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Great beauty in the Rift

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Peter Muiruri | May 16th 2021
Meanders at Kiboino village along Iten-Kabarnet road. The road is famous for its tens of corners between Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties.[Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Faults.” By the way, suppose Gregory never happened on the scene, what would you have called this fissure?

The vast valley, formed when the core of the earth heaved and sighed millions of years ago as a result of volcanic activity, is visible from space and runs from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique in the southern part of Africa. Yet, it is the immense natural beauty and diverse cultures that make a visit to this region worthwhile.

Late last year, during the small window that allowed for some travel, I hooked up with Ben, a birding expert for an exploratory tour of the Rift Valley.

Now Ben is one man who can tell one bird from another even in his sleep. He will spend copious amounts of time combing every bush for that rare bird few can identify.

The adventure starts at the eastern escarpment that drops towards Mai Mahiu. The unwritten rule is to stop and take in the enchanting vistas that stretch beyond the valley floor as far as the eye can see because the most beautiful things in life are free.

From here, the conical Mount Longonot looms large, another product of the volcanic activity that created a caldera when part of the volcano collapsed. Since our aim was to make it to Baringo by early afternoon, a quick glimpse of the expanse was enough.

We got to Nakuru by midday. The sweltering heat was becoming unbearable, a sharp contrast to the cloudy weather back in Nairobi.

“If you think Nakuru is hot, wait till you get to Baringo,” warned a security guard at a mall in Nakuru.

True to his words, the terrain became harsh past Kabarak. Trees, bereft of leaves dotted the countryside.

Lake Bogoria Spa was our next pit stop. In the harsh terrain, the hotel stands out like a diamond in the rough. On a good day, guests are entertained by Tugen dancers just before dinner. It was in this hotel that I got to taste mursik for the first time. I say on a good day because there was little activity at the hotel as the effects of Covid-19 wore on.

The hotel is named after the nearby Lake Bogoria, one of the four Rift Valley lakes to the north.

Flamingos at Lake Bogoria National Reserve in Baringo county on January 20, 2021.[Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Bogoria also marks the divide between the northern lakes of Baringo, Turkana and the ‘Masai’ lakes of Nakuru, Elementaita and Magadi.

Lake Bogoria is set at the bottom of the 600-metre Ngendelel Escarpment. Bogoria could not have been set in a more bleak environment.

It lacks an outlet, but the high alkalinity in the lake has been a factor in the propagation of the blue-green algae that is at the core of the lake’s global fame. Still, the stench from the algae is enough to make you puke.

How, you may wonder, would such seemingly useless substance bring visitors from around the world? You see, Bogoria is known for harbouring thousands of flamingos.

Though they do feed on some small fish, the algae is not only their main source of food but their vibrant pink colour as well.

The algae contains beta-carotene, a water-based bacteria with a reddish-orange pigment. When the bacteria dissolves in the birds’ fat, it is then deposited in feathers and as the birds grow, their colour slowly shifts to pink. Got it? Thus, a well-fed flamingo will have a deeper shade of pink and will make a formidable mate while a pale one could as well be content in the singles club. In the flamingo world, you are what you eat!

Sadly, his beautiful phenomenon is slowly fading away, thanks to the current phenomenon of rising Rift Valley lakes. For the last 10 years, the water in Lake Bogoria has risen to unprecedented levels, diluting the alkalinity and making it difficult for the flamingoes to survive.

A similar phenomenon greeted us in Baringo. At Kampi ya Samaki, scores of men washed their motorcycles on the road, now part of the lake.

Some of the buildings submerged at Soi Safari Lodge after Lake Baringo swelled on July 21, 2020.[Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

We had anticipated to lodge at the nearby Soi Safari Lodge, but this one too has been eaten up by the lake. And so are Robert’s Camp and Lake Baringo Country Club, the region’s favourite safari destinations. We were content staying in a nondescript haven on the water’s edge.

For some sense of serenity, we took the vertical ascent towards Kabarnet, the town set on a hill, one side overlooking the Iten escarpment.

Kabarnet sits on top of Kerio Valley, undoubtedly one of the most scenic locations in Kenya. Three minutes from Kabarnet, we pull over to the side of the road to take in the endless beauty of the valley below, where, as my primary school teacher told me, is the source of fluorspar.

If the landscape does not stir any emotions on your part, the Kabarnet-Iten Road surely does.

On such terrain, constructing a road vertically presented many challenges. In order to minimise the gradient, the engineers simply made numerous twists and turns, coils upon coils of tarmac meandering all the way to the top. While this was not their intention, the winding road has become part of the region’s tourist attraction.

My two days in the geological museum that John Gregory called the Rift Valley revealed some secrets that make the region tick. Here, the remains of animals and plants lie fossilised, awaiting a new discovery. 

 

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