A Love Letter to Western Kenya

(As appears in this month’s edition of Destination Magazine) Kisumu, Western Kenya: not the most obvious of tourist destinations.  It’s tatty around the edges, the roads are awful, the accommodation a bit tired and corporate, the cuisine underwhelming and the city unremarkable at first glance.  It has suffered from chronic under-investment for years and still bears the scars of the post-election violence of 2007-8.  For these reasons and many more, it remains under-marketed and under-visited and yet scratch beneath the surface and cast your eyes a little further than Tuskey’s mall and you’ll find Kisumu a character-full town and the gateway to a world of wonders in Western Kenya.  Take it from one who knows… a first time visitor to Kenya who followed her man here (in an oh-so-un-feminist fashion), made it her home for the last 6 months and her career for the foreseeable future.   Herewith, my love letter to poor, under-appreciated Western Kenya:

Day Break on Lake Victoria

Some of Nyanza and the Western province’s charms are better known than others…  the mighty Lake Victoria in particular, and where better a base for discovery of the region than Kiboko Bay Resort – the popular luxury-tented camp on the very edge of the Lake.   Kiboko (‘hippo’) Bay has been nestled on the lake edge for the last 6 years, attracting the majority of its corporate-leisure clientele through word of mouth and a well-deserved reputation for professional service combined with a truly laid-back, unpretentious atmosphere.   From two outdoor eating terraces – one by the main restaurant, the other up by the azure swimming pool, Kiboko enjoys beautiful views of the lake, an abundance of bird life and gorgeous pink sunsets.  Locals and NGO volunteers swell the resident numbers at weekends to relax by the pool, enjoy fine-dining or take a boat trip out on the lake with one of the many local operators who moor their boats at the resort.   But even at full capacity on a sunny Sunday lunchtime, there’s a quiet and calm to Kiboko that leaves the visitor refreshed and re-charged.

An early morning boat trip should not be missed and will undoubtedly be the highlight of any short visit to Kisumu.  It’s worth setting the alarm pre-6am to get out on the glassy-blue lake just as the sun rises and starts to turn the sky and lake pink.  You will weave between fishing punts and sailing, dhows, drift through the mangroves, and past groups of snorting, snuffling hippos, perhaps stopping for some bird-watching of some of the 350+ species you’ll find around the lake, or to explore one of the bustling fishing markets along the lake-edge.   A photographer’s dream and an unforgettable morning of nature, culture and tranquillity.

But Western Kenya is so much more than Lake Victoria.  It’s surprisingly green and verdant and home to diverse eco-systems, from

Kakamega Jungle Trek

pristine rainforest or rolling tea plantations, through to sugar cane fields and boulder-strewn mountains, all of which are more than accessible in day trips from Kisumu.  For the more adventurous, there are multiple car-hire agents in town should you wish to try the self-drive option.  Prepare yourself, however, for the pot holes, pot-hole-avoiding-boda-bodas (bicycle taxis) and crazy matatu-drivers.  Make sure you have a good map (and a good sense of its scale, as that main road turn off you’re looking for was in fact the un-signposted dirt track you passed three kilometres back).  Kericho and Kakamega both make for glorious day trips.  On the former, you can stroll the plantations, meet the pickers, tour a factory and take tea on the terrace at the Tea Hotel – now a faded, time-warp version of its former self but charming nonetheless.   In Kakamega you can get back to nature, exploring the many walking trails of the butterfly and monkey filled rainforest.  Kids (and big kids) will love to swing on the Tarzan-style lianas that hang down from giant buttressed trees and a knowledgeable guide is well recommended to point out the myriad of bird life and teach you some of the fascinating facts about the unique flora and fauna; just watch out for those biting safari ants as you gaze up at the blue monkeys crashing through the canopy.

The islands of Lake Victoria are another gem and well worth a mini-break within your mini-break.  Rusinga and Mfangano provide perhaps the best value for time and money, just 90 minutes from Kisumu via the Lwanda Kotieno car (or should that be ‘cattle’?) ferry.   Rusinga is a sleepy fishing community – sleepy because most of them fish at night – a spectacular, eerie spectacle of 100s of paraffin lamps bobbing about on the black, inky water with the fishermen’s voices clearly audible from the shore.  In the day time, a boat trip to nearby Bird Island should not be missed.  Cut the engine, drift and enjoy the astonishing sound and sight of 10s of 1000s of nesting cormorants, egrets  and fish eagles whilst prehistoric monitor lizards prowl the banks underneath them.  There’ll be time for a swim in the clean (safe) waters of the white sand, palm-tree lined Takawiri beach before returning to land for whatever else takes your fancy.  Perhaps an educational visit to the local community centre, a stroll around the village or noisy game of football with the local kids, or maybe a visit to the inspirational mausoleum of assassinated local political hero, Tom Mboya.   There are some fantastic accommodation options in the area too – from the wonderfully indulgent, stunning retreat of Rusinga Lodge through to the charming Lake Victoria Safari Village with its mock-lighthouse overlooking the lake.   Boat trips can be chartered privately from Mbita, Kageno village on Rusinga or from any of the accommodation providers.

Kit Mikayi, just 30 minutes west of Kisumu, is another worthwhile stop.   Subject of local folklore, this collection of huge rocks is visible for miles around and set within a gorgeous landscape of boulders, hills and typical, rural homesteads.  It is now a sacred site for the Legion Maria cult who worship amongst the nooks, crannies and caves of the boulders.  They’ll leave you to it though if you want to rest a while atop of the highest rock to enjoy the views and watch the sun set.  Indeed, for lovers of the great outdoors, there’s simply no better region of Kenya.  Whether sport-fishing on the lake, trekking amongst the farms and waterfalls of the Nandi Hills, or bird watching around the paddy-fields and mangroves of the lake, you’ll be sure of a unique adventure far off the beaten track and away from the hoards.

Kisumu itself has much to offer by way of a ‘city break’ and is at least worth a day or two’s extension of the business trip with the Kisumu museum and Impala Park serving as the main attractions (after the must-do morning boat trip).  At first sight the museum appears a little dated and underwhelming, but if you can avoid the hoards of school children and find yourself a good guide, the local artefacts can be brought alive for you and kids will love exploring the replica Luo homestead, peering at the snakes or gazing into the wizened faces of the giant tortoises.  The impala park is a tranquil oasis on the edge of town, filled with roaming impala, zebra and the odd visiting hippo, plus a well-organised zoo where you can get up close and personal with most of the Big 5.  There are also numerous walking trails around the park, along the overgrown lines of a disused railway and around the lake edge.   For non-Kenyans and international visitors, the municipal market is perhaps one of the more fascinating sites in town – a bustling, noisy market of squawking chickens, haggling fruit sellers and persistent matatu touts.  The town is also full of friendly, cheerful bars and restaurants specialising in lake tilapia and chicken or goat barbeque, all served with the obligatory ugali or masala chips side. Don’t forget to order the Tusker ‘warm’ if you’re going ‘local’.

Fishing Community Tour, Rusinga Island

But above all Western Kenya is people and communities, the ‘real’ Africa – warts and all, with some desperate social and health issues which local NGOs are valiantly trying to alleviate – but also with warmth, charm and an un-affected, open welcome for all visitors.   Waving children, beaming smiles, hearty handshakes, songs and sodas all round.  Community tourism represents a huge opportunity for this region if done responsibly and in conjunction with the many local NGOs.   My own recently launched responsible tour company, an investment for my future and hopefully, the region’s – seeks to offer fascinating educational insights into village life in a way that benefits the local people, through homestead visits, craft-demonstrations (and sales) and school and health-centre tours.   But I’m not writing this to sell my services to you.  Western would sell itself if only more people knew of its charms.  Kenyan tourism should be two dimensional no longer.  Safari, beach AND community eco-tourism, where Western offers up the third dimension in spades.  Affordable spades for those on a budget, and with just enough high-end providers to cater for those for whom luxury is required.

The romance of Western is for all to discover, just as I’ve discovered it.  And last November, on the shores of Lake Victoria, over a

A sunset to get engaged to...

glass of champagne at Kiboko Bay, and as a pink sun set into the lake, that man I followed here asked me to marry him.    My spectacles may be a little rose-tinted, but I challenge you to yours.  Come and see for yourself.

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