Kenya’s fourth-largest city (though it projects a noticeably busier and more energetic image than Kisumu, the third), NAKURU is capital of the enormous, sprawling Rift Valley Province that stretches from the Sudanese border to the slopes of Kilimanjaro. A noisy, dusty and hustly place, the town is a major transport hub and 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 main highway from Nairobi), as well as the departure point for trips to lakes Bogoria and Baringo, and the northern Rift Valley.
Nakuru came into existence on the thrust of the Uganda railway and owed its early growth, at least in part, to Lord Delamere, the Kenya Colony’s most famous figure. In 1903 he acquired four hundred square kilometres of land on the lower slopes of the Mau escarpment, followed by two hundred more at Soysambu, on the other side of the lake. 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 was found to be iron-deficient). Farmers near the town turned to pyrethrum, the plant used to make insecticide, as a cash crop.
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.