Just 5km outside Nakuru, Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the most popular in the country and a must-see for wildlife enthusiasts, offering one of the best chances in Kenya of spotting black and white rhinos. With more than 300,000 visitors each year, this is one of the Kenya Wildlife Service’s two “premier parks” (the other being Amboseli). Though not large, it’s a beautiful park, the terra firma mostly under light acacia forest, well provided with tracks to a variety of hides and lookouts. It’s also one of the easiest parks to visit, with or without a vehicle, and the contrast and apparent dislocation between the shallow soda lake, with its primeval birds, and the animated woodlands all about give it a very distinctive appeal. The easy-to-follow topography means you really can’t get lost and it’s a pleasure to drive around, which takes about three hours.
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Around the park
Around the park
The northeastern shores of the lake, being close to the Main Gate, are the most accessible and heavily trafficked section of the park, with the route between the gate and Sarova Lion Hill Lodge getting relatively busy; the southern parts of the park are usually empty. The vegetation in the north is mostly lightly wooded acacia forest and this area, close to Nakuru town, is the least interesting for wildlife, so if you have the time you’d do well to focus your attention on the south.
Taken clockwise, the main park road runs through the woods, past Lion Hill and into an exotic-looking forest of candelabra euphorbia – great cactus-like trees up to 15m high. At the southern end of this zone you come into a stretch of more open country, past the turning up to Lake Nakuru Lodge, and one or two side tracks down to the mud and the lakeshore, after which the road turns west into the southern park’s dense acacia jungle. This is where you may see a leopard and – if they overcome their shyness – one of the park’s sixty-odd black rhino. Several kilometres further, the road opens again onto wider horizons with plenty of buffalo, waterbuck, impala and eland all around. You’re likely to see one of the park’s forty white rhino here, looking for good grazing, and this is also the most likely area for seeing the park’s herd of introduced Rothschild’s giraffe.
The west shore, especially “Pelican Point”, offers the best chance of seeing the flamingos, if they’ve returned. In places, the road runs on what is virtually a causeway, past the lake’s edge, with high cliffs rearing up behind. Finally, the main route leaves the shore and ploughs north, through thick forest with many tall trees and dense undergrowth, back to the Main Gate.
Good vantage points around the lake include the northern mud flats (follow established tracks across the dry surface); the dead tree watchtower (northeast); Kampi ya Nyuki and Kampi ya Nyati campsites; Lake Nakuru Lodge, for a general view across unobstructed savanna; and the high “baboon cliffs” in the west.
Lake Nakuru’s wildlife
Lake Nakuru’s wildlife
Fortunately, in view of the flamingos’ here-today-gone-tomorrow caprice, there’s a lot more to the lake’s spectacle than the pink flocks. Its shores and surrounding woodlands are home to some four hundred other species of birds including, during the northern winter, many migratory European species. Towards the end of the dry season in March, the lake is often much smaller than the maps suggest and, consequently, water birds are a greater distance from the park roads.
There’s a good number of mammals here as well. The lake isn’t too briny for hippos – a herd of a dozen or more snort and splash by day and graze by night at the northern end. Nakuru has also become a popular venue for introduced species: there are Rothschild’s giraffe from the wild herd near Kitale, and lions and secretive leopards from wherever they’re causing a nuisance.
In the early 1990s, a number of black rhinos were relocated from Solio Game Ranch, and ten white rhinos were donated by South Africa in 1994; the park now boasts around 60 black and 40 white rhinos, one of the highest concentrations of rhino in the country. Electric fencing has been installed around the entire perimeter of the park – the only park in the country to be so enclosed – with the intention of maintaining a viable number of rhinos in a zone secure from poachers.
Nakuru may be Swahili for “place of the waterbuck”, and the park is waterbuck heaven. With only a handful of lions and small numbers of leopards to check their population, the large, shaggy beasts number several thousand, and the herds (either bachelor groups or a buck and his harem) are large and exceptionally tame. Impala, too, are very numerous, though their lack of fear means you rarely witness the graceful flight of a herd vaulting through the bush.
The two other most often seen mammals are buffalo – which you’ll repeatedly mistake for rhinos until you get a look through binoculars – and warthog, scuttling nervously in singles and family parties everywhere you look. Elephants are absent, but you’re likely to see zebra, dik-dik, ostrich and jackals and, in the southern part of the park, eland and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles. More rarely you can encounter reedbuck down by the shore and bushbuck dashing briskly through the herbage. Along the eastern road, near Lake Nakuru Lodge, are several over-tame baboon troops to be wary of. The park is also renowned for its very large pythons – the patches of dense woodland in the southwest, between the lakeshore and the steep cliffs, are a favourite habitat. The star turn of recent years was the arrival for a few days in 2011 of three wild dogs, the extremely rare and elusive nomadic hunter, a strong sign of their revival in Kenya.
Lastly, if you tire of the living spectacle, go looking for the Lion Cave, beneath Lion Hill ridge in the northeast; it’s an excavated prehistoric rock shelter and rarely contains lions.
The mystery of the vanishing flamingos
The mystery of the vanishing flamingos
Lake Nakuru has always been viewed as a flamingo lake par excellence. Several decades ago, up to two million lesser flamingos (maybe a third of the world’s population) could be seen here massing in the warm alkaline water to feed on the abundant blue-green algae cultivated by their own droppings. In addition, the lake was also home to a small population of the much rarer greater flamingo, a species which tips its head upside down to use its beak to sift for small crustaceans and plankton.
Like Lake Elmenteita, Lake Nakuru has no outlet, meaning that its level fluctuates wildly. In 1962, it dried up almost completely, while in the late 1970s, increased rainfall lowered the lake’s salinity and raised the water level. The flamingos began to disperse, some to lakes Elmenteita, Magadi and Natron (in Tanzania), some up to Turkana, and the majority to Lake Bogoria. Since then, flamingos have been sporadically seen again in the surreal pink flocks that have become a photographic cliché. There are always hundreds, probably thousands, but the presence of mass flocks is unpredictable.
Over the last twenty years, large areas of forest in the lake’s catchment area have been converted to small farms, and Nakuru town has industrialized and grown massively. Sewage and industrial pollution is believed to be a major factor behind the flamingos’ decline, as are water diversion, soil erosion leading to siltation and even sand-harvesting along the Njoro River. The introduction in the 1960s of a hardy species of fish, Tilapia grahami – partly to control mosquitoes – has encouraged large flocks of white pelicans, and it’s likely that their presence is another disruptive element (a breeding colony of greater flamingos at Lake Elmenteita was forced off by the pelicans). The Nakuru Wildlife Trust has been studying the ecology of Rift Valley lakes since 1971 in an effort to find some of the answers, and the WWF now organizes educational trips to the park for local children, as well as running a scheme to monitor pollution from individual industries.