Africa’s largest fresh water lake is a fascinating pool of legends, history and biodiversity. It only needs time to traverse its might….

The Bantu called it ‘nyanja’ – the word for a big lake. The ancient Arab traders knew of it as they traversed the interior in search of ivory, gold and slaves. The first known record of the lake is the Al Idrisi map (named after the map maker) dated 1160s, clearly showing the great water mass as the source of the Nile. But to the world at large, it still lay unknown. Then John Hanning Speke saw it in 1858 and taken by its grandeur, decided it had to be the source of the Nile – and the mystery of the great Nile was ‘solved’. He renamed it Lake Victoria after the British monarch.

With a surface area of 68,800 square kilometres (26,600 sq mi), Lake Victoria also takes pride as the largest tropical lake in the world and the world’s second-largest fresh water lake after Lake Superior in the United States of America. Shared by three countries, its shoreline spans 4,828 km with the smallest share in Kenya – six per cent while Uganda has 45 per cent and Tanzania 49 per cent

Fast forward to the start of the 20th century. The last nail in the last sleeper of the Uganda Railway was driven in by Florence Preston on 20 December 1901and the lakeshore village named Port Florence – but only for a year. The trading port reverted to its original name from the Luo phrase – “Adhi Kisuma” meaning ‘I’m going to trade’. Kisumu is the English corruption of the word ‘Kisumo’. The railway – the first modern infrastructure in East Africa from Mombasa to Kisumu opened the interior of East Africa – a distance of almost a thousand kilometers. In October 1900, the 62- ton ship Sir William Mackinnon, 1st Baronet, built and registered in Kisumu, made its maiden voyage to Entebbe. The Winfred and the Sybil were later added to the fleet in 1902 and 1904, respectively. The English statesman Winston Churchill visited Kisumu in 1907.

Today, Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya and a great starting point to navigate the Nyanza

When Nirmal Darbar landed on Kisumu’s lakeshore vistas a few years ago, he saw it as the French Riviera of Africa, so awed was he by the beauty of the lake. On the lakeshore, a few minutes from town he built the first luxury tented camp and aptly named it, Kiboko Bay in honour of the river horse which at one time was common in the fresh water bodies of sub-Saharan Africa.

When Nirmal Darbar landed on Kisumu’s lakeshore vistas a few years ago, he saw it as the With such a rich maritime history, when Kisumu boasted as being the major port on Lake Victoria during the hey-days of the East African Commonwealth, Darbar fashioned the reception as the captain’s room complete with a porthole and a miniature throttle to control the ship, buying all the now-antiquated stuff from auctions, and from people who at one time worked at the port and had things lying around. Riviera of Africa, so awed was he by the beauty of the lake. On the lakeshore, a few minutes from town he built the first luxury tented camp and aptly named it, Kiboko Bay in honour of the river horse which at one time was common in the fresh water bodies of sub-Saharan Africa

The lake has so much potential. I would like to see more places like these open by the lake. We could make a lake circuit here with people sailing to Mbita Point where the lighthouse is (The Lake Victoria Safari Village) or to other ports of call. It’s a great lake for game fishing with 28-kilo Nile perch hauled in.

A few minutes drive from Kiboko Bay, is Impala Ecolodge, Kisumu’s premier luxury lodge in the iconic Kisumu Impala Sanctuary. The sanctuary was created to protect the remaining herds of impala that up to the 1960s were common around town. Hippos still wander in at night and in recent times, more animals have been brought in like lions, leopard, cheetah, buffalo and zebra, rhino and monkeys.

Hidden from view, a suspended bridge leads to the lodge on Victoria’s shores. The modern lodge built along the Luo ethos of thatched roofs has visitors, landing at the new Kisumu International Airport, brought in by speedboat – depending on which direction the wind has pushed the water hyacinth.

Loop around the Lake Kit Mikaye

Luo legend has it that Kit Mikaye the mother of the Luo people settled around the gigantic kopjes near Kisumu after her long trek down the Nile, after a brief stop at Ndere island.

The giant boulders soaring 40 metres to the sky are amazing. Climbing up the narrow veins through the boulders offers stunning views of the landscape so full of rocks strewn around the land. The natural caves within the rocks are the praying site of the Legio Maria, a sect started by Simeo Ondetto, considered as the returned Son of God by the followers. The religious movement be – came popular amongst the Luo after repeated appearances in 1930s of a mystic woman to several Roman Catholic members, delivering messages about the incarnation of the son of God as a black man. Another legend of the stones is of the first wife, who turns jealous after her husband showed more interest in the second wife and another of the first Luo man who settled in the area and built the home of the first wife here.

After the climb, we’re off to Ndere island where Kit Mikaye stopped for rest after her long journey down the Nile. The 20-minute boat ride to Ndere Island from the Kenya Wildlife Service is picturesque and landing ashore we hike through the riverine forest and onto the grass plains of the island, following the narrow route to the summit. The is – land park is home to the sitatunga, a semi-aquatic antelope that was once common along the papyrus-shrouded lake shores. Today, it’s rarely seen but a camping trip to the island is your best bet of spotting this shy antelope and the Blue swallow an intra-migrant African bird which flies in from South Africa.

At the Obama’ s in Kogelo

An hour’s-hour drive away from Ndere Island, we’re on our way to visit the world’s most famous grandma, Mama Obama in the now famous village, Kogelo.

Mama Sarah is a charmer. Soft-spoken, she’s unaffected by the world’s interest in her family but nevertheless proud of her step-grandson.

The graves of Obama’s father and grandfather lie by the house – simple graves marked with tombstones. Grandfa – ther Obama’s reads, “Jaduong Hussein Onyango Obama 1870-29/11/1975. May his soul rest in peace.”

The grave of President Barack Obama’s father lies a few feet away. The simple inscription on it reads “Barack Hus – sein Obama 1936-1982. Ibed Gi Kwe. Rest in Peace.”

Barack Obama’s father was one of the beneficiaries of ‘Mboya Airlift’ project of the 1960s, which saw several thousand Kenyans fly to the USA for university education. As a brilliant scholar, he met Anne Durham and the rest is history.

Kanyaboli – Kenya’s Largest Oxbow Lake

Past Mama Obama’s at Kogelo, we’re on our way to Lake Kanyaboli, another hour’s drive away. Gazetted as Lake Kanyaboli National Reserve in 2010, it’s Kenya’s larg – est oxbow lake on the Yala River. Set in green fields of rice on a large private farm on land reclaimed from a large portion of the 17,500-hectare Yala Swamp, the famous swamp filters the water clean before it enters the Lake Vic – toria. For birders, Kanyaboli is prime spot for the endemic papyrus bird, the Papyrus gonolek. Kanyaboli is also de – scribed as a ‘living museum’ of what Lake Victoria was before the 1950s. Fish that were once found in Victoria and now extinct are still found in Kanyaboli.

It’s my lucky day for within minutes of reaching the oxbow lake, a Gonolek papyrus flies through the papyrus giving me a perfect view of it. A trip to Lake Kanyaboli deserves more than a day for there are three lakes that lie in the swamp – Kanyaboli (15 square kilometers), Namboyo (0.5 square kilometers) and Sare (5 square kilometers). Lake Sare discharges into Lake Victoria directly and hence is vi – tally important for the replenishment of the lake – and it’s another opportunity to search for the rare sitatunga.

Across the lake stands, the hill of Got Ramogi, revered by the Luo community for it is believed that the patriarch of the Luos,- Baba Ramogi Ajuang, settled here in the 15th century. It’s a place for hiking on the next visit including the Akara hills, the water catchment area for the oxbow lake.

Lake Victoria Safari Village, Mbita Point

Driving back from Lake Kanyaboli, we’re at Luanda Kotieno to catch the ferry to Mbita Point. It’s a 50-minute18-kilometer crossing to Mbita Point with the picturesque canoes of the local Luo sailing past.

A tall light house stands on the peninsula at Mbita Point overlooking the lake and the hills of Gwasi and Gembe. This charming tall structure is the work of Odd Bredo. It’s a novelty to spend the night in the lighthouse. Waking up at night, the lake’s a floating city lit by the lanterns of the Luo fishermen.

A tall light house stands on the peninsula Bredo takes us for a sail on the lake to explore the islands of Rusinga, Mfangano and the twin islands of ‘Mbasa’. Uninhabited by humans, the twin islands are busy perching posts for the uncountable colonies of birds and serpents like the gigantic monitor lizards Mbita Point overlooking the lake and the hills of Gwasi and Gembe. This charming tall structure is the work of Odd Bredo. It’s a novelty to spend the night in the lighthouse. Waking up at night, the lake’s a floating city lit by the lanterns of the Luo fishermen.

Bredo takes us for a sail on the lake to explore the islands of Rusinga, Mfangano and the twin islands of ‘Mbasa’. Uninhabited by humans, the twin islands are busy perching posts for the uncountable colonies of birds and serpents like the gigantic monitor lizards.

Mfangano, the largest of the Kenyan islands is within easy reach. The suburban island with its modern infrastruc – ture is ringed with fishermen’s beaches where the women dry the ‘omena’ (a small species of fish). We climb up a hill to the prehistoric Mawanga cave to see the rock art that dates between 1000 to 4000 years ago. The island across is Nzenze Island, used for rainmaking ceremonies. Folklore has it that Nzenze, called the ‘Moving Island’ is said to have followed the Wasamo clan who migrated from Uganda and will continue to follow the clan wherever it goes. Only clan members are allowed to land on the island.

A few minutes sail away and Bredo points to the ‘Bridge Islands’ created by the water eroding the softer stone and leaving the harder stones which form the bridges. At Ngod – he island, Bredo’s research reveals that after the 2nd World War, ten out of a squadron of approximately 25 planes or more appropriately, flying boats, were sunk here by the British after they were stripped. The ramp used then for the flying boats is at the Kisumu Airport.

Our next foray is to Rusinga island connected to Mbita sand with a causeway. At the end of December, the sun sinks bang in the middle of the Mbasa islands and contin – ues to move like it has since time immemorial to the pinnacle of the highest point of Rusinga island reaching it in June and then back to Mbasa.

The causeway to Rusinga from Mbita is always a chaotic scene with the motor bike taxis, the motorized version of the boda-boda, jostling for space to drive across the murrum highway. Rusinga island is where the late Tom Mboya, one of the first politicians in the newly independent Kenya was born. His mausoleum is a ‘must-do’. Just in his mid thirties,the firebrand politician served as a trade union leader, Min – ister for Labor, Minister for Constitutional Affairs and finally Minster for Economic Planning. He was the force behind the ‘Mboya Airlift’ that saw thousands of young Africans fly to the USA for university education in the 1960s. He was gunned down in down-town Nairobi in 1969 aged only 39.

Rusinga’s other claim to fame is that it is the home of one of human-kinds early ancestor, the 18 million year old Pro – consul africanus found in 1948 by Mary and Louis Leakey, the most complete skeleton of its kind to be found. More ape than human, the habitat at that time suited the species because than Rusinga was a densely forested island.

Ruma of the Roan

A rare antelope on the verge of extinction From Mbita, we drive to Ruma national park. Hills dot the surroundings – Homa Bay, Kendu Bay, Gembe Hills and many more. It’s a rough murram road and on the base of Gwasi hills we stop for lunch at the tiny hamlet of Sindo for tilapia and fried meat with ugali.

We enter Ruma through Nyatoto Gate where the metal cast of the roan antelope is stuck the gate on. This subspecies is only found in the Ruma National Park – and its numbers dwindling. At the start of the millennium there were close to fifty but today the population has plummeted to 26. In Luo tradition, the horns and pelt were much sought after – especially for ceremonial functions.

We see the herd of the handsome roan and later the translocated rhino and the rare Rothschild giraffe, including the topi and the tiny oribi antelope.

Spending the night at Oribi House, set high on the Kany – amwa escarpment looking into Lambwe Valley, we can see the Lambwe River and an eagle-eye view of the park with Lake Victoria in the far distance.

Driving out of Kamato gate to Kisumu via Mirogi, there are more spots to seek out for the next safari to the lake. There’s Lake Simbi and the hot springs near Kendu Bay, including the five-centuries old stone city of Thimlich Oh – inga which means “frightening dense forest” in Dholuo lan – guage. Research shows that the stone city goes beyond 500 years ago and could have been built by the Bantus prior to the arrival of Luos.