A red rock in the sky startles me. It’s unblinking and huge compared to the rest of the constellations littered in the Milk Way. It’s Mars, the Red Planet at its brightest since 2003 and close to reaching directly opposite the sun in the Earth’s sky, giving us the closest view of Mars in 15 years.
It’s a super-amazing view from atop the rock on Island Camp on Ol Kokwa Island in the middle of the freshwater Lake Baringo that the outside world first heard of from Joseph Thomson the intrepid explorer who saw the dazzling lake from the heights of Laikipia Plateau in October 1883. The 25-year-old had been sent out by the Royal Geographical Society to find a direct route from the coast to Lake Nyanza – today’s Victoria. He also became the first outsider apart from the ivory and slave traders to pass through the feared Maasailand.
In the dazzling glow of the planets and the stars so close to the Equator, literally less than a degree north, the silhouettes of the lake’s iconic Gibraltar Rock called Lesokut by the Il Chamus, an uninhabited island between Ol Kokwa and the Laikipia range stands majestic. With all eyes stargazing, the flight of an owl takes everyone by surprise and when it perches on the pinnacle of the thatched lounge, it shows itself as one of the rarely seen birds – a Grayish eagle-owl – that proves to be a lifer – that is, seen for the first time in bird lingo – for every one of the savvy birders from the ornithological department of the National Museums of Kenya.
It’s no wonder that Lake Baringo is unrivalled as a birding destination and listed in the Guinness Book of Record for the highest number of bird species recorded in 24 hours by the renowned Kenyan ornithologists Terry Stevenson, Andy Roberts and John Fanshawe in 1986 and unbroken record to date, informs William Kimosop, Baringo County’s chief warden.
The sun announces its wake from the eastern stretch of Laikipia with lavish splashes of oranges and pinks and everyone jumps into the boats to spend the morning circling the islands on the first national bird count of Lake Baringo. “The results of this exercise is the basis for taking action for conservation, providing information for our visitors and community as well as a tool for ecological monitoring because Baringo is a world renowned ornithological destination,” states Kimosop proudly.
Peter Leweri of Island Camp whistles and flings a tilapia into the lake. The resident African fish eagle on Gibraltar Rock lifts from its perch on the acacia and swoops down with outstretched talons to lift the fish out of the water. Generations of this majestic African fish eagle have nested on Gibraltar Rock undisturbed by human presence.
Closer to the bare face of the copper tinged rocks, a white mark shows the level when the lake reached its maximum height in 2013 when Baringo and her caustic cousin Bogoria stole the international limelight. Baringo until then seemed to have been on her deathbed – and then suddenly she rose to 40 feet submerging buildings and displacing people. Then it went down but as of this year with the good rains it’s on the rise again – the watermark on Gibraltar and the submerged buildings show the markings.
Sailing back to Ol Kokwa, a hot water spring bubbles like a spewing cauldron sending a white plume into the air. The African fish eagles on sighting the boat follow but much to their chagrin there’s no more fish in the boat.
The boat sails to Longicharu Island famous for its island giraffes in Ruko Conservancy. Six tall necks of the endangered Rothschild giraffe stick out, browsing on the acacia. Also known as the Baringo giraffe, eight were sailed across by boat – the first for giraffes in Kenya – after a six hour journey in a lorry in 2012. The last they were seen in the area was 70 years ago.
By midday, we’ve circled all the isles including Samatian and Parmalok enjoying breakfast in a cove by Ol Kokwa where suddenly come into view the world largest heron, the Goliath. They are nesting on the acacias.
But there’s concern as the infamous water hyacinth has spread its tentacles on the lake since 2016 making life difficult for wading birds and fish including humans.
Back on Island Camp as the sun begins to set and Mars rises again, a crocodile swims away from a pair of hippos swimming towards it. In the bar we settle for a game of bao etched a few thousands of years ago on solid rock.
It’s a good time to hurry to the islands on the lake free from urban lights for there’s going to be a lot of red in the sky. On 27th July, we’re going to be treated to a lengthy lunar eclipse with Mars making a really close pass by Earth and will appear at its biggest and brightest, outshining Jupiter for few weeks.
Baringo is only 295 kilometers from Nairobi via Nakuru on a great tarmac road.