Kenya’s fourth-largest city (though it projects a noticeably busier and more energetic image than Kisumu, the third), NAKURU is a noisy, dusty and hustly place and a major transport hub for the Rift Valley. It’s also the closest jumping-off point for visits to the justly celebrated Lake Nakuru National Park and the vast Menengai crater (whose shamba- and conifer-cloaked southern flank you’ll have passed if approaching Nakuru along the A104 highway from Naivasha), as well as the departure point for trips to lakes Bogoria and Baringo, and the northern Rift Valley.
Modern Nakuru is still largely a workaday farmers’ town, with unadorned old seed shops and veterinary paraphernalia much in evidence on the main street, like a little Nairobi without the flashy veneer, its streets frequently undergoing ear-shattering repairs. The town can appear intimidating at first, and most visitors on their way to the national park stay in one of the lodges there. Still, Nakuru has some positive aspects: the market is animated and a pleasure to look around (though it, too, has its fair share of hassle), and there’s a glimmer of charm remaining in the colonnaded old streets and jacaranda-lined avenues at the edge of town.
Nakuru came into existence on the thrust of the Uganda railway and owed its early growth, at least in part, to Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere (1870–1931). A wealthy landowner from Cheshire in the north of England, Lord Delamere was the territory’s first “white settler”, arriving in 1897 having walked over 1000km south from Berbera on Somalian coast. Delamere went on to dedicate his fortune to pioneering farming methods in the Rift Valley, advised and assisted by the Maasai (with whom he had a great rapport), and in 1903 he acquired four hundred square kilometres of land on the lower slopes of the Mau Escarpment. This was followed in 1906 by another two-hundred-square-kilometre block on the other side of the lake which he called Soysambu.
Eager to share the empty vistas with compatriots – though preferably with other Cheshire or Lancashire men – he promoted in England the mile-square plots being offered free by the Foreign Office. Eventually, some two hundred new settler families arrived and Nakuru – a name that as usual could mean various things, including “Place of the Waterbuck” (Swahili) and “Swirling Dust” or “Little Soda Lake” (Maasai) – became their country capital. It lies on the unprepossessing steppe between the lake and the flanks of Menengai crater. This desolate shelf has a nickname: “the place where the cows won’t eat grass”, the pasture’s iron deficiency explaining Delamere’s decision to move his herds down to Soysambu.