By Tamara Britten
Towering over the west of Kenya is Mt Elgon. The mountain, which straddles the Kenya Uganda border, stands at over 4,200m, putting it in the top ten highest mountains in Africa.
Climbing the mountain is challenging. You’ll need strong boots, wind-protective jacket and – when nearing the peak – a strong head: the thin air and high altitude can make climbers dizzy. The views, however, more than justify the climb.
During the ascent, you pass through four distinct strata so different in appearance, mood and smells it’s as if you’re shifting between four different planets. The foothills are swathed in lush montane forests of around 100 species including orchids, ferns and lovely straggling lianas. Climbing onwards, you reach the mixed bamboo and podocarpus where you’ll be glad of your jacket: these are striking but scratchy. Keep going and you’ll emerge into the layer of bright flowers, but for the chill in the air, you might think you were in sunny summer meadows. Approaching the peak, you reach the bleak moorland zone; with the highest number of endemic species on the mountain, this is where you’ll see alien-looking giant lobelia and giant groundsel.
The summit is a plateau on which it would be a crime not to pop open a celebratory Tusker despite the ice in the air. From this point, land spools downwards and views spill out in all directions.
During your time on the mountain, watch out for elephants. Famed for having learned to use their tusks to dig salt from the network of caves, Mt Elgon’s elephants are capricious and unpredictable. While other game including buffalo, duiker, bushbuck and waterbuck do live here, you’re more likely to see monkeys plunging from tree to tree.
The road takes you back to Kitale, where you can stop for a snack while pondering whether to head north or south. To the north lies Saiwa Swamp, the Marich Pass and the Cherangani Hills. Saiwa Swamp was created to protect the sitatunga, a rare web-footed antelope found – as you might expect – in damp and swampy vegetation, while the Marich Pass and Cherangani Hills offer trekking, climbing and spectacular views. However, on this trip, we’re heading south to the Kakamega Rainforest.
The sprawling tropical rainforest that once swathed much of Central Africa has been so ravaged that the forest of Kakamega is its only remaining trace. Here you’ll find a tangle of trees and vines, and dense wet air that lingers on your skin with a dank earthy scent. Light drips through the foliage, falling on orchids clinging to towering trunks and roots peeking from wet earth.
The proliferation of species found here includes over 360 birds, over 380 plants and over 490 butterflies. Many are endemic and most highly colourful. The forest is also home to numerous small strange species like hammer-headed fruit bats, flying squirrels, forest hogs and civet cats. Spend your time here walking the trails, hiking to the hilltops and breathing in the magical atmosphere.
Having left the forest – albeit with regret – continue south to Kisumu. This exuberant town on the shores of Lake Victoria has a coastal feel, with tropical flowers, balmy weather and sizzling sunsets over the lake. While you’re here, browse the local artefacts at the Art Market, eat grilled fish at Lwangni Beach, watch the sunset from Hippo Point, then dance the night away in Kisumu’s buzzing bars.
The lake that stretches to the horizon is one of the African Great Lakes. Not only is Lake Victoria the largest lake in Africa, it’s also the largest tropical lake in the world and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world. You can enjoy the lake from one of the resorts along its shores, or hop on a boat and cruise its waters, watching for wallowing hippos and huge Nile crocodiles, and pausing to view the many islands covered in birds, turtles and monitor lizards.
While in the area, take the time to explore the sites around Kisumu. The Kisumu Impala Sanctuary, so small it measures less than 1km2, is home to impala, reptiles, birds and hippos. Kit Mikayi, also known as the Crying Stone, appears to be a woman bowed beneath a heavy load; according to local legend, she’s been crying since her husband took a second wife.
Should your trip coincide with the Rusinga Cultural Festival, grab your camera and head for the island. Known for early archaeological findings and as the birthplace of respected politician Tom Mboya, the island bursts to life in celebration of the Suba people. With food tastings, sports contests, fashion shows, cultural performances, art exhibitions and literary discussions, the festival is colourful, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Heading around the lake from here, you’d come to Kendu Bay and Homa Bay, where you can bask on the lakeshore and enjoy local fish dishes, and Ruma National Park, created to protect the indigenous roan antelope. But on this trip, we’re heading inland to the emerald tea plantations of Kericho.
Once the centre of the plantations around Kericho cover more than 110,000 hectares, producing 215 million Brooke Bond Tea Corporation kg of tea and bringing in almost 20% of Kenya’s export revenue. It’s here we’ll end this tour of the west, leaving you relaxing in your armchair, sipping a cup of Kenya’s famed tea and gazing over the slopes of what has to be the lushest and most verdant part of the country.
Where to stay – our pick of the best
They may not be glamorous, but the KWS Bandas are well maintained, well run and well located. Choose between Koitoboss Guest House at Chorlim Gate, and Kapkuro Bandas just 1km inside the park.
Saiwa Swamp National Park
Tree Top House, operated by KWS, is a little log cabin with a balcony overlooking the forest.
The views from Mt Mtelo Cottages and Campsite have to be seen to be believed. Lie back in a hammock and gaze into the valleys, or don your boots and head for the peaks.
Built by a saw miller in 1948, Rondo Retreat is a charming homestead and cottages set in rolling gardens of lawns, flowers, streams and fishponds. KWS operates Isukuti Houses at the park HQ, and Udo Bandas inside the forest. KEEP operates the Isecheno Bandas and Campsite at the KEEP HQ in the south of the forest. All bandas are basic but well-maintained.
The Nandi Bears Club was named for the myth of the Nandi Bear who stood 1m high, had a heavy mane and skulked from the forest to decapitate villagers. Once a private members’ club, the rooms are now open to all.
With lovely views of the lake and a collection of pretty cottages, Kiboko Bay is our favourite place to stay in the area. In town, there are so many hotels it’s hard to choose one, but our pick of the best would have to include the imposing Imperial Hotel, the new Acacia Premier, The Duke of Breeze for its rooftop bar, Roan Rooftop for good vibes and rooftop bar, and Dunga Hill for frequent buzzing parties.
Rusinga Island Lodge and Mfangano Island Camp are located on islands of the same names. Both offer luxurious accommodation, boat trips, bird watching and a bunch of water sports.
First owned by Olga Watson, of Olga in Africa, Kweisos is a 1900s farmhouse. The house is taken exclusively and its 3000-acre estate offers horse riding, bird watching, fishing and swimming.
The Tea Hotel, while gently ageing, retains its charm; with chintz curtains, flowery wallpaper, log fires and well-stocked bar this is the place to stay if you want to wallow in ye olde days.
Ufanisi Resort has a collection of rooms, cottages and suites in a large forested compound.
Ruma National Park
Oribi Guest House, operated by KWS, is a self-catering cottage near a waterhole at the park HQ.