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Flight to Kedong Valley at Ol-Donyo Kalulu
Munir Virani — in Asian Vulture Crisis    Share
Kedong Valley
Kedong Valley
As we prepared to land, I felt my stomach churn. I closed my eyes and saw my life flash by. There wasn’t a landing strip but hundreds of Acacia bushes at the base of the towering Kedong Cliffs. Crash, bump, thud. Suddenly it was all over. Surprisingly, with a tail wind, the landing was smooth. Simon asked me if I was all right. I stared into space for a good 60 seconds. I couldn’t decide what shocked me more – the 40-minute flight from Athi River or the breathtaking views of the Kedong Valley. The scene was like time had stopped in Africa. There were golden rolling savanna plains, imposing cliffs, picturesque hills, and not a person in sight. Unlike the modern-day African image of shiny aluminum roofs, curio shops, and overgrazed livestock pastures, I stared in awe and immersed myself in the beauty of the moment. The sun was going down, the sky was a jigsaw of pastel colors. Harriers soared over the meter-high grasslands. A Lanner Falcon stooped towards a flock of mouse birds. Gerenuk and bat-eared foxes stared nervously at us. This was the face of Africa at its wildest.

Simon Thomsett
Simon Thomsett
So what is all this about? Yesterday Simon Thomsett phoned me up and asked if I was ready to fly with him across the Kedong Valley in his two-seater Stol to census a large population of Rüppell’s Vultures that he had come across by chance following his reconnaissance trip to the Gol Mountains in the Serengeti Biosphere Reserve in Tanzania. "Yes, I’ll be there at 4:00 pm," I told Simon. "Bring a light sleeping bag and some water – no more," said Simon quite adamantly. "We cannot overload the plane," he emphasized.

At 4:30 pm, Simon and I were taxiing on his garden runway on our way to Kedong. There were strong gusty winds and the weather was not particularly conducive to flying. The flight was smooth, or so it would seem. I was terrified but put up a brave face. We needed "lift" to get to at least 7,000 ft to get over the Great Rift Valley. Simon is a great pilot and maneuvered the plane with finesse and grace to find a thermal to lift us over the Rift. "Hang on to yourself, it’s going to be a party," said Simon and suddenly I could feel the most incredible updrafts. I was lost in the stunning views and clicked my camera away to glory. The landscape was hypnotic and the bumpy ride didn’t seem to affect me…until we got inside a valley with vulture cliffs on either side. I closed my eyes again as I watched Simon battle with a sudden down draft. "Watch for places to land," he remarked. Fortunately, we were able to wind our way away from the valley and flew over a ridge where we saw vultures, Augur Buzzards, and a pair of magnificent African Hawk Eagles. I kept clicking away at the vulture cliffs feeling that we were a bit too close. "That looks like a good landing spot," said Simon, pointing towards a sea of Acacia bushes. I watched in horror as we circled the spot where there was a small clearing…a bit too small. "We are going in," said Simon.

The only visible soul was a Masai herdsman with his four donkeys about four miles away from where we landed. He was approaching us as we walked near the bushes and the cliffs preparing a plan of action for the next day. We scouted the place well. The vulture colonies were along a cliff approximately 1.8 miles long. We could see well over 100 Rüppell’s Vultures soaring at a distance and landing at various cliff faces. It was hard to believe that we were merely 60 miles outside Nairobi at a place we didn’t even know what it was called. "Herro Sopa," came the yell from about 50 meters away. It was the Masai herdsman with his four donkeys. He looked tired and thirsty and asked us for some water. It seemed inconceivable that for a man transporting four healthy donkeys, he carried nothing on himself or on the donkeys. The sun was going down fast and we needed to set camp. A troop of baboons settled close to the cliffs besides where we intended to sleep. Kestrels hovered above us and the vultures appeared to have gone to roost.

Simon and I soon had a fire going and we prepared ourselves a nice cup of chai. With the grace and elegance of a Swiss-trained chef, Simon removed a couple of bags from his bag-pack and prepared the most sumptuous couscous and mince curry meal. There was a cool breeze that carried with it the sounds of Barn Owls and cicadas. I prepared my mat and sleeping bag and decided to sleep under the glorious starlit night sky. Simon fidgeted with his array of weapons.

Hyenas howled from a distance whilst the constant barks and yelps of the baboons cautioned of lurking predators in the distance. I was too tired to be scared (despite Simon’s horror stories about giant man-eating hyenas) and slept like a baby.

We woke up to the dawn chorus of go-away birds, barbets, and baboon screams. After a quick cup of coffee, we strapped our sleeping gear safely into the plane and began walking towards the vulture cliffs. It was hard work. The grass was tall and mixed with spiky legumes that pierced one’s skin. The surface was extremely rocky and we had to tread with caution for a fall would have set us back. We then meticulously began recording and photographing each vulture cliff face.

There were seven prominent guano-covered cliff faces. At each face, we recorded the numbers of potential nest sites and vultures. Over the 1.8-mile distance, we recorded 86 nest sites and 153 Rüppell’s Vultures. We did not come across any dead vultures, although we did not make a concerted effort to walk underneath the cliffs due to lack of time. Overall, both Simon and I were extremely pleased with the information collected. We intend to make four trips annually to document productivity and breeding behavior. It would be great to know exactly how far these birds forage. We plan to tag some birds in the future.

Thankfully, the flight back to Athi River was uneventful with the possible exception of the take off. My eyeballs almost popped out when, during takeoff, I was convinced that we would crash into Acacia bushes. At the last minute, Simon pulled the lever and we took off smoothly. As I write this, my thoughts are carried back to the Kedong Valley at Ol-Donyo Kalulu where under a lone Acacia tree I slept under the stars oblivious to the mysteries of the African bush. I cannot wait for my next visit.

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