On reconnecting with the wild, a short drive out of a big city
The young man strode next to me as he pointed out the water bucks, two of which were in the shallows having a drink. We were walking around Crescent Island, which features an awful lot of African wildlife for a simple day trip out of Kenya, which was the whole point. A few plans had fallen through, as they do on international trips. My driver and I were communicating with my safari operator, eTrip Africa, for ideas.
The two of them offered me some options, and this one won out. Already, as we pushed off the constantly-changing shore of Lake Navaisha, I knew it had been the right choice. The skies were bright blue, the nearby trees sported paired fish eagles (they mate for life) and our small blue boat slid through the invasive hyacinth as we passed huge pelicans resting quietly on submerged trees.
It was good to be out of the city. It’s always good to be out of the city.
Nairobi is a throbbing, crowded, busy town of some fourteen million souls, at least a million of which live in two massive, sprawling slums. The city is under constant construction, the roads a mess unless you live in one of the ritzier suburbs like Karen, named for Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. That’s a whole other story, but suffice it to say that the mansions take the breath away, particularly, as with all over the world, compared to the abject poverty of so many.
Still good stories are everywhere. Despite Africa’s appalling history of exploitation, good stories abound. In truth, that exploitation is far from over, but again that’s a whole other story.
The highway to the lake is dotted with small towns. The main commerce is prostitution, which is illegal, but in this part of the country it’s tolerated due to local corruption. This highway is a main artery all the way to Uganda, and the truckers line their semis along the road. They stop, get fed, get laid, sleep and keep driving. And, as with other places all over Africa where men seek warm comfort, HIV Aids is rampant. This is precisely how it spreads, as with the mine workers in South Africa, and how the men and women bring death home to their families.
Also of note along this highway is a small Catholic church, built by World War II Italian prisoners of war. While the gardens have suffered, the quality stone work has survived the years. The church stands as a monument to the faith of those without hope, without a home. The church looks out over the Great Rift Valley, and keeps a watchful eye over the traveling men who carry disease back and forth.
Sadly, faith doesn’t cure HIV Aids any more than it can cure Covid, as some African prime ministers discovered the hard way. Superstition continues to abound here, and cultural preferences for beliefs prevent many from seeking the kind of medical care which would save lives.
Still, in so many ways, Africa thrives, even in the face of terrible challenges.
Our smallish boat puttered past the remains of hotels, a kitchen and other rooms which now lie ruined and submerged. Climate change has caused the lake to rise, and the water’s edge continues to creep inland As a result, there are hundreds of drowned trees along with the buildings which have succumbed to the water line.
Hippos abound here, smallish pods of them wallowing in the shallows. The bird life is abundant. Our driver motored over to a fisherman and bought several small fish. I thought it was for his lunch, but not long thereafter he gave us a demonstration.
He spotted a fish eagle at the top of one of the nearby trees, whistled, waved the dead fish in the air, then hurled the fish skyward. It landed with a splash and floated. The eagle launched skyward, circled, then swooped down to pick the fish off the water’s choppy surface.
Lunch for the kids. I caught the whole thing on camera, every graceful movement. The boatman told me that the eagles mate for life, and, while I’m not sure of this part, he added that if one of the eagles dies, the other effectively commits suicide. That bit deserves further research but it makes a romantic story.
We puttered past a house on a small island, then made our way over to the main Crescent Island. Other tourists had already disembarked and were wending their way across the land. We found a guide for me, and my driver settled down to wait.
Crescent Island used to be a peninsula, and when the land bridge was available, migrating animals made their way across. Today the water level is too high for any kind of movement, but the rangers periodically move animals around when there are too many in herd or when the blood lines threaten to become inbred.
The site has been used for many movies, including Tomb Raider, Out of Africa, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Born Free and others. As you walk around you can see why. There is abundant wildlife. And here is where things get good.
I’ve been to Africa nine times now. There are all kinds of safaris at every price point. During my first trip in 2000, my guide and now long-term friend Michael Schmidt took two friends and me through South Africa to Botswana. He warned us, rightfully so, that there was never a guarantee that we’d see anything. Michael took the lot of us to the Pretoria Zoo where we indulged ourselves in all kinds of gorgeous wildlife photos, which we could have used to claim that we had indeed seen Africa’s Big Five. Not in the wild, but at least we had seen them. As it was, for days we didn’t see much more than sandy landscape, dunes and beetles and bateleurs.
Until we found a lion pride resting after a huge feed on a gemsbok antelope. That turned out to be the high point of our trip. As with any kind of excursion into the wild, sometimes all you will see is evidence of life, but not life itself, as wildlife continues to disappear off the continent at terrifying rates.
By comparison, for those terribly impatient tourists with little time and unreasonably high expectations, Crescent Island offers a quality trip. While there were no rhinos, big cats or elephants, there were plenty of antelope and gazelle species. Zebra abound, as do giraffe.
What makes Crescent Island perfect for a day trip, however, is that the wildlife is acclimated to humans. I can’t emphasize enough that this is no petting zoo, although some damned fool is likely to try, given the number of times people have seen Fantasia and Lion King. As ridiculously tempting as it may seem to believe that animals talk, wear tutus, dance and are so very grateful for a pet on the furry head, such notions can get you dead, or seriously injured.
That said, as my guide and I walked the island, I was stunned by how close we could get to them, or rather how nonchalantly they treated us. Mostly like moving shrubs, if you will, which allowed me to get some remarkable photos up close and personal. At one point a small group of zebras passed by so closely that it really was tempting to walk over and say hello.
The same with the giraffe. We came upon a small herd feeding on acacia trees. They were utterly nonplussed. One mature female watched as we walked slowly over to a very young male. I was perhaps ten feet away, moving very slowly as you must do around wild animals (and many animals in general, or be seen as a threat), and got some stunning photos of the baby and his big sister.
Outside a zoo compound, I’ve never been able to get that close in the wild on foot. By car, maybe. But not on foot. That’s the difference. The proximity is real and visceral, and you feel far more connected to the wildness of the place.
As with all such trips, your ranger tells you what you can and can’t do. Listen and do what they say or you may pay a very high price.
I would later be with a small group of folks at the Kenyan Animal Orphanage which is, in some ways, little more than a glorified petting zoo. There is a lame warthog which loves a belly rub, and a calm eland who responded warmly to a withers scrub. As an animal masseuse, albeit not a professional one, I’m fairly good at sorting out what feels good to a critter, but ONLY when those animals are regularly handled by humans and ONLY if said animal makes it clear that I have permission. That takes both knowledge and experience along with plenty of costly mistakes on my part.
We are woefully disconnected from the wild, all too often seeing it as something to be tamed rather than a glorious invitation to be wild ourselves. Seeing raw nature, even in as relatively tame an environment as as an oft-used movie set north of Nairobi, is at least one more step towards reclaiming our birthright to live in concert with, and with respect for, Nature’s magnificent wildness.
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