Like the tiers of a great amphitheatre, WESTERN KENYA slopes away from Nairobi, the major game parks and the coast, down to the stage of Lake Victoria. Cut off by the high Rift wall of the Mau and Elgeyo escarpments, this region of dense agriculture, rolling green valleys and pockets of thick jungle is one of the parts of the country least known to travellers. Although more accessible than the far north, or even some of the major parks, it has been neglected by the safari operators – and that’s all to the good. You can travel for days through lush landscapes from one busy market town to the next and rarely, if ever, meet other tourists.
It’s not easy to see why western Kenya has been so ignored, and there’s a great deal more of interest than the tourist literature’s sparse coverage would suggest. While the west undeniably lacks teeming herds of game stalked by lions and narcissistic warriors in full regalia, what it offers is a series of delightfully low-key, easily visited attractions. For a start there are national parks: at Kakamega Forest, a magnificent tract of equatorial rainforest bursting with species found nowhere else in Kenya; at Saiwa Swamp, where access on foot allows you to get quite close to the rare sitatunga antelope; at Ruma, where a lush valley harbours reticulated giraffe, roan antelope and black rhinos; and at Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano to rival Mount Kenya in everything but crowds.
Lake Victoria is the obvious place to make for in the west, sprinkled with out-of-the-way islands, populated by exceptionally friendly people, and with the region’s major town, Kisumu, on its shores. And there’s the offbeat, if admittedly very minor, new attraction of Kogelo, the home village of the father of US president Barack Obama. The Western Highlands rise all around Lake Victoria in a great bowl, dotted with a string of busy towns. While Eldoret and Kakamega are essentially route-hubs with little for visitors to do, Kisii has a couple of good excursions, the tea capital Kericho is certainly worth an overnight stay, and Kitale has some museums. Away from the towns, much of the west, even the areas of intensive farming, is ravishingly beautiful: densely animated jungle near Kakamega and Kitale, regimented landscapes of tea bushes around Kericho, and many areas of swamp and grassland alive with birds.
Ethnically, the region is dominated by the Luo on the lakeshore, but there are Bantu-speaking Luhya in the sugar lands, north of Kisumu, and Gusii in the formidably fertile Kisii Hills. Other important groups speak one or other of the Kalenjin languages, principally the Nandi, around Eldoret, and the Kipsigis in the district around Kericho. And of course there are thousands of migrants from other parts of Kenya.