The typical tourist may only picture safari wildlife and poor slums when Kenya comes to mind. But in fact, the country is teeming with natural resources. Its splendid landscapes constantly shift, offering new horizons as you make your way from north to south, and east to west.
The heart of the central highlands boasts the Great Rift Valley, splashed with lakes and studded with volcanoes. The land is dry, but the wildlife is fierce. It is here that Africa’s greatest animals can be spotted. Moving west is towering Mount Kenya, second only to Mount Kilimanjaro, but boasting dramatic views of varied terrain as you transverse its winding paths. The land transforms once more as you journey toward the Indian Ocean. The coast is dotted with mangroves, whitewashed beaches and islands, making up an archipelago few tourists will ever discover.
Through each of these unique geographical landscapes, Kenya’s bodies of water certainly steal the show! From high elevation lakes to swamps and coastline – discovering Kenya on the water is the best way to survey the country. Let’s take a look at its most spectacular lakes and coastlines that you should not miss on your journey!
Mount Kenya’s “Blue Tarns”
Volcanic Mount Kenya gave the colonial nation its name, and for good reason. Although Mount Kilimanjaro is higher and lures most tourists who come to tick the summit off of their bucket lists, it’s Mount Kenya that surely impresses. Its base is a staggering 80 km wide, making Mount Kenya the largest free-standing volcano in the world. Hikes begin at lower altitudes offering dramatic scenery with primary-colored, lush jungles; windswept, stone ridges; deep gorges cut by rivers; forests of conifers; lively markets of the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu tribes; and last but not least, high altitude lakes known as the “Blue Tarns.” As you trek to the summit, the waters of Mount Kenya’s waterfalls, rivers and Blue Tarns make Mount Kenya a must see. So go ahead, switch out Kilimanjaro for Mount Kenya on that bucket list of yours. And be sure to make a detour at one of the tribal villages on your way up to Mount Kenya’s tarns.
Click here for a fantastic itinerary; it’s an easy to moderate hike good for all levels that features Vivienne Falls, Gorges Valley, Lake Michaelson, Simba Tarn and Lake Ellis. Summiting at Point Lenana offers views of Kilimanjaro in the distance. You can mirror this itinerary, offered by charitable travel group World Expeditions, or book a trip with them which benefits their local projects.
Quick Tip: Did you know that you can fish on Mount Kenya’s lakes? Reachable by 4×4 or helicopter, it’s a great option if you are an avid outdoors or fishing enthusiast. Where Wise Men Fish offers a great overview. I also love these rustic-lux cabins to stay in as well!
Wild Lake Naivasha and Nakuru
For those who want unparalleled wildlife viewings, head into the Rift Valley from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha and Nakuru. Although they are both on the tourist path, a stop to camp along their banks shouldn’t be missed. Daily boating trips are easily arranged from nearby lodges and camps, taking you out over the water. Naivasha is home to plentiful birds and hippos; while rhinos, leopards and flamingos frequent Nakuru.
Lake Victoria Island Hopping
Lake Victoria borders three countries – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. It’s murky shallow waters are not healthy for swimming in, but the scenery and local life you will encounter on its many islands is unparalleled. The sunrises are also a major highlight! It is easily accessible from the lively town of Kisumu where you can visit local markets, hear energetic music on its corners, and easily arrange a visit to the lake with a responsible, local tour operator. Stop by Luo Village, an off-the-beaten-track community where tourists are nil; Rusinga, where local fisherman reside; and the lively, uninhabited Bird Island. Nearby Kakamega Rainforest provides further trekking opportunities as well. A great resources is Treasures Kenya – a site dedicated to Kenya’s Golden Jubilee (pictured below).
Quick Tip: On the Uganda side of the lake is Ngamba Island, Uganda’s newest sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees who roam the island’s forests. Tanzania’s Rubondo Island National Park on the southern side of Lake Victoria has a good range of game including elephants, chimpanzees, giraffe and birds.
Lake Turkana – The “Jaded Sea” in the Desert
It’s a harsh journey though the desert of Chalbi, but the destination is well worth the effort. Lake Turkana lies in completely remoteness, its shores reaching all the way to the border of Ethiopia. A massive, active volcanic island sits in the center, surrounded by clear blue waters and unnatural brown terrain that reaches for as far as the eye can see. No wonder the lake is fondly known as the “Jaded Sea.” Simply camping and swimming in this remote location is a once in a life time experience, but don’t miss visiting the El Molo village where the tribe builds homes out of reeds. Every spring is the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival featuring 12 local tribes of the region who come together for showcasing their traditional dress, dance and food.
Quick Tip: Getting to Lake Turkana is challenging. This Kenyan blogger has great advice. If you have time, venture deeper toward the Ethiopian border to Desert Lake for more searingly beautiful landscapes.
Unspoiled Lamu Archipelago
A coastal break in Lamu is an unlikely, but highly rewarding side-trip for many travelers. The archipelago is a chain of islands that lie off the coast of Kenya on the other side of a narrow channel, protected by coral reefs from the powerful Indian Ocean. Lamu Town is the main thoroughfare where lodging can be found. Established in the 7th century, Lamu has deep Swahili roots and reflects an Arab dhow port still today. Hand-carved doors on narrow streets see donkeys as passerby’s. Fisherman steer their large triangular sails further adding to the archipelago’s mystique.
Quick Tip: Because of Lamu’s proximity to Somalia, it is best to refer to the latest travel advisory’s from your home country to ensure it is safe to travel to this region at the time of your planning.
Feature Photo Credit: Thinkstock/istock/ mgokalp