A little garden of Eden
Published Saturday magazine, Nation media 8 July 2017
Above: Masai giraffe looking at cement factory by Lukenya Hill on Athi-Kapiti plains outside Nairobi
Copyright Rupi Mangat:
At first l think l must be seeing things but blinking my eyes again, l am looking at a fringe-eared oryx mixed in a herd of eland and wildebeest.
It’s a day full of surprises.
At one time l thought that we had only one kind of oryx, the Beisa found in the arid regions north of the equator. It’s a beautiful big antelope with straight, sharp pointed horns that can pierce the toughest of flesh without a problem. In the drylands, the Beisa oryx raises and lowers its body temperature with the surrounding temperature to conserve its body fluids – which helps when you live in a hot place with so little water.
But the one on Swara Plains facing Lukenya Hill is a Fringe-eared oryx that’s found south of the equator – with tufts of hair lining its ears. Found around the Chyulu hills, 150 kilometers south east of Swara Plains, it’s surprising to see it only a 45-minutes drive out of Nairobi.
“We have six of them here,” states our host, Jezz Simms of Swara Plains Acacia Camp walking us down the path to show off another prize sighting of White-backed vultures on their nests atop the high yellow-barked acacia trees – with some feeding their chicks.
Listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, Simms tells of a dozen nesting pairs at this point and of some 60 that roost on the ranch. Earlier in the morning we watched a kettle of 24 vultures riding the hot thermals, soaring higher in the sky to scan for carcasses to scavenge. As they swirled and twirled like water in a kettle, on the ground stood a Maasai giraffe, a pair of Grey crowned cranes by the water pond with an African darter perched on a tree stump. The Grey crowned cranes – another Critically endangered species – nests in the islands within the pond.
The African darter after a period of many years of scarcity in Kenya is making a come-back, possibly because fishing nets in the fresh water lakes are not getting caught in submerged trees. Otherwise, nylon fishing nets caught in underwater vegetation can choke birds like darters that dive to catch their fish but instead get entangled in the nets and drown.
It’s a fascinating composition – of the pond with a huge cement factory and the expanding urban sprawl of the Athi-Kapiti plains that until a century ago had black rhinos and more on it.
Deeper in the plains of Swara, it’s even more beautiful. The birders are awed with bird species now mainly found in protected spaces – Temminck’s courser and White bellied bustard – that thrive in vast grasslands that are also needed by cattle to graze on.
A grove of yellow-barked “fever-tree’ acacia is a nursery for giraffe calves – cute as babies can be. Maasai ostrich strut the plains that touch the skies in a 360-degree orb unbroken by any human structure.
Popping out of their hiding place amongst the whistling thorns is a pair of fox-like faces. At first we are not sure. “On our first visit here we saw Bat-eared foxes – which are not found in Nairobi National Park,” exclaims an intrigued Fleur Ng’weno – our walking-talking encyclopaedia of all things natural. In the end, we agree that we are looking at a pair of Silver-backed jackals. A little further, a cute little Striped ground squirrel is standing on its hind legs by its burrow, with a herd of Coke’s hartebeest in the background.
“In the last seven years, we have seven gerenuk that wandered in and this year, a pair of Lesser kudu,” tells our host.
Standing by the main dam that’s dried up for the first time due to the drought, a warthog runs past with its tail held high like an aerial. Harvester ants by their underground chambers in a patch of Red oat grass store the grain but leave the husks outside. It’s a healthy grass for the cows and all.
A Snake eagle soars high and by now it’s a lunch picnic on a patch of green lawn – with herds of zebra, eland, wildebeest and Coke’s hartebeest within eyesight. It’s like being in the proverbial Garden of Eden.
“The conservancies in the area are trying to establish a big corridor across the Kitengela plains to Nairobi National Park,” tells Simms. It’s much needed to help the wildlife move safely amidst the urban sprawl and avoid in-breeding, especially for the cheetah. “We saw five cheetahs on 2nd June,” states Simms.
Back at Swara Plains Acacia Camp for a cup of coffee, we enjoy a wander around in the garden with the cottages dotted around. It’s a really pretty place for a stay.
Stay or pop in for lunch on the weekends – it’s on Nairobi-Mombasa road, 45 minute drive when no traffic. Turn in from Small World Country Club.
Join Nature Kenya www.naturekenya.org for exiting nature trips around Kenya.