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 as a tourist, that may well work to your advantage. 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. 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 interesting museums. Away from the towns, much of the west, even in 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 theKipsigis in the district around Kericho. And of course there are thousands of migrants from other parts of Kenya.
The only town of any size between Webuye and the Ugandan border is Bungoma, a surprisingly animated commercial town, with its Sharriffs Centre shopping plaza and bustling, arcaded main street. There’s a Barclays ATM (the first you’ll find if you’re coming from Uganda), but no special reason to stop.
If you’re heading south from Bungoma on the C33, the road is good all the way to Mumias. West of Bungoma, the tarmac is smooth and the scenery unexciting until you reach the border crossing at Malaba. This is less used by passenger road traffic than Busia, but it’s where most freight, as well as the (presently freight-only) railway line, crosses the border with Uganda. Endless lines of lorries choke the roads on both sides; for some, it can take days to get across. Fortunately, pedestrians can cross without difficulty. Official formalities are relatively simple, and moneychangers are on hand on both sides of the border. Try to find out the current rates in advance, watch out for scams and count the currency you’re buying carefully before handing yours over.
Perched above the drab town of WEBUYE, at the junction of the A1 and the A104, are the lonely remains of Chetambe’s Fort. This was the site, in 1895, of a last-ditch stand by the Bukusu group of the Luhya tribe against the motley line-up of a British punitive expedition, which had enrolled Ugandan, Sudanese, Maasai and even other Luhya troops. A predictable massacre, in this case by Hotchkiss gun, took place, with negligible losses on the attackers’ side and equally few survivors among the defenders. How the British managed to storm the scarp in the first place, however, is a mystery: presumably the Bukusu were all inside their walled fort at the top. Resistance among the Bukusu continued right up until independence.
The “fort” itself is quite unimpressive, and in fact not easy to make out: all that remains these days is a circular field covering several acres, surrounded by a shallow ditch. The spot where the British placed their deadly gun, opposite the fort’s main entrance, is just west of the water tower and is now marked by a small concrete memorial, dated May 11, 1988 (the day the emplacement was declared a monument). The people who live nearby are glad to show visitors the site, and can tell you stories from their grandparents of finding bones in the compound area, of women coming here to weep in the evenings, and of animal sacrifices to the dead warriors.
The direct journey from Kericho to Eldoret through the Nandi Hills is one of the most varied and spectacular in the west, through countryside that is often far wilder than you’d expect, including bleak mountainous scrublands and jungle-packed ravines. Midway, you cross the Kano Plains and you may have to change transport at Chemelil, a major crossroads in the Nyando valley, down in the flat sugar lands. Beyond, the road zigzags northwards into high tea country again, the homeland of the Nandi, the fiercest early opponents of the British, and the haunt of a crypto-zoological mystery known as the Nandi bear. The only town of any size before Eldoret is Kapsabet, which has a couple of banks, a market, and a handful of reasonable lodgings, but nothing to warrant a stopover unless, again, you need to change matatus. If you’re driving, you might pause at the Kingwal swamp, north of Kapsabet (the road passes right through it), where more than sixty sitatunga antelope hang on in an unprotected wetland area.
Although more bustling than Kericho, and somewhat healthier and pleasanter than Nakuru, Eldoret really has hardly anything to differentiate it from dozens of other highland centres, though as Kenya’s fifth-largest town, it’s a good deal bigger. The Uasin Gishu Plateau all around is reliably fertile cereal, vegetable and stock-raising country; wattle plantations provide the tannin for the town’s leather industry; the Raymond, Rivatex, Raiply and Ken-Knit textile factories provide employment; and Moi University has proved a shot in the arm for local schools. Eldoret’s prosperity is shown clearly enough by the windows of Eldoret Jewellers on the main road.
Though there are no sights as such to keep you here for very long, you may well find Eldoret a useful stopover, and it’s refreshingly unthreatening and friendly despite its size. The town’s affluence is reflected in a wide variety of places to stay, eat and drink, and enough nightlife to see you through an evening or two.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Nandi (dialects of whose language are spoken by all the Kalenjin peoples) were probably in the strongest position in their history. Their warriors had drummed up a reputation for such ferocity and daring that much of western Kenya lived in fear of them. Even the Maasai, at a low point in their own fortunes, suffered repeated losses of livestock to Nandi spearsmen, whose prestige accumulated with every herd of cattle driven back to their stockades. The Nandi even crossed the Rift Valley to raid Subukia and the Laikipia plateau. They were intensely protective of their own territory, relentlessly xenophobic and fearful of any adulteration of their way of life. Foreigners of any kind were welcome only with express permission.
With the killing of a British traveller, Peter West, who tried to cross their country in 1895, the Nandi opened a decade of guerrilla warfare against the British. Above all, they repeatedly frustrated attempts to lay the railway line and keep communications open with Uganda. They dismantled the “iron snake”, transformed the copper telegraph wires into jewellery, and took whatever livestock and provisions they could find. Despite increased security, the establishment of forts, and some efforts to reach agreements with Nandi elders, the raiding went on, often costing the lives of African soldiers and policemen under the British. In retaliation, a series of punitive expeditions shot more than a thousand Nandi warriors (about one young man in ten), captured tens of thousands of head of livestock, and torched scores of villages. The war was ended by the killing of Koitalel Arap Samoiei, the Orkoiyot or spiritual head of the Nandi who, having agreed to a temporary truce, was then murdered at a meeting with a delegation led by the British officer Richard Meinertzhagen, who shot him in cold blood. As expected, resistance collapsed. His people had believed Koitalel to be unassailable and the Nandi were subsequently hounded into a reserve and their lands opened to settlers.
Traditionally keepers of livestock, the Nandi have turned to agriculture with little enthusiasm and focus instead on their district’s milk production, the highest in Kenya. Shambas, however, are widespread enough to make your chances of seeing a Nandi bear, the source of scores of Yeti-type rumours, remote. Variously said to resemble a bear, a big wild dog or a very large ape, the Nandi bear is believed to have been exterminated in most areas. But in the less accessible regions, on the way up to Kapsabet, many locals believe it still exists – they call it chemoset. Exactly what it is is another matter, but it doesn’t seem to inspire quite the terror you might expect; the occasional savagely mutilated sheep and cattle reported in the press are probably attributable to leopards. A giant anthropoid ape, perhaps a gorilla, seems the most likely candidate for the original chemoset, and the proximity of the Kakamega Forest may account for the stories. This is a surviving tract of the rainforest that once stretched in a continuous belt across equatorial Africa and is still home to many western and central African species of wildlife (though not giant apes). The chemoset possibly survived up until the early twentieth century in isolated valleys. Whatever the truth, if you camp out in the Nandi Hills, you won’t need reminding to zip your fly-sheet.
Kakagema is the headquarters of the Luhya, a loosely defined group of peoples whose only clear common denominator is a Bantu language, spoken in more than a score of vernaculars, which distinguishes them from the Luo to the south and the Kalenjin to the east. Numerically, the Luhya (also spelt Abaluhya or Luyia) are Kenya’s second-largest ethnic group, and most are settled farmers.
Kakamega itself was founded as a buying station on the ox trail known as Sclater’s Road, which reached here from the coast in 1896. Historically, its only fame came in the 1930s, when gold was discovered nearby and more than a thousand prospectors came to the region. However, very few fortunes were made. In the early 1990s, Kakamega became the first town in Kenya to use the bicycle taxis known as boda-bodas, now almost a nationwide institution.Today, it’s a lively place, but with little to detain casual visitors. If you’re passing through in August in an even-numbered year, however, it’s worth being aware that some of the Luhya communities in the district are swept up in exuberant boys’ circumcision parties – though the actual chop is usually done in hospital and the initiates themselves tend not to be the ones doing the partying. A more sedate event, the Agricultural Society of Kenya annual show, takes place at the town’s showground every November.
Kakamega Forest is one of western Kenya’s star attractions, and if you have any interest at all in the natural world, it’s worth going far out of your way to see. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to get to Kakamega Forest from Kisumu or, if you’ve been in the Mount Elgon region, from Webuye along a scenically forested stretch of the A1.
Some 400 years ago, Kakamega Forest would have been at the eastern end of a broad expanse of forest stretching west, clear across the continent, virtually unbroken as far as the Atlantic. Three hundred years later, following human population explosion and widescale cultivation, the forests everywhere had receded, reducing Kakamega to an island of some 2400 square kilometres, cut off from the rest of the Guineo-Congolan rainforest. Today, it has shrunk to just 230 square kilometres, a small patch of relict equatorial jungle, famous among zoologists and botanists around the world as an example of how an isolated environment can survive cut off from its larger body.
Despite a laudable scheme to educate the local population about the forest (see “Keep our Forest”), the lack of any coherent backing or action from the authorities means that its long-term future isn’t bright. Pressure from local people, who need grazing for their livestock, land to cultivate, and firewood, amounts to a significant threat. The present area is less than a tenth of what it was in 1900, and its closed canopy cover (which indicates the forest’s health and maturity) has dropped from ninety to fifty percent of the total area. This has led to the degradation of the natural habitat, and, inevitably, to some species being threatened, while others, like the leopard, last seen in the forest in 1992, are becoming extinct.
The Kakamega Environmental Education Programme, or KEEP was set up by the guides at Forest Guest House to combine visits to the forest for local schoolchildren with their school lessons. They hope that by convincing the children of the importance of the forest, the message will spread into the community. A tree nursery has been started to demonstrate basic tree-planting techniques, alongside information on waste recycling and efficient use of firewood. In addition, a butterfly farm has been set up, with the aim of breeding local butterflies to frame and sell as souvenirs, generating income for the local community from the forest itself. Other sustainable projects in the pipeline include bee keeping and snake farming (for antivenin). They’re always looking for volunteers – contact them through the website above.
Kericho, named after the early English tea planter John Kerich, is Kenya’s tea capital, a fact that – with much hype from the tourism machine embellished by the presence of the Tea Hotel – is not likely to escape you. Its equable climate and famously reliable, year-round afternoon rain showers make it the most important tea-growing area in Africa. While many of the European estates have been divided and reallocated to small farmers since independence, the area is still dominated by giant tea plantations.
This is tea country: Kenya is the world’s third-largest producer after India and Sri Lanka, and the biggest exporter to Britain. As you gaze across the dark green hills, you might pause to consider that the land, now covered in vast regimented swathes of tea bushes, was, until not much more than a century ago, virgin rainforest, only a tiny part of which, the Kakamega Forest, survives. The estates were first set up after World War I with tea bushes imported from India and China.
Tea (Camellia sinensis) is a psychoactive shrub originally native to China. Its effects are said to have been discovered by the legendary third millennium BC Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who was apparently taking a cup of hot water in the shade of a shrub when one of the buds fell into it, making him an invigorating drink. For centuries the Chinese had a monopoly on tea, but with its rise in popularity at home, the British were keen for an independent source of supply, and eventually managed to smuggle some cuttings to India. In Kenya, tea was first grown in 1903, though it was nearly twenty years before commercial production got under way. Kenyan teas are known for their strength and full flavour, and are a major component of most commercial blends sold in the UK and Ireland. Kenya’s other main customers are Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Tea production, though not complicated, is very labour-intensive. Picking continues throughout the year, and you’ll see the pickers moving through the bushes in their brilliant yellow-and-green (KETEPA/Kenya Tea Packers) plastic aprons, nipping off the top two leaves and bud of each bush (nothing more is taken) and tossing them into baskets. Working fast, a picker can collect up to 70kg in a day, though half that is a more typical figure; the piece-rate is set at around eight shillings per kilo picked. After withering, mashing, a couple of hours’ fermentation and a final drying in hot air, the tea leaves are ready for packing and export. The whole process can take as little as 24 hours.
Tea can be harvested three years after planting, and in the first year of production it must be picked every eight days, then every fourteen days in the second year and every seventeen in the fourth, after which the bush must be pruned to keep it at the right height for picking, which can begin again after three months. Weeding is not necessary as the foliage is sufficiently dense to prevent other plants from growing under it.
The stimulating effects of tea are due to the presence of caffeine, and a cup of strong tea can contain as much caffeine as a cup of medium-strength coffee. The effect feels different because it is moderated by other alkaloids such as thebaine, which is a relaxant. Because the human body requires fluid to process caffeine and thebaine, tea depletes the body of water, even though it appears to quench your thirst. Like beer, therefore, strong tea should not be taken as a fluid against dehydration.
It is possible to visit the tea estates on a guided tour (enquire in the lobby of the Tea Hotel). The Tea Hotel’s guide can also be hired for birding excursions in the neighbourhood at Chagaik Arboretum, and to Lelartet Cliff, which is also home to a large number of red colobus and black-and-white colobus monkeys.
A curious sight amid the closely cropped tea bushes, the graceful Chagaik Arboretum consists of acres of beautiful trees from across the tropics and subtropics, tumbling steeply down through well-tended lawns to a lily-covered lake. Inside the arboretum, a plaque reads “Founded by Tom Grumbley, Tea Planter 1946–75”. Don’t miss the magnificent stands of bamboo on the banks. Entry to this haven of landscaped tranquillity is unrestricted and you can picnic or rest up as long as you like, though there are gardeners around who won’t let you camp. It gets quite popular at weekends and holidays when families come out here to enjoy the space and air. Across the lake, thick jungle drops to the water’s edge. Mysterious splashes and rustles, prolific bird and insect life, and at least one troop of colobus monkeys are a surprising testament to the tenacity of wildlife in an environment hemmed in on all sides by the alien ranks of the tea bushes.
Headquarters of the Gusii people, and district town of a region vying with Nyeri in having the fastest-growing population in the country, KISII is a prosperous, hard-working trading centre in the hills. Notoriously muddy and rubbish-strewn, with a minor reputation for hassle which really only reflects the friendliness of the locals, the town is undergoing something of a makeover, with its sloping streets gradually being resurfaced with paving blocks. Kisii is most famous for its fine soapstone, though there’s little to be seen in the town itself. The best locality for watching the carvers and making on-the-spot purchases is Tabaka, some way south. One thing you may notice if you stay overnight in Kisii is the occasional earth tremor – the town lies on a fault line and minor earthquakes are not uncommon. Wildlife enthusiasts will want to check out the tree full of giant bats in the government compound between Moi Highway and the Sports Club at the southern end of town.
The Bantu-speaking Gusii (after whom Kisii is named) were only awakened to the brutal realities of British conquest in 1905, when they rebelled, pitching themselves with spears against a machine gun. It was “not so much a battle as a massacre”, one of the participants recalled, leaving “several hundred dead and wounded spearsmen heaped up outside the square of bayonets”. In 1908, after the District Commissioner was speared in a personal attack, the same thing happened again, only this time the Gusii were trying to escape, not attack. Crops were burned and whole villages razed to the ground. Winston Churchill, at the time the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, telegraphed from the Colonial Office: “Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”
The Gusii were totally demoralized. In a few brief years, the fabric of their communities had been torn apart, hut taxes imposed, and cattle confiscated to be returned only in exchange for labour. And then came World War I. Kisii was the site of the first Anglo-German engagements in East Africa, and thousands of men were press-ganged into the hated Carrier Corps.
It seems extraordinary that the exceptionally friendly people of Kisii are the grandchildren of the conscripts. The powerful, millennial religious movements that burst among them during the colonial period under the name Mumboism may partly account for the very strong ties of community they’ve maintained against all odds. Prophets and medicine men have always been important here, and even in today’s superficially Christianized society, the Gusii have solidly kept their cultural identity. The practice of trepanning, for example, which involves tapping a small hole in the skull to relieve headache or mental illness, seems to be as old as the Gusii themselves. “Brain operations” are still performed, clandestinely, but apparently quite successfully.
Witchcraft and sorcery also continue to play important roles in the life of the town and its district, and often make headlines. The growing influence of Christianity has led to spates of lynchings of suspected witches. Residents are often reticent to come forward as witnesses, which can lead to an interesting collision of worldviews in the media. On one occasion the local police chief was quoted saying: “We hope we can get them [the witches] and if possible charge them in court. This way we shall save their lives.”
In the sultry atmosphere of Kisumu, a distinctive smell from the lake – fish, mud and rotting vegetation – drifts in on a vague breeze from central Africa. More laidback than any other big town in Kenya, Kisumu was founded as a railway town and lake port, becoming the country’s third-largest town as its fortunes rose with the growth of trade in colonial East Africa and the newly independent nations. It suffered badly following the East African Community’s break-up, however, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the port was mostly dormant. Kisumu’s position might lead you to expect a bustling waterfront and a lake-facing atmosphere, although in fact the town has now turned its back on the water, focusing instead on the commercial centre and land links to the rest of Kenya. Although some commercial shipping has resumed, and the port sporadically buzzes with loading or unloading (and people looking for a lift to Uganda or Tanzania), low water levels and water hyacinth have held back progress.
Even if the time-warped atmosphere of a place that’s been treading water for three decades may not be much comfort to its inhabitants, Kisumu is one of the few upcountry towns with real character. It’s a tranquil, easy-going town, where even the manambas at the bus station are unusually calm. Any anticipation of claustrophobia is quickly soothed by the spacious, shady layout. If you’ve just come from Nakuru, the contrast is striking. It’s a good idea to find somewhere to stay soon after arriving, before starting any energetic wanderings, as it gets tremendously hot here.
The train line from Mombasa reached the lake by 1901, reassuring the British public who were having serious doubts that the “Lunatic Line”, as it was dubbed, would ever reach completion, but the first train only chugged into the station at Port Florence, as Kisumu was originally known, in 1903 when the Mau Escarpment viaducts were completed. By then, European transport had already arrived at the lake in the form of a steamship brought up from Mombasa piece by portered piece, having steamed out from Scotland in 1895. Many of the ship’s parts were seized en route from the coast and recycled into Nandi ornamentation and weaponry, and it was five years before a complete vessel could be launched on its maiden voyage across the lake to Port Bell in Uganda.
By all accounts Kisumu was a pretty disagreeable place in the early years. Apart from the endemic sleeping sickness, bilharzia and malaria, the climate was sweltering and municipal hygiene primitive. But it quickly grew into an important administrative and military base and, with the consolidation of the colonies in the 1930s and 1940s, became a leading East African entrepôt and transport hub, attracting Asian investment on top of the businesses that had been set up at the railway terminus when the Indian labourers were laid off. Kisumu’s rise seemed unstoppable until 1977, when the sudden collapse of the East African Community, more or less overnight, robbed the town of its raison d’être. The partial reformation of the community in 1996 brightened prospects, and by 1999 the port was relatively busy, thanks largely to UN World Food Programme transit goods destined for war-torn Rwanda and Congo.
Since then, however, Kisumu has again seen a downturn in its fortunes, owing to the decline of the local sugar industry, sugar cane being the surrounding region’s main cash crop. Dumping of subsidized sugar by the EU led to a worldwide crash in prices, and this in turn forced the closure of sugar refineries at nearby Muhoroni and Miwani, which were the mainstays of the local economy. More recently, parts of Kisumu were badly hit during the post-election clashes in 2007–8, though recovery since then has been rapid.
Foremost among the town’s sights is the engaging and ambitious Kisumu Museum. Set in a large garden with carefully labelled trees, the main gallery happily mingles zoological exhibits with ethnographic displays. Apart from the rows of trophy-style game heads around the walls, the stuffed animals and preserved insects and crustaceans are displayed with considerable flair and imagination. Particularly good use has been made of old exhibits from Nairobi’s National Museum. A free-swinging vulture, for example, spins like a model aircraft overhead while, centre stage, a lion is caught in full, savage pounce, leaping onto the back of a hysterical wildebeest in the most action-packed piece of taxidermy you’re ever likely to see.
The ethnographic exhibits are illuminating, too. The Maasai aren’t the only people who take blood from their cattle for food: Kalenjin peoples like the Nandi and the Kipsigis once did the same, and even the Luo lived mostly on cow’s blood mixed with milk before they arrived at Lake Victoria and began to cultivate and fish. In separate halls from the main gallery are a small, but worthwhile aquarium, illustrating the problem of fish depletion in the lake (see what your tilapia looked like before it became a curry), and a snake house with a fairly comprehensive collection of Kenyan species. Outside, the tortoise pen and croc pond seem rather pointless extras. The crocodiles, getting extremely large, are fed on Monday evenings at around 5.30pm.
The Luo are the second-largest ethnic group and one of the most cohesive “tribes” in Kenya. Their distinctive language, Dholuo, closely resembles the Nuer and Dinka languages of southern Sudan, from where their ancestors migrated south at the end of the fifteenth century. They found the shore and hinterland of Lake Victoria only sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers, scattered with occasional clearings where Bantu-speaking farmers had settled over the previous few centuries. Otherwise, the region was wild: untouched grassland and tropical forest, dense with heavy concentrations of wildlife.
The Luo were swift invaders, driving their herds before them, from water point to water point, always on the move, restless and acquisitive. They raided other groups’ cattle incessantly and, within a few decades, had forced the Bantu-speakers away from the lakeshore. Despite the conflict, intermarriage (essentially the buying of wives) was common and the pastoral nomads were greatly influenced by their Bantu-speaking in-laws and neighbours, ancestors of the present-day Luhya and Gusii.
The Luo today are best known as fishermen, a lifestyle that had sustained them while migrating along the rivers, but they also cultivate widely and still keep livestock. Culturally, they have remained surprisingly independent, and are one of the few Kenyan peoples who don’t perform circumcision. Traditionally, children had six teeth knocked out from the lower jaw to mark their initiation into adulthood, but the operation is hardly ever carried out these days. Christianity has made spectacular inroads among the Luo, with an estimated ninety percent being believers, but it does not seem to have destroyed their traditional culture quite as thoroughly as it has elsewhere. Despite the ubiquity of Gospel singing, traditional music, especially the playing of the nyatiti lyre, is still very much alive and well worth listening out for.
KITALE is smaller than Eldoret, and not much more exciting, but has more going for it from a traveller’s point of view, primarily as the base for visits to Mount Elgon, Kenya’s second giant volcanic cone, and the superb, very underrated hiking country in the area. It’s also an obvious springboard for the Cherangani Hills, and a straightforward departure point for trips to the west side of Lake Turkana. There’s a national park nearby – the little-known but easily accessible Saiwa Swamp, which can only be explored on foot. In addition, the town also has two museums and a couple of other sites to visit.
The town’s present population is a mix of tribes, including Nandi, Pokot, Marakwet, Sabaot and Sengwer, as well as a few Luhya, Kisii and Kikuyu and an influential Asian community. Like most towns in the Rift Valley and western Kenya, it was seriously affected by the post-election clashes of 2007–08, but managed to make a swift recovery.
Lake Victoria fills a shallow depression (no deeper than 80m) between the Western and Eastern Rift valleys, yet it is not part of the Rift system. Until the 1960s, it was home to around five hundred different species of brilliantly coloured tropical fish, known as haplochromines or cichlids, all of them endemic – unique to the lake. Scientists, puzzling over how such a dazzling variety of species came to evolve in this largely uniform environment in the space of no more than a million years, have suggested that, at some stage in its history, the lake must have dried into a series of small lakes in which the fish evolved separately. Lake Victoria’s cichlids are popular aquarium fish, and one of the commonest larger species, the tilapia, is a regional speciality, grilled or fried and served whole.
In the early 1960s, a voracious carnivore, the Nile perch, was introduced to the lake, and proceeded to eat its way through the cichlid population, driving some species close to extinction, though many have held on in parts of the lake which were too shallow for perch, or in smaller lakes around the main one. For local people, the introduction of the perch, which can reach a weight of 250kg, has been a bit of a Trojan horse: while they’re consumed locally and sold for export (good news for the lakeshore economy), traditional fishing and processing have been hit hard by the arrival of modern vessels and factories joining in the feast and taking their profits elsewhere.
The lake has other problems, however. Algae have proliferated, due to industrial and sewage pollution, depriving the lake of oxygen. More than three million litres of human waste drain into the lake every day, and the Swedish development agency, SIDA, estimates that Kenya, with the smallest share of the lake’s shoreline, is its main polluter. As well as suffering a dramatic fall in oxygen levels, the lake is becoming so murky that the remaining cichlids are unable to identify mates, so that hybridization is occurring. Meanwhile, the building of the causeway between Mbita and Rusinga Island has turned the Winam Gulf into even more of a pond, with only one outlet, inhibiting currents and making its water even less healthy.
Another threat comes from the water hyacinth, originally native to Brazil. This floating weed grows quickly around the lakeshore and spreads like a carpet across the surface, blocking out the light, choking the lake to death and snaring up vessels. Since the mid-1990s, Homa Bay, Kendu Bay and Kisumu have all at times been strangled by kilometre-wide cordons of the weed, inhibiting passage to all but the smallest canoes, with disastrous results for the local economy. Solutions have included the promotion of products (furniture, paper, even building materials) made from harvested hyacinth. In 2001, mechanical clearance enabled passenger ferries to resume, only for falling water levels to cause their suspension once more. There’s been a resurgence of the invasive weed since 2006, and the nutrient run-off following occasional rains spreads the deadly canopy even further.
Although going out on the lake is fun, it is, unfortunately, a disease-ridden body of water, and even though there aren’t always clouds of mosquitoes, the malaria risk is quite high. Snails carrying bilharzia also flourish in the reeds around the fringes of the lake, and although the Luo wash and swim in it and sail their vividly painted, dhow-like mahogany canoes on it, the danger of bilharzia is all too real. It’s very rare to get the disease after brief contact with infected water, but you should avoid getting wet, as far as possible, if you’re fishing or boating, and don’t even think about swimming.
Said to have been inhabited for centuries, enigmatic Mfangano Island is out of range of the smallest fishing boats, and, aside from a handful of motorbikes, largely without vehicles. This may be about to change, though, since a twice-daily ferry service from Mbita and the newly completed ring road around the island have gone a long way toward opening up Mfangano to the outside world. The island is populated by a curious mixture of immigrants from all over Kenya, administered by a chief and three sub-chiefs with help from a trio of policemen. Monitor lizards swarm on the sandy shores and hippos are much in evidence out in the water.
Larger and more populous than Rusinga, with a similarly rugged landscape but better vegetation cover, Mfangano’s greatest economic resource is still the lake itself. As on Rusinga, the local fishing techniques are unusual: the islanders fish with floating kerosene lamps hauled shorewards, or towards a boat, to draw in the schools to be netted. Despite the new road, many local residents still rely on a network of temporary footpaths that are constantly changing course; you can use these paths to walk through the interior of Mfangano, though it’s always easier if you have a guide.
Small and austerely beautiful, Rusinga Island has high crags dominating its desolate, goat-grazed centre, and a single dirt road running around the circumference. Life here is difficult, with drought commonplace, and high winds a frequent torment. The occasional heavy rain either washes away the soil or sinks into the porous rock, emerging lower down where it creates swamps. Ecologically, the island is in very dire straits: almost all its trees have been cut down for cooking fuel or to be converted into lucrative charcoal. These conditions make harvests highly unpredictable and most people fish to make ends meet (although the causeway has forced them to make longer fishing trips), either selling the catch on to refrigerated lorries or bartering directly for produce with traders from Kisii. Yet the islanders, in common with their mainland cousins, remain an unfailingly friendly and cheerful bunch, more than happy to make contact with wayward travellers.
If you’re interested in making a contribution to the welfare and development of the Rusinga community, there’s a permaculture project and education centre at Badilisha Ecovillage near the lakeshore at Kaswanga, on the north side of the island, 9km from Mbita, that brings together green-minded volunteers from around the world to work with AIDS orphans, in local schools doing support work or working the land on the permaculture project, founded on the principles of sustainability and respect for the environment. You can stay here for a night or a couple of months (see Lake Victoria’s ecology and economy), and the stays make for an excellent way of getting to know local issues in a remote and challenging rural setting.
The island is rich in fossils, and was the site of Mary Leakey’s discovery of a skull of Proconsul africanus (a primitive anthropoid ape), which can be seen in the National Museum. It was also the family home of Tom Mboya, the civil rights champion, trade unionist and charismatic young Luo politician who was assassinated in Nairobi in 1969, a turning point for the worse in Kenya’s post-Independence history, sparking off a crisis that led to more than forty deaths in widespread rioting and demonstrations.
Straddling the Kenya–Uganda border, Mount Elgon is hidden in clouds most of the time, its precise outline hard to discern. The name comes from the Maasai Ol Doinyo Ilgoon , meaning “Breast Mountain”, and, like Mount Kenya, it’s an extinct volcano, around whose jagged and much-eroded crater rim the flat-topped peaks crop up like stumpy fingers of an upturned hand. The two mountains are comparable in bulk, but Elgon is lower. It’s below the snowline and less precipitous, which is encouraging if the thought of tackling the “loneliest park in Kenya” was putting you off.
The highest of the peaks, Wagagai (4321m; there’s also nearby Little Wagagai, at 4298m), is across the caldera in Uganda, but the most evocatively shaped peaks (Sudek, 4176m; Lower Elgon, 4301m; Koitoboss, 4187m; and Endebess Bluff, 2563m) belong to Kenya. Part of the east side of the mountain is enclosed within the confines of Mount Elgon National Park. Outside this zone is a forest reserve, with some restrictions on movement owing to the presence of poachers and cattle rustlers. The park itself, however, is open for business.
Perhaps Elgon’s most captivating attraction is the honeycomb of caves on the lower slopes. Some of these were long inhabited by one of the loosely related Kalenjin groups, the Elkony (whose name, in corrupted form, was given to the mountain), and used both as living quarters and as livestock pens at night. There is evidence that the caves had a ritual function as well – Chepnyalil Cave contains a structure that might have served as an altar or shrine, and its walls are painted with a red-and-white frieze of cattle. The caves are also linked with Luhya circumcision ceremonies, in which boys spent their month-long initiation period covered from head to toe in the white diatomite powder found in the area, before returning home as men. The Elkony were officially evicted from the caves by the colonial government, who insisted that they live in the open “where they could be counted for tax”, but several caves were still occupied by extended families within living memory.
The largest and most spectacular cave is Makingeny Cave, close to the road and marked by a cascade falling over the entrance. It makes a good hike teamed up with its neighbour, Kitum Cave, a twenty-minute hike to the south. Early explorers believed that some of the caves were artificial, one report referring to “thousands of chisel and axe marks on the walls”. In fact, generations of elephants were responsible: the well-signposted Kitum Cave was the mineral fix of local elephants, and on rare occasions they still walk into the cave at night to gouge the salt-flavoured rock from the walls with their tusks. If you’re exceptionally lucky, a night vigil at Kitum Cave may be repaid by a visit from the elephants; but if not, the thousands of bats and the sounds of the forest are good compensation.
Despite the tranquillity inside the national park, communities around the southern slopes of Mount Elgon have been embroiled in land disputes with the government since colonial times, and wracked by violent episodes over the past two decades. The most recent began in 2005 with the formation of the Sabaot Land Defence Force. Formed to resist a forced resettlement programme, the SLDF rapidly degenerated into a brutal insurgency that terrorized unsupportive Sabaot villagers and Okiek tribespeople alike, with murder, mutilations and rape, and is estimated to have displaced 66,000 people and killed more than six hundred. Early in 2008, as the world watched the post-election clashes in Eldoret, Kisumu and Naivasha, the Kenyan military went on a rampage in the southern Elgon foothills, arresting every Sabaot man over the age of 15, torturing and raping villagers suspected of involvement with the SLDF, and, according to the local MP, Fred Kapondi, killing more than 150 people. As reported by Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, it seemed that the Kenyan armed forces believed they could get away with murder, and, if anyone noticed, the even worse atrocities committed by the SLDF would cover for them. In May 2008, the army cornered and shot the SLDF’s military commander, 25-year-old Wycliffe Komon Matakwei, and arrested or killed most senior members of the militia, though questions remain about their funding and political control. For now, the insurgency seems to be over, but the issues of landlessness, official abuses and legal whitewash persist, as do rumours that the SLDF itself remains secretly in operation.
The vegetation on Mount Elgon is similar to Mount Kenya’s, and equally impressive, with bamboo and podocarpus forests (the latter more accessible than Mount Kenya’s) giving way to open moorland inhabited by the strange statues of giant groundsel and lobelia. The wildlife isn’t easily seen until you get onto the moors, but some elephant and a fair few buffalo roam the forest (be extremely wary of both). The best place to see elephants used to be the Elephant Platform north of Chorlim Gate, where herds congregated to browse on the acacias, but many were wiped out by poachers in the 1980s, and the remainder became reclusive. It’s very rare to see them at the Elkony caves, where they regularly used to gouge salt. The Kenya Wildlife Service is confident that poaching is now under control, and estimates the elephant population to be around two hundred. The lions have long gone and, though there are still leopards and servals, you’re not likely to see one. The primates are more conspicuous: blue monkeys and black-and-white colobus crash through the forested areas, troops of olive baboons patrol the scrub, and along the Kimothon River that forms the lower park’s northern boundary, there’s a scattering of rare de Brazza’s monkeys.
The Lambwe valley’s tsetse-fly-ridden bush, protected as Ruma National Park, is one of the few places in Kenya where you can see Jackson’s hartebeest and two extremes of the antelope family: the miniature oribi and the enormous, horse-like roan , which is found only here. Roans are extremely rare, and the best place to see them is among the park’s western grasslands, which are often hit by community fires that spread into the park from the west – they like the fresh grazing on burnt ground. Ruma also has about seventy beautiful Rothschild's giraffes which aren’t too hard to see above the tall grass. You’ll have more difficulty spotting leopards, the park’s only large predators, and you’ll be very lucky to spot one of Ruma’s prize denizens, the black rhinos translocated from Mugie ranch in Laikipia in 2012.
Created specifically for the protection of the sitatunga , a rare and vulnerable semi-aquatic antelope, Saiwa Swamp National Park is the smallest in the country and is rarely visited, despite its accessibility, which is a pity. The requirement that you walk (rather than drive) around the jungle and swamp, plus the chance of seeing the antelope as well as various monkeys and birds, makes it an exciting and interesting day out. If you’re staying at Barnley’s , think about hiring a guide there for the trip, which is worthwhile and not at all expensive.
You’re almost bound to see one of the park’s sitatunga, an unusual species of antelope which lives most of its life partly submerged in water and weed. Similar in size and general appearance to the bushbuck, the sitatunga is reddish-brown with a slightly shaggy coat and very large ears, while the males have spiral horns. The sitatunga’s most unusual features (usually hidden in water) are their strangely splayed and elongated hooves, evolved, it’s believed, to help prevent them from sinking as they pick their way gingerly through their native swamps. It’s hard to see how much help these feet really are in keeping the antelope from sinking into the swamp, as the hooves are only moderately elongated: the theory makes sense, but evolution has a little more work to do here. Due to poaching, numbers in the park are down from more than seventy in the 1980s to fewer than twenty at the last count.
Sitatunga can be found in scattered locations throughout western and central Africa, but in Kenya they are restricted to Saiwa Swamp, the Kingwal swamp south of Eldoret, a few spots around Lake Victoria, which has a translocated group. Only at Saiwa Swamp, however, have they grown really used to humans. They can be watched from observation platforms, which have been built in the trees at the side of the swamp – two on the east side, two on the west. These somewhat precarious, Tarzan-esque structures enable you to spy down on the life in the reeds, while one of them – Treetop House – has been converted into a snug overnight stay. The best times for sitatunga-spotting are early morning and, to a lesser extent, late afternoon.
The drier parts of the park also shelter bushbuck, easily distinguished from the sitatunga by their terrified, crashing escape through the undergrowth as you approach. As well as the antelopes, Saiwa Swamp is a magnet for ornithologists, with a number of unusual bird species, including several turacos, many kingfishers, and the splendid black-and-white casqued hornbill. Most conspicuous of all are the crowned cranes – elegance personified when not airborne, but whose lurching flight is almost as risible as their ghastly honking call.
A delightful, easily followed, early-morning walk takes you across the rickety duckboards over the swamp and along a jungle path on the eastern shore. Here you’re almost bound to see the park’s four species of monkey: colobus, vervet, blue, and the distinctively white-bearded de Brazza’s monkey.