Not far from Elsamere and Lake Naivasha is Hell’s Gate National Park, named after a narrow chasm among striking red cliffs that was once a tributary to a prehistoric lake in the Great Rift Valley. We begin on foot, and after days of cloudy weather and a bit of rain, the morning is clear and glowing with light that is perfect for photography. Our feet kick up fine dust, the remains of ash from nearby Mt. Longonot, which is dormant. Chunks of obsidian are shiny beneath the dirt.

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

Fischer Tower, inspiration for Pride Rock of Lion King fame. / Meera Subramanian

In the distance, steam spurts from the horizon accompanied by a loud hum that indicate the Olkaria Geothermal Station, the first of its kind in Africa, established in 1981 and operated by KenGen, the leading power company in Kenya. There’s a huge push underway in Kenya to use renewable energy, but even this comes at a price. The water needed to operate the plant came from Lake Naivasha until the company began to dig boreholes. All power, ultimately, comes at some price.

Olkaria geothermal station / Meera Subramanian

The natural geothermal energy heats up spring water, which seeps from crevices and cascades down in small waterfalls, smelling strongly of sulfur. We explore the canyon, learning new plants, insects and amphibians.

Meera Subramanian

Hell’s Gate is a heaven for birds of prey. Munir tells us about Simon Thomsett’s attempt to reintroduce bearded vultures back to the park and shows us the remains of the hacking site. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles cruise together across the sky to the north, back to the south, over to the west, landing briefly on the ground at a ridgetop near their nest before heading off again, coasting on the wind. We see a lanner falcon, perched near its nest at the top of a sheer cliff.

Site of failed lammergier vulture reintroduction, but we see a lanner falcon perched near its nest. / Meera Subramanian

Bearded vulture hack site and lanner falcon nest. / Meera Subramanian

Evan and Shiv watch the falcon. / Munir Virani

We also learn how poorly designed watering holes can be fatal for birds of prey.

Meera Subramanian

We climb in the Land Cruiser to head deeper into the canyon, pausing to have a tea break under the tree where famous raptor biologist Leslie Brown sat to study a colony of cliff-nesting Ruppell’s vultures. The cliff is covered with whitewash, but there are only so many ledges. There are vultures on nests and vultures flying on wide plank-like wings eight feet tip-to-tip. Munir has counted up to 60-70 birds at a time at this site. Teeku sets up his 600mm lens and we take turns getting close-ups of the birds from a great distance, then we climb up to the base of the cliffs, searching for prey remains and feathers and eggshell fragments. We also get a spectacular view, spotting giraffes, marred only by the billows of steam and noise rising from the KenGen plant.We discuss how a park that is only 60 square kilometers can be so rich in raptors and plains game but also at odds with surrounding agricultural, pastoral and horticulture pressure.

Ruppell's vultures / Meera Subramanian

Ruppell's vultures on their cliff nests. / Meera Subramanian

We then hike down into the chasm of the canyon itself.

Munir Virani

The rockclimbers of the group (Chris, Brian and Drew), cannot contain themselves!

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Munir Virani

Chris takes a leap on his way down. / Meera Subramanian

On day two of the surveys, we take opposite sides of the lake. The wildlife is abundant.

Cape Buffalo among invasive hyacinth. / Meera Subramanian

Maria leads the pack. / Teeku Patel
Maria leads the pack with a grin. / Teeku Patel

A waterbuck lets us get a close look. / Meera Subramanian

Hippos snort up water in agitation when we get too close. / Meera Subramanian

While we get surprisingly close to wildlife, we also see that flower farm greenhouses also come much too close to the shore. Human impact has greatly altered the lake’s ecosystem. Papyrus that once ringed the lake and created floating islands of filtration are now mostly gone, replaced with invasive hyacinth. Native fish are also long gone, replaced by numerous introduced species including crayfish, tilapia, carp, and large-mouthed bass (introduced for the pleasure of President Roosevelt in 1927).

Flower farm greenhouses / Arianwen Jones

Greenhouses up close / Meera Subramanian

Lunch was late, by the time one of our boats found their way out of a papyrus thicket that nearly sucked up their vessel! Oh, and once they got out, they ran out of gas in the middle of the lake. Luckily, the second boat had some spare fuel. All in a day’s field work!

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected. / Munir Virani

Evan and Chris looking a bit dejected, as Drew learns to "live with the papyrus." 🙂 / Munir Virani

In the afternoon, Meera leads the students into the world of environmental journalism.

Lake Naivasha in the early morning light. / Arianwen Jones

Lake Naivasha is nearly 200 square kilometers in size, so we split into two groups and climb into boats to travel the shoreline, counting hippos and African fish eagles. In one boat, Arian takes the clipboard and Maria the map, and note numbers and GPS location as we spot pods of snorting (and scary to us, in our thin aluminum boat) hippos and the distinct white spot among the green acacia trees that indicate a fish eagle.

Arian keeps track of numbers. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv is our guide. He tosses out fish we’ve brought to lure the eagles toward us and we get our first opportunities to practice our wildlife photography, shooting fast and hoping we can focus well enough to get a clear shot of whether the large raptors (which resemble American bald eagles) have a ring on their leg.

African fish eagle / Meera Subramanian

Monitoring the movement and pairing of the birds is helping to understand their conservation status. Here’s a short video that Munir did for The Peregrine Fund:

We meet the other boat halfway around the lake and return over the now-choppy water, fairly soaked by the time we arrive back at Elsamere for a nice hot lunch.

In the afternoon, Munir gives an introduction to Kenya’s birds of prey and Teeku talks about how to work with your photographic subject.

We’ve arrived at Elsamere on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Soon after first light, we climb into a narrow boat to cross the water to Barton Hill. Time to take a good look at our surroundings.

Munir Virani

We’re joined by two other young biologists who are specializing on birds of prey work. Evan Buechley has worked with condors in the American Southwest for The Peregrine Fund (Munir Directs the Africa and South Asia programs for The Peregrine Fund) and is now studying the augur buzzard population of Lake Naivasha.  Shiv Kapila is a young Kenyan studying the African fish eagles on the lake. Both are following up on studies previously done by Dr. Munir Virani.

We climb Barton Hill, which is on private land. Yellow fever trees ring the shoreline and, as we move uphill, we pass zebra, giraffe, warthog, Thomson’s gazelles and eland (Kenya’s largest antelope whose bulls display their sexual prowess by clicking their knees!). Flocks of cormorants fly overhead and an occasional African fish eagle and augur buzzard pass by, below us once we are on top of the hill.

Munir Virani

Lake Naivasha is an area made famous in the time between the World Wars as a place of colonial excess. Today, we can see the endless hoops of plastic-covered greenhouses that grow a third of all of the cut flowers sold on the European market. Luckily, the rains returned this year, after years of drought, raising the lake levels again, but the water has been compromised as it leaves and as it returns to the basin. Flower farms and the human populations that live in the area to labor within them both need tremendous amounts of water, which is extracted from the lake without regulation. They also return sewage, toxins, and other pollutants that have turned the water into an algal soup. We’ll be learning a lot about this in the days to come.

Zebras wth greenhouses in background / Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, Munir gives a lecture about Lake Naivasha and Teeku invites us into the world of digital photography. Susan is one of many wonderful staff at Elsamere.

Susan from Elsamere. / Meera Subramanian

Susan on Elsamere's dock. / Meera Subramanian

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