Naivasha, like so many Kenyan place names, is a corruption of a local Maasai name, this time meaning heaving waters, E-na-iposha, a pronunciation still used by Maa-speakers in the area. The grassy lakeshore was traditional Maasai grazing land for two centuries or more, prior to the lake’s “discovery” by Joseph Thomson in 1884. Before the nineteenth century was out, however, the “glimmering many-isled expanse” had seen the arrival, with the railway, of the first European settlers. Soon after, the laibon Ole Gilisho, whom the British had appointed chief of the Naivasha Maasai, was persuaded to sign an agreement ceding his people’s grazing rights all around the lake – and the country houses and ranches went up. Today the Maasai are back, though very much as outsiders, either disputing grazing rights with the many European landowners still left here, working their herds around the boundary fences, or labouring on the vast horticultural farms around the lake.
The lake, slightly forbidding but picturesque with its purple mountain backdrop and floating islands of papyrus and water hyacinth, has some curious characteristics. It is fresh water – Lake Baringo is the only other example in the Rift – and the water level has always been prone to mysterious fluctuations. The lake shrunk to half its present size in the 1950s, and although it has recovered since, it remains smaller than it was when the original European settlers arrived (its former extent marked by the outer edge of the fringing band of papyrus, where you can still spot the occasional fence post).
The fast lakeside road has brought tens of thousands of migrant workers to the farming estates, where they grow vegetables and flowers, mostly in giant, polythene greenhouses, for export by air to European supermarkets. Since the late 1980s, great stretches of acacia scrub have been cleared for the expansion of the farms, and ugly lines of squalid field-hand housing have sprouted in the dust between the plantations. The mixed, migrant community at impoverished KARAGITA, the largest lakeshore settlement, is still scarred by the post-election violence of 2008, which hit it as hard as anywhere in the country, causing thousands to flee.
Despite the development, and the ever-growing encroachment of farms and job-seekers, Lake Naivasha is still a place of considerable natural beauty. The lakeshore retains some patches of fairly unspoilt savanna and woodland, and boasts plenty of local wildlife. Even today, you can still see the odd giraffe as it lopes down to Crescent Island, and the area’s climate, with a light breeze always drifting through the acacias, along with the many hiking possibilities around the lake, makes it hard to beat as a first stop out of Nairobi.
On the northeastern side of the lake, NAIVASHA TOWN has little to offer as a place to stay, and unless you arrive late in the day, you may as well head straight down to the lake. If you plan to spend any time in the area, however, you may want to go into town to stock up on essentials first.