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BEST OF THE WEST

There is little doubt that Western Kenya is one of the least known and visited regions in the country. While many people can easily summon up immediate images of Kenya’s Southern game parks, beautiful Eastern beaches or wild North, the West remains an enigma to visitors.

This makes a Western safari an ideal opportunity to explore new and unknown territory, where travel comes with a daily dose of discovery.

Probably the best place to begin exploring Western Kenya is Lake Victoria.

Travelling across this massive 67,493 sq km body of water feels like crossing an inland sea. The lake is a paradise of shimmering waters surrounded by endless rolling hills. Its papyrus fringed shores are lined with massive fig trees and boulders, while lake breezes cool the humid air of this tropical lowland region. The lake is too wide to see across, and its blue waters stretch to the horizon where massive clouds of tiny Lake flies form towering, undulating columns that drift across the surface like living tornados.

The shores of the Lake are home to abundant bird life, and its freshwaters bring life to many wilderness areas, including Ruma National Park. This small park is a sanctuary for two very rare species of antelope are found, the large Roan and the tiny Oribi. There are also rare Rothschilds Giraffe and Jackson' Hartebeest.

The Lake is the heart of the West, and in many ways, the heart of the entire African Continent. This is the life source of the mighty Nile, the worlds’ longest river, which winds its way North through the deserts to the Mediterranean.

This beautiful lake found its place in History as one of the greatest prizes in 19th Century exploration. The “riddle of the Nile” plagued the best minds of Europe, as the waters of the great river were traced back to a source that lay somewhere deep in the unchartered centre of the Dark Continent. To explorers this challenge presented opportunities for great adventure, for geographers and scientists it was a treasure trove of knowledge, and to rulers it held potential for fertile land and possible colonization.

The riddle was to confound many and was the driving force behind many failed expeditions. In 1858, the riddle was solved by a British expedition led by Richard Francis Burton, the Anglo Irish adventurer whose exploits and appetite for the exotic where legendary. Burton’s expedition foundered when he collapsed with an infection in both of his legs, but his underling John Hanning Speke, continued without him. Speke, who was inexperienced and dyslexic was no gifted explorer, yet stumbled upon the shores of the Lake. Unable to take any accurate readings or present any real proof of his discovery.

Regardless, he returned to Britain without Burton and claimed that he had conquered the Nile. This created a bitter rift between the two, which was to be resolved in a debate at the Royal Geographic society. Speke was mortified at the prospect of facing Burton’s worldly and scientific mind without any tangible proof of his discovery, and on the morning of the debate died in a mysterious ‘hunting accident’ at his home.

Speke was finally proved to have been correct, and with the approach of the 20th Century the Lake became a focus for British settlement and colonization. With the Lake as the centre of a massive protectorate the British could control of both the Nile and the East African Coast, therein giving them control of the lucrative Suez Canal.

The only way to achieve this was to bring easy access to the region, and a plan was hatched to build a railway from Mombasa to the shores of the Lake. This sounded simple enough on paper in Whitehall, but on the ground in East Africa this was a daunting challenge. Railway would have to be built over 900 miles of inhospitable wilderness from sea level upwards across highland plains reaching more than 1800 metres.

The creation of the infamous Lunatic Line took 4 years of labour against incredible odds, battles with man-eating lions, disease and disaster, costing hundreds of lives and a small fortune.

The railway reached the shores of the lake at the new settlement of Kisumu on December 20th 1901, where the last spike was hammered into the earth by Florence Preston, wife of one of the engineers.

One hundred years late at the same place, now known as Point Florence, local people celebrated this event as the now thriving town of Kisumu was awarded City Status by the President of Kenya. Kisumu has grown into an attractive urban centre, with an excellent museum, one of Kenya’s largest open markets and excellent facilities for visitors. (For more information on the exploration of this area and the railroad, see Related Links above)

For the peoples of this region, the Lake has always represented the centre of life and local culture. For long before all of the colonial wrangling and the arrival of European adventurers, the Lake was a centre for human habitation.

The lake is much more than just the source of a great river, it has always been the source of life for many.

On Mfangano Island, not far off the Lakes Eastern shores, a high plateau towers high above the beaches. Visitors can climb a winding path that leads its way through tiny villages and rocky slopes to a magnificent viewpoint across the Lake. But the reward for this relatively tough climb is more than just a view.

In the shelter of a high curved overhang, a series of cave paintings are ranged along the length of a wall. Rock art expert David Coulson has identified these as being the work of Twa Pygmy Hunters from the Congo. 18,000 years ago, a band of Twa Hunters sheltered here under the cover of the overhang, with a view across a forested valley at Mfangano’s centre.

Their view took in the rising sun, and they repeatedly painted a single image of the sun across the rock.

The sun was also to play an important role in the beliefs of the people for whom the Lake was to become a true heartland- the Luo. In the culture of the Kenyan Luo Chieng, the Sun is considered sacred, a deity that co-exists with Nyasai, the supreme creator.

The Luo originated from neighbouring Uganda and Southern Sudan, in the region known as Bahr el Ghazal, where the waters of the Nile flow northwards from the Lake. They migrated to this area in the 16th century, becoming a strong and independent culture. The Luo were traditionally a strong warrior culture, and built stone fortresses, such as the one at Thimlich, for use in their wars against the Nandi. But the heart of their culture was the Lake itself. (For more information on Luo culture see Related Links above)There is no better place to experience Luo culture than on one of the lush green Islands within the Lake. These islands are highly homogenous societies, populated almost entirely by Luo people.

Visiting the islands and these communities is the best way to learn more about the Luo. Life on the islands is lived at its own pace, and the progress of each day marked by the Lake and the rituals of fishing. Fishing villages are fronted by broad stretches of beach lined with brightly painted fishing boats known as Ssese canoes, a sturdy wooden craft powered by teams of oarsmen.

Most villages here thrive on fishing for Omena or Kapenta, a tiny fish that lives in large swarming shoals.

Omena are best caught at night. The fisherman set off at sunset in boats decked with kerosene lanterns, bringing light to the dark waters of the lake as night falls. They attach the lamps to triangular floats that surround their nets, drawing the shoals of Kapenta to the surface.

Dawn sees them returning to the villages with boats full of Omena. While some Omena is eaten in stews and other traditional dishes, much of their catch is sold to be pulped into chickenfeed. The Omena are laid out to dry on the beaches in the morning sun, as the women from the village gather to wash their clothes in the morning currents, considered the clearest water of the day.

The mornings are a time for work and also for socialization as the entire village gathers on the beach. These small communities are very open to visitors, and anyone arriving at a village can be sure of an enthusiastic and warm welcome.

Fishing is another reason to visit the islands of Victoria. The real appeal for the sports fisherman here is not the tiny Omen-a but the mighty Nile Perch. The Perch is a massive Fresh water predator, found along the length of the Nile. It never occurred naturally in the Lake, its progress south blocked by waterfalls. It was introduced to the Lake in the 20th Century, where it thrived and grew to threaten the Lakes native population of cichlids.

For the sportsman, the Nile Perch is a popular trophy. They grow to huge sizes, and the current record is a remarkable 203 pounds.

The fish are not particularly aggressive fighters, but their sheer bulk makes them a formidable opponent.

The Lake has specialized fishing resorts offering boats, tackle and guides.

On small Takawiri Island there is a fishing club overlooking a broad white sandy beach, with views across to the mainland.

Mfangano has a luxurious fishing resort set among massive fig trees and boulders. The resort has undergone a major facelift that includes rooms built to take the best possible advantage of their lakeshore outlook, with bathrooms, bedrooms and private balconies offering panoramic views of the Lake.

Rusinga Island is also home to a resort club, which offers fishing, as well as a host of other activities. The club has luxurious cottages along a beachfront. Guided walks to a nearby prehistoric site can be made, as well as breakfast trips into Ruma National Park and climbs to see the cave art on Mfangano.

There is much more on offer around the Lake than just fishing. Even those who don’t want to fish will find plenty to do. This is an excellent area for birding. The Lake supports a healthy population of African Fish Eagles, which are often seen perched along the shores or soaring high over head, the air ringing with their distinctive territorial call.

From Rusinga it is possible to visit MBasa and Mholo Islands, both of which are breeding colonies for waterfowl. The sheer volume of birdlife on the islands is staggering. A sunset boat trip through the channel is an unforgettable experience. The air is alive with thousands of birds on the wing as you drift under trees with branches sagging with perched birds.

The sunset turns the sky to rich warm gold as more and more birds pour in across the lake to roost, and the first glow of the Kapenta boats spread out across the Lake.

Another pair of Islands, locally known as the Bridge Islands, are according to local mythology, a pair of massive fighting bulls frozen into stone.

This myth is itself a bridge to another local culture, the Luyah. Throughout the Lake Victoria region, a profusion of spectacular rock formations have given rise to many myths and legends in both Luo and Luyah society.

Sacred stones are found at Kit Makaye and the Luanda Magere stone at Rachuonyo (For more information on Luo mythology see Related Links above)

En route to the Kakamega forest, the Weeping stone of Maragoli can be found, a massive freestanding stone that produces a constant stream of fresh spring water.

Kakamega is the Luyah heartland. The Luyah are one of Kenya’s most diverse communities, with many clans and a broad range of cultural practices and traditions. (For more information on Luyah culture see Related Links above)

One of the strongest and most abiding traditions throughout the Luyah community is the practice of ceremonial bull fighting. Luyah bullfights are not held in the European style, but are a battle of strength between two bulls. Bullfights are still held in Kakamega, mostly on Sundays in December or during local festivities.

Bulls from individual villages are primed to take part and defend the local honour. Fighting bulls command great respect, and in the days before a fight, the bull is showered with praise, blessings and ceremonial songs.

The fight itself is held in a large open clearing, where crowds of up to 15,000 spectators gather to watch proceedings. A large horn is blown repeatedly as the bulls are led together, each surrounded by an army of chanting, singing supporters.

The atmosphere is electric as the bulls meet, with many local reputations and a good deal of local gambling resting on the outcome. The bulls charge directly at each other, crashing their horns together in a powerful lock as they try to force each other out of the field.

These bovine battles last from between 5 and 30 minutes. When the defeated bull finally flees, the victorious champion is led home to a heroes welcome. The current reigning champion, a strong black and white bull known as Mandela, is currently enjoying a long line of spectacular victories that have made him a local celebrity.

The centre of the Kakamega region is covered in dense tropical rainforest. The Kakamega rainforest is Kenya’s most important forest reserve, a habitat refuge for many unique and rare species, and a perfect destination for trekkers and nature lovers.

This mighty forest is an important link to the ecosystems of central Africa. There is considerable evidence that this forest once stretched all of the way to the mighty Congo rainforest at the heart of the continent. The Luyah language has a distinct name for the chimpanzee, an animal that does not occur in Kenya. This points to the possibility that once this forest was contiguous with the forests of Uganda and Central Africa.

Even today the forest is an important reserve for many species. Birds found here include Angsore's Greenbul, Blue headed Beeeater, Chapin's Flycatcher and Turner's Eremola. Other notables include the Red Chested Owlet, Least Honeyguide, Banded Snake eagle, and Crowned Eagle. The Great Blue Turaco, one of Kenya’s most beautiful birds, is often seen winging its way through the forest, bringing the canopy to life in a blur of iridescent blue.

Kakamega is also well known for its butterflies, and the warm earth of the forest trails attracts them in masses. Trekking the forest, clouds of butterflies rise from the earth at your feet and fill the air. All known species of Kenyan butterfly occur in Kakamega.

The dense canopy of the forest supports large populations of primates. Families of Blue and Colobus Monkeys are frequently seen leaping through the canopies, or descending to forage on the forest floor. The rare red tailed monkey can also be seen, a diminutive monkey with a bright red tail. The massive fig trees in the forest provide the monkeys with both food and reserves of rainwater in the deep wells among their roots and trunks.

At night, the air fills with bats and giant flying foxes. A nocturnal walk with a powerful torch will reveal the forest alive with leaping bush babies, flying squirrels, and the rare tree pangolin and potto.

At the centre of the forest is a large hill that provides spectacular views across the forest, and West to Mt Elgon. In the side of the hill is a 50m deep cave that was excavated by gold prospectors. The cave is now home to several species of bat and is well worth exploring with a bright torch.

The forest itself is a vital catchment area, kept alive by 64 rivers and streams. The sheer volume and variety of plant life in the forest is staggering. The forest is a treasure trove of traditional medicines for the local community.

The Luyah have always relied on the forest for medicinal purposes, and elder healers still practice in the area today, using extracts of leaves, bark and roots. Research has proven these medicines to be highly effective. A healthy 95-year-old man living near the forest was found to have never been to a doctor and hospital, and to have relied solely on traditional medicine.

The effectiveness of these medicines has prompted interest from Western drug companies. An almost total absence of prostate cancer in the area led to a discovery of a powerful drug extracted from a tree in the Kakamega forest. This medicine has been traditionally used to treat all manner of infections among the Luyah, and a Japanese drug company is now using it to develop a new cancer treatment.
In so many ways, Kakamega is a vitally important resource for Kenya. A local group, the Kakamega Environmental Education program (KEEP) are working with local communities to preserve the forest. Part of this program involves the encouragement of eco-tourism, and some excellent and highly knowledgeable local guides have been trained to take visitors on forest treks and walks.

The group have built a forest lodge offering basic accommodation for visitors, and they also offer an excellent campsite and traditional Luyah huts for visitors.

For those wishing to enjoy the forest in a little more comfort, the Rondo Retreat in the centre of the forest offers the ideal option. This was originally the colonial home of a forester whose wife wanted her house built “next to the largest tree in the forest”.

The original house, with wide open verandahs and large sitting rooms with open fireplaces, still stands in the shade of a huge tree. Additional cottages with beautiful bedrooms, central sitting areas and large verandahs.

Rondo Retreat can house 30 guests, and meals are served in an attractively appointed dining room. The retreat is run by a Christian organization, and the emphasis is on creating a peaceful, meditative environment. This tranquil place truly is a retreat for the mind and body and the perfect place to relax and enjoy the forest.

Rondo can arrange treks into the forest with the same local guides, and the retreat is the perfect place to return after a long morning or afternoon hike.

From Heading North from Kakamega, the road winds into the beautiful Western Highlands.

The rarified air of this region has made this the homeland of some of Kenya’s finest athletes. Several training camps have been set up throughout the highlands, for visiting sportsmen and fitness fanatics. These camps offer specialized altitude training, long distance running and cycling, and a chance to train at the side of some of Kenya’s future sporting legends.

This is more than just a sporting program, but a cultural exchange and a chance to explore the beauty of these quiet isolated hills, and take in some of Kenya’s most stunning views.

The highlands are an ideal base to discover the lush green hills of Kericho, Kenya’s largest tea growing area or to explore the Cherangani Hills.

The Cheranganis are excellent hill walking country, much loved by birders drawn by the promise of sighting Lammergeyer, Crowned Eagle, the Red Chested Owlet and Thick billed Honeyguide.

To the West on the Ugandan Border lies Mt Elgon. This remote forested peak is a place of rugged beauty, perfect for the adventurous trekkers.

The Mountain is famous for its high moorland plains and deep caves, often visited at night by herds of buffalo and elephant in search of subterranean salt licks.

When you are planning a trip to Kenya, don’t overlook the West. This little known region is the countries best kept secret, awaiting discovery….

See Related Links above for Travel information on this region
Related Links
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Lake Victoria
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Cherangani Hills
Mount Elgon
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