The Road to Kisumu and the Lake

The journey from Kikuyu to Nakuru I used to be able to drive in only a couple of hours. But that was when I was first here in the late 1960s. The road was good; the traffic was light. Last week it took me over three hours. The difference has nothing to do with the state of the road or my advanced age; it has to do with the clutter of traffic.

But it is still a good drive – not because of the dodgem car game you have to play but because of the splendour of the scenery. Mind you, in the old days the ramshackled and garishly-painted dukas were not the blot on the landscape that they are now – spoiling one of the best viewpoints in the whole of East Africa.

I remember talking with the New Zealand champion driver, Possum Bourne – from a country with its own dramatic landscapes – after his first attempt at the Safari Rally. What had impressed him most were not the stretches of fine desert dust or the sticky black cotton soils but the expansive vistas of the Rift Valley.

After the viewpoint there is the long descent to Lake Naivasha. In the 1960s this was mainly open country. But it is now a patchwork of shambas. Sir Wilfrid Havelock – pioneering gold prospector, soldier, farmer, civil servant and politician – once told me how shocked he was about the growth and the success of these shambas.

‘We European farmers thought that land was too dry for agriculture,’ he said. ‘But where on earth do these guys get their water from?’

I grew up on a shamba in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England. I have often wished I could have taken my father on the drive across the Rift Valley. He would have marvelled at the variety of produce that is sold along the roads: the same kinds of cabbages, potatoes and carrots that we grew on our smallholding; but then you can find oranges and bananas – fruit you could perhaps grow only in special greenhouses in the UK.

Approaching Lake Elmenteita there’s a very unusual produce on display – sacks of white diatomite from the Kariandus Mine. I have looked up what it is for. Wikipedia tells us: ‘It is used as a filtration aid, mild abrasive in products including metal polishes and toothpaste, mechanical insecticide, absorbent for liquids, matting agent for coatings, reinforcing filler in plastics and rubber, anti-block in plastic films, porous support for chemical catalysts, cat litter….’

Fine – but who stops to buy from those piles of sacks, as they do for sacks of charcoal?

For a relaxed stopping place near Lake Elmenteita, I recommend the Sunbird Lodge, just short of the turning for the Soysambu Conservancy. I stopped there for lunch on my way back to Nairobi last week. It is high up, and so you get a wonderful view of the lake and the misty blue hills beyond.

And then there is Nakuru. It was once a laidback farmers’ town, but it is now the fourth largest city in the country – a busy and bustling place.

Beyond, the A 104 road runs straight, passing much larger farms, until it bears left to climb the Mau Escarpment, the western rim of the Rift Valley. From here, after the turn left at Total Junction and all the way to the Kano Plain, 30 kilometres short of Kisumu, there are rolling hills of forests and pastures – except for the bright green tea plantations around Kericho.

As the Beatles’ song goes, it is a ‘long and winding road’. But all the way there are climbing lanes, so there are few hold-ups caused by trucks making their way to Kisumu and Lake Victoria.

But I was held up by a policeman somewhere along that road. He beckoned me to stop and told me I was speeding. I replied that I knew exactly what I was doing at that point – 64 kph, according to my dial. Since he wouldn’t give way I handed him my licence with my press card inside. When he saw that he said, ‘The only thing I want to say to you is “May God give you a safe journey”’.

I did have a safe journey, whether by God’s grace or by my own careful driving.

And the main thing I want to say about that journey is that Western Kenya has a lot to offer visitors. It deserves more attention for its tourist attractions. Last week I described the mysterious Kit Mikayi, the most spectacular of the rock piles in these parts. And here is a photograph. But there are so many other interesting places within striking distance of Kisumu Town.

There is also, of course, Lake Victoria and its many islands. There used to be a lake steamer that plied between Kisumu, Kampala and Mwanza. Perhaps some entrepreneurial tourist agency should bring it back.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation