Riverdave's Journal
May 1989

          Fog in Moscow ...  That was the last thing that I wanted to hear.  Standing in line at the airport in Larnaca, Cyprus, I learned that my Russian Aeroflot flight to Nairobi, Kenya would be delayed for eight hours due to ground conditions in Moscow.  My first equatorial adventure was experiencing a minor setback due to atmospheric conditions at fifty-five degrees of latitude north!  The anticipation of my coming African odyssey was now reaching an almost unbearable level of readiness on my part, just to get on with it.  Reluctantly, I checked my bags and headed out the front door of the airport for a long morning walk.

          I crossed the highway in front of the airport and headed for the Larnaca Salt Lake just up the road.  At one end of the lake is an old Turkish mosque and tekke, a Sufi retreat center.  It has the unusual distinction of being built around the tomb of a female Muslim saint, known as Um Haram, which means in Arabic, “the Reverend Mother.”  Various traditions claim that she was everything from the wet nurse of the Prophet Muhammad, his  paternal aunt, his grandmother or the wife of one of his early followers. She apparently died from a neck injury after falling off her mule by the Salt Lake during the Arab siege of Larnaca in the year 678 AD under the rule of the Caliph Muawiya.
          I decided to retire to Um Haram’s garden sanctuary and make use of her soft carpets for meditation and journal writing while I waited for the arrival of my flight from Moscow. Maybe she embodied some pre Islamic, earth goddess, like Demeter or Artemis, who once upon a time,was hallowed at this very same spot. And who knows, perhaps I might even receive some sort of “baraka” or blessing from this enshrined, saintly Reverend Mother,  that would aid and protect me as I wing my way towards distant lower latitudes. 

          My flight eventually arrived. By three in the afternoon I found myself in the stopover city of Aden in the southern Arabian peninsula for a brief walk through this ancient town. Finally at midnight, I crawled into my mosquito netted bunk at the East Africa Translation Center in Nairobi where I had been invited to give a presentation. The following morning I woke up early to a magical chorus of tropical birds. Grabbing my binoculars, I excitedly rushed out before breakfast for my first equatorial birding experience at one degree south latitude.

         After three days of technical linguistic exchanges at the translation center, I felt that I had fulfilled my obligation of presenting my research. The director of the Center announced  that it was the best attended presentation in recent memory.  That was all fine for them, but I was restless to get out of Nairobi and into the bush of Kenya’s renown wildlife parks.  I bought a field guide in a city bookshop and quickly confirmed Lake Nakuru as my goal in a four day personal wildlife safari.  Being already familiar with the salt lake in Larnaca, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with its sister African salt lake. I would be simply hopping from salt lake to salt lake, following the route of the migratory flamingos that I had come to appreciate in Larnaca.

          I borrowed a small tent and sleeping bag from the translation center staff and was finally ready for my self-guided safari. I took public  transportation from Nairobi and descended into the Great Rift Valley to the town of Nakuru.  From its bus station I went straight to the local street market and stocked up on my usual vegetarian fare of bread, veggies and fruit. Loaded down with a backpack and a bag in each hand, I walked to the edge of town. I then followed a country road for about a mile to the entrance gate of Lake Nakuru National Park.  When I finally entered the sanctuary, I felt that I had arrived at my ultimate planet earth destination, the legendary birding mecca of Lake Nakuru in Africa’s Great Rift Valley.  The Reverend Mother was surely with me!

         I checked in at the camp office and was assigned a site in a nearby campground. I was surprised to learn that visitors were not allowed to wander outside the campground on foot because of the ever present danger of an agitated Cape Buffalo, the animal considered potentially most dangerous to humans.  I was discouraged. For weeks I had naively envisioned myself armed only with binos, sauntering about this exotic tropical soda lake and taking in all the its magnificent wildlife on foot. 

          To make matters worse, as dusk approached, several bus loads of safari youth campers arrived and set up tents with boom boxes blaring. I couldn’t believe that I had landed myself in the midst of such an unfortunate mess.  Loud music and partying went on till after eleven o’clock.  I tried to stay awake and outlast them, but found myself so exhausted from hiking in with all my provisions, that I could not hold on any longer. I sank into a vortex of restless sleep in the heart of East Africa.  I felt robbed of my long awaited for night experience in the wilds and totally abandoned by the Reverend Mother!

         I ate tangerines and tomatoes as the camping safaris cleared out in the morning.  As much as I had wanted to explore the renown Lake Nakuru Sanctuary, I decided to pass on over to nearby Lake Navasha. I had heard that walking restrictions were less severe there and might allow me a chance for some quiet isolation.  I packed and walked up to the ranger station to check out.  As I approached, a friendly but puzzled voice rang out “What’s wrong, Sir, are you leaving so soon?” I explained my concern about the youth campers’ noise and tight walking restrictions.  The ranger responded and asked, “So you really want quiet, eh?”  I replied, “Please, yes!.”

          He drew me in closer and then pointed out on a wall map an overflow campground about five miles further down the sandy road. He warned me that it had no toilet or water source but that I would certainly have my wish for isolation and tranquility. Breaking out into a spontaneous smile, I jumped at the offer.  The ranger called a taxi from town to come pick me up.  As I waited, I quietly congratulated myself for stumbling upon this alluring open doorway into the wilds. After only five minutes an old, beat up Ford Fairlane with bald tires pulled up next to us. A young fellow opened the creaking car door, stepped out and greeted us with “Assalaam alaykum!” He then extended his hand saying “My name is Yaqub.”  We agreed on a brief auto tour of the National Park with the final stop to be my newly designated overflow campground.

          A myriad of flamboyant flamingos stretched out before us as we skirted the western shore of the lake.  We stopped and cut the car engine to listen to the birds’ incessant talk and movements as they fed on the tiny brine crustaceans. Perhaps some individuals were even among the migratory flock that I regularly saw wading in the Larnaca salt pond.  Eventually we turned off of the sandy road into a yellow-barked acacia forest and came to a stop in a grassy, two acre meadow under the veil of the over spreading leguminous trees.  Yaqub lifted my bags out and onto the ground. 

          The park ranger was waiting there to meet us.  He turned to me and said, with a sweep of his hand, “You have the freedom to wander about this whole grassy area, but not beyond. When do you want the driver to return and get you? I haltingly replied,  “In three days.” The two men nodded to me and then to each other and promptly hopped back into their respective vehicles and drove off.  I was stunned.  How could I be left alone in the middle of an East African acacia forest for three days with the nearest human a distant five miles away? This was an opportunity far beyond what were even my highest hopes for this journey. Yea Reverend Mother!

       Unsure of knowing how to properly comport myself in the midst of the unfamiliar creatures around me, I hastily set up my tent in a corner of the meadow. I then secured my food and equipment by tossing them inside and zipping up the tent zipper really tight! I turned around to find that I was being carefully watched by a ring of black-faced vervet monkeys, two families of olive baboons,  several waterbucks and a lone warthog.  I thought it best to improvise some kind of defensive weapon in case the smell of the food inside my tent might arouse uncontrollable appetites. I looked around and found a long stick to threaten with if need be.  Having organized myself the best I knew how, I was now ready to relax and take in the unfolding natural wonder around me.

          It took a while for the animals and me to define where our comfort zones were as we carefully tried to discern each other’s intentions. As lunch time approached I prepared an avocado and tomato sandwich and cut into my fresh pineapple for dessert.  It was absolutely the best tasting piece of fruit I had ever had!  I decided to toss my leftover peelings to a male baboon that had come forward and sat down politely only five feet in front of me.  He seemed most appreciative of my donation. His female partner looked inquisitively over his shoulder from a distance of thirty feet.  Still further behind her another thirty feet were their waiting anxious young ones. In an elated flash, it occurred to me how Jane Goodall might have felt on her very first personal encounter with African primates.

           For my afternoon activity, I slowly walked the perimeter of my two acre plot, doing some photography and birding. I spotted a lone Egyptian Goose resting quietly in tree, of all the unlikely places!  A Reichenow’s weaver bird came and perched on top of my tent pole and inquisitively turned its head back and forth at me. The weaver was driven off by a pair of even more curious black-lored babblers. The hypnotic cooing of doves continued throughout the heavy heat of the afternoon after other birds had gone silent. This was the closest to an earthly paradise I had ever experienced!  I noted in my field guide that Nakuru was a Swahili word whose meaning was “waterbuck haven.”
         As evening approached I prepared a tomato and onion sandwich and then crawled into my sleeping back once it was dark. That seemed the  prudent  thing to do, being unsure what a rotation of the animal population might bring to the meadow in the evening. After all, besides Cape Buffalo, there were big cats in the park as well. By seven o'clock darkness had completely enveloped my little meadow quickly. Almost instinctively I clicked on my pocket radio to experience the novelty of hearing world events from beyond the edge of civilization.  I found the BBC in English and the Voice of Palestine in Arabic broadcasting from Cairo.

          Soon I began to hear the movement of large animals crunching through the underbrush from the edge of the woods behind my tent.  I froze in fear. Could this be the dreaded Cape Buffalo? I suddenly felt very vulnerable in my flimsy nylon tent.  Within a few seconds the mystery animals were standing just outside my tent.  I heard and even felt the force of grass being ripped off the ground by huge bovine-like jaws. It was pitch black outside, making it difficult to identify these neighbors as my eyes strained through the netting on the front to my tent.

          Snorts and heavy breathing filled the cool night air. I was afraid to shine a flashlight for fear of communicating agitation or alarm. I regretted how foolish I was to venture out alone without first inquiring about what I might encounter and how to behave in a vulnerable situation. Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I nervously clasped my stick in my right hand, ready to defend my small one man colony of tented turf.  How on earth was the Reverend Mother going to deliver me from this self made predicament?
          At that point things began to shift outside.  A full moon was rising. I had momentarily forgotten that I had actually planned it that way.  When I go camping, I always try to plan my outing around the time of a full moon.  I nervously watched as hulking shadows of large animals drifted across the sides of my tent. I felt that I must immediately know exactly what challenge I was facing, so I poked my head out the front of my tent to have a better look around. The shapes of my mystery animals were clearly revealed by the gentle moonlight that came filtering down through the canopy of the acacia trees.  They were waterbucks! 

          Large ungulates stood grazing around my tent only eight feet away, tearing the grass out of the earth with their teeth.  What a relief!  Beautiful, tall, moose-like animals had encircled my tent as if they were sent as  guardians from Um Haram herself, the Reverend Mother!  I relaxed my grip on my stick and settled down to enjoy the novelty of my new creature company.  I took several deep breathes and smiled at the intensity of their presence.  After thirty minutes of this noisy grazing, it occurred to me that I may have to rise and run these creatures away if I ever expected to get any sleep!  But after further internal deliberation, I decided that I needed to remain grateful for these new neighbors, so I prepared myself for a long wakeful evening in what had turned out to truly be a “waterbuck haven.”

          But by midnight all the waterbucks had retreated deeper into the forest and the evening bird calls had gone silent.  I didn’t hear the birds again until the dawn chorus began around four o’clock. Only the constant gentle hum of cosmic crickets remained to be heard. I decided to leave the flaps of my tent open for the night, allowing only mosquito netting between myself and the African wilds.

          But all was not completely well in Paradise.  There remained one small concern still needing attention.  My bliss was distracted by an infected right index finger that I suddenly noticed was a source of pulsing pain.  A blister had formed the day before while walking in with my bags from the town to the park. I sat up and changed the bandage under the acacia filtered glow of an equatorial full moon.  Would I dare to presume that the good Reverend Mother might now also be willing to hasten the healing of my wounded index finger?
Photo by Riverdave:  the Tekke of Um Haram across from the Larnaca, Cyprus Airport and lake filled with migratory
                               flamingo from East Africa