October 2010

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Fletcher rides with an armed askari around Lake Paradise. Photo by David Lansing.

I awoke this morning just before dawn to the sound of Karani pouring a pail of hot water from a sooty aluminum pot into the canvas washbasin set just outside my tent. A low cloud cover hovered over the caldera and a cool breeze rustled the gray-green leaves of the trees above us. As I ran a steamy wash cloth over my dusty head, I watched massive dark shapes—elephants—come out of the forest on the far side of the bog and tromp slowly through the mud, wondering how they manage to not get suck.

Calvin was standing by the smoldering camp fire, talking to an askari holding an automatic weapon. An askari is a soldier or someone in charge of security, depending on how you want to look at it, and three of them, working for the Kenya Wildlife Service, have been assigned to guard us during our stay at Lake Paradise. They have a campi up in the forest atop the escarpment and we are unaware of their presence except when we are exploring in the forest and they suddenly appear out of nowhere. Like the forest elephants, they are silent when they move through the woods and, also like the elephants, they can be deadly. Calvin says the KWS doesn’t hire just anybody to be askaris. “These guys know what they’re doing. Undoubtedly they have been in many, many firefights.”

Firefights with who? With the shifta who roam this part of Lost Kenya. So the question becomes, are these armed guards here to protect us from the animals or from the shifta? No one says so but you have to think it’s to protect us from the Somali bandits.

While it’s nice to know that you have someone sleeping in the forest who is here just to protect you (there are no other people here at Lake Paradise and, from the looks of things, I’d say there hasn’t been for quite some time), it’s also a little disconcerting. Yesterday afternoon, we decided to take the barely visible track that goes along the rim of the crater (actually, it’s only a partial road; half the time it just disappears into thick bushes and you have to bull your way through) and when we reached the spot on the cliffs directly above our camp, an askari came out of the shadows, his weapon slung over his shoulder, stopped us, and climbed atop our Land Cruiser. He said something to Calvin in Swahili and then we drove on, us looking for elephants and the askari looking for…well, whatever or whoever it was he was looking for. Did I feel better about having an armed soldier riding on the roof of our vehicle? Not really. But that’s the way it is in Paradise these days—good and evil must travel together.


Two views of the lake

The view of Lake Paradise from the rim of the crater. Photo by David Lansing.

“The twisted tree trunks and the dangling moss give the forest that enchanted look reminiscent of illustrations in a tale from the Brothers Grimm. There is often a haunting silence in this forest, broken only by the tolling of a far-off dove, and a calm made uneasy by the knowledge that lion, buffalo, and leopard lurk in the hidden ravines.

“Deep forest smells drift on the early morning breeze and thousands of butterflies hover above the lake and around the numerous pools. The somber shade of the forest is broken at one of the mountain’s highest summits by an extinct volcanic crater the Africans call Gof Sokorte Guda. It is in the center of this high crater that Lake Paradise nestles, surrounded by broad green meadows that stretch to the forest wall. From the crater’s rim one can see the Kaisut Desert stretching off to the south and the jagged purple and gray slopes of the Ndoto Mountains to the west. Great white puffs of clouds drift over the crater’s rim and cast broad shadows on the blue surface of the lake.”

Such was the description of Lake Paradise when Osa and Martin Johnson first came here in 1921. We came here because we wanted to know if it still existed and did it look the same as it did when they were here almost 90 years ago. The answer is yes—for the most part.

The ancient forest is still here and the twisted tree trunks are still covered in Spanish moss that does, indeed, give the place an enchanted, fairy-tale look. And the thousands of butterflies are here as well; this afternoon we stopped the Land Cruiser on the road that goes around the top of the crater and watched as a cloud of butterflies hovered over wildflowers that none of us have ever seen.

Then in the afternoon we climbed up to the crater rim that overlooks the lake and sat on what felt like the rim of the world, watching as a large herd of buffalos made their way down to the meadow.

The way Lake Paradise looked to Osa and Martin Johnson.

Now here’s where things are a bit different from the way they were when the Johnsons came here in the ‘20s: the lake is all but gone.

Osa described it as “shaped like a spoon, almost a quarter of a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long” but now it is just a very boggy meadow with a glistening of small pools in the middle where the elephants and buffalos go in the mornings and afternoons for a drink. In fact, it looks as if it there were a drain in the middle and someone had pulled the plug and all that remained were shallow little pools of water in the center.

Why is this? It’s hard to say. This area—in fact, all of Kenya—has just come out of a long drought that was so horrendous that this January the lack of rain was called a national emergency. So although the rainy seasons were good this year, perhaps the aquifer is so low the lake is not able to sustain itself.

Another possibility is bore holes. The tribes that live up here—Borana, Rendille, Gabbra—have long been nomadic pastoralists, meaning that a village of several hundred would stay in one area only as long as the grazing and water was good for their camels and cattle and goats and then move on. But that started to change when aid agencies came in and drilled bore holes for water. Sounds like a good thing, right? Dig a well so they have a year-round source of water? But the problem is that in Northern Kenya, there isn’t steady or reliable rainfall. So while in the past the tribe would move south or west or east to wherever there was water and grazing, now they just stay put. And depend on the bore holes. Which, as the aquifer lowers, need to be drilled deeper and deeper. Until there is no water and the wells are abandoned. And, of course, with hundreds of bore holes drilled all around the Marsabit area, the hydraulic pressure that would have kept water in Lake Paradise even in a dry season, is no longer there.

So the lake is drained dry. And even in good rain years, like 2010, remains dry. Another example of NGOs doing good deeds that end up having disastrous consequences because nobody considers the long term ramifications.


Place of cold

Pedro figured he'd sleep with the leopards our first night at Lake Paradise. Photo by David Lansing.

The name Marsabit means “place of cold” in the local language and last night it certainly lived up to that moniker. After traveling for so long through the Kaisut Desert, it’s hard to get used to being up here in this cloud forest, even though our camp elevation is only about 4,200-feet, which is 2,000-feet lower than we were at Calvin’s safari camp in the Mara-Serengeti.

But the air here is crystal clear and last night we had a hard time tearing ourselves away from the campfire even though we were all so tired that we were mostly silent, just taking in the night sky and listening to the cacophony of yips and growls and shrieks all around us which, Calvin said, were mostly baboons.

“They’re either annoyed that we’ve pitched tent in their private little forest or there’s a leopard nearby. Probably both.”

The night sky was such a riotous extravaganza Pete announced he was going to sleep by the fire, which Calvin had instructed Karani to keep going throughout the night as a way to keep the neighborhood leopard at bay. Fletcher decided to keep Pete company by the fire but the incessant barking of baboons and the cough of a leopard from somewhere up on the cliffs directly above us eventually drove him back into his tent.

Not that a thin layer of ripstop nylon and mosquito netting would do much to prevent a late night visit from a carousing leopard. Despite being exhausted, I had a hard time going to sleep what with the barking of the baboons and the love songs coming from thousands of frogs down in the bog. The frogs and other animals in the bog were so loud that I thought about getting up and searching for some ear plugs, which I knew were buried somewhere in my drop kit, but after awhile it all just became white noise that was as soothing as rain on a roof.

I woke up just before dawn from the sound of Karani pouring a pail of hot water from a sooty aluminum pot into the canvas washbasin set just outside my tent. A low cloud cover hovered over the caldera and a cool breeze rustled the silver gray-green leaves of the trees in the grove. As I ran a steamy wash cloth over my dusty head, I watched massive dark shapes—elephants—come out of the forest on the far side of the bog and tromp slowly through the mud, wondering how they manage to not get stuck in the goo. On the edge of our camp, a troop of baboons kept a watchful eye on me as they foraged in the trees. No doubt this was the same band of miscreants that barked and screamed all night.

Pete, wrapped up in a Maasai shuka, was sitting up in his sleeping bag, looking out at the elephants in the misty morning. I asked him how he slept. Not very well, he admitted. “It gets a little freaky when you hear that leopard getting closer and closer to camp,” he said. “And then I started dreaming about it and you wake up from that and you can’t tell if those noises you hear are real or not. Very freaky.”

Still, you have to give him credit for being the only one to sleep out in the open last night. Even the baboons took cover in the night.


Setting up camp

Our camp at Lake Paradise with Julius, in chef's hat, working on dinner. Photo and video by David Lansing.

We only had an hour or so left of daylight so everyone quickly pitched in to make camp. Karani, our bushman and head of security, gathered wood and quickly built a fire as Julius, our chef, and Eddie set up a tarp over the mess area and started preparing dinner.

The rest of us all started getting the tents up. I was working on one of the tents while at the same time keeping an eye on the smelly ellies out in the meadow in front of us and thinking about Osa and Martin Johnson arriving here for the first time almost 90 years ago and suddenly I just became overwhelmed.

Here we were. At Lake Paradise. The time was short, the light fading, but I just had to take a moment and walk down to the edge of the meadow and take it all in and think about what we’d accomplished just in getting here.

Hardy came over and asked me if I was alright. I shook my head and the two of us just stood there looking at all the animals in front of us, from the elephants to the flocks of ducks and Egyptian geese, the fishing eagle that circled overhead. So much wildlife all around us. We truly were in Paradise.

Here’s a one-minute video of us setting up camp and looking at the smelly ellies, as Calvin calls them.


Reaching Lake Paradise

The deserted park entrance to Lake Paradise. Photos and video by David Lansing.

As she and her husband neared Lake Paradise, Osa Johnson said she felt “nervous little shivers of excitement running up my spine and into my hair.”

I looked about me, slowly, breathlessly. I saw a spot of unsurpassable beauty—a cool, turquoise lake surrounded by clean, virginal forest where fantastically beautiful birds colored the trees. I listened, and knew that if I could hear all the ageless echoes which had resounded against these cliffs, it would be no familiar human sound, no heartening melody of companionship.

This, I realized, was the end of our journey.

The side road to Marsabit National Reserve, where Lake Paradise is located, is unremarkable; a rust-colored trail lined with red volcanic rocks leading to the deserted park outpost, a stone building with a dusty green corrugated-tin roof; we open and pass through the creaky metal gates decorated with silhouetted cutouts of rhinos.

The boys on arriving at Lake Paradise.

Our Land Cruiser climbs the grade up the extinct volcanic crater slowly as the landscape changes from low grass to thick brush to a forest montane of old cedars and gnarled African olive trees, their branches laced with delicate filigrees of Spanish moss, just as Osa had described.

Mosque swallows and swifts dive above clouds of small white or yellow butterflies; a mating pair of goshawks flirt in the crater thermals above us. As we drive through the cool air of the cloud forest, Calvin says, “I have to admit I’m excited to be here and see what we’re going to find.”

Then as we come over a rise, the forest opens up and there before us is a natural amphitheater ringed by the sheer walls of a 200-foot high caldera. Calvin stops the vehicle and we all climb out. Clouds of butterflies float over blue-flowered verbena. A flock of black-and-white Egyptian geese, noting our presence, squawk in protest; a dozen sacred ibis rise from the oozy shoreline into the cerulean sky. And there, in the middle of a green, boggy meadow dotted with black mud holes and small pools of water, is a herd of elephants—15, maybe 20—who stop their drinking and lift their trunks high into the air, waving them to and fro as if to welcome us to their home.

Nervous little shivers of excitement run up my spine; after many days and hundreds of miles of difficult road, we have reached Lake Paradise.


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