Above: Great white pelicans herding fish for breakfast. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Replace the swan with pelicans because in Africa we have pelicans and not swans. We’re sailing on Lake Oloiden that’s changes dramatically every so often that it keeps everyone guessing – what next? Salty or fresh?
We’ve woken up to a spectacular performance by the pelicans – that is the Great white pelicans – performing a ballet that’s captivating. On a blue lake, flotillas of the great white birds synchronize their dive in the water, upturning their white butts like a ballerina’s tutu while their enormous yellow bills vanish in the water to swallow the fish they have herded below. It’s spectacular.
Act two: Further in the lake, there’s animated splashing in the water and then that graceful bow again. Underwater, with open bills the pelicans gulp the fish.
It’s only 6.30 a.m. but in that golden hour everything is animated in Lake Naivasha’s little cousin that is Oloiden.
I’ve wangled my way to join the team from the ornithology section of the National Museums of Kenya to count the birds in a lake that’s so mysterious that it intrigues scientists to the core.
Fleur Ng’weno the Grande Dame of birders explains the exercise that was started in 1990 to count migrating water birds by Wetlands International, a global NGO dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands. Involving local Kenyan partners like NMK, Nature Kenya and Kenya Wildlife Service, this has become an annual affair.
list of birds is endless in our transact – word for our patch being counted. Cormorants dry their outstretched wings on every log and bare branch in the lake. Dainty jacanas and jewel-clad malachite kingfishers stay close to shore. Pied kingfishers jack-dive for fish while the call of the majestic African fish eagle pierces the clear blue day. There’s not a moment that’s boring with more than 400 other species including the pod of slumbering hippos in the lake with one that startles us when it surfaces close to the boat.
But it’s the Great white pelicans who steal the show.
Meanwhile, on the far end of the lake, two little Maasai giraffe watch us shyly as fishermen spread their nets and a group of tourists enjoy breakfast on the lush green grass amidst the yellow barked acacia.
In the middle of the gorgeous blue lake, we’re surrounded by the massifs of Aberdares in the north, Eburru in the west sloping into the Mau Range. Mount Longonot’s peak is invisible but it’s the nearest volcano to us.
So here’s the thing why Lake Oloiden is so intriguing. Like every other lake in the Great Rift Valley it has its ups and down. But little Oloiden the salt lake is now so fresh that all the salt-loving birds left to be replaced by the fresh water birds. And that happened only a few years ago.
The scientist David Harper, an emeritus professor in Water Science at the University of Leicester, explained to me the phenomena a few years ago. Millions of years ago when the ground shifted to form the Rift Valley, it created one major lake stretching from Nakuru to Naivasha. In the mid-1800s, the lakes dried up but a few years later, Lake Naivasha’s waters rose so high that it reconnected with Oloiden which became fresh. It was almost dry again in 1945, but rose again. British settler farmers then dug a canal to join the two lakes, giving Oloiden boat access to Naivasha town.
Then, in 1982, when Lake Naivasha’s water levels began to fall, Oloiden steadily became separated from Lake Naivasha and gradually turned so saline that by 1995 it had lost all its plants and fish but in the meantime, the green photosynthetic bacteria called Spirulina (Arthrospira) was growing.
It’s the favourite food of the Lesser flamingos.
When thousands of Lesser flamingo flew in early 2006, everyone was stunned as the tiny lake turned crimson – and that was the first time in recorded history.
At this point, we haven’t even seen a single flamingo.
Our boat-man, Peter Kariuki from the Loiden Community Association was much happier when tourists flocked to see the pink migration but nevertheless he’s enjoyed the morning on the bird count.
“This year, we’re getting relatively low numbers of migrating birds and wondering if it is because of climate change,” says Ng’weno.
Driving back to the Kenya Wildlife Service campsite on Naivasha’s shores, we pass the mass of greenhouses that have turned the once pristine wetlands into an industrial hub.
It’s a concern. Wetlands are the source of water that supports all forms of life and Lake Naivasha is a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance — since 1995. Eighty per cent of the papyrus swamps here have vanished since the 1960s. It’s the plant that filters the water clean in the lake.
Enjoy Lake Oloiden’s fresh period because when Naivasha’s levels begin to fall so will Oloiden’s which may revert it to a salty state.
Camp at the KWS campsite that has water and shower facilities by the lakeshore on the edge of a yellow-barked acacia grove. Firewood is available.