Trip Report: South Rift Valley Safari 2014

Andrew Beck All Authors, Andrew Leave a Comment

After spending 6 nights exploring the Shompole region of Kenya’s south Rift Valley, I can safely say that this is truly one of the few real wild frontiers left in Africa. A 5 hour drive from Nairobi took our guests into the great rift valley, passed the alkaline waters of Lake Magadi (one of the largest soda processing plants in the world) across the Ewasa Ngiro River, and eventually to the Wild Eye Mobile camp which had been setup in the heart of the Shompole Conservancy.

South Rift Valley Safari Andrew Beck Greg du Toit

South Rift Valley Safari June 2014

The sight of Mount Shompole was a welcome view as we enjoyed our lunch and gave guests a brief orientation on the camp and the itinerary for the week. The media tent was once again filled with laptops, battery chargers and loads of camera gear as we prepared for our first afternoon drive through the conservancy.

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Expanding on his now famous waterhole presentation, Greg ran through some images and stories from his time in the region and, more importantly, the well known waterhole which was just 10km’s from our camp. This time his talk was different, he was able to point out the direction of Lake Natron, Mount Shompole and his waterhole. For the first time in 8 years, he was back where it all started and one could  really see just how stoked he was to be back, and this time with his wife Claire.

With excitement levels at an all time high, the guests prepped their gear for the early morning excursion to Lake Natron before being serenaded by the unmistakable symphony of the African night.

This safari had many unique aspects to it, one of which was undoubtedly the opportunity to photograph Lake Natron. This remote alkaline lake has featured in just a handful of photographers portfolios, and our guests revelled in the experience of capturing the almost alien landscape at first light on day two of our safari.

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The lake is fed by the Southern Ewaso Ngiro River and also by mineral-rich hot springs. It is quite shallow, less than three metres deep, and varies in width depending on its water level which changes due to high levels of evaporation, leaving behind a mixture of salts and minerals called natron. Apart from the still waters and feature of Mount Shompole in the background, the black volcanic rock which lined the lake shore made for some interesting compositions and images, as did a flock of flamingo’s and a handful of black-winged stilts.

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Making our way back to camp, we were reminded that this remote region was home to a number of people as we spotted two Maasai men crossing the salt encrusted pans with their donkeys as they made their way to a local market.

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This was raw Africa at its best.

After lunch and a bit of down time in the camp (mostly spent looking through the morning’s images), we headed out to visit the home of one of the local Maasai. This was unlike any cultural experience I had ever had as the authenticity was on a completely different level.

Our visit was timed to coincide with the return of the goats and cattle and, after walking through the boma and viewing the homes of each of the family members, the sounds of cow bells signalled the return of the goats.

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The opportunity to watch and photograph the women of the boma go about their daily duties of milking the goats was captivating. One of the guests had the great idea of passing one of the children from this family a point-and-shoot, allowing him to capture images from his perspective. This was great as it meant that Greg was on the other side of a lens for a change!

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After watching the cows return and being milked, we headed back for camp where the safari was about to take an interesting turn as our attention shifted from the landscape and the people that call this place home, to the wildlife and, more specifically, the lions that roam these plains.

Over dinner Guy Western (Rebuilding the Pride) provided some insight into his PhD studies on how the local Maasai and Lions have been living alongside one another in Shompole. Not only have they been coexisting in this region, but their numbers have increased from an estimate of 10 back in 2005 when Greg first entered his waterhole, to roughly 50 in 2014.

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I’ll cover more of Guy’s work in a separate post, but his presentation was fascinating and had the entire group captivated. The following morning we set out to track Lions with Guy and his research team.

Not wanting to spook the animals who are not as accustomed to vehicles as so many of their kin are, our group headed out into the dawn in 2 vehicles to search for Guy’s subjects.

It wasn’t long before Guy had his telemetry set (used for picking up the VHF signal emitted by the collars on a specific frequency) out and twirling it in the air. He had picked up a signal for a female he suspected had cubs stashed at the foot-slopes of the rift valley and she was in a nearby open grassland. Excitement levels peaked once again as we ventured off-road in the direction of the signal.

As the sun began to rise in the east, the seemingly endless grassy plains were punctuated by a pitch black nose, giving away the location of the lioness known as Nasha.

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What followed in the next 4 hours – yip, that’s right, we spent 4 hours with this beautiful lioness – was rather special. She was clearly on the hunt and had positioned herself in the middle of a corridor through which herds of wildebeest and zebra filed through on a daily basis.

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We watched as she slipped stealthily through the waves of grass, re-adjusting her position before stalking. First with two wildebeest, then with a small herd of zebra who passed just meters in front of her – completely unaware of the hazel eyes that watched their every move.

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For whatever reason she did not initiate a chase and, almost on queue and to complete our story, she slipped off into the thickets as the sound of cowbells and Maasai herders guiding their herds to pasture drew nearer.

Our afternoon activity saw us bring the day to a close at the Ngiro swamps, but our arrival was slightly delayed after I had managed to successfully find a sinkhole and smashed an entire leaf spring en-route to the fig tree forest.

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Luckily our team of magicians got the car back to camp that night and had a new part fitted and the vehicle ready to rock and roll the following afternoon – unbelievable.

So that’s the first 3 nights of our Safari. As you can see, even at the halfway mark we had already had some incredible experiences.

It just gets better from here, so keep an eye out for part two of my trip report!

Andrew Beck

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