Sunday, March 29, 2020

Western Kenya

Western Kenya

  • Lake Victoria
  • Ruma National Park
  • Maasai Mara National Reserve
  • Mt Elgon National Reserve
  • Saiwa Swamp National Park

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake covering an area of 67,850 sq. km. This vast expanse, about the size of the Republic of Ireland, forms the headwaters of the River Nile. Its Kenya focus, Kisumu is 350 km from Nairobi by road. Three nations share the waters of the lake – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Kenya’s share is the smallest (3785 sq. km) but there is a busy network of waterways between the trading towns and villages which lie along the shores of the lake. Passenger boats and small cargo vessels ply daily from Kisumu as far as the Tanzanian border and north to Port Victoria near Uganda. Kisumu, the largest town in western Kenya and the nation’s third largest (population approximately 250,000), is the home of several small industries notably fish processing and cotton goods manufacture. The town came into existence with the completion, in 1901, of the first section of the Uganda Railway five years after plate laying began 100 km away in Mombasa. It was briefly called Port Florence. Only forty years earlier, the English explorer Speke, having travelled along the western shore of the lake reached a place he named Ripon Falls. It was these cataracts, at what is now Jinja in Uganda, which he proclaimed the source of the Nile. Fishing for tilapia and nile perch provides a living for many of the Luo who live along the lakeside. The fish are sold at local markets or to the processors for sale in Nairobi and for export. Most of the fishing is from small picturesque dugout canoes, equipped with lateen sails. The lake once had abundant hippo and crocodile but now these are much reduced. Halfway between Kisumu and Homa Bay, near Kendu Bay is a small inland crater lake, Sindi, offering a sight of flamingo foraging through a surface of emerald algae. There is also a famous heronry near to Kisumu where as many as a thousand large water birds nest and breed between March and July.

Homa mountain, gaunt and grand dominates the peninsular behind which shelters the small town of Homa Bay. Near to Homa Bay are two islands, Rusinga and Mfangano. Rusinga is locally claimed as the burial place of Tom Mboya, a great son of Kenya who was assassinated in Nairobi in 1969. On each of the islands, and also on nearby Takawiri island, there are fishing camps providing boats for hire and some simple accommodation in sublime settings. Much of the business of these camps comes from the Maasai Mara lodges where, every morning, planes pick up fishermen for the less than half hour’s flight to the lake.

Accommodation:

Sunset Hotel, Kisumu, 100 beds
Imperial Hotel, Kisumu, 140 beds
Homa Bay Hotel, Homa Bay, 42 beds
Rusinga Island Fishing Lodge, 6 beds
Takawiri Island Resort, 16 beds
Mfangano Island Camp, 12 beds.

Ruma National Park

This park (formerly Lambwe Valley National Reserve) was established in 1966 but its isolation, and consequent lack of income, ensured a very slow pace of development. With its recent conversion into a national park game viewing tracks and general park maintenance have been established. It is a fine place to see roan antelope and Jackson’s hartebeest, a larger and redder species than Coke’s which is found in most Kenya parks. Oribi, one of the smallest of the antelope family, are also seen here and among the predators are lion and cheetah. This is a delightful park for the repeat visitor or for anyone wishing to achieve isolation on their safari. There is no accommodation nearer than Homa Bay about 34 km distant from the nearest park gate.

Maasai Mara National Reserve

The Masai Mara is Kenya’s finest wildlife sanctuary. Everything about this reserve is outstanding. The wildlife is abundant and the gentle rolling grasslands ensure that animals are never out of sight. Birds, too, are prolific. Including migrants well over 450 species have been recorded, among them 57 species of birds of prey. The climate is gentle, rarely too hot and well spread rainfall year round. Rain, when it falls almost always chooses the late afternoon or night. Between July and October, when the great wildebeest migration is in the Mara the sensation is unparalleled. The Masai Mara lies about 270 km from Nairobi and takes about 5 hours by road. There are scheduled flights, twice daily from Wilson Airport Nairobi, which takes about 40-45 minutes. The reserve is about 1510 sq. km having been reduced from 1672 sq. km in 1984. However, the wildlife is far from being confined within the Reserve boundaries and an even larger area, generally referred to as the ‘dispersal area’ extends north and east of the Reserve. Maasai live within the dispersal area with their stock but centuries of close association with the wildlife has resulted in an almost symbiotic relationship where wildlife and people live in peace with one another. The first sight of this natural wonderland is breathtaking. Here the great herds of shuffling elephants browse among the rich tree-studded grasslands with an occasional sighting of a solitary and ill-tempered rhino.

Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle, topi and eland and many more species of plains’ game offer a rich choice of food for the dominant predators; lion, leopard and cheetah which hunt in this pristine wilderness. In the Mara river, hippo submerge at the approach of a vehicle only to surface seconds later to snort and grumble their displeasure. Seemingly drowsy crocodile sunbathe on the river banks, mouth agape, waiting with subtle cunning for prey at which to strike with lightning swiftness. But this richness of fauna, this profusion of winged beauty and the untouched fragility of the landscape, are all subordinate to the Mara’s foremost attraction, the march of the wildebeest. Each year, far south in the great vastness of the Serengeti, the wildebeest raise their dignified but quaint heads, sniff the air and, as if by one accord, start the long trek to the Kenya border and the Masai Mara. After exhausting the grazing in Tanzania’s northern Serengeti a large number of wildebeest and zebra enter the Masai Mara around the end of June drawn by the sweet grass raised by the long rains of April and May. It is estimated that more than half a million wildebeest enter the Mara and are joined by another 100,000 from the Loita Hills east of the Mara. Driving in the midst of these great herds is an unimaginable experience. Whilst the eyes feast on the spectacle the air carries the smells, the dust and the sounds of hundreds of thousands of animals. There is nowhere else on earth to compare with this wildlife marvel. But the trek is costly. The herds draw ravening packs of predators, especially hyenas and lions, and thousands of the lame, laggard and sick never complete the cycle. More die, by drowning or by the teeth of the cunning crocodile, whilst trying to cross the swirling muddy waters of the Mara and Talek rivers. Once the Mara’s grass has been devoured and when fresh rain Tanzania has brought forth a new flush there, the herds turn south, heading hundreds of kilometres back to Serengeti and the Ngorongoro plains. There the young are dropped in time to grow sufficiently strong to undertake the long march north six months later.

Although July, August and September are the months when the Mara plains are filled with migrating wildebeest and zebra, there is much resident wildlife year round. Apart from the better known species there are numerous opportunities to add some of the rare and less frequently seen animals to the visitor’s checklist. In the south western sector you may be lucky enough to see roan antelope, a handsome creature regrettably rare countrywide. Bat-eared foxes peer from their burrows and there are thousands of topi, an antelope not found in other major parks save Tsavo. The combination of a gentle climate, scenic splendour and untold numbers of wildlife makes the Maasai Mara Kenya’s most popular inland destination.

Accommodation:

In the Reserve: Keekorok Lodge, 158 beds
Mara Sopa Lodge, 144 beds
Mara Serena Lodge, 152 beds
Govenor’s Camp, 76 beds
Little Govenor’s Camp, 34 beds
Mara Interpids Camp, 160 beds
Mara Sarove Camp, 150 beds
On the Reserve Periphery
Kichwa Tembo Camp, 102 beds
Ol Kurruk Lodge, 38 beds
Sekanani Camp, 30 beds
Fig Tree Camp, 140 beds

In the dispersal area: Oseur Club, 44 beds
Mpata Club, 20 cottages
Mara River Camp, 52 beds
Mara Safari Club, 80 beds
Siana Springs Camp, 76 beds
Mara Paradise Lodge, 156 beds

Mt. Elgon National Reserve

Mt Elgon, whose peaks reach 4320 m, lies astride the Kenya-Uganda border. Like most of the other great mountains of East Africa it represents the remains of an immense volcano. There is no permanent snow on the mountain but its bleak and craggy peaks are surrounded with the typical afro-alpine vegetation of the high mountains of the equator. Giant groundsel and lobelia grow over the 3650 m level and for much of the year everlasting flowers (Helichrysum sp) cover the moorlands as far as the eye can see. At lower levels giant heath, bamboo and montane forest prevail and in these areas there are elephant and plenty of buffalo. Part of the eastern aspect is set aside as the Mt Elgon National Park stretching from the peaks to the boundary of the forest and the heavily cultivated country of the Luhyia people. Within the par is a wondrous multitude of wildlife and wild flowers and some exciting oddities, among them the celebrated Kitum and Makingeny caves where elephants probe deep in the dark interiors to sample mineral salts from the cave walls. Mount Elgon has been called Kenya’s loneliest Park but it is much more than that. It is an eye feast for the visitor with scenic beauty in mind and an unusual experience for the inquisitive traveller. Accommodation: Mount Elgon Lodge, 34 beds.

Saiwa Swamp National Park

This the tiny (190 ha) park is not far from Mount Elgon and only 24 km from Kitale town. Created primarily for the protection of the rare sitatunga antelope, the par is a perfect example of how a small area can survive as a complete ecological entity. The semi-aquatic sitatunga relying on a swamp habitat has evolved to survive in such conditions and despite size of the park seems certain to continue to thrive there. The sitatunga at Saiwa are sufficiently numerous to ensure seeing them. In addition there are De Brazza, colobus and vervet monkeys and an exciting variety of bird – some 250 species have been noted in this small area. No vehicles are allowed in the parks so this is another bonus as it is one of the few parks in which walking is permitted, or in this case mandatory. There are several platforms built onto trees overlooking the swamp, provided of course, for sitatunga watchers but also a splendid perch in which to contemplate nature’s glory. There is no accommodation at Saiwa although there is a campsite. There are, however, several delightful homestead in the area.