With its near-tropical clime, affable Luo fishing communities, and alternative biodiversity, Lake Victoria presents an opportunity to take in Western Kenya at a tranquil pace. At this ornithologist's dream, you don't need to make any effort here to witness the antics of waterfowl -- cormorants, egrets, sandpipers, herons, sacred ibises, and all kinds of kingfishers (it won't be long before you're able to distinguish among malachite, pied, pygmy, and giant) are everywhere. Pelicans, too, are spotted between the islands, and fish eagles regularly swoop down over the surface to pluck out their catch.
Most remote and idyllic of the islands is Mfangano, where, over and above its radiant, twittering birdlife, you can watch spotted-neck otters dashing around the rocks, monkeys zipping through the green canopy above, and monitor lizards swimming through the shallow waters or basking in the sun. Mfangano is widely inhabited by members of the Abasuba community, descendents of a Bantu tribe, greatly assimilated through intermarriage by the invading Luo. Unlike the Luo, the Suba (whose name means People Who Are Always Wandering) have traditionally included male circumcision among their rites of passage. The largest of Victoria's Kenyan islands -- all the more alluring for its lack of development (until recently, there wasn't a single private car here; now, in addition to a truck and couple of tractors, there's one car parked permanently near the airstrip) -- Mfangano is also where you can climb to the summit of Mount Kwitutu or hire a guide (Ksh500) for a hike to see the rock paintings (admission Ksh200) of Kwitone and Mawanga. Believed to be the work of the ancient Twaa people who were the island's first inhabitants, these red and white concentric circles, spirals, and sunbursts continue to hold the local population in awe, and visitation is governed by various superstitions; for more information, contact the Abasuba Community Peace Museum (Mfangano Island; tel. 723/898-406; www.abasuba.museum).
More easily accessible -- and joined to the nearby lakeside village of Mbita by a causeway that's negated any sense of isolation -- is Rusinga Island, rich with fossils dating back 18 million years and once the epicenter of an archaeological dig that turned up fragments of one of the great links in human evolution. Not only is Rusinga well-placed for exploring the lake, with plenty of activities on offer, but it's also within striking distance of one of Kenya's less-visited animal preserves, Ruma National Park, undiscovered and undisturbed by the masses. Existing almost exclusively for the preservation of Kenya's last surviving roan antelope, Ruma is a short drive from Mbita, the main point of access to Rusinga, and has been spared agricultural development due to a tsetse fly infestation. Large, rare antelope with ridged backward-curving horns averaging 70cm (27 in.) and beautiful black and white clownlike facial markings, the roan exist alongside some other special species, including the Jackson's hartebeest, small fawn-colored oribi, Rothschild's giraffe, Bohor reedbuck, and topi. Unlike the Mara, Ruma is not teeming with large predators, but with some considerable luck, you may see leopard. The real thrill, though, is the park's remoteness -- this is one wildlife sanctuary where you could find yourself entirely alone with the beasts.
Understandably, the principal activity around the islands, and from many of the towns and villages around the lake's shore, is fishing; you can trawl for Nile perch along the shores or cast for tilapia in the evenings. Your lodge will make all the necessary arrangements (and there's even a deal that allows guests to fish outside the permitted season).
No matter how inviting Lake Victoria's water may seem, and despite the regular sight of locals bathing or swimming in it, you'd do well to stay clear. Bilharzia -- a highly invasive parasite -- is rife among the freshwater snails that inhabit the grassy shores here, and you wouldn't want to tempt fate. The bilharzia's flukes carried by the snails migrate to the human host directly through the skin and then make for the bowel or bladder, where they can cause serious organ damage, not to mention setting off a cycle of water contamination.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.