160km (99 miles) NW of Nairobi
Famous for its flamingoes and rhinos, Lake Nakuru -- a shallow alkaline lake measuring around 60 sq. km (23 sq. miles) -- is the main focus of one of Kenya's most accessible and popular state-run parks. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, Nakuru (the name is a Maasai term for Swallowing Wind, referring to a dust storm, or Dusty Place) was the first park in Africa dedicated to the preservation of bird life. Since 1987, it has also been a sanctuary for rhinoceros -- nowhere else are you guaranteed to get a photo of a rhino against a backdrop of thousands of pink flamingoes sifting food from a shimmering lake.
Nakuru's huge flamingo population -- an estimated one million of them cover the lake's fringes -- has long attracted visitors and compelled photographers to capture the velvety pink carpet that ebbs and shifts over the water. The birds are here because the soda lake is a potent breeding ground for spirulina, the algae upon which the flamingoes feed. When conditions are good, an acre of lake produces as much as 8 tons of the algae in a year.
In addition to the flamingoes, the lake draws more than 450 other bird species -- Egyptian geese, pied kingfishers, fish eagles, herons, egrets, grebes, secretary birds, and around half a million great white pelicans flock around the lake's shore. The latter come to dine on the alkaline-resistant fish that were introduced here to feed on mosquito larvae in the 1950s. Most curious of the birds here are the grisly looking marabou storks -- often referred to as the "undertakers" of the wild -- which feed on the intestines of freshly dead flamingoes, often competing with the scavenging hyenas that skulk around the shoreline.
Just north of the park is Nakuru town, which today has the fourth-biggest urban population in Kenya. If you view the park from high enough up, it's startling to witness how close human settlements have encroached upon Lake Nakuru -- as a result, there is a 74km (46-mile) electric fence around the park, making this the only completely fenced national park in Kenya. The lake's proximity to such a dense human population has some serious drawbacks, and pollution from the town has taken its toll on the water -- and, accordingly, also on the numbers of flamingoes that are seen here; at one point, they all seemed to have disappeared.
Park authorities claim that there are now strict controls on the effluent flowing into the Njoro River, one of three rivers that feed the lake, and it is hoped that this, together with grand schemes initiated by the World Wildlife Fund, will eventually restore the lake to its former glory. Sadly though, not all problems are so easily overcome. In late 2007, a bushfire completely eradicated the Euphorbia Forest to the east of the lake, wiping out a unique habitat, and the numbers of monkeys in the Colobus Forest have inexplicably thinned out, too.
Because of the fence around Nakuru, there are no elephants in the park, but the other Big Five species are regularly spotted; if you're exceptionally lucky, you may even see one of the park's legendary tree-climbing lions (apparently, they prefer the acacias). The park also functions as a sanctuary for around 85 Rothschild giraffe, relocated here from Western Kenya where agriculture has impinged on their natural habitat. Nakuru is also the best place in Kenya to see mountain reedbuck -- they have long, soft, woolly coats and live on rocky slopes, stone ridges, and escarpments. Although it gets pretty crowded, it's worthwhile making your way up to Baboon Cliff, where there's a lookout point and picnic spot overlooking the entire lake -- seen from up here, Nakuru looks like a well-formed upside-down map of Africa.
For scenic variety, visitors with time on their hands set off to visit the dormant, dull-looking Menengai Crater, which borders Nakuru town, to the north. Views from the top are incredible -- crusts of solidified black lava spread outward against the red cliffs below you, and you can gaze into the chasm of the crater pit within the volcanic cone itself.