Follow the ‘Countdown to 50′ Campaign! Every single week of the 50 weeks between January 2013 and Kenya’s 50th Anniversary of Independence on 12th December 2013 we are going to highlight one of the 50 Treasures of Kenya with stunning pictures, practical travel information and hands on impressions.
This week we invite you to South Nyanza-The hidden Treasure
The land stretching along the shores of Lake Victoria South of Kisumu to the Tanzanian border is a region rarely visited by tourists. But for those intrepid travelers who are happy to trade their comfort for the exclusive experience of doing their own explorations away from the crowds, South Nyanza offers a unique array of hidden attractions and solitary impressions. How about that: to boast about being one of the very few who have seen one of Kenya’s rarest antelopes! Or to feel like some kind of Indiana Jones and discover what is possibly the most impressive archeological site of the country…?
The lighthouse attraction
If this was England, you bet a long caravan of tour buses would be riding through South Nyanza to make it to Thimlich Ohinga, ‘the dense frightening forest’ as the interpretation of the Dholuo name of South Nyanza’s lighthouse attraction reads. But hey, this is Western Kenya which so far has been overlooked by tourism. So if you are one of the very few visitors; you may rightfully feel like Indiana Jones as you try to find your way there over bumpy tracks that turn into brown slippery chutes when it rains.
But you will no longer doubt it was worth the toil once you have arrived on site and you face the massive enclosure of walls up to 4 metres high. What an impressive stone puzzle! Hundreds of thousands of rocks have been stacked into a number of circular defensive enclosures which spread over 52 acres!
As you crawl through the loophole gates and wander through the labyrinth of stone rings inside, you inevitably ask yourself: Who erected the structures which seem to be a reminiscent of the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Southern Africa? Why would their creators make the massive effort to construct it? And when were these structures engineered?
It is only recently that Thimlich Ohinga, possibly the most impressive archeological site of our country came to the attention of experts. The first written testimonial comes from Neville Chittick, the former director of the British Institute of History and Archeology in East Africa back in the 1960s while scientists from the National Museums of Kenya started their research in 1980. Only a year later, Thimlich Ohinga was righteously declared a national monument.
According to archeological findings, the outer enclosures are the impressive remains of its defensive architecture whereas the interior partitions where probably used as cattle kraals, pens for smaller animals and garden fence structures. Thimlich Ohinga is the biggest and by far best conserved of all stone enclosures from a total of 138 sites containing 521 structures known in Nyanza region. Findings within the enclosure of Thimlich Ohinga point to an emergence beyond 500 years ago which eliminates the Luo people, today’s inhabitants of the area as their creators. It is perceived they moved in from the North three hundred years ago. But when occupying the enclosures, they carried out repair works and modifications. Over hundreds of years, they settled inside the enclosures which were only abandoned during the first quarter of the twentieth century! So who then were the initial constructors? Everything points to an unknown Bantu people who lived in the region before.
But that still does not explain why the enclosures became only popular in this specific region of Kenya to form a whole unique cultural landscape. The trees, bushes and grasslands surrounding Thimlich Ohinga, ‘the dense frightening forest’, contribute to the wild and mythical atmosphere of the place. Probably there is no better time to visit Thimlich Ohinga than on a full moon night, when the pale shades cast by the moonlight appear as the ghosts of its former inhabitants hoovering over the walls and the wind blowing through the trees makes you believe you heard their voices whispering in an ancient language forgotten long ago …
Ruma National Park
Ruma National Park, the only notable Kenyan game park West of the Masai Mara, is surely the biggest attraction of Southern Nyanza apart from Thimlich Ohinga. It covers 194 square kilometres of the Lambwe River valley and is framed by Kanyamwa Escarpment to the East, Gwassi Hills to the West, Gembe Hill to the Northwest and Ruri Hills to the Northeast. The star of the park are the last 30 or so speciemen of the roan antelope within Kenya, a huge beautiful antelope with long bowed horns.
The roan antelope has to share the visitor’s attention with two rhinos by the name of Michael and Celina though, which have been recently released in Ruma along with some black rhinos that are very hard to trace. In the past, the national park has been an ark for another animal at the brink of extinction.
The Rothschild’s giraffe; obviously, the largest of all giraffe subspecies feels comfortable in Ruma, for nowadays you can witness huge herds of the long necked browser feeding on acacia trees. The rather small national park is also home to buffalo, zebra, gazelles, hyena as well as a rich bird-life amongst others.
It offers beautiful scenery and opportunities for walking safaris. The best part of it comes along with the exclusivity of rarely visited Western Kenya. Right at the Eastern border of the park lies the shamba and grave of Gor Mahia, one of Kenya’s most powerful wizards who lobbied successfully for the renaming of the Lambwe Valley reserve to its current name Ruma. It appears his power is lasting to present days as influential Luo politicians keep on visiting his tomb for prayers and consultations.
Apart from offering Ruma National Park a scenic backdrop the chain of 24 hills that separate the park from Lake Victoria is also a worthwhile hiking destination. The Gwassi Hills are covered by rich volcanic soils and bear remnants of natural forest that are plentiful in plants of medicinal value, indigenous trees that are not found elsewhere in East Africa, wild fruits and vegetables as well as abundant insect species.
Now whatever is remaining of the natural beauty cannot hide that the unique ecosystem of the Gwassi Hills has gone through dramatic degradation by uncoordinated felling of trees for building, charcoal burning and wood fuel as well as for farming within the past sixty years. However, the magnificent view from the very peak of 2271 metres overlooking Lambwe Valley on one side and Lake Victoria with its islands on the other stays breathtaking.
Homa Bay and Mt. Homa
The district town of Homa Bay lies on the shores of Lake Victoria with its jetty being the most lively spot in town. If you missed the life at the lake in Kisumu, you will find it here. Fishermen repairing and drying their nets next to their colourful canoes, boda boda drivers and promenading amblers, children swiming or hanging their self-made fishing rods into the water as matatus are getting washed. But most of all, an armada of ‘lake taxis’ land and leave. The wooden longboats are propelled by outboard engines and connect a long chain of fishing villages on the lake shores transporting farmers, fishermen and their produce. It is an effort worthwhile to climb Got Asego, the mountain in the back of Homa Bay to enjoy the panorama over the town, the patchwork of shambas, the lake and Mt. Homa on the other side of the bay.
Mount Homa which stands like a tall guard at 1752 metres at the entrance of Winam Gulf is the dominating feature of the region.It is called Got Uma or God Marahuma in Dholuo, both meaning ‘famous mountain’. As a matter of fact, it is of a very special nature since it is one of the very few carbonatite lava volcanoes in the world.Not far from Mt. Homa, there is a greenish shimmering crater lake which is connected to a mythical story.Lake Simbi which is home to a flamingo population measures 800 metres in diameter.The hole almost resembles a meteorite crater but in fact it was created by a massive gas eruption.The people living around the lake have a different explanation for its formation, though. According to the loca’sl folklore, once upon a time ago there was a village where the lake is today.When an old woman came into the village asking for hospitality and was turned down by the inhabitants, she cursed everybody. A whole opened in the ground and flooded, drowning all villagers.It is about a three kilometres walk around the circular lake.
Practical travel information
Explore Timlich Ohinga
Thimlich Ohinga literally refers to a “frightening dense forest” in Dholuo language. So good shoes are recommended since the site is quite big and the walking trails are a bit rough. Take enough food and water with you since there are no shops or restaurants in the area and you can not buy anything at the site.
How to get there
Although Lake Victoria is shared by the three countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda there are no scheduled ship connections via the lake. There are however plans for speed boats to take up service soon. The main road access to Lake Victoria is via Kisumu, directly from Nairobi by bus/matatu or private transport. There are no passenger trains from Nairobi to Kisumu anymore but Kenya Airways and Fly540 offer frequent flights to Kisumu International Airport. On Rusinga Island and within Ruma National Park there are airstrips for small planes.
Thimlich Ohinga is situated in Nyanza province 181 km South of Kisumu in Migori district. The site lies on a gentle sloping hill some 46 km Northwest of Migori town near Macalder’s Mine. The last 25 km are on murram roads which get very slippery after rain.
Ruma National Park lies approx. 140 km South of Kisumu. The easiest access is through the Kamoto Main gate from the Mirogi Road, the last 10 km are on black cotton soil which gets literally impassable after rain. An alternative access route is from Mbita through Sindo to the Nyatoto Gate which connects to 30 km of murram road which is also impassable after rain.
South Nyanza is best explored with private transport. The nearest place to rent a car is Kisumu. Zaira Tours and Travel, www.zairatoursafrica.com is a fairly priced and reliable local tour company specialised on Western Kenya. From Kisumu, the regional centres can also be reached by matatu, where boda boda motorbikes offer their service.
Where to stay
The offers of South Nyanza’s hospitality industry are somewhat limited, decent guesthouses can be found in the regional centres of Homa Bay, Mbita and Karungu though. If you want to stay overnight in Thimlich Ohinga, you can either contact the caretaker and get a mattress to sleep in one of the traditional huts or bring your own tent and camp on the campsite (which has no facilities yet). The next hotels with very basic standard (communal pit toilets) are found in the next small town Sori /Karungu, about 23 km from Thimlich Ohinga.
In Ruma National Park there is only Oribi Guesthouse which is run by KWS. It offers three bedrooms, two doubles and one triple as well as a driver’s quarter. There is one bathroom with a shower and WC, a sitting room and a kitchen equipped with stove, kitchen utensils and a fridge. A caretaker, electricity and beddings are made available. There are also several public and private campsites within the park.
The only luxury accommodation in the vicinity is Rusinga Island Lodge. The ICIPE guesthouse in Mbita which is run by the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology is also open for outside visitors and offers a fairly good standard.
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Until the next time its many thanks from the 50 Treasures of Kenya Trust for every contribution in this feature with special mention made to Mr.Harmut Fiebig for the wonderful photography and most of all to you our treasured audience for your company.
You are highly treasured.