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Pink lakes, photography and sustainable conservation in Kenya’s Shompole Conservancy

After a disrupted night’s sleep in Karen, Nairobi, where the local dogs seemed to feel the need to communicate throughout the early hours, we were collected by our trusted partner Ben and began our comfortable journey south from the city. We wound our way at first through the suburbs and then out across rolling hills before descending into the vastness of the Rift Valley as it sweeps out towards the Tanzania border.

I was travelling with my father, David, who at 81 years old thought it was a good idea to come on one of my educational trips. A year previously he had let slip to a family member that he had a wish to return to Africa, and so here we were, heading into an area that neither of us had been to before.

STUNNING VIEWS TRAVELLING THROUGH THE RIFT VALLEY

For me, the Shompole Conservancy in the far south of Kenya, just north of Lake Natron and bordering Tanzania, was somewhere I had been wanting to explore for many years. The conservancy was formed in the early 2000s, originally with a single lodge which we had clients visit at the time. However, following a fire, a falling out, a quiet period and then Covid, it has only been in the last few years that the conservancy has really come to life again in a tourism sense.

The drive from Nairobi was enjoyable for us both. My father was able to see a bit of Kenya, both in urban and rural terms, and because we were losing altitude as we dropped down into the Rift Valley, there were many great views. It was also good for me to catch up with Ben, who looks after our clients in Nairobi.

FLAMINGOS ON LAKE MAGADI

After about two and a half hours we reached the remarkable Lake Magadi – a soda lake surrounded by low rocky hills. Our approach on the eastern side of the lake took us past a huge saltworks owned by Tata Chemicals, where they produce both salt ash and common salt. Although the somewhat dilapidated factory looks rather off-putting to lovers of unspoiled nature, the presence of the factory has proven a significant benefit to the lake and wider region as Tata have protected their investment by buying all the surrounding land to prevent further development.

We saw our first flamingos and other bird species right next to the factory, but as you move away from the saltworks you encounter sections of the lake which are pristine and untouched. The birdlife is excellent, with all kinds of waterfowl present including both greater and lesser flamingos.

SCENIC FLIGHT OVER THE PINK LAKE

In addition to the large flamingo population, one of the highlights of the lake is its extraordinary coloration. Best seen from the air, the lake often has a strong pink or red colour, due to algae reacting in the hot temperatures with the salty water. This is a big attraction for photographers, who also come to capture the shimmering patterns of brine on the lake’s surface. Although not cheap, a scenic flight over Lake Magadi is a highlight of a visit to this part of Kenya. Around the edges of the lake, it is possible to see a smattering of plains game including impala, zebra and giraffe.

We said goodbye to Ben and met up with Johann, Sam and Nixon from Shompole Wilderness, a superb tented lodge set overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River that runs through the heart of the conservancy, southwards into the Shompole Swamp and ultimately to Lake Natron. Johann and Sam du Toit are the owners, both having enjoyed careers in guiding and conservation, and they bring a great energy to everything they do. Shompole Wilderness is clearly a very personal project which has been given years of thought, care and commitment. Nixon is their wonderful head guide, a modest man with a warm smile who knows the area inside out, and who is an expert on the local birdlife.

ABUNDANCE OF WILDLIFE IN THE RIFT VALLEY

As we drive west into the reserve we started to see higher game concentrations, with impala, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and gazelles in reasonable numbers. As I comment on the positive game concentrations, Johann explains what we knew before we arrived – that Kenya was having unseasonal rain, and had been since December, which had turned the usually dusty desert into a swathe of green paradise. ‘Although it looks like paradise and the rains are fantastic for the Maasai herders and the local wildlife, this isn’t normal’ explains Johann.

The Rift Valley in southern Kenya is normally a much harsher environment, with high temperatures and months without rain. The area is supported by rivers and streams from the surrounding hills, notably the imposing Loita Hills to the west, but away from these sources, water is scarce.

VARIETY OF WILDLIFE ON SHOMPOLE CONSERVANCY

And in a way, this is what makes Shompole special. It is those ‘end of dry season’ conditions that actually make Shompole worth visiting from a game viewing perspective. Although you may struggle to get good sightings during the day, the conservancy is home to lion, leopard and hyena, in addition to a wide range of smaller predators. Of particular interest is the striped hyena, one of Africa’s rarest and hardest to see mammals. Cheetah pass through the region regularly, and wild dogs are seen every now and then. The conservancy is also home to elephants and buffalo, in addition to a wider range of normal plains game and smaller mammals.

WALKING, RIVER TUBING, NIGHT DRIVES, SUNSET DRINKS AND CULTURAL VISITS

Activities from Shompole Wilderness include birding, walking, river tubing, night drives, sunset drinks and cultural visits. The personal nature of the camp also lends itself to anyone wishing to escape into the bush and simply enjoy a few days of exclusive bush relaxation and warm hospitality. The location of Shompole Wilderness also makes Lake Magadi accessible as a game drive activity if scenic flights don’t fall within budget.

EXCEPTIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC WILDLIFE HIDES

One of the things that Shompole is best known for, and one of the key reasons to visit, is to spend a night in an underground hide, overlooking a floodlit water hole which is typically the most convenient water source for miles around. There are two exceptional but different hides on offer. The first is run by Shompole Wilderness and is located in the middle of the plains. The hide is extremely comfortable and includes a flush loo and several bunks beds. The front of the hide is open so you feel very connected and close to the action, and there are various lighting and backlighting options.

The second hide is run by Lentorre Lodge, a more luxurious property built at the foot of the escarpment on the western edge of the conservancy. Here a tunnel leads from the camp to their hide, which is air-conditioned and has a high quality one-way glass window overlooking the waterhole. There is also a flush loo and bunk beds.

SHINING BEACON FOR CONSERVANCY BASED TOURISM

Both hides are known for their photographic opportunities – in terms of rarer species such as caracal and striped hyena, and also for the more general species of the area, including amazing up close encounters with lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo. The hides can be used during the day and at night, though it is the late afternoon and evening that tends to be most exciting. Birdlife is also prolific and potentially very rewarding from a photography perspective (in addition to their main hide, Lentorre Lodge has two bird hides).

Shompole Wilderness and Lentorre Lodge offer quite different experiences (yet can be combined to experience both hides). Whilst Lentorre Lodge is very much known as a base for photographers, Johann and Sam provide a more varied experience, and more of a bush ethos at Shompole Wilderness. Adding to the accommodation options in the area, luxury operator Great Plains Conservation have taken over the original Shompole Lodge to the south, closer to Lake Natron, and will be opening later in 2024.

For those interested in culture, community and conservation, the Shompole Conservancy is both fascinating and is a shining beacon for conservancy-based tourism.

Firstly, and importantly, the conservancy is 100% owned by the local Maasai and in recent years they have been fully involved in all decision making and plans for the conservancy. Johann and Sam are fully committed to this approach and have been instrumental in working closely with local communities, forming a really good relationship with them. Essentially, nothing happens unless the community is fully on board.

SUPPORTING LOCAL COMMUNITIES

Secondly, the community have just signed a legally binding deal amongst themselves to protect the conservancy from break up due to land being split into ever-decreasing plots. Maasai families who own land in the conservancy have committed to keeping it intact, thus promoting the long-term viability of the conservancy. This is hugely positive action and forward thinking commitment from the local communities.

Thirdly, the land use strategy is very interesting, as the conservancy is managed using rotational grazing. Through studies and experience, both locals and scientists appreciate that in hard times a ‘free for all’ policy often ends in catastrophe. With this in mind, when the conservancy was first initiated it was decided to rotate grazing and protect certain areas at certain times. This also gives the wildlife more space to thrive, though interestingly it has been noted that certain species, primarily the common plains game such as zebra and wildebeest, are very happy sharing space with cattle!

My father was a farmer all his life, both livestock and arable, and he found it fascinating learning about the land use challenges and the management of the conservancy. It is an impressive story and Johann and Sam, in particular, deserve huge credit for their roles in helping the Shompole Conservancy become a sustainable initiative that will have huge long-lasting benefits to both wildlife and local communities.

With thanks to Shompole Wilderness for images

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