Joseph was the best guide we had in Africa so far, and we have travelled throughout Southern and East Africa a lot. In fact we met on a trip from Cape to Cairo a few years ago. I subsequently wrote a book about the trip. I have attached the excerpt that mentions Joseph:
The two main volcanic lakes are today surrounded by national parks. The US$60 per person entrance fee has put us off. But intensive perusal of the Kenya Bradt guide unearths Lake Elementaita, a small dot on the landscape and even smaller sign pointing us to a gate off the main road. With low expectations we trundle down the sandy track to a lodge and a car park. So far, so unassuming. Little do we know that this is one of those serendipitous choices that go on to become a highlight of the trip. The lodge receptionist tells us that we can walk to the lake, but that we should take a guide with us. Oh, no! Our long experience with uninformed so-called guides who accompany us purely to extract money makes my heart sink. Then we meet Joseph the Maasai birdwatcher and everything changes. Tall and stringy, he arrives wrapped in his trademark purple and red tartan cloth, complete with beaded wrist bangles and rubber sandals. Shaven-headed, he looks to be in his thirties. His stories tell me that either he is older or that he started his adventuring early. A Cambridge-trained ornithologist, he hits it off with Stuart immediately. Finally, someone he can question in excruciating detail about the local bird life. Merryl and I trundle along with them towards the lake glinting in the distance. We try to keep up with Joseph’s stories while picking up glassy black stones. Joseph turns back to the house:
“This estate once belonged to Lord Delamere. He was one of the notorious Happy Valley crowd. A lot of bad behaviour took place on this farm. He gave this land to his brother-in-law, who is buried under the obelisk on that hill.”
We walk down the path to a low hillside which ends in a shallow cliff. At the tip stands a tall grey obelisk covered in Rift Valley dust. The spot is perfect. A dream-like view sweeps across hills.
“This one is The Horseshoe, and that one The Sleeper.” Joseph points to hills surrounding the lake valley. I wonder at the prosaic names.
“They are named after the shapes they make against the sky.”
The valley below us is fringed by yellow fever trees and cactus clumps, a wide expanse of empty bush centred on a brightly blue, reed-edged lake. The lake’s shallow water is entirely covered with greater and lesser flamingo in all their pink and pale beauty. As I look out over the valley, across to the volcanic hills and the acacia-dotted grazing grounds, it suddenly strikes me what old colonials mean when they speak of the homesickness they feel once they leave Africa. Until now I have not understood the attraction of the continent. To me Africa has been interesting, educational, but no more. It has stuck me as a complex continent, a frustrating place where every move may result in unintended consequences. But right here, right now – despite the sun blazing down on the dried-out grass, the uncomfortable dry heat and itchy air – I understand how a place as foreign as this can become home. It feels like I can see forever across the pale sky and the wild plain. Right here I see no poverty and no complicated politics, no First World and Third World, no minefield of inextricable problems. All I see is what could be, what hopefully may one day be, when Africa’s problems are solved. It seems like a good place to be buried.
“100,000km² were leased from the Maasai by the colonial authorities at the beginning of the 20th century. They gave the land to Lord Delamere to farm. When the Lord died, he instructed the land to be returned to us. Since 1970 the Maasai control this farm again.”
Joseph is giving us a crash course in Kenyan colonial history. I know now that the Maasai had no choice but to lease their good land to the British after the colonial authorities began inflicting hut taxes on a barter society.
As we walk Joseph points out a flat area below the lodge.
“This is where they filmed the plane landing in Out of Africa. I was too young then, but they also filmed parts of Tomb Raider here. I had a small part in that.”
He has special memories of Angelina Jolie and her knee-high lace-up boots. Tomb Raider was only the start of Joseph’s film career. He hooked up with David Attenborough during a BBC documentary project and became the local go-to guy for wildlife and bird documentaries. Travelling with Attenborough all across Africa, he eventually ended up studying ornithology in Cambridge before returning to his home to help with the tourist development on the farm.
We wind our way down to the bottom of the hill where the natron lake is much reduced from its former glory. Kenya is suffering a terrible drought this year and the lake has shrunk to half its size. Elementaita (the original name is ‘mutaita’) means ‘dusty place’ in Maasai, but this year it is terrible. Greenhouse farms growing roses and mange tout draw water from the lake’s feeder streams. Still, the flamingoes come to what little water there is left. They form elegant rows and patterns as they stalk through the shallow water, their spindly legs and pale underbelly reflected in the flat blue. Close up the flamingoes lose their neon pink uniformity and reveal their gawky strides and ungainly eating manoeuvres. Their heavy curved black beaks and backwards-bending legs give them an awkward walk as they stalk through the muddy shallows. It’s only when they lift off in long lines that they regain their elegance. Black-edged wings outstretched, pale pink patches revealed amongst the white down feathers, their legs trailing behind, they swoop in synchronised wingbeats across the plains. Joseph points out the difference between greater and lesser flamingoes to us (bill colour and size, essentially), expounding on the unique habitat of the volcanic soil and local hot springs.
“Do you know why flamingoes are pink?” Joseph constantly drops prosaic observations into our reveries.
“Something about what they eat, right?” I am vague, but don’t want to seem clueless.
“It’s the carotenoid pigment in the blue-green algae that grows in the salt lakes. The more algae they eat, the pinker the flamingo gets. You can see the colour differences. The paler birds have spent more time eating the small animals that live off the algae. The pigment gets broken down in the liver, then deposited into the feathers and beak. Without the algae the flamingoes would be boring white. And did you also know that birds don’t breathe out?”
Now I am stumped. Surely birds breathe, otherwise they would not be alive. But if you breathe in you must breathe out, no?
I decide that there is nothing about birds Joseph doesn’t know. Stuart apparently agrees with me, as he engages Joseph in bird talk all the way back up to the lodge. While Merryl and I cool ourselves in the shady lounge with a cold drink, Stuart and Joseph keep talking animatedly on the terrace, pointing at this bird landing in the watering trough placed in the front garden or that raptor circling overhead. It is all we can do to drag him away for our last leg to Nairobi, and only after we agree with Joseph to return with Mark and Martina in a few days.
“You can camp under the yellow-fever trees by the lake for a small fee. There are no ablutions, but you can wash in the hot spring by the lake edge.”
I am so glad to have met Joseph, who has returned some of our faith in people. He is the antithesis to all the uninformed guides we have encountered. Joseph is funny and knowledgeable, full of great stories, he is honest and proud and punctual and dignified and friendly and kind.