A lake populated by hippos and hundreds of species of birds, surrounded by beautiful national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, with a volcano in the background monitoring the whole scenery. Place it at less than two hours drive from Nairobi and you have a perfect spot for a weekend getaway from the Kenyan capital. Or a long weekend, as there is so much to see in the vicinity. I am talking about Naivasha, a Kenyan town visited by hundreds of tourists willing to immerse themselves in the beauty of the area.
Metres above sea level
The starting point of the visit to the area has to be the lake named after Naivasha. Or most probably it is the town that got its name from the beautiful lake. Indeed in the Masai language, the word Nai’posha means stormy water: not really as rough as the Pacific Ocean, but it was probably scary for people trying to cross it on a canoe during the rainy season when sudden storms are pretty common!
Lake Naivasha risked some serious environmental consequences due to poor management of its waters and from the early 1900s it receded a lot because of the human activities that take place around its shores. One of the main activity in the area is farming of flowers to be exported in the European market, mainly by Indian businessmen. The greenhouses where millions of flowers are cultivated require a huge amount of water and the lake is the main source of the region. In 2011 the shore was some eighty metres far from the current position, but the lake was partially saved by the intervention of a Kenyan NGO. Nowadays trees rising from the lake and used as perches by birds are the witnesses of that difficult period for the beautiful Lake Naivasha.
Number of hippos
Species of bird
Lake Naivasha has a vast number of animal species around its shores. The main attractions are birds, as the lake is on the migratory route of many European and Asian species who go to the South for the winter and rest on the welcoming shores. Until March-April, hundreds of birds rest in the region before beginning their trip back to the North. Many non-migratory birds are also present, making the lake a paradise for bird-watchers, who can admire pelicans, eagles, cranes, kingfishers and much more. The lake used to house only one indigenous species of fish, but then black bass and tilapia were introduced, respectively in 1929 and 1956.
Between 1937 and 1950, the lake was used as a landing place for flying boats on the Imperial Airways passenger and mail route from Southampton in Britain to South Africa. It linked Kisumu and Nairobi. The terminal’s foundation can still be seen on Crescent Island and it was pictured on Kenya postage stamps from 1949 to 1952.
Getting to Lake Naivasha
Naivasha is easily reachable from Nairobi through the A104 and the 100km road can take from 1h 30m to 3h, depending on the traffic. Coming from the Kenyan capital, you will be suddenly hit by the change of landscape as soon as the road towers the Great Rift Valley. A well-deserved break is a perfect idea to buy souvenirs, rest and take wonderful photos from the top of the large valley. But do not celebrate yet, here starts the real traffic, with heavy trucks going very slow both up and downhill. If you are coming from Nakuru, the trip will last a bit less than from Nairobi.
Cost of a trip Nairobi-Naivasha
A taxi can cost from 6000 to 7000 KSH (around 60 to 70 USD). You can also use the public transport: a matatu (ultra-packed van) can cost 300-400 KSH (3-4 USD) plus an extra fee if you have a big baggage requiring an additional seat. You will probably find many going to Nakuru that will stop in Naivasha. They usually travel with daylight, so from 6 am to 8 pm, and they seemed less dangerous than Ugandan ones, but I would still recommend avoiding matatus as much as possible
Hotels in Naivasha
Wildlife in front of your door, mountains framing the lake and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. Let’s be honest, even an old tent in really bad condition could be a good accommodation with such a scenery (because big predators are not in the area, otherwise!). But do not worry, if you are after comfortable and relaxing lodges, you are in one of the best places in Kenya, and that is one of the reasons why Nairobi dwellers choose Naivasha for their detoxifying weekends.
The first hotel I highly recommend is the Sawela Lodges, located strategically on the southeastern shore of lake Naivasha and a few minutes away by boat to Crescent Island. The facility has 50 air-conditioned room of a high standard, with balcony and view over the garden and the lake. The food is a mix of local and international cuisine and the lunch and dinner buffets have a wide choice of different dishes. The Sawela Lodges has numerous conference halls and many activities can be organised directly at the reception, including a free small introduction about Lake Naivasha on its shores by their local guide. Highly recommended is a pre-dinner drink on the small hill of the garden, with a view over the lake and often giraffes and zebras.
Next recommendation is the Naivasha Country Club, with its beautiful rooms and interiors. It is very close to the bridge heading to the Naivasha Yacht Club and to Crescent Island, making of it a perfect choice to enjoy the nature.
On the opposite side of Lake Naivasha, highly recommended is the Enashipai Resort & Spa. These modern lodges are fully equipped, the garden and the swimming pool are top class, and the spa guarantees a relaxing stay.
On January 9, 2005, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The negotiations aimed at ending the Second Sudanese Civil War, develop democracy, share oil revenues and set a timetable for the independence referendum to take place in South Sudan. The so-called Naivasha Agreement, was signed was signed at the Naivasha Simba Lodge, on the shores of the lake. The conference was attended by 15 heads of state and politicians, including Kofi Annan (UN Secretary General), Tabo Mbeki (South Africa), Colin Powell (USA) and other US senators.
What to do in Naivasha /1: Crescent Island
If you have a couple of free hours, pay a visit to Crescent Island. If you don’t have some time free, just find it! A boat ride on Lake Naivasha is already an amazing experience, as you enjoy the landscape while spotting hippos and eagles. Adding to it a walk on Crescent Island is a must. The name of the island come from its shape as a crescent moon. But its real name should be Crescent Peninsula, as it is not really an island. It is linked to the mainland by a bridge. Crescent Island and the neighbouring Lotus Island form the rim of an extinct volcano protruding out of Naivasha Lake.
The privately owned island hosts hundreds of wild animals, including giraffes, zebras, buffalos and waterbucks. Animals were taken here in the ’80s for the shooting of the film Out of Africa. Rhinos and Elephants were removed for lack of food, as well as predators, so that game could live peacefully and increase in number. The only predators remaining today are bat-eared foxes, few pythons and sometimes hyenas coming from the mainland during the night.
The uniqueness of Crescent Island is that you can freely walk with your guide around it, with herds of wildebeests running in front of you, suspicious foxes running away from you and giraffes peacefully eating acacia leaves. Everything magically framed by Mount Longonot and other mountains in the background.
Most of the hotels on Lake Naivasha organise boat trips to Crescent Island. Be aware that there is an entry fee of 27’000 KSH for foreigners that has to be paid once on the island so that the price of the hotel is usually only for the boat ride.
What to do in Naivasha /2: Hell’s Gate
After visiting Crescent Island, it is time to move a bit from Lake Naivasha and explore another location linked to the movie industry: indeed, Hell’s Gate National Park was visited by the production team of The Lion King to gain inspiration. This, alone, is a fair reason to visit the park. With a size of 68 square kilometres, the Hell’s Gate is one of the smallest parks in Kenya. But to compensate, it is one of the only two in the country where you can actually camp inside the park! I guess you begin to understand why you should visit the Hell’s Gate National Park.
The name Hell’s Gate was coined by 19th-century explorers Fischer and Thomson in 1883 in relation to a door in the gorge which leads down to a boiling cauldron of molten rock, also known as Hell’s Kitchen.
The first part of the park is an 8-kilometres walk into a highly scenic canyon. You can also decide to follow the main trail renting a bicycle or with your own car, stopping every now and then to take pictures of the numerous game. The animals are pretty used to humans and are often beside the road. This is perfect for children, who will love it (I am sure that also “grown-up children” will enjoy it). Animals include giraffes, buffalos, antelopes, warthogs, and zebras. If you like climbing, stop at the Fischer’s Tower, very close to the entrance and conquer its peak to enjoy a wonderful view of the Hell’s Gate.
At the end of the walk is the Central Tower, the second volcanic plug of the park. Here you can descend into the smaller gorge that leads to some (very) hot springs and to a small stream with sulphurous waters. The trail is a bit more difficult than the first part, but children can still make it. At the end of the walk, you can find a small Masai market where you can buy some beautiful souvenirs.
Entrance fee: 27’000 KSH for foreigners.
What to do in Naivasha /3: Mount Longonot
You visited a lake, a gorge and now what is missing? Of course a volcano and its crater. As you might know, I like to hike and after the easy walk in the Hell’s Gate National Park, I decided that it was time to do something a bit more demanding. Do not be scared, you are not climbing Mount Everest, but it still has a 600 metres difference in altitude, so be ready to struggle a little.
Metres above sea level
As it happens for many toponyms in the area, the name of the volcano comes from Masai language: oloonong’ot means ‘mountain of many spurs’ or steep ridges. The volcano is now inactive and according to locals it last erupted more than 150 years ago, during the 1860s. The sides of the mountain are formed by narrow valleys created by lava flow in the past.
The hike runs for around 3 kilometres from the starting point to the crater rim. From here begin your 7 kilometres journey around it. A small tip for you: most people go anti-clockwise. For some unknown reason, I followed the trail on the crater clockwise. The latter is probably the wisest choice because the ascent to the highest point looked easier. The total time to cover the 13 kilometres from the park entrance and back is about 4 to 5 hours. As far as you do not want to do it running like many people were doing.
The volcano is part of the Mount Longonot National Park (entrance fee 27’000 KSH for foreigners). On its slopes, you can spot many animals, including giraffes, zebras, warthogs and buffalos. Apparently, there are also some leopards, but encountering them is extremely rare (thank God!). Once on the top, you will be amazed by the beauty of the crater, which is full of vegetation. If the weather is friendly, you can enjoy a wonderful view over the Great Rift Valley, including Lake Naivasha, Crescent Island, and the Hell’s Gate. I was half-lucky, as everything started with a very cloudy weather that helped to keep the temperature a bit lower, but then it turned to sunny while on the crater rim, so that I could enjoy the panorama.