advertisement

280km (174 miles) NW of Nairobi, 114km (71 miles) N of Nakuru

Ninety minutes north of Nakuru is the beautiful freshwater Lake Baringo, its water the color of tea. Fished by Njemps tribespeople -- cousins of the Maasai -- who set out each day in their simple canoes, Baringo is dotted with 13 small islands -- sometimes referred to by locals as Devil Islands because of the hot springs and fumaroles that still cough up enough steam and boiling water to make them useful as public baths. Baringo's largest island is Ol Kokwe (The Meeting Place), an extinct volcano with several especially noticeable hot springs, small bubbling pools, and steam jets along the northeastern shoreline. Some of the springs in the lake's northern reaches are believed to have curative properties and are used to treat skin diseases.

Besides the Njemps fishing communities, Baringo is populated with crocodiles that have supposedly lost their appetite for mammalian flesh, thanks to an abundance of fish. Locals actively encourage swimming and watersports in the lake, although the lodges will certainly have you sign an indemnity form before letting you dive in. Hippos are fairly active in and around the lake, and you'll probably spot them emerging from the water to graze at night. Because it's a freshwater lake, Baringo doesn't attract flamingoes. It is nevertheless one of East Africa's prime birding destinations, with nearly 500 species recorded here, some of them extremely rare or otherwise endemic to this area. Fish eagles are plentiful, and you'll inevitably be treated to a close-up view of them swooping down to catch fish thrown out for them by local boatmen -- the majestic birds have become so accustomed to this perk, in fact, that they respond to human whistles. The rocky isle of Gibraltar, at the eastern shore, is blessed with the largest Goliath heron population in East Africa. No one lives on the island, but many locals believe it to be where the spirits of the dead reside.

Captivating in its beauty as a peaceful oasis under big African skies and surrounded by cliff-edged escarpments, Baringo is nevertheless subject to staggering climactic mood swings. Dramatic winds kick up unexpectedly, a decidedly good thing when conditions are hot (which they usually are). Epic rains fall and winds sweep up the milky brown surface, making Baringo seem all the more glorious -- a high-energy display of nature in one of its most beautifully tempestuous, splendid dramas.

Great beauty surrounds Baringo as well. The lake lies in a vast bowl flanked by rocky mountains and spectacular escarpments, reaching more than 1,500m (4,920 ft.) above the Rift Valley floor. To the east, beyond the low plains that border the lake, a series of steep hills and gorge-indented ridges climb to the top of the Laikipia escarpment, stretching off as far as the eye can see. On the other side of the lake, just a few miles from the shore, the land rises suddenly in sheer basalt cliffs, some 100m (328 ft.) high. These distinctive cliffs, split by vertical cracks and fissures, but flat on top, are the most recent major structural development in the physicality of the Rift Valley, probably the result of solidified lava flow spewed out by the Karosi volcano -- which lies to the north of the lake -- some 10,000 years ago. At a distance, the cliffs appear black and include fascinating basaltic features such as gigantic natural towers; if you do set out to explore them, look out for Verreaux's eagles, which nest in the cliffs.

Fascinatingly, scientists have yet to confirm where exactly the outlet for Lake Baringo's water is. Geologists theorize that it's at Kapedo, a gorgeous spring situated some 60km (37 miles) north of Baringo in the Suguta Valley. Here, in one of the hottest places on the planet, boiling, crystal-clear water gushes out of the ground and passes through a series of waterfalls to join the crocodile-rich Suguta River, which flows toward Lake Turkana. It's possible to arrange outings to this remote area, where you can fish the river or picnic under the doum palms that line its banks.

About an hour south of Baringo is Lake Bogoria -- once known as Lake Hannington -- the most eerie of the Rift lakes, with bubbling hot springs and seething geysers marking its shores, while the scattered remains of dead birds create a decidedly ominous apocalyptic atmosphere. Bogoria is 18km (11 miles) long and 4.5km (2 3/4 miles) at its widest point. Some locals believe that people -- members of the Lost Tribe of Bogoria -- actually live beneath the lake, although it's widely known that the original people of the Bogoria region are now extinct. The high alkalinity of the lake water means that nothing lives in the water other than blue-green nutrient-rich spirulina algae, on which the lesser flamingo feeds. The spirulina also gives the lake its dark green color.

The sense of visiting a haunted, forgotten realm is underscored by the shocking state of the dusty track (which was, until quite recently, a decent paved road) that runs south along the lakeshore from the entrance. Besides its population of around one million migratory flamingoes, Bogoria has at least 373 species of other birds, a high population of greater kudu, a small number of Patas monkeys, and more species of dragonfly than are found throughout the entire British Isles.

In drought-like conditions, the lake can turn coppery brown -- or even blood red -- and foul smelling. Superstitious locals believe that this is a sign that the devil has entered the lake and regard it as an omen of death. Tradition dictates that a cleansing ceremony be performed -- at the Loburu Hot Springs -- during which a goat is slaughtered and milk, millet, and beer is poured into the boiling water. If all goes according to plan, the ceremony should bring rain, which also returns the lake to its natural green color. In reality, the color change is a simple result of evaporation, which causes the spirulina to die and decompose, releasing iron compounds that cause the brown discoloration; scientists believe that the pinkish-reddish color is a result of the bacteria blooming in the water.