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Game viewing by vehicle is wonderful, but if you have a chance, it pales into insignificance compared to the delights of game viewing on foot.
In a vehicle, you are distanced from the environment by metal and glass, whereas once you walk in the bush, you're part of it, and have a chance to appreciate its intricacies. This may be as humble as watching scarab beetles rollling perfectly spherical balls of dung (see other photo), or, at the other end of the scale, as aweinspiring as being able to get exceptionally close to Africa's largest antelope, the eland.
We have eland in South Africa, but they are notoriously shy, and usually rather difficult to spot as they prefer to lurk in thickets in small family groups. It was therefore an absolute treat to see eland in much larger numbers and much closer up than we're used to - both at Crater Lake and at Hell's Gate.
Eland are beautiful animals, with their large eloquent eyes and distinctive dewlap. They are really large, heavyset animals - as large or larger than a full grown bull and weighing up to 900kg. Surprisingly, they are able to jump extraordinarily well and can clear over 3m from a standing start, which is an extraordinary feat of athleticism given their weight.
It's astounding to think that these are 'only' common eland - the rarer Giant (or Lord Derby's) Eland found in Central Africa is even bigger!
For those who are concerned about safety whilst walking in the bush, this reserve doesn't have many large predators (mostly hyaena and leopards which tend to be shy and solitary) and you are accompanied by a game ranger. Interestingly enough, he wasn't armed with anything more lethal than a short cane!
Updated May 13, 2012
The Crater Lake reserve extends beyond the immediate crater and reaches down to the shores of Lake Naivasha beyond. Naivasha is a comparatively deep freshwater lake and is a very different ecosystem to the shallow soda lake in the crater itself, so it's nice to have two such contrasting environments so close to one another.
If you're feeling energetic, it's well worth asking your guide to incorporate a wander down to the Lake Naivasha shore into your morning game walk. We were able to get within about 10m of a pod of hippos who were squabbling loudly - there was much indignant grunting and displaying of large peglike teeth in cavernous mouths, so I'm guessing that it had something to do with establishing dominance within the group.
However much you might want the ultimate close up hippo shot, it's best to keep a sensible distance - hippos may look fairly docile, but they kill more people in Africa each year than any other animal (with the obvious exception of malarial mosquitoes)!
Updated May 13, 2012
Flamingoes are migratory birds, and tend to move between the chain of lakes in the Rift Valley region.
In contrast to the millions (and I mean that quite literally) of flamingoes that we saw at Lake Bogoria, there were only a few at Crater Lake when we stayed there. However, they were particularly interesting, as they are relatively habituated to humans, and so will allow you to get relatively close (whereas the Bogoria birds get very unsettled once you start to approach).
The picture shows a greater flamingo (walking in front) and a lesser flamingo. As you'd expect, the greater flamingo is larger, and has paler pink plumage with a neutral coloured eye. By contrast, the less flamingo is smaller and more intensely pink, with an unnerving red eye that looks more than a little satanic.
They happily hang around in the shallow water fringing the soda lake that has established in the crater, trawling for small crustaceans with their outlandish beaks. You can't help but fall in love with their endearing mix of elegance and gawkiness, and, for me at least, are the iconic animal of the Rift Valley.
Updated Jan 23, 2012
I may have left my geological roots way behind me, but I confess to having a long standing fascination with obsidian.
Well, to start with, 'obsidian' is just such a splendid word! I had always thought that it would make an ideal name for a heavy metal band, and indeed, a quick Google confirmed that a death metal outfit from Holland has been thinking along similar lines!
So, what is obsidian? Well, in simple terms, it's a volcanic glass that is associated with silica-rich magmas - these give rise to volcanoes that tend to blow their tops catastrophically rather than oozing lava placidly to surface. Obsidian is formed when the magma is rapidly forced to surface and cools so quickly that there is no time for crystals to grow, thus creating an amorphous (ie, non-crystalline) solid. Usually obsidian is dark, with its exact colour being dictated by the chemical impurities in the silica: in the Rift Valley, it is so dark a green as to be almost black.
Because obsidian lacks an internal crystalline structure, it is possible to flake it to create edges of extreme thinness. This property was used by Stone Age man to fashion tools such as cutting implements and arrow heads, and I was amazed to discover the obsidian is still used today for surgical scalpels. As you walk around Crater Lake, you can find partially completed arrow heads, which provides a spine tingling link back to the times of our earliest ancestors who originated in the Rift Valley.
Wherever you go at Crater Lake, you'll stumble across obsidian, from tiny sparkly black specks in the sand to enormous great boulders, such as the one shown in the bottom left corner of the photo: the larger pieces are distinctive because of their strange, almost 'plasticky' surface and conchoidal (curved) fracture. In this case, the obsidian appears to have been a volcanic 'bomb' ejected from the volcano, which became buried in layers of ash - this lump is about the size of a football and indicates the force with which it would have been hurled out over the landscape!
My only regret about obsidian in the Rift Valley is that I didn't see a single curio made of this splendid stuff. With its unique colour, texture and feel and local provenance, it is just crying out to be crafted into jewellery, or indeed, anything that would usually be made out of glass. Yet curio sellers persist in hawking the usual same-ish range of frankly dull crafts (and, in my opinion, most Kenyan crafts are very underwhelming compared to those on offer elsewhere in Africa): surely this is a obvious gap in the market for some entrepreneur to exploit???
Updated Dec 20, 2011
To experience the Crater Lake reserve at it's absolute best, you really have to get out and walk - indeed, the opportunity to do so was what attracted us here in the first place. A game ranger is assigned to you for the duration of your stay, and will be happy to guide you around the reserve on foot, and although he will select the walk depending on the athleticism of the group, you really need to be of moderate fitness to make the most of this. For example, probably because we were particularly keen, the morning walk that we did lasted four hours, during which time we probably covered 10-12km
The terrain is pretty rugged, especially if you are going to hike up onto the crater rim (and you'd be mad if you didn't) and some scrambling is required on certain sections. I would therefore recommend that you bring some sturdy footwear with you - hiking boots are ideal, but training shoes would be fine as well - don't even attempt it in flipflops!
For fear of stating the obvious, the usual hiking rules apply. Kenya straddles the equator, and even down in the Rift Valley, you may be at higher altitude than you're used to, so take it easy to avoid exhaustion, cover up with a hat and long sleeves and use sunscreen on exposed skin to avoid sunburn and bring lots of water to drink.
Updated Dec 20, 2011
One of the many wonderful aspects of clambering along the crater rim is the unexpected bird's eye perspective that it affords you of the wildlife below!
This photo was taken in the early morning as a family of giraffe were drinking at a small waterhole. Although we've been lucky enough to see a lot of giraffe in our time in a lot of places, we have almost always been 'looking up' to them, so it was quite a novelty to look down on them for a change (in my case, as I'm a short person, looking down on anything is a particular buzz, especially if it's as tall as a giraffe!).
Also once you're on the crater rim, the animals are unaware of your presence as your scent and any noise that you make (within reason) travels upwards rather than downwards. This allows you to observe their interaction under undisturbed conditions, and we were quite enchanted to spend a few minutes watching the way that the dynamics within this particular family group played out.
Updated Dec 20, 2011
If you're someone who's previously done safaris elsewhere in Africa, one of the differences that you'll immediately notice in Kenya is that humans and their livestock are allowed to enter national parks and reserve areas. This is in stark contrast to Southern Africa, where such designated areas are reserved for wildlife and human access (other for tourism and wildlife management purposes) is prohibited.
Kenya's approach to encourage the coexistence of traditional landowners and wildlife is based on the recognition that the Maasai people are a pastoral society and need access to the land for subsistence purposes. However, this raises a range of challenges for park management, of which the most obvious is competition for scarce resources, particularly in times of drought. At the time of writing for instance (2011), there is apparently fierce competition for grazing between wildlife and domestic livestock in Masai Mara after several years of below average rain. The control of disease (such as bovine TB, which can be transmitted between domestic cattle and certain wild herbivores) is also an issue where the two groups of animals are able to mix freely.
However, perhaps the most thorny issue to manage when people are allowed free access to wildlife reserves is the control of poaching, which remains an enormous challenge to Kenya Wildlife Services.
Whatever your moral or conservation stance on this issue, it is quite an eyeopener to see people wandering through reserves, especially when you yourself have been warned to stay in the vehicle for fear of predators!
Updated Aug 15, 2011
CatherineReichardt Says: This is about as close as you can get to my definition of the 'ideal hotel' ... affordable, comfortable accommodation in a jawdroppingly beautiful location surrounded by stupendous wildlife.We are unashamed 3 star travellers, and although luxurious accommodation is all very...
The food at Crater Lodge is good in an unspectacular 'colonial hotel' sort of way.
Breakfasts and evening meals are tasty buffet affairs with a nice selection of dishes and a good variety of local fruits and salads. It's not gourmet fare, but neither does it pretend to be, and you'd have to be very fussy indeed not to find something to your liking.
For those who are less hungry or in more of a hurry, there is also a less formal menu of light lunches, such as toasted sandwiches.
The local beers are very pleasant and affordable, and the hotel has a selection of fairly affordable (mostly South African) wines. It is, however, a pity that they do not presently stock wine from the local Leleshwa vineyard in Naivasha, which I hope is a gap that they will address in the future.
I should also add that - to the immense credit of the bewildered restaurant staff - they let me have an egg and the loan of a spoon for the day so that I could fulfil my longstanding ambition to boil an egg in a geothermal spring (see the travelogue on my Lake Bogoria page)!
Updated Jan 23, 2012
As previously mentioned, the Crater Lodge is located on the shoreline of the shallow soda lake that has established in the crater itself. It is a glorious location with only one downside ... the climb to get there!
Access from the car park to the lodge is only via a long, steep staircase cut through the indigenous forest - of which the photo shows only the bottom section. The good news is that the stairs are sturdily constructed and well maintained, and there is even a resting point with a bench about two thirds of the way up. Unfortunately its scenic nature doesn't alter the fact that it is a fair trek!
Happily, porters will gladly help you with your baggage - which you'll find is well worth a hefty tip - and fortunately the view is stupendous, which gives you an excuse to catch your breath on the long haul upwards as you save face by pausing to 'admire the scenery'!
This climb means that sadly this lodge is not a good choice for people with mobility problems or those who are advised to avoid physical exertion. It also means that you would be very well advised to make sure that you have everything you need before you leave your tent or car, in order to avoid having to make a return trek to retrieve whatever you've forgotten!
The only way to avoid these stairs is if you're well heeled enough to be able to afford your own private helicopter, as we discovered when the former head of the Kenyan Reserve Bank dropped in for tea one afternoon during our stay!
Updated Jul 29, 2011