The Rift Valley Travel Guide
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Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Kenya’s Rift Valley is only part of a continental fault system that runs 6000km across the Middle East and Africa from Jordan to Mozambique. Perhaps Kenya’s most important topographical feature, it is certainly one of the country’s great distinguishing marks, acting as a human and natural divide. With its spectacular scenery of lakes and savanna, it has come to be seen as a monumental valley of teeming game and Maasai herders, a trough of grasslands older than humanity. Although the iconic image is no longer entirely borne out by reality, the valley certainly is magnificent, a literal rift across the country, with all the stunning panoramas and gaunt escarpment backdrops you could wish for, and the plains animals are still abundant in places. Nevertheless, much of the game has been dispersed by human population pressure onto the higher plateaus to the southwest, and today most of the Maasai live farther south.
At least the Rift Valley’s historical influence cannot be diluted. People have trekked down it, generation after generation, over perhaps the last two or three thousand years, from the wetlands of southern Sudan and the Ethiopian highlands. Some of the more recent immigrants were the ancestors of the Maasai , who dominated much of the valley and its surroundings for several centuries before the Europeans arrived. Until the beginning of the twentieth century the Maasai lived on both sides of the valley, and the northern Ilaikipiak group were a constant threat to trading caravans coming up from the coast. With European settlement, the Maasai were forced from their former grazing grounds in the valley’s turbulent bottleneck and confined to the “Southern Reserve” (now Amboseli National Park) for much of the colonial era. Although many have now returned to the valley, and many towns retain their ancient Maa names, the Maasai are at their most conservative and traditional in southern Kenya.
The parts of the Rift Valley covered in this chapter offer several exceptional lakes, lots of scenic, twisting roads, and some of central Kenya’s wildest areas. Highlights of the central Rift Valley include the scenic freshwater Lake Naivasha , the dramatic cliffs of Hell’s Gate and nearby craggy crater rim of Mount Longonot , the shallow, alkaline Lake Elmenteita , and the busy Lake Nakuru National Park with its lovely fever-tree-lined lake shore and almost guaranteed rhino sightings. In addition, there are several interesting prehistoric sites in this area with a refreshing rawness about them.
Heading into the northern Rift Valley away from Nakuru, the land drops away gently, and, as the road descends, so temperatures rise, the terrain dries up and human population becomes sparser. Although this region isn’t far from Nakuru or Nairobi, and is not necessarily a difficult journey, it has a bright, harsh beauty: freshwater Lake Baringo and saline Lake Bogoria – currently the most likely place in Kenya to see flamingos in their thousands – are alluring targets and distinctively different, both from each other and from the lakes further south. This northern region also includes the spectacular Kerio Valley , which deserves a special recommendation as an unusual route north if you’re heading for the west side of Lake Turkana.
Apart from Naivasha, Nakuru and the string of towns up the Mau escarpment (Njoro , Elburgon and Molo ), the area covered in this chapter contains few places larger than a village. Though there is usually somewhere to lay your head, this is a region where, if you’re on a budget, a tent will be worth its extra weight, and good walking shoes are a definite advantage.
From Kabarnet, it's about 90km on the C51 to Eldoret across the hot and fascinating Kerio Valley. The excitement of this route builds only after you leave Kabarnet town and plunge into the valley, a drop of 1000m in not much more than the same distance. There are magnificent views as the road rolls through Chebloch, crossing the Kerio River at Chebloch Gorge, after which the road turns sharply up the Tambach escarpment on the western side of the Kerio Valley. A turn right just before the hamlet of Biretwo is the start of the lonely trans-valley route north to Tot. Also before Biretwo, look out for the Torok Falls, looming high above and to your left at the top of the Tambach escarpment. They’re worth a visit if you like waterfalls; count on a good half-day if you’re hiking up. The ascent of the escarpment is equally spectacular by road, after which there are a couple of worthy reasons to stop at Iten – Kenya’s famous running centre – to admire the valley from the western escarpment, and perhaps pull on a sweater, given the increase in altitude.
The remarkable St Patrick’s High School in ITEN must be the world’s top school for runners, having produced middle-distance stars such as Peter Rono, Wilson Kipketer, Ibrahim Hussein and – more recently – David Rudisha, while its associated athletics camps have produced female runners such as Lydia Cheromei, Susan Chepkemei and Lornah Kiplagat. The phenomenon dates back to the 1970s, when an Irishman, Colm O’Connell, recognized the students’ potential and set out to turn them into world-class athletes, developing a training programme which Iten’s runners still follow to this day. The remarkable prowess of these runners, in particular those from the Kalenjin group, is something that sports scientists have yet to explain fully, but has a lot to do with running at altitude, as well as physiological factors and a diet high in complex carbohydrates. But the town’s reputation has spread, and these days elite athletes come from all over the world to do their high-altitude training in Iten, several hundred passing through each year to run up and down Kerio Valley and absorb the atmosphere of champions.
If you’re interested in pursuing some serious athletics, either contact the High Altitude Training Centre direct (0772 700701), or get in touch with UK-based The Kenya Experience, which organizes all-inclusive training “holidays” at the centre with coaching, personal training and physiotherapy (from £1300 for two weeks, excluding flights).
An internationally recognized Ramsar wetlands site since 2002, Lake Baringo is a peaceful and beautiful oasis in the dry-thorn country, rich in birdlife and with a captivating character entirely its own. Depending on lake levels, the waters are either heavily silted with the topsoil of the region and appear a rusty red or streaky yellow or (if the lake is full of fresh water that has run down from the catchment areas in the hills) it runs through a whole range of colours from coral to purple to a brilliant aquamarine, according to the sun’s position and the state of the sky. On the lakeshore are villages inhabited by the Il Chamus (Njemps) people, who live by an unusual mixture of fishing and livestock-herding, breaking the taboo on the eating of fish, which is the norm among pastoralists. Speaking a dialect of Maa – the Maasai language – these fishermen paddle out in half-submerged dinghies made from the spongy and buoyant saplings of the fibrous ambatch tree that grows in profusion around the lake.
Like Lake Nakuru and the other Rift Valley lakes, Baringo has experienced unprecedented flooding since 2012, which reached a peak in mid-2014 when the surface area of the lake was believed to be over 300 square kilometres, well over double its pre-2012 dry season level. Schools, farms, even whole villages were submerged by the rising water, and many thousands of people displaced and forced to higher ground. The 2015 rainy season proved to be drier in comparison and at the time of writing waters had receded about 10m from their 2014 record high.
Baringo’s 470 species of birds are one of its biggest draws, and even if you don’t know a superb starling from an ordinary one, the enthusiasm of others tends to be infectious. Former Baringo ornithologist Terry Stevenson holds the world record “bird-watch” for 24 hours – 342 species. Baringo’s bird population rises and falls with the seasons (the dry season is the leanest time for birders), but the lakeshore resounds with birdsong (and frogs) at most times of year. It’s surprisingly easy to get within close range of the birds – some species, such as the starlings and the white-bellied go-away bird, are positively brazen and may even perch on your breakfast table. There are some interesting marshy areas south of the (now closed) Lake Baringo Club, where you should see some unusual species such as the white phase of the paradise flycatcher, grey-headed bush shrike, violet wood hoopoe and various kingfishers. Hippos commonly graze here, too, even in daylight hours. Wherever you’re staying, an early-morning, birding boat trip along the lake’s reedy shore is likely to be on offer, possibly in combination with a visit to the Goliath Heronry and one or two hippo and croc haunts. Afternoons can profitably be used for a trip out near the main road under some striking red cliffs, an utterly different habitat where, apart from hyraxes and baboons, you can see several species of hornbill, sometimes the massive nest of a hammerkop (wonderful-looking birds in flight, resembling miniature pterodactyls with their strange crests) and, with luck, the rare Verreaux’s eagle.
The most dedicated birders should definitely take the opportunity to spot Baringo’s nocturnal birds on a night bird walk from Roberts’ Camp. Your highly trained guide may find you a nightjar, Heuglin’s courser, white-fronted scops owl or the curiously named spotted thick-knee.
One of the least-visited lakes in the Rift Valley, despite being a globally recognized Ramsar wetlands site since 2002, Lake Bogoria is a body of saline and alkaline water entrenched beneath towering hills, 60km north of Nakuru. With the fluctuating water levels of Lake Nakuru, more reliable Lake Bogoria has become the favoured feeding ground of tens (at times hundreds) of thousands of lesser flamingos, and the lakeshore is one of the few places where greater kudu antelope can easily be seen. But the lake is worth visiting as much for its physical spectacle as for the wildlife: a largely barren, baking wilderness of scrub and rocks, from which a series of furious hot springs erupts on the western shore, and the bleak walls of the Siracho range rise from the east.
Although there’s plenty of wildlife in and around Lake Bogoria, it tends to make itself scarce, with the exception of the flamingos at the hot springs. Most animals – including buffalo, hyena, klipspringer, impala, dik-dik, zebra, warthog and Grant’s gazelle – prefer the remote and inaccessible eastern shore, though you may see greater kudu just about anywhere. The flamingos, for some curious reason – possibly chemical – tend to flock in their greatest numbers to the shallows on the western shore, where the hot springs flow into the lake (they appear immune to the heat). The Bogoria fish eagles have made a gruesome adjustment to their fierce, fishless environment: they prey on flamingos. Other birds to look out for include avocets, transitory pelicans and migratory steppe eagles.
Often overlooked by people rushing from Lake Naivasha to Lake Nakuru, the area around Lake Elmenteita and up into the lower foothills of the Aberdare range offers some off-the-beaten-track destinations such as Kariandusi prehistoric site and other activities, including first-rate wildlife viewing, which take advantage of the pretty, lightly wooded hills and lush valley of the Malewa River. In addition, several top-end lodges provide an intimate alternative to their more touristy cousins around lakes Nakuru and Naivasha.
The name of this shallow soda lake derives from the Maasai Ol muteita (“place of dust”), reflecting its tendency to shrivel to a huge white salt pond. Elmenteita’s setting is spectacular and primeval, framed by the broken caldera walls of several extinct volcanoes, which resemble a reclining human figure. The Maasai know these peaks as Elngiragata Olmorani (“Sleeping Warrior”) – a name that is ironically fitting, since the lake and its lands were expropriated from the Maasai at the start of the colonial period by Lord Delamere (the caldera is now also known as “Delamere’s Nose”). You can get a good view from the big “parking lane” viewpoint – if you survive the occasionally desperate assaults by curio sellers.
The lake itself is a good site for flamingos, especially since Lake Nakuru has been out of favour, and sees an estimated four hundred bird species in all (eighty of which are waterfowl). Pelicans can always be found here, and Elmenteita is the only breeding ground in East Africa for the great white pelican, which nests on some rocky islands in the lake. Like Lake Nakuru, Elmenteita has no outflow, and its accumulated alkaline salts make it uninhabitable for all but one species of fish, the indomitable Tilapia grahami. Nearly all the land around the lake is now part of the private, fenced Soysambu Conservancy, which occupies the original farm of colonist and aristocrat Lord Delamere, and is accessible from the camps and lodges around the lakeshore.
Naivasha, like so many Kenyan place names, is a corruption of a local Maasai name, this time meaning heaving or rough water, 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, Thomson’s “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 is slightly forbidding – but is hugely picturesque, with its purple mountain backdrop and floating islands of papyrus and water hyacinth. 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. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Naivasha completely dried up and the former lakebed was even farmed, until heavy rains a few years later caused it to return, swallowing up the newly established estates. Then again in 1945, the lake almost disappeared again from drought, but since the 1950s water levels have maintained a depth of at least half a metre, rising to 6m at times.
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 at KARAGITA, now the largest lakeshore settlement.
But despite the development, and the ever-growing encroachment of farms and jobseekers, 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, or families of waterbuck or zebra munching on the lawns of the lakeside properties, 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 get fuel and cash and stock up on essentials first.
Beware, out on Lake Naivasha. The possibility that underground springs may feed the lake, its location on the floor of the Rift Valley, and its shallowness all combine to produce notoriously fast changes of mood and weather: grey and placid one minute, suddenly green and choppy with whitecaps the next. Boating mishaps are all too common and you should be sure your vessel has lifejackets and your “captain” and mate (don’t go out with only one crew) have radio contact with the shore, not just a dodgy cellphone connection. Watch out, too, for hippos, which can overturn a small boat easily if frightened or harassed. Although there’s no bilharzia in Naivasha, the hippos, the dense weeds, and the occasional sightings of crocodiles combine to offset any enthusiasm you might have had for a swim.
The prominent cone of the dormant volcano Mount Longonot (2777m) looms high above Lake Naivasha, flanked by thorny savanna slopes and visible for many kilometres around. It’s a relatively easy ascent, worth climbing for the fabulous views in every direction as you circle the rim.
Taking its cue from Malawi’s increasingly popular Lake of Stars festival, the annual Rift Valley Music Festival is Kenya’s first international music festival, and has taken place every late August since 2010, at Fisherman’s Camp on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Energetic and dance-oriented on the Saturday, it turns more low-key and family-friendly on Sunday when the mood is blankets, picnics and beer. The highly recommended festival features mostly Kenyan artists and a few international acts playing from a single, central stage to an audience of a few thousand. There’s also a craft market, open-air cinema and children’s play area with face-painting, bouncy castle and the like. You can stay anywhere around the lake and walk, cycle or get a matatu every day, or book ahead if you want to stay on-site. Advance day tickets (excluding camping fee) cost Ksh2000 and weekend tickets Ksh4000)
Despite the listing of Lake Naivasha as a Ramsar wetland site of global ecological importance in 1995, the future of the lake’s delicate ecosystem is far from secure. Naivasha’s multimillion-dollar horticultural industry is one cause for concern, particularly the use of pesticides on the lakeshore’s huge farms and the enormous volumes of water used to irrigate them.
It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that the survival of the lake and its wildlife depends on a multitude of other factors ultimately linked to the country’s growing population. Since 1977 the number of people living near the lake has risen at least fivefold, and human waste has become a major problem due to inadequate sewage treatment facilities, with the result that some partially treated effluent is finding its way into the lake. The Malewa and Gilgil rivers (which flow into Lake Naivasha from the north) have also been dammed, rendering the lake even more vulnerable.
Consequently, the lake’s wildlife is seriously threatened. Until the exceptional 1997/98 rains raised the lake’s level, thereby diluting the pollutants, the fish eagle had been especially badly affected, though its numbers now appear to be stable. The birds were not getting enough to eat, and Louisiana crayfish, introduced in the 1970s for commercial fishing, were largely to blame. By eating their way through the lake’s flora (which, as well as acting as a soak for excess nutrients and a sediment trap, serves as food and cover for some species of fish and birds), the crayfish caused the water to become murkier, making hunting harder for the eagles. Fishermen also complain that tilapia and black bass have sharply declined due to agrochemicals washed into the lake, and many of the area’s 350 species of birds, as well as the hippos and other wildlife, are still in danger: the lily-trotter, the great crested grebe and the crested helmet shrike have already all but disappeared.
Some companies finally appear to be waking up to their responsibilities. Oserian, the huge Dutch-owned flower exporter, has developed a new way of fighting fungal diseases without resorting to chemicals, using geothermal steam to purge diseases in its greenhouses, while other companies have adopted computerized drip-irrigation to optimize their water efficiency.
One of the lake’s most interesting features is its wildlife, especially its protected hippo population. Despite their bulk, hippos are remarkably sensitive creatures, with good night vision – always follow the advice at the lodges and campsites about where to venture after dark. You can also see giraffes, floating blithely through the trees, taking barbed wire and gates in their stride, and zebra, waterbuck, wildebeest and even the occasional eland are often spotted grazing in the farms and expansive grounds of the lodges and campsites that line Moi South Lake Road. Naivasha has extraordinary birdlife of all kinds, too, from grotesque, garbage-scavenging marabou storks to pet-shop lovebirds, doves cooing in the woods, weavers and warblers twittering in the acacia trees and splendid fish eagles, whose mournful cries fill the air like seagulls. On the water, the papyrus swamps are alive with kingfishers, herons and jacanas, while Lake Oloiden, once a bay of the main lake and now a separate saline lake, frequently attracts wayward flamingos.
Just 5km outside Nakuru, Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the most popular in the country and a must-see for wildlife enthusiasts, offering one of the best chances in Kenya of spotting black and white rhinos. With more than 300,000 visitors each year, this is one of the Kenya Wildlife Service’s two “premier parks” (the other being Amboseli). Though not large, it’s a beautiful park, the terra firma mostly under light acacia forest, well provided with tracks to a variety of hides and lookouts; the contrast between these animated woodlands and the soda lake with its primeval birds give it a very distinctive appeal. And while there is very good accommodation within the park boundaries, it’s also one of the easiest parks to visit for the day, with or without a vehicle. The easy-to-follow topography and signposted tracks mean you really can’t get lost and it’s a pleasure to drive around, which takes about three hours.
The park has undergone some quite remarkable changes in recent years due to the significant flooding that has affected all the Rift Valley lakes. Heavy seasonal rain swelled Nakuru by, it’s estimated, at least one-third in 2012, 2013 and 2014 (the 2015 long rainy season was a relatively light one in comparison). As a result, not only has the lake’s surface area and shape changed considerably, but the park’s infrastructure has been altered too (and probably permanently): KWS lost two campsites; the Main Gate had to be moved to higher ground (you’ll see the old gate buildings being lapped by the waves); and the marshy floodplain region at the southern end of the lake is now under deep water.
KWS has undertaken a major redesign of the park’s road layout and facilities as, unlike the other lakes like Ba-ringo and Naivasha, water levels are not expected to go down at Lake Nakuru anytime soon. There are several reasons for this. First, again unlike the other lakes, Nakuru has no outlet. Additionally, as well as the unprecedented heavy rains over the last few years, some underground springs have recently been discovered on the lake bed, suggesting that the lake is also fed from beneath the ground. Finally, it’s thought that recent initiatives to stop human encroachment on the Mau Forest Complex on the western edge of the Rift Valley, from which Nakuru receives much of its rainfall, have caused significantly more water to find its way down the escarpment to the lake.
So what does all this mean for the wildlife in Lake Nakuru National Park? Not a great deal in fact: while the animals have lost much of their grazing land, they are also thriving from the constant source of fresh water and flourishing habitat – though the lake no longer supports its formerly vast population of flamingos.
Taken clockwise, the main park road runs east of the Main Gate via the lightly wooded acacia forest of the northeastern shores of the lake, past the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge and into an exotic-looking forest of candelabra euphorbia – great cactus-like trees up to 15m high. At the southern end of this zone you come into a stretch of more open country, past the turning (left) up to Lake Nakuru Lodge. From here there used to be a couple of side tracks leading down to the (now vanished) mudflats and the lakeshore but the road now turns southwest into the southern park’s dense acacia jungle. This is where you may see a leopard and – if they overcome their shyness – one of the park’s black rhino. Several kilometres further, the road opens again onto wider horizons with plenty of buffalo, waterbuck, impala and eland all around. You’re likely to see one of the park’s white rhino here, looking for good grazing, and this is also the most likely area for seeing the park’s herd of introduced Rothschild’s giraffe.
Fortunately, in view of the flamingos’ here-today-gone-tomorrow caprice, there’s a lot more to the lake’s spectacle than the pink flocks it was once famous for. There’s a good number of mammals which are very easily seen and often come remarkably close to vehicles. Hippos have flourished in the less briny water, and by day can be seen snorting and splashing at various points around the lake. Nakuru has also become a popular venue for introduced species: there are Rothschild’s giraffe from the wild herd near Kitale, and lions and secretive leopards from wherever they’re causing a nuisance.
In the early 1990s, a number of black rhinos were relocated from Solio Game Ranch (see p.196), and ten white rhinos were donated by South Africa in 1994. These have bred exceptionally well, but despite the electric fencing around the entire perimeter of the park, Nakuru has not avoided the scourge of recent rhino poaching and it sadly lost five in 2014. Each rhino is now heavily guarded by armed KWS rangers and, as in other KWS parks, population numbers are no longer made available to the public. Nevertheless, as a visitor to the park, you have a very good chance of spotting one, and both KWS rangers and lodge staff will point you in the right direction.
Nakuru is Swahili for “place of the waterbuck”, and the park is indeed waterbuck heaven. With only a handful of lions and small numbers of leopards to check their population, the large, shaggy beasts number several thousand, and the herds (either bachelor groups or a buck and his harem) are large and exceptionally tame. Impala, too, are very numerous, though their lack of fear means you rarely witness the graceful flight of a herd vaulting through the bush.
The two other most often seen mammals are buffalo – which you’ll repeatedly mistake for rhinos until you get a look through binoculars – and warthog, scuttling nervously in singles and family parties everywhere you look. Elephants are absent, but you’re likely to see zebra, dik-dik, ostrich and jackal and, in the southern part of the park, eland and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle. More rarely you can encounter reedbuck down by the shore and bushbuck dashing briskly through the herbage. Along the eastern road, near Lake Nakuru Lodge, are several over-tame baboon troops to be wary of. The park is also renowned for its very large pythons – the patches of dense woodland in the southwest, between the lakeshore and the steep cliffs, are a favourite habitat.
Finally, though the reduced salinity may have put paid to flamingo numbers, the higher water levels have attracted other species of birds to Lake Nakuru in large numbers, including pelicans, fish eagles, herons, egrets, hammerkops and grebes.
Lake Nakuru was traditionally viewed as a flamingo lake par excellence. Several decades ago, up to two million lesser flamingos (maybe a third of the world’s population) could be seen here massing in the warm alkaline water to feed on the abundant blue-green algae cultivated by their own droppings. However, rising water levels in recent years – due to the significant flooding that has affected all the Rift Valley lakes – have caused a big drop in salinity, and the flamingos have simply flocked elsewhere. This has happened many times in the past (notably in the 1970s and again in the 1990s when the lake water was especially high) and today the majority of the gloriously pink, massed flocks are more easily seen at Lake Bogoria , with scattered communities also at Elmenteita, Magadi and Natron (in Tanzania).
Many travellers’ first proper view of the Rift Valley is from the souvenir-draped B3 Escarpment Road, originally built by Italian prisoners-of-war during World War II. This flirts with the precipice before dropping steeply down to the Rift through candelabra euphorbia and spikey agave. The little chapel at the bottom, also Italian-built, and often used as a picnic site, seems fitting in this Mediterranean scene. From here the B3 continues north to Mai Mahiu, where it turns westwards to Narok, while the C88 continues to Naivasha.
The alternative route, the more northerly A104 Uplands Road, crosses a broad, bleak plateau, where roadside traders sell rhubarb, plums, carrots and potatoes, and where, in the wet season, you can find yourself driving over a thick carpet of hailstones between gloomy conifer plantations. All this contrasts dramatically with the dusty plains of the Rift Valley. When you start descending, get out your binoculars and you can pick out herds of gazelle, Maasai with their cattle and, bizarrely, a satellite-tracking station.
On the escarpment section of both roads, souvenir stands sell crafts and small sheepskins (the latter often excellent value, though they’re not always very well cured, so don’t last long).
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.
An easy target outside Nakuru, Hyrax Hill has been a human settlement site for at least three thousand years, with finds dating from the Neolithic period immediately before the modern era. Named for the hyraxes that once scampered over this ancient tongue of lava, the prehistoric settlement site was discovered by Louis Leakey in 1926, and subsequently excavated by Mary Leakey ten years later and by others between 1965 and 1987.
West of Nakuru, the A104 is a busy, often dangerous highway along which trucks, buses and matatus thunder at top speed over a surface which varies, unpredictably, from perfect to perfectly awful. It’s hair-raising if you’re driving yourself or with a driver, and even more wearing on the nerves if you’re travelling by public transport.
Heading into Western Kenya, the C56 offers a scenic and much quieter alternative to the main highway, climbing gradually up to the towns of Njoro , Elburgon and Molo , in ascending order of altitude and size, before continuing through the Mau Forest towards Kericho. This is a gentle land of small towns, colonial manors and conifers, and although most travellers see nothing more of it than the road, the area offers a couple of rural accommodation options and is worth a detour.
Seventeen kilometres along the C56 west of Njoro, the town of ELBURGON is a good deal bigger than Njoro, and higher up. You’re into seriously muddy, conifer country here, and the buildings, characteristically chalet-style, are built of dark, weathered planks. Elburgon used to be a thriving timber town on the fringes of the Mau Forest, but because of large-scale deforestation, the government has implemented a ban on logging and the settlement is not as prosperous as it once was (although of course the forest is faring much better).
West of Elburgon, the road winds and dips through patches of Mau forest for several kilometres, with glimpses of railway viaducts across the valleys, until it emerges, still higher up, among the cereals and pyrethrum fields at MOLO. Molo (famous for its lamb) straggles for several kilometres down into a broad valley across the rail tracks and up the other side on to Mau Summit Road, where you’ll find a post office, banks and several petrol stations.
The Kalenjin form the majority of the population in the central part of the Rift Valley. Their name, actually a recent adoption by a number of peoples speaking dialects of Nandi, means “I tell you”. The principal Kalenjin are the Nandi, Terik, Tugen, Elgeyo, Elkony, Sabaot, Marakwet and Kipsigis, and, more contentiously, the Pokot. They were some of the earliest inhabitants of Kenya and probably absorbed the early bushmen or pygmy peoples who had already been here for 200–300,000 years.
Primarily farmers, the Kalenjin have often adapted their economies to local circumstances. The first Kalenjin were probably herdsmen. The pastoral Pokot group still spurn all kinds of cultivation and despise peoples who rely on anything but livestock, calling the Marakwet, living against the western Rift escarpment, Cheblong (“The Poor”), for their lack of cattle. The Okiek provide another interesting clue to the past. Hunter-gatherers, they live in scattered groups in the forests of the high slopes flanking the Rift and traditionally regard wild fruits and vegetables as barely palatable, though maize and gardening have been introduced and they now keep some domestic animals too. The Okiek and other groups in Kenya who live mostly by hunting have often been called Ndorobo or Wandorobo, deriving from the Maasai term “Il Torobbo”, again meaning “poor people without cattle” – though today this is considered a highly derogatory term.
Many Kalenjin played key roles in the founding of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU, now disbanded), but the most famous of Kalenjin in recent years was Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, a Tugen from Baringo District. As he was from a small ethnic group, his presidency at first avoided the accusations of tribalism levelled so bitterly against Kenyatta. But Moi’s firm grip on the reins of power was increasingly exercised through the Kalenjin-dominated civil service, rather than the more ethnically mixed cabinet. In 1992, when democratic elections first took place, there were tribal clashes, often coordinated from behind the scenes, with the “ethnic cleansing” of non-Kalenjin (usually Kikuyu incomers) from the Rift Valley by groups of surprisingly well-organized young men. Similar incidents were repeated at election time in 1997 and 2002, while in 2007 post-election tensions resulted in retaliatory violence by Kikuyu groups against supporters of Raila Odinga, which included the Kalenjin, especially around Nakuru and Naivasha.
The turn-off to Njoro and the Mau escarpment lies 5km west of Nakuru, and is usually marked by a police roadblock. From here, it’s 13km to NJORO, the hometown of Egerton University (the main campus is 5km out of town on the road to Narok), which has several other campuses scattered through the highlands. The jacaranda-fringed main road runs straight past the “centre” of town – a great acreage of mud (or, at best, dust), backed by a humble row of dukas and hotelis. Beyond the Narok junction, there’s another and more soulful Njoro of wooden-colonnaded, tin-roofed, one-storey dukas. Here you’ll also find a KCB bank and the Njoro Farmers Petrol Station, a Shell garage. On the other side of town, past timber yards, is flat cereal country, with herds of dairy cattle and racehorses between the lines of gum trees and copses of acacia.