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The Beautiful 'Dusty Place'
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

"Pack your binoculars. Take a light jacket. We’ll leave very early for the dusty place.” I had barely stepped out of Carnivore, Africa ’s best game meat restaurant in Nairobi , when Stanley Gitau, driver/naturalist of Glory Safaris rattled off the next day’s itinerary. “Dusty place?” Bemused, I threw a question at Gitau. “Dusty place? I thought we were going to Lake Nakuru ?” Questions were popping, doubts persisting and hope fading. I had already perished the thought of seeing what American naturalist Roger Tony Peterson had called “the most fabulous bird spectacle on earth.” Sigh! Millions of Lesser Flamingos with pink beaks. Thousands of pure white Great White Pelicans. The Defassa Waterbucks with white ‘bib’ under the throat and spiraled horns. Rothschild Giraffe, the only giraffe with five ‘horns’. I know they lord over Lake Nakuru . Would I not see them?

“That is Lake Nakuru . Lake Nakuru is the Dusty Place .” Before I could slip into a mourning mode, Gitau’s answer concluded with etymology. In Masai language, Nakuru translates into Dust or Dusty Place . With hope back in reckoning, the next morning, I picked my straw hat and my red stole and headed to the soda lake that is perched 1,754 metres above sea level in Kenya ’s Rift Valley. The road to Lake Nakuru is lush with the green of acacia and cypress, the savannah borrowing a dash of red from the red oat grass, the rocky outcrops interspersed with poisonous candelabra trees; the sidewalks droning with the hum of vehicles, the onomatopoeic sound of the donkey carts, and men hollering “Mamma, good price” for the mangoes and sugarcane.

Dusty it sure was on way to Nakuru, but I was not paying heed to the dirt. I was pulling out my Wellingtons to walk by the Lake’s swampy bank to see millions of flamingos line the shores and paint the entire landscape in their distincjtive fuchsia pink. I was holding my breath for the abundance of pink and the crescendo of legions of flamingos honking and babbling that turns the lake into a theatre where the flamigos vie with pelicans, cormorants, white rhinoceros and baboons for an ovation.

Pink flamingos had to wait on the lake, though. In the town of Nakuru, the giraffes and rhinoceros were on the walls. Painted with lazy strokes. There are no white walls, each wall pretends to be a canvas, some with an animal or bird in vibrant colours, others with climate change and global warming messages. The dusty town of Nakuru was set up by the British as part of the White highlands and received a township status in 1904. Today, Nakuru borrows its fame from the Lake and Menengai Crater, the world’s second largest surviving volcanic crater. The white of the fumaroles from the crater were to soon make way for various colours.

To begin with, pink. Actually, pink with a tinge of scarlet. Even before the jeep could reach the rim of Lake Nakuru, I saw what looked like a cloud of pink melding with the blue of the sky. The screech of the tyres were drowned with the rasping honking and babbling of flamingos who make Lake Nakuru their summer home. Not just a hatchful of birds, but millions of these leggy wading birds with slender neck and heavy bent bill. In the swampy bank, adjectives had gone redundant. My boots were rimmed with mud, but, for the flamingos, I forgave the mire. And the thistles. The blue lake seemed to wear a blue sheath with a pink piping, I wish my white skirt too had a pink lace.

Flamingos are not all that I saw. Thousands of white pelicans were resting on the marsh, Marobou storks had dug their long beaks in search of fish, Blacksmiths lapwings were wading through the shallow waters, their red eye glistening in the afternoon sun and the cormorants doing their signature half-jump in search of eel and fish. The long warbling song and the whiny alarm of the Superb Starling got addled with the swizzling song of the long-tailed Widowbird. Far away, stood a Rothschild giraffe, the rare five ‘horned’ giraffe which is only found in the wild in Uganda and Kenya.

That hot summer day, I wanted to steal the pink off the flamingos, but a brusque voice on the walkie talkie interuupted my plans. “Lion on the tree… Go. Go…,” a man rattled off in his baritone and Gitau hurried to the spot where the lion was seen a few minutes ago. I was still yearning to be with the flamingos but as the engine revved on the dirt track, a hush fell and there was flurry of flashlights from the innumerbale safari jeeps laden with excited tourists. On the baobab was a lion, nonchalant about the muffled hullaballoo around him. With naked eyes, it seemed liked a brown blur, but when I trained my lens on them, I could see the blonde mane and the black tail tuft. I stood mesmerised.

Spread over 46,400 acres, Lake Nakuru, a fenced park, is framed by tall cliffs and yellow fever trees. Driving through the dirt tracks, it is a tad impossible to fathom the expanse. “Let’s go to the Baboon Cliff for the best view of Lake Nakuru National Park,” Gitau hastily suggested. From the Cliff, the Park looks like the work of deft artist: the blue of the lake hemmed by the savannah. Created in 1961, the Park started off small, with just the lake and its mountainous surroundings withn its perimeter. Much later, large tracts were added to protect the black and white rhinoceros and Rothschild giraffes.

Facts were interrupted by a loud shriek; a tourist was hunching over a rocky outcrop and screaming her heart out. Did she smell the lion around? Or, saw a cheetah leap? I gingerly walked towards the rock. Then, I saw him. A Kenya Rock Agama flaunting its red head and blue scaly skin, bobbing its head and lashing its tail. I muffled my scream. Lizards are not my idea of beauty, but the Agama changed it all.

In Nakuru, hours had flitted by and it was time to head to Nanyuki village that stands bang on the Equator, the imaginary line where the earth bulges the most. Intriguingly, here, hemispheres are mere footsteps away from each other. You can easily do a hop, scotch between northern and southern hemispheres and send the compass into a tizzy.

As I headed for a hop across hemispheres, I remembered what naturalist Peterson had said: Not all is doom and gloom. We are beginning to understand the natural world and are gaining a reverence for life – all life.

In Lake Nakuru , I picked that reverence. For life – all life.

The Week, 2012

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