In Kenya’s section of Africa’s Great Rift Valley is a beautiful freshwater lake fringed by thick papyrus, with the world’s highest population of hippos; giraffes wander among acacias, buffalos wallow in the waters, and Colobus monkeys flit over tree tops. Text and photographs by Kalpana Sunder

A view of Lake Naivasha, the largest of the Rift valley lakes.
A view of Lake Naivasha, the largest of the Rift valley lakes.

A brilliant orange- and-yellow weaver bird carries a blade of grass and deftly tucks it into its spherical hanging nest as I walk up from the boat, across sloping land, for about a hundred yards to a ridge; and then I look over another lush plain filled with animals. I feel like I am part of a scene from Jurassic Park. Resplendent giraffes lope gracefully, arranging themselves in perfect geometric patterns, against the backdrop of volcanic mountains and a silvery lake which looks more like a sea. I am on Crescent Island, a private conservancy owned by a British Kenyan family on the banks of Lake Naivasha.

This freshwater lake has always been subject to mysterious fluctuations. Overlooked by many tourists for the more popular Lake Nakuru National Park, Lake Naivasha is serene and virgin. We buckle ourselves into bright orange life jackets as we pull into the waters, studded with floating mountains of papyrus reed, and water hyacinth. We see pied kingfishers, stocky Egyptian geese, super starlings flashing their iridescent blue wings and flocks of storks. High up on the branches, I hear the haunting call of keen eyed fish eagles, before I spot them, as they wait patiently to catch their prey. Fishermen stand waist deep in water to harvest crayfish in small buckets.

Naivasha means ‘rippling waters’ and it’s the largest of the Rift Valley lakes. Much of the lake is surrounded by forests of the yellow barked Acacia Xanthophlea, also known as the ‘yellow fever tree’. Bare skeletons of trees dot the waters, which abound with bird life, and cast surreal reflections in the waters.  The shores of this freshwater lake used to be traditional Masai grazing ground for centuries till Joseph Thomson arrived in 1884. Then in the 1930s the British settled here and used the lake to carry mail on boats to Britain and back.

Our boatman suddenly steers the boat towards a flotilla of water hyacinth and we spot the large and pink faces of a pod of hippos, with their disproportionate ears, their comical giant nostrils, and their sunken eyes, poking out of the water-like periscopes huddled together—some lounging, others yawning—as the hippos plunge into the waters and surface again. We maintain a respectful distance for after all the deceptively adorable looking hippos are the ‘lions of the waters’. “Hippos are very territorial,” warns our boatman. They draw an invisible border which you better not cross and these strong creatures can eat 70 kilograms of grass in one session. We dock at Crescent Island, a stretch of land that is the rim of a submerged volcanic caldera. I see a board that cautions tourists that ‘Walking on Crescent Island is at your own risk’. “There are no predators here, no fences and no vehicles—it was created 35 years ago for shooting of the film Out of Africa when animals from the Masai Mara were brought in here,” explains our guide Moses.

Pod of hippos lie submerged in the waters of Lake Naivasha.
Pod of hippos lie submerged in the waters of Lake Naivasha.

We have lunch at the luxurious Chui Safari Lodge set in a private 18,000 acre wildlife sanctuary, and furnished with African artifacts, art, and even a fireplace that looks like an anthill. Post lunch, we take a safari drive through vast stretches of savannah dotted with herds of impalas, zebras, and wildebeest. Our knowledgeable guide shows me leaves used by local tribes as lipstick, sage leaves used as deodorants, whistling thorn plants which are filled with ants, and identifies birds by their distinct calls. I’m starting to recognise a tiny fraction of the hundreds of bird species listed in the book in my bedroom and can’t help feeling how ignorant we are of the diversity in places such as this.

“There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you have drunk half a bottle of champagne — bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive,” wrote Karen Blixen in Out of Africa… I cannot but agree with her!

THE DETAILS

  • Getting There: Nairobi is connected to Mumbai by South African Airways. Lake Naivasha is a 2.5 hour drive from Nairobi.
  • Stay: Enashipai Resorts has a great location. For a luxe experience, the beautifully designed Chui Lodge is highly recommended.
  • Do: Take a boat ride on the lake, walk on Crescent Island, visit the Hells Gate National Park, and visit Elsamere, once the home of the Adamsons of ‘Born Free’ fame.
  • Eat: Local Kenyan food like Ugali (cornmeal), Nyama Choma (roasted meat) and Kachumbari salad with onions and tomatoes. You will be surprised to see that most menus feature chapatis too.
  • Drink: Local Tusker beer.