DAZZLED AT LAKE NAKURU

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IT'S COMING up to gentle dusk at Lake Nakuru Lodge in Kenya’s mid-west and from the back veranda of my room I can see a cavalcade of beasts trudging past on their way to … where?

There are buffalo, zebra, a few monkeys, you name it, and it really does look like they’re clocking off for the night. I imagine there’s a meeting going on up in the hills, all these animals chatting over the day and talking about what’s planned for tomorrow.

“We’ll dazzle ‘em with an early morning appearance at the lodge watering hole,” say the zebras, while the flamingos discuss how best to look pretty in pink. The minutes will no doubt show that the buffalo plan to descend from the hills just as the sun is high enough to turn the dust they kick up to gold. The baboons, despite elegant objections from the snootier giraffes, will perform as usual by grooming each other until a truckload of tourists comes along – at which point the littl’uns will rough and tumble adorably and the males will play with their genitalia.

And they don’t disappoint.

Early the next day we are tempted away from our buffet breakfast by the appearance of a dozen or so zebras around the lodge’s watering hole. They are skittish at first, seemingly bullied by the appearance of two buffalo but, once the bigger beasts lumber away, they edge forward to drink their fill.

There are supposedly two names for a group of zebras – a zeal or a dazzle – but watching these magnificent animals, their black-and-white stripes melding hypnotically as they stand side by side, I am drawn to the latter. Either way, it’s a dazzling start to the day.

Just 164 kilometres from Nairobi, Lake Nakuru Lodge is set inside the 188-square-kilometre Lake Nakuru National Park. The park was created in 1961 around Lake Nakuru and has been expanding ever since. The closest conurbation – a city of some 300,000 people - is called, wait for it, Nakuru.

This was obviously the template for the naming of the lodge. But while not a lot of thought went into that, plenty went into creating low-key safari-style accommodation with all the appurtenances of modern life such as wi-fi, a swimming pool and an in-house eat-yourself-stupid buffet style restaurant serving African, Indian and Western dishes.

Lake Nakuru is one of many Rift Valley soda, or alkaline, lakes. It is fed by four rivers, has no outflows, and never freezes. It’s also very shallow, with an average depth of about 2m and, depending on conditions, has a surface area of between five and 45 square kilometres.

Our game drive today skirts the edge of this lake, which was once famously home to millions of flamingos. Today, those numbers have fallen alarmingly thanks to recent high-water levels which have caused a decline in salinity and, subsequently, a lack of the algae on which the flamingos feed (since the writing of this there is a suggestion that they might be gradually coming back).

In a wonderful wrinkle of natural circularity, those algae are created in the warm alkaline waters by the birds’ own droppings. Subsequent research has shown that the collective noun for flamingos is, possibly, a stand, a flock, a flamboyance, a colony or a flurry. Given the provenance of the algae, though, I’m going with ‘stool’.

These days most of the local flamingos hang out at Lake Bogoria, three hours to the north, but I’m more than happy with the dozen or so that have remained in the shallows where we stop for photographs.

Frankly, I’d have been happy with just one or two, having developed a soft spot for these weirdly beautiful creatures after seeing John Tenniel’s illustrations of them being used as croquet mallets in Alice in Wonderland - the perfect book for a pink creature with bright yellow eyes, spindly

'The collective noun for a group of buffalo is
an ‘obstinacy’. If you’ve ever had a buffalo stop in the road and stare
at your vehicle, you know they got that
one spot on.'

legs that bend the wrong way and beaks that look like they’re on upside down.

We also encounter several troops of baboons, who make good on their imagined promise by being simultaneously laughingly cute and hideously gross, a couple of hippos, and several Rothschild's giraffes. These last, by the way, differ from other giraffes in a way that went in one ear and out the other.

Eastern black rhinos and white rhinos tantalise us from a distance and a herd of buffalo do indeed saunter down from the hills around the lake in a haze of sunny, backlit dust. Buffalo generally look like cows that have been bashed with the ugly stick and then forced to wear one of those silly black matador hats, but the early morning sun here makes them almost sexy.

The collective noun for a group of buffalo, by the way, is an ‘obstinacy’. I’m not sure who in God’s name decides this stuff but if you’ve ever had a buffalo stop in the road and stare at your vehicle, you know they got that one spot on.

Following the buffalo around are yellow-billed birds known as cattle egrets. These dainty white birds exist in harmony with the tank-like buffalo, says our guide, by making a meal of the ticks and flies that plague them. A win-win all round.

Perhaps given that the park is centred around a lake, there’s quite a bit of birdlife on offer. We spot several fish eagles, pelicans (booooring), many species of stork and heron, cormorants, a gaggle of vultures haggling over a buffalo corpse, black-and-white pied kingfishers, greater blue-eared starlings and (my favourite of the day) the Jeeves-like secretary bird with its Victorian dandy tailcoat wings and race-day fascinator head.

Looking for all the world like a cross between an eagle and a flamingo (he’s got your legs, dear) the secretary bird stands a good 1.3m tall and is a bird of prey that stalks its victims – small lizards and snakes - on the ground by stamping them to death with its powerful legs.

On the way out of the park, heading back east towards Amboseli and Mount Kilimanjaro, we stop at a cavernous souvenir store that, inside, looks like a dimly lit Aladdin’s cave of treasure.

There are colourful splashes of local fabrics, great swathes of pink-painted flamingo statuettes and wall upon wall of exotic wooden tribal masks. One of them interests me very much and I’m tempted to add it to my collection until the shopkeeper names his price: $600!

When I baulk, he asks what I think it might be worth to me and I tell him: $200.

“Done,” he says without hesitation, holding his hand out to shake on the deal. Done, indeed, but happy with it.

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of G Adventures (gadventures.com.au).