Kenya's premier safari destination, the Masai Mara, is an iconic savannah wilderness alive with prolific numbers of resident and migrating wildlife. Add to this the fact that this is principal stomping ground for Africa's best-known tribe, the Maasai -- traditional pastoralists who have become landlords in control of this enormously important ecosystem -- and you have the makings of one of Africa's must-see destinations.
While the Mara has long been a priority on tourist itineraries, the rest of Western Kenya -- a major crop-bearing region with shimmering tea-carpeted hills and a bustling sugar industry -- has remained well off the beaten track. With almost half the entire Kenyan population squeezed into this part of the country and with agriculture its core business, there have been few legitimate attempts to develop a tourist infrastructure. Consequently, relatively few foreign visitors bother to venture this far from the major wildlife parks. But there are rewards for more intrepid travelers, and, as the ancestral home of the U.S. president, it's assumed that Kenya's far west will soon be welcoming a new generation of curious visitors on cult-like "Obama Roots" tours.
Here, on Kenya's far-flung western border with Tanzania and Uganda, is the country's tiny sliver of Lake Victoria, the second-largest freshwater lake on Earth after North America's Lake Superior. Kenya claims a mere 6% of the lake as its own, but that's still a generous area to sample island-style Africa and get to know the friendly Luo people -- Kenya's second-largest tribal group -- who settled these shores several centuries ago, substituting raising cows for fishing.
From all along the shores of Lake Victoria and its islands, fishermen set sail in mahogany dhows and canoes -- or, increasingly, their motorized boats -- to cast their nets for much-sought-after, shark-sized Nile perch. And in a small village near the lakeside city of Kisumu, everything from beer to schools has, in the aftermath of the most recent American election, been rebranded to celebrate "Obamania," since the laid-back region suddenly became famous as the home of the American president's grandmother and extended "family."
And just a few hours' drive -- albeit along often shocking roads -- from where Obama's father grew up is Kakamega, one of Kenya's lesser-known treasures and the country's last remaining natural rainforest, a wet, dense jungle full of exotic monkeys and a fascinating diversity of birdlife. After days of bounding along in a safari vehicle stalking predators and witnessing the dramatic abundance of wildlife grazing the plains of the Mara, this is an idyllic place to stretch your legs for a day or two. Set out on foot beneath the dense forest canopy, and you'll soon be caught up in an intimate encounter with a fast-disappearing African paradise.