Like the tiers of a great amphitheatre, WESTERN KENYA slopes away from Nairobi, the major game parks and the coast, down to the stage of Lake Victoria. Cut off by the high Rift wall of the Mau and Elgeyo escarpments, this region of dense agriculture, rolling green valleys and pockets of the thick jungle is one of the parts of the country least known to travellers. Although more accessible than the far north, or even some of the major parks, it has been neglected by the safari operators – and that’s all to the good. You can travel for days through lush landscapes from one busy market town to the next and rarely if ever, meet other tourists. The western region of Kenya lacks those tourist attractions that are thought to be quintessentially Kenyan.
Here, you will find no roaming lions; there will be no charming vistas of motor vehicles giving the right of way to tall giraffes or magnificent elephants. But despite this, the land beyond the rift is perhaps Kenya’s best-kept secret. A number of ecosystems come together to create this magical region of Kenya. Gentle rolling hills blanketed by tea plantations; sedate lakes that support rare populations of birdlife and fish; grasslands that are only broken by pockets of densely forested woodlands and dank swamps; little agricultural towns, each unique and different from the last.
This is a portrait of Western Kenya, an image of rich culture and fertile lands, and best of all, it has not been trampled upon or cheapened by millions of tourist vans and feet. The region is becoming a popular Kenya holiday destination, especially due to its association with Kogelo, the offbeat, if admittedly very minor, new attraction, which is the home village of the father of US president Barrack Obama.
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1. Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria is not only the largest lake in Africa, but also the second-largest freshwater body anywhere in the world, extending over some 68,500 sq km (26,500 sq miles), and an area comparable to that of the Republic of Ireland. Shared between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the lake supports several million people, including the Luo of Kenya, many of whom are still fishermen.
Dunga is one of many places on the lake where you can see their fleets of traditional fishing dhows, whose white lateen sails, set against a deep blue background, appear to be out of the romantic myths of the Sinbad coast. And there is, in fact, a connection to the coast, dating back to the time when the Arab slavers were marauding around Victoria, building boats for the lake in the same style as their dhows on the ocean. Lake Victoria is the obvious place to make for in the west, sprinkled with out-of-the-way islands, populated by exceptionally friendly people, and with the region’s major town, Kisumu, on its shores.
Kisumu is a city that has been described as languid, sultry, easy-going and friendly. Sitting on the edge of Lake Victoria, this city is the third largest in Kenya and is the hub of the west. Kisumu was a colonial port that connected Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It remained in relative isolation from the rest of the country until the railway line was finished in 1903. Culturally, the city is one that has taken a little bit from various cultures and created a unique society.
Asian, African and European elements have melded in a grace that permeates the whole city; from the gated mansion communities to the poorer areas of town. Despite its location on the edge of a lake, Kisumu’s layout turns its back to the waters of Lake Victoria. In the city proper, it is not easy to get a direct view of the lake, and the only indication of the giant pool in the backyard is the occasional breeze that will brush through the city giving it a distinctly fresh scent.
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Headquarters of the Gusii people and district town of a region vying with Nyeri in having the fastest-growing population in the country, Kisii is a prosperous, hard-working trading centre in the hills, and also a good place for a stopover when travelling over the West of Kenya. Notoriously muddy and rubbish-strewn, with a minor reputation for hassle which really only reflects the friendliness of the locals, the town is undergoing something of a makeover, with its sloping streets gradually being resurfaced with paving blocks.
Kisii is most famous for its fine soapstone, though there’s little to be seen in the town itself. The best locality for watching the carvers and making on-the-spot purchases is Tabaka, some way south. One thing you may notice if you stay overnight in Kisii is the occasional earth tremor – the town lies on a fault line and minor earthquakes are not uncommon. Wildlife enthusiasts will want to check out the tree full of giant bats in the government compound between Moi Highway and the Sports Club at the southern end of town.
4. Mt. Elgon National Park
Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano to rival Mount Kenya in everything but crowds. Northwest of Eldoret, Mount Elgon dominates the horizon, at least on the rare occasions when it is not shrouded in cloud. Elgon is around 880 metres (3,000ft) short of Mount Kenya in terms of altitude, but the circumference of its base makes it a bigger massif. The upper slopes of this extinct volcano support a cover of lush mountain forest giving way to moorland at higher altitudes and are protected within Mount Elgon National Park, one of the country’s least developed sanctuaries.
The dense tall forest and a lack of roads inhibit game viewing on the mountain, but it is possible to hike up to the summit, across the moorlands of giant heather. Mount Elgon Lodge, a converted farmhouse with wonderful views, midway between Kitale and the peak, makes a serviceable base, though the recently refurbished self-catering Kapkuro Bandas at the park entrance is much better value. There is also a campsite.
5. Ruma National Park
Near Homa Bay is the Ruma National Park. Established as the Lambwe Valley Nature Reserve, the park is made up of a delightful medley of woodland and savannah vegetation. Ruma is home to Jackson’s hartebeest, the roan antelope that is found only here and the small-statured oribi. Rothschild’s giraffes are quite conspicuous above the grass, but the leopards may be a bit of a challenge to spot. There is a campsite at Ruma National Park but you will need your own gear. As the park is still not very accessible, be prepared to find your own transportation there or to walk for the last kilometre or two.
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6. Kakamega Forest Reserve
Not far from the town is the Kakamega Forest, a jungle-like centre of significant ecological interest since it is a relic of the equatorial rainforest which once spread from West Africa to the East African coast. Though it lies somewhat off the main tourist trail, Kaka mega is an increasingly popular destination for butterfly lovers, birdwatchers and other specialists looking for species more normally associated with Central and West Africa.
Sykes monkey and black-and-white Columbus are both very common, and overnight visitors with a spotlight stand a good chance of picking out the nocturnal potto, a sloth-like primate distantly related to the better-known bush babies. In addition, around 10 per cent of the reserve’s 300 bird species occur nowhere else in Kenya, most alluringly perhaps the great blue turaco, flocks of which fly clumsily between the trees like psychedelic turkeys.
Around 200 sq km (72 sq miles) of undisturbed forest remains, divided into two main sectors. These are the Kakamega National Reserve, which falls under KWS and lies to the north of Kakamega on the east side of the Webuye Road, and the Kakamega Forest Reserve, which falls under the Department of Forestry and lies to the east of town along a dirt road through Isecheno. The forest reserve is generally regarded to offer the best birding, and it is also where the bulk of the accommodation lies, including the upmarket Rondo Retreat and the delightful but affordable Forest Rest House. However, dedicated birders will also want to check out the national reserve, which protects a slightly different selection of bird species, and has a small banda and camping site.
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7. Visit Islands
Beyond Homa Bay is Mbita. Mbita will be your gateway to the Islands of Mfangano, Rusinga and Takawiri. In 1984, a causeway was built between Mbita and Rusinga Island. The drive across the causeway to Rusinga Island will be a unique chance to see some of Kenya’s unique plant diversity. It will also be a chance to make a closer acquaintance with Kenyan history. If you want the unique challenge of tackling one of Lake Victoria’s giant Nile perches, the place to stay is Rusinga Island, where there is a comfortable lodge for fishermen in idyllic surroundings, or Mfangano Island, where there is a tented camp.
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8. Maasai Mara Game Reserve
Finally towards the south-western part is one of Kenya’s biggest pride and joy. Extending over 1,510 sq km (580 sq miles) abutting the Tanzania border, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the most famous protected areas in Africa, and it indisputably ranks among the continent’s Top Five wildlife viewing destinations. Although technically it is not in the western region it is close by (south-west) so when visiting the Western region you should consider visiting this National Reserve.
Few places in Africa support such a profusion of wildlife. Its trademark handsome blond-maned lions are encountered on most game drives, and most people spending three days or longer in the reserve will see leopards and cheetahs. Elephant herds march across the savannah in purposeful processions, tusks glowing white in the tropical sun. Panicked warthogs scurry away, tails comically erect, at the approach of a vehicle. Topis, with their long mournful faces, stand sentinel on termite mounds or sunbathe with their chins resting lazily on the ground.
Regally horned impalas mill between herds of gazelle, while groups of eland, the world’s largest antelope, cling skittishly to the horizon. Towering giraffe glide between the acacias, fluttering their eyelids at passing 4x4s, while buffalo stare down all comers with an unfathomable mix of inquisitiveness and machismo. Above all, there is the endless drama of the wildebeest migration, which crosses over from Tanzania to take up residence in the Mara for a few months every year, usually between July and October.
Also known as the Maasai Mara (or once you feel sufficiently familiar, just the Mara), this unfenced national reserve in southwest Kenya is effectively a northern extension of Tanzania’s equally famous and much larger Serengeti National Park, with which it shares its southern boundary. The Mara is bounded by the Loita Hills in the east, the splendid Oloololo Escarpment to the west, and the Itong Hills, below the Mau Escarpment, in the north. But the reserve itself is relatively flat, comprising open plains of red oat grass, and gently rolling hills mottled with groves of whistling thorns and other species of spiky Acacia tree.
• The tranquil Rondo Retreat Center in the Kakamega Rain Forest is a first-class homestead consisting of the main house of clapboard and colonial-era corrugated iron, and five cottages in the same old style, whose proximity to the forest makes for delightful accommodation. The grounds are lovely with a well-maintained lawn and giant rainforest trees. There are fifteen en-suite double rooms, plus three more double rooms that share the large original bathroom in the main house. No two rooms are the same. The bedrooms, sitting rooms and dining room have all been decorated and furnished with flair using things “old and new” – antique prints and photographs, local paintings, crafts and fabrics.
Hearty English breakfasts, midday lunches, and candlelit dinners are served in a brightly cosy dining room, in front of a crackling fire if the air is cool. Tea can be taken in the sitting room, on the main veranda or in your cottage or room. Alcoholic drinks are not served in this retreat.
• Rusinga Island Lodge, A place of infinite beauty to calm the mind and rejuvenate the body, Rusinga Island Lodge provides a welcome break before, during or after a rigorous and exciting East African safari. Exuding an atmosphere of serene tranquillity, Rusinga’s manicured lawns stretch to the water’s edge.
Rusinga’s grounds, with its exotic trees, are a haven for a myriad of bird species – many of which are unique to this small corner of Kenya. These spacious grounds offer a safe environment for children to release energy and the more active to catch up on exercise.
Rusinga’s renowned hospitality; delicious home-grown, home-cooked food; and indulgent accommodation combine to offer an ideal base from which to explore other areas of East Africa.
• Homabay Tourist Hotel, this hotel offers convenient tourist sites within the neighbourhood namely: Homa hills by guided bicycle tour, Ruma National Park for game wildlife (15 km), a tour of Ondago swamp for Flamingos and Simbi Nyaima for cultural history in Kendu Bay (50km), A visit to Rusinga Island to watch flamingos and Mfangano Islands, Gogo Falls for site seeing, Sony Sugar Factory at Awendo, also a tour of Tea & Coffee plantations in Kericho, Kisii, and Kamagambo.
So it does not just have to be a trip upcountry that takes you to Western. Though even if it is, why not make a fun affair for the whole family? View the sites and see what this beautiful part of our nation has to offer.
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