130km (80 miles) NW of Masai Mara
On approach to Lake Victoria, flying in over the Mau Escarpment or from the nearby Masai Mara, the view from above is exhilarating, a series of undulating topographical features evolved over millions of years and, in recent times, greatly impacted by humanity. Keep your eyes trained on the scene below, and you could witness vast swaths of tea-covered hills around Kericho, a gigantic archaeological site resembling the stone fortress of Great Zimbabwe, the almost perfectly circular crater lake of Simbi not far from the lakeshore village of Kendu Bay, ancient plugged-up volcanic cones piercing the vast green landscape, and the predictably ugly, smoke-spewing sugar mills that never quite succeed in blighting the scene. But nothing quite prepares you for the sheer vastness of the lake itself, its calm, flat surface melting into the distant horizon.
When the Luo people who settled these parts arrived some 500 years ago, Africa's largest freshwater lake was called Ukerewe. It was "discovered" by Europeans only in 1858, by John Hanning Speke (on one of those epic quests to find the source of the Nile), who immediately renamed it in honor of his queen. Although Kenya's portion of the 70,000-sq.-km (27,300-sq.-mile) lake is negligible, it was here, on Rusinga Island in 1948, that Mary Leakey caused a global stir when she unearthed the last common ancestor of the great apes and humans, Proconsul Heseloni, then one of the world's most significant archaeological discoveries. Meanwhile, on larger, little-visited Mfangano Island, prehistoric cave paintings are just one distraction, in addition to watching fish eagles, monkeys, and dog-paddling monitor lizards.
In this corner of the lake, there's room enough to sample the type of languid tropical lifestyle that you might have thought existed only in postcards and movies. Cruise the waters, and you'll be inundated with scenes of bucolic island activity. Uninhibited children wave as they cast a line from the rocks, stark-naked villagers bathe at the water's edge, and fishermen work their nets from their dhows and canoes. The latter are on the hunt for enormous Nile perch -- in extreme cases, reaching up to 250kg (550 lbs.) -- an introduced species that sustains the lake's lucrative fishing industry but has been responsible for the extinction of countless smaller, more beautiful tropical fish that had evolved here over many millennia. The lake has had its fair share of problems -- prolonged drought from 2002 through 2005 caused the water level to drop considerably, a crisis much compounded by the construction of an artificial lake in Uganda. In a positive turnaround, the lake has risen some 15cm (6 in.) since 2006.
Ecological doom and gloom aside, there's every chance that, during your visit to the lake, you'll have the opportunity to sample freshly caught perch, as well as the local specialty, tilapia, also a favorite among the Luo fishermen. Stare across the water at night, witnessing the surface lit by twinkling lights of these fishermen, and it's hard not to be won over. Easily, you could wile away the days simply counting off the inestimable numbers of birds -- from majestic fish eagles to tiny iridescent sunbirds and lightning-fast kingfishers -- many not found elsewhere in Kenya. With so much focus on big game action in other parts of the country and the relative absence of tourists on these shores, this is a fitting place to experience a very different sort of Kenya.
There's no hardship raising a smile from Lake Victoria's friendly Luo population -- they're an open people who seem happy to share their knowledge, history, and political opinions (perhaps more so now that they have a man in the White House). The Luo people you speak to here are descendents of a migrating group that settled on Victoria's shores after driving away or overwhelming the Bantu-speaking groups and primitive hunter-gatherers who had been living here -- that was around 500 years ago. They absorbed many of the cultural influences of the people they encountered, invaded, and married, ultimately giving up their nomadic cattle-rustling for a more settled life of fishing and farming. During the 20th century, they endured what can only be described as a period of enforced development during which heavy-handed tactics were used to encourage colonial-style education and "progressive" behavior. Their language (and many of their traditions) is strongly related to those of the people of southern Sudan, from whence the Luo's ancestors migrated several centuries ago. Armed with just a few basic words (to demonstrate your keen interest), you'll easily strike up a conversation (which will hopefully quickly revert to English) that'll help you more readily get under the skin of the culture. Use these to get started:
Hello Naadé (nay-day)
Good morning Oyawre (oh-yah-ray)
Good evening Oimore (oh-eem-oh-ray)
How are you? Musawa (moo-sah-wa)
Goodbye Oriti (oh-ri-tee)
Thank you Erokamano (eh-ro-koman-oh)
One word of caution, though. Given the fierce rivalry between the Luo and Kenya's dominant tribe, the Kikuyu, you'd do well to refrain from using Luo to address the wrong person -- at best, you'll be snubbed for your awkward cultural assumptions.