes of lake we never had a chance to see, and this is a remarkable sight bar none. The Marabou stork and zebra slowly meandering in between served to bring home the safeland aspect; this is not just a lake, this is protected, and this immense population (around two-thirds of the world's population of flamingos), who drop off at Nakuru for a few years and then inexplicably disappear again for another few years, flying back and forward, squawking and fishing, seem incomprehensible even now. Many photographs were taken to try and achieve the scale, but even with the mega-wide-angle 11 photo panorama shot, nothing can capture the magnitude and scale like being there in person. The slowly dawning realisation that Africa is far much more than 'proper' animals, like elephants and lions, suddenly arrives en masse in Nakuru.

We spent close to an hour standing on the edge of the lake, slowly creeping closer to the storks as they ripped dead flamingos to pieces, watching groups of flamingos take off as from an aircraft carrier, sweep across the sea and land only a few yards away. It's an odd sensation, knowing that this lake will be treated by locals in the same way we would lochs and rivers back home - that when the tourists are gone, you could take the kids down and have a picnic on the beach, amongst the zebra and flamingo.

Nakuru is home to around 25 white rhino - driving around one edge of the lake, we counted 19, dozing in the shade or slowly trudging through the forests. The horns are fabulous - you have to remind yourself that this is a species that exists in the 21st century and that you're not in some mock-up Jurassic Park with animatronic triceratops. The setting is strange - Lake Nakuru is bordered by hills and towns that seem to make the park smaller and more unlikely; with Samburu or the Mara, the area of land available convinces you that 'of course there's all these different species and landscapes', whereas Nakuru feels more like an oversized watering hole: a meeting place for the travelling crowds, a stopping off point to refresh, recuperate, and ready yourself to move on.

Not for me. I'd been out in the sun for less than five minutes at the equator without a hat on, and sunstroke hit with ferocity as we returned to the lodge for dinner. Outspan had left its mark too in the form of a violent stomach bug; the combination left me with many hours throughout the night to analyse the tiles on the bathroom floor. I don't know whether they were hallucinations, the result of endlessly peeled eyes looking out for movement on the horizon, or just that they were well made tiles, but in the terracotta patterns, I saw every type of animal in hundreds of different poses. Another reminder that this is not a place that can be forgotten - Africa permeates your existence and enlivens every breath you take. Weakened and eventually managing to lie down for a few hours sleep, it was exciting to realise that we weren't even at the half way point of the holiday. The great plains of the Mara beckoned.

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