Alien invasive plants on Lake Naivasha
Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water fern (Salvinia molesta) are both species that were introduced to Africa as ornamental water plants - however, over the years, they have washed down into streams, rivers and lakes and have caused catastrophic damage where they have overwhelmed native ecosystems.
Water hyacinth originates from Brazil, and was first reported in Kenya in 1957. Since then, it has spread throughout the country, and it is difficult to overstate the damage it has caused. The plant forms a floating mat on the water surface (often in combination with water fern), blocking oxygen replenishment and light penetration to the water below, and also creating a breeding habitat for mosquitoes. As a result, the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystems has been thrown badly out of kilter, which has also impacted directly on humans as the fish populations have declined as a result.
Water hyacinth infestation is sadly a problem throughout most of Southern Africa, so we were not surprised to note that the shallow water along the lakeshore was choked with hyacinth mats. However, when we first caught sight of Lake Naivasha from an elevated viewpoint, we thought that the lake surface was dotted with small fishing boats, and were shocked to discover that the 'boats' were in fact floating 'islands' of these invasive plants.
Give this Jerusalem a wide berth!
Wherever you go in the southern Rift Valley - from livestock corrals in the middle of nowhere to large commercial farms - the chances are that you'll come across fences made of this intimidatingly spikey shrub, known locally as 'Jerusalem'.
It is the ideal sustainable fencing material, as it is so prickly and grows into such dense thickets that not even the goats will eat it. Furthermore, unlike the alternative - some form of wire fencing - it does not rust and cannot be 'affirmatively shopped'!!!
Just keep your distance: any plant that can stand up to goats - and come off best - deserves to be treated with respect and caution!
Make sure you wear sensible shoes!
One of the highlights of Hell's Gate National Park is hiking through the Ol-Njorowa Gorge (see my travel tip above).
There is no viewpoint out over the gorge, so the only way to appreciate its beauty is to hike down into it. It's not very deep (its walls are probably only 30m high at the deepest point) but it is very narrow in sections, and the descent and ascent from the gorge floor requires some scrambling. As a result, it is unfortunately not advisable for those with mobility problems, and I wouldn't recommend taking small children down into the gorge unless you have a reasonable ratio of adults to children to keep the little darlings under control.
Obviously hiking the gorge is an activity for which you would hope that people would wear sensible shoes ... or so you would think. In fact, when we visited the gorge, there was a fashion shoot in progress, and so we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of seeing models posing on boulders in spike-heeled ankle boots (see photo)! At least the model taking a break from her strappy sandals and soothing her feet in the water has the right idea!
Litter and inept tour guides at Ol-Njorowa Gorge
It is not quite clear whether it is compulsory or not to take a guide if you intend to hike Ol-Njorowa Gorge - the signage is ambiguous, and there is certainly considerable pressure exerted by the park staff to do so. As the path is not always clear, I would veer on the side of caution and hire a guide just for safety's sake, but if our experience is anything to go by, I wouldn't expect much 'guiding' other than being shown the way.
I am more than happy to support initiatives to create tourism-based jobs for local people, but I do not believe that it is not too much to ask that such potential service providers be trained to bring them to at least an acceptable level of competence. To be blunt, our guide was completely clueless in terms of his understanding of the wildlife or landscape that he was meant to be 'guiding' us through, and clearly had absolutely no conception of what a tourist would expect of a tour. Frankly I felt like asking for my money back, and I was particularly irked when a park official then tried to coerce us into giving the guide a lift back to the gate (as we were among the last visitors of the day).
I also find it unacceptable that a National Park should be allowed to become so littered. The picnic site by the car park is clearly a popular spot for groups of local people, but that does not mean that is acceptable that the area should be strewn with litter - particularly when this is allowed to wash down into the gorge.
What I found most disappointing is that, despite the fact that ecotourism provides their livelihood, the 'tour guides' clearly don't give a damn about this, and happily sidestep around empty Coke bottles and plastic waste (in one case, even when it was blocking the flow in a small waterfall). Our guide was gobsmacked when we started to pick up the plastic ourselves and carried it out of the gorge to dispose of in (overflowing) rubbish bins, but it didn't occur to him to assist. Similarly, 'tour guides' who are waiting to be hired could be gainfully employed helping to clean up the car park area to make it more attractive for visitors, but this clearly just doesn't happen.
Again, this reflects disappointingly poor management and training on the part of Kenya Wildlife Services (who operate the park) - sad, as I thought that Kenya was more serious about fostering responsible tourism.
This is malaria country, so ensure that you contact you doctor prior to visiting Kenya for the most suitable prophylaxis.
Always sleep under a treated mosquito net.
Wear long trousers and a long sleeved top after sunset.
Always use a good insect repellant, with at least 50% DEET.
Don't feed the baboons!
When we were sitting down for lunch in a picnic area near the KWS station in Hell's Gate NP this guy appeared out of nowhere and jumped up on me, grabbing my sandwich right of my hand and disappearing with it in the forest (or so we thought). But we were still looking at each other in confusion I saw a furry hand appearing out of the corner of my eye. He had sneaked up on us again from behind and grabbed the biscuits as well, leaving us with nothing to eat for lunch! We then had to watch him munch our food high up on a rock, when we had to face the 2.5 hour cycle back to the campsite on an empty stomach.
When we left we actually saw another group of tourists feeding him, and this is obviously how he has learned where to get his food. The end of the story now is that as it's not the first time that this particular baboon has done this, the KWS ranger will now probably either have to relocate him or put him down, as he is becoming a danger to people and may end up biting someone.
The risk of flash floods in the gorge is very real
A visit to the Ol-Njorowa gorge is a highlight of any visit to Hell's Gate National Park, but be aware that you need to exercise caution if and when you decide to hike there, particularly in the rainy season.
Because it's such a confined space, the gorge is subject to flash floods as a result of heavy rain, during which the water can reach a depth of 6m in a very short space of time, so I would strongly recommend that you keep an eye on the weather and avoid hiking in the gorge if heavy rain is in prospect.
Please take this warning seriously, as this is not just an abstract risk: in April 2012, seven members of a church group were swept to their deaths by a flash flood in this gorge.