Lake Naivasha

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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:

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Lake Naivasha as seen from Nakuru highway in the late afternoon light.

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).

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A complete rainbow bridges the skies over Lake Naivasha as an afternoon thunderstorm moves away, leaving behind troubled waters that interpret the original Maasai name.

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.

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The ever changing water level creates a unique riparian zone of swamps and papyrus that are home to myriads of birds and offer pastures for the many hippos of the lake.

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.

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High salt content characterizes most of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes. Lake Naivasha is one of the few exceptions indicating there has to be an underground outlet which has not yet been detected.

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.

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Clockwise from top left: cormorant, Hadada ibis, pelicans, pied kingfisher.

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.

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Undoubtedly the dominator of the air above the lake: African fish eagle.

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.

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Breathtaking view from the lake to its Southern shores, Mt. Longonot rising in the backdrop.

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.

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Floating house in the riparian zone of the lake. The heavily fluctuating water level does not permit permanent structures in the vicinity of the water.

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.

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Freshly cut flowers are transported by donkey cart from the green houses to the packing units of Oserian flower farms.

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.

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Flower farms surrounding Lake Naivasha offer jobs to approximately 50,000 people.

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:

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The Green Crater Lake within the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary.

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.

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Exploring Hell’s Gate on foot or bicycle offers face to face wildlife encounters you will never forget!

 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!

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The Njorowa Gorge hike starts at a small information center which overlooks Central Tower, the massive plug of a long ago extinct volcano.

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.

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The hike through the gorge is spectacular but caution is advised after rains when flash floods run through the canyon.

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.

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Red cliffs of Hell’s Gate formed by massive basalt pillars.

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.

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Fischer’s Tower at dawn. The volcanic plug is a free climber’s heaven and home to a significant population of rock hyrax. It was named after a German Dr. Fischer, the first European explorer to visit the area.

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.

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Steam pipes of the Olkaria geothermal power plant.

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:

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Mt. Longonot is possibly the most distinct of all Kenyan volcanos offering splendid hiking.

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.

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Plenty of game roams the savannah between the mountain and Hell’s Gate National Park.

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:

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Naivasha sits on the Southeastern shores of Lake Naivasha.

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:

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Re-arranging and de-dusting the safari equipment at Carnelly’s Camp after driving over dusty roads from Suswa to Hell’s Gate.

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:

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Being formerly a nightmare, Old Naivasha road has been re-build and is in a good state again. Since it is the lorry route, it can be quite congested though.

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:

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Clockwise, starting from top left: bedroom at Kongoni where Angelina Jolie might have slept when she was casting in Tomb Raider, bathroom at Chui Lodge, garden of Elsamere, bathroom at Chui Lodge.

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.

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Clockwise, from top left: Sopa Lodge premises, bathroom at Chui Lodge, terrace at Kiangazi, sitting room at Chui Lodge.

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.

We trust that this feature has been informative to you.

If indeed, please take it a step further and spread the message, like it, share it and follow us as we countdown to Kenya’s 50th birthday!

 Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter and stay posted for the next Treasure.

  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.

 Much appreciated.

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