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Every single week of the 50 weeks between January 2013 and Kenya’s 50th Anniversary of Independence on the 12th of December 2013 we are going to highlight one of the 50 Treasures of Kenya with stunning pictures, practical travel information and personal impressions.
This week we invite you to come along with us as we visit :
Lake Naivasha – The Happy Valley and place to get away
The part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches Northwest of Nairobi offers a set of exceptional attractions which have righteously become the most popular weekend destination for many Nairobians. Lake Naivasha is one the two fresh water lakes in the Kenyan part of the Rift; it is host to an incredible diversity of bird-life and the centre of the country’s blossoming flower business.
In its vicinity are the Hell’s Gate National Park, a haven for hiking, bicycle riding and wildlife encounters as well as the impressive Longonot volcano which is also in a protected national park offering spectacular views into a perfectly formed crater and the breathtaking panorama within the Lake Naivasha and the Hell’s Gate region.
The Lighthouse Attraction:
As you approach Lake Naivasha on the Nakuru highway, you can see its waters from the top of the escarpment thousands of feet below as it sparkles in the sun’s glow like a precious gemstone fringed by thick papyrus. In addition to its aesthetic appeal, the value of the lake can’t be overestimated as horticulture and tourism, the two most important economic propellers of the region depend completely on it.
The region offers a lot of game, the very first visitors came in the early nineteen hundreds to hunt. The first hotel which targeted anglers and excursionists from Nairobi opened its gates in 1935.
When descending the steep escarpment to the lake; it is hard to believe that Lake Naivasha lies at a higher elevation than Nairobi! It is in fact situated at the highest point of the Kenyan Rift valley floor at approx.1,890m (6,200 ft).
The name of the lake that sounds like an exotic flower, is derived from the Maasai name Nai’posha, meaning ‘big moving water’, later misspelt as Naivasha by the British. It is believed that it got its name because of sudden afternoon storms which cause the lake to become rough and produce high waves. Another interpretation has it that the name refers to the changing size of the lake which varies greatly according to rainfall and explains the differing information on its entire span ranging from 114 to 200 sq kms.
The changing size and depth of Lake Naivasha can’t be explained solely by wavering weather patterns. It must have an unknown outlet underground, otherwise its waters would be salty as are those of Lake Nakuru and Lake Magadi.
The Njorowa Gorge to the South used to form the lake’s outlet during ice age when its size and water levels were significantly higher. But it has been ‘out of order’ since then as it now forms the entrance to Hell’s Gate National Park instead.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Lake Naivasha completely dried up and effectively disappeared. The resulting open land was farmed until heavy rains a few years later caused the lake to return to existence, swallowing up the newly established estates. The lake’s average depth is about 6 m (20 ft), with the deepest area being at Crescent Island, a partly submerged crater at a maximum depth of 30 m (100 ft).
Apart from transient streams, the lake is fed by the perennial Malewa and Gilgil rivers.
Plenty of fresh water in an otherwise dry surrounding has turned Lake Naivasha into an oasis overflowing with a myriad of bird-life. Over 400 different species have earned the region recognition as a Ramsar wetland site; testifying to its big importance of the local avi fauna. This makes it a paradise for bird watchers, where the encounter with kingfishers, ibis, cormorants, pelicans and the majestic fish eagle are inevitable.
Early mornings and the evenings here are ever memorable, with the captivating call of a fish eagle high over the lake bringing the day to an excellent finish. Much of the lake is surrounded by forests of the yellow barked Acacia Xanthophlea, also known as the Yellow Fever tree and is home to families of the pretty Colobus monkey. The lake also houses a significant population of hippo and draws plenty of game, such as zebra, giraffe and topi to drink.
Not surprisingly, the natural bounty of the lake area attracted settlers who built impressive homes such as the Djinn Palace that now lies on the premises of Oserian flower farm. The settlers’ lifestyle became a synonym for decadence during the two world wars,when they became the infamous Happy Valley society for their notorious parties and drug abuse.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of well known conservationists such as Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free, the elephant researcher Oria Douglas-Hamilton and Allan Root, nature filmer of world fame also became residents of the lake.
Between 1937 and 1950, Lake Naivasha actually became Kenya’s first international airport when it was used as a landing place for the flying boats of Imperial Airways that connected England with South Africa. The Imperial aircrafts were known for their comfort and speed, cutting down the travel time to East Africa to merely ten days.
The fertile soils and the abundance of fresh water have turned Lake Naivasha into one of Kenya’s prime agricultural regions. Farming started at the beginning of the 20th century, when the first white farmers – the most famous of all being Lord Delamere – settled around the lake. The pioneers introduced new plants and experimented with new animal breeds, undertaking ground breaking work which Kenya profits from until the very day.
But the list of failings is equally long: Neither sisal plantations, ostrich farms nor wineries had a lasting success.
Finally, horticulture, especially floriculture around the lake brought a lasting success. More than fifty multinational flower and horticultural companies offer some 50,000 people a steady income. In fact, the benefits of the horticultural business go far beyond as it has grown into the single biggest foreign exchange earner for Kenya.
Other tourist attractions:
In the vicinity of Lake Naivasaha, there are two smaller lakes i.e. Lake Oloiden and Lake Sonachi, a secluded green crater lake which lies within the private Crater Lake Game Sanctuary.
Hell’s Gate National Park:
What we know today as Hell’s Gate National Park, which is right in the South of Lake Naivasha, used to be a sisal plantation and a cattle ranch up to the 1970s when the conservationist Joy Adamson bought the land and donated it to the Kenyan government under the condition it was turned into a protected area.
Although its is only 68,5 sq km, the park that was gazetted in 1984 offers a thorough cross section of the Rift Valley’s landscapes, geology, flora and fauna. The park boasts an abundance of animal species, notably buffalo, zebra, eland, hartebeest, Thomson’s gazelle, Maasai giraffe, ostrich, baboon, klipspringer antelope and Channler’s mountain reed buck.
As lions and elephants are absent, Hell’s Gate National Park is one of few in Kenya where walking and cycling is permitted, making it ideal for hiking, biking, and rock climbing. Even better so, it can be easily reached with public means of transport which explains the high visitors numbers of up to 45,000 per year!
It is worth noting, that Hell’s Gate was the setting of the popular Lion King cartoon and when visiting Hell’s gates you will see many of outcrops and landscape features where Simba and his cronies stalked and walked.
Some parts of the Tomb Raider -another blockbuster movie with super star Angelina Jolie- were actually shot in the steep Njorowa gorge. Most people prefer to come here to do a spectacular hike. While entering the canyon you should be aware of the danger of flash floods that sweep through Njorowa after heavy rains.
Especially impressive are the manifold rock formations within the park, the notably huge basalt pillars, its massive red tinged august cliffs framing a temperamentally active interior of steam vents and bubbling springs which probably led to it earning the name Hell’s Gate.
In fact, signs of volcanism can be found everywhere. There are Fischer’s Tower, Central Tower and Southern Tower, the ancient plugs of long eroded volcanos which play a prominent role in local Maasai folk tales.
The Olkaria and Hobley’s volcanos are other attractions in the Southwestern part of the park which are rarely visited.
Possibly the most obvious of all volcanic traces are the many steam vents which are tapped by KenGen and channeled through a wide network of pipes to a geothermal power plant producing green energy.
Mount Longonot National Park:
The panorama of Lake Naivasha is dominated by the rugged shape of Mt. Longonot. The mountain measuring 2777 meters has a vast, deep crater in its middle. It was created during the formation of the Great Rift Valley and its most recent outbreak occurred only a couple of a hundred years ago. The sides of the mountain have deep gulleys, making the trek up even more scenic as well as challenging! The treat waiting for those who undertake the climb up to the rim or peak of the mountain is the stunning 360° view.
The climb to the crater rim takes about one hour, reckon another hour to make it to the very top. To walk around the whole crater will take you something close to three hours – depending on your fitness.
The Mt. Longonot ecosystem’s wildlife attractions include elands, lion, leopard, bushbucks, common zebra, giraffe, grant gazelles, Thomson gazelles, baboons and buffalos. So hiring a KWS guide at the National Park gate is advisable.
Naivasha town is located on the Southeast edge of the lake. It is about an 80 kilometers drive from Nairobi along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway. It is a lively market place offering decent accommodation, restaurants and supplies for farmers from the surroundings. Apart from some nice examples of historic architecture, notably the dormant railway station, Naivasha has little to offer for tourists. But it is a popular transit point for the movement of goods and services and a favorite stop for people getting refreshments as they head upcountry.
Practical travel information:
Explore the Naivasha region:
Tourism activities within the Naivasha region include bird watching, hiking, game driving, bicycling, nature walking, ballooning, fishing and horse riding amongst others. Most accommodation on the lake shores offer boat trips. Bicycles are for rent along the South Lake Road and at the turn-off to Hell’s Gate National Park.
About 45 minutes’ walk from Fisherman’s Camp, you can visit the Geothermal Club set in a beautiful spot looking down on the lake. This relaxed restaurant caters for Ken Gen thermal power plant’s employees but will happily serve visitors. Cold beer is always available and makes for a refreshing stop. On the Northern side of Lake Naivasha, a motorable track leads up Mt. Eburru to a spectacular view point. On its foot hills overlooking the lake, the Great Rift Valley Golf Course invites you to play a round of golf in one of the most picturesque clubs of the country as most holes enjoy stunning views of mountains, plains, lakes and both escarpments of the Rift Valley itself. The quality of the greens is said to be amongst the best in Kenya.
How to get there:
Main road access to Naivasha is directly from Nairobi by bus/Matatu or private transport over the Old Naivasha/Mai Mahiu road or the Nakuru highway. If you want to visit Mt. Longonot National Park, take the Old Naivasha road. If you travel by public means, you get local matatus serving the South Lake and the North Lake road in Naivasha town. There is an airstrip in Naivasha, with charter flights available. Some lodges and guesthouses here have their private airstrips. Most hotels and lodges also organize transfers from Nairobi to Naivasha on demand. See the Accommodation section for details.
Where to stay:
From campsites to basic bandas and hyper luxurious lodges, especially the Southern side of Lake Naivasha offers every choice of accommodation for any taste and budget. Hotels at the lake side also provide a perfect tranquil business environment away from the noise of the city.
Crayfish Camp, Fish Eagle Inn, Fisherman’s Camp and Carnelley’s Camp offer camping facilities, budget lodging and easy going atmosphere. Lake Naivasha Country Club, Sopa Lodge, Kongoni Lodge, Leopard Lodge and the Great Rift Valley Lodge offer a higher standard and more exclusivity for those who can afford.
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Until the next time its many thanks from the 50 Treasures of Kenya Trust to all the contributors in this feature with special acknowledgment going to our chairman Mr.Harmut Fiebig for the wonderful photography and most of all to you our treasured audience for your delightful company.
Its always a pleasure to share a treasure.