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Lake Victoria

Text and photographs Peter Frost Additional photographs Courtesy of Governors’ Camp ‘ There. Over there, see?’ Sam glances at me with a big smile, his scraggy cap high on his head. The ski-boat captain is looking to his right, across the still, pond-like water of Africa’s largest lake. On the shoreline, the biggest wild fig tree I’ve ever seen suddenly releases a small black-and-white dot. The dot gets bigger. ‘Watch carefully.’ Quickly now the dot shrinks the space between us, banks, dives and, within 10 metres of us, plucks a Nile perch from the water. It’s over in seconds. I’m gobsmacked. ‘He’s a good one that, always hungry. I know these waters and when he will feed. And I think he knows we like to watch. Maybe he’s a show-off,’ says Sam. What is it with me and fish eagles? There always seems to be one to entertain me. Last month at Etosha National Park, Namibia, an (admittedly certifiable) tourist and I watched as another roosted in a picturesque acacia: ‘These fish eagles. They eat fish, you say? How then do they catch them? Can they swim?’ This time, however, the joy was not just in the raptor, or even its ace attack. It was the location. Lake Victoria is like nothing else on earth, a viscerally archaic place, so enormous it’s hard to grasp. Imagine a body of water as big as Ireland, with a fringe largely undeveloped, thick with mostly natural tropical vegetation and the odd fishing village. Throw in wild otters, birding to get the twitchers in an absolute froth, that irrepressible Kenyan impulse to colour everything Very Bright and you have the makings of a ‘why isn’t the  world here?’ moment every day. Lake Victoria, between the two parallel fault lines of the Great Rift Valley and about five hours’ flight from Johannesburg, had always been on my bucket list, but somehow any East African foray has led inexorably to the perfect coffee-table-book, Prussian-blue coast. The lake, shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, is a different beast entirely. It is unheralded, bereft of jet skis or any other form of mass tourism, and as tranquil as time stood still. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean camping and the absence of all mod cons. So to the Kenyan north I went this time, to visit two lodges, the only two lodges on the Kenyan shoreline, that serve an almighty chunk of African heaven. Rusinga Island Lodge and Mfangano Island Camp on nearby Mfangano Island are very different, but both share that special Kenyan ability to make you feel truly at home. It’s hard to explain; Kenyan lodges generally combine the best of South African five-star efficiency with the best of Zimbabwe five-star warmth. Back on the boat, Sam warp speeds the craft across the lake and the spray flies. A flock,  literally, of pied kingfishers squadron across our bows chattering noisily, and Sam points left. Bobbing in the lake, strangely out of place I think in such a huge body of water, are wild otters, watching us power past. The abundance  reminds me of an Antarctic trip, where once you’ve crossed the Drake Passage from South America, you enter a secret ‘garden’ where all the world’s marine life comes in summer to frolic, free from the dangers of modern man. The hidden cliff-side cave of Mawanga and sacred Nzenze Island are next, where the local Luo and Suba tribes first landed from Uganda. The rainmakers use the cave to offer sacrifices to higher powers in return for good rains… Mfangano Island – and the lodge – when it comes, is a welcome sight. It rises up on the horizon and, like Rusinga Island, is big – one of a number of islands in this northern bulb of the lake. The lodge is of course on the water’s edge, climbing steeply up the banks, hidden largely in the tropical trees and gorgeous, carefully tended gardens. There’s always someone to welcome the boat back, carry your day bag and suggest a sundowner on the deck. The suites are extended thatched rondavels, hidden from each other, strung out in a necklace, all with views of the lake and the passing fishers. Their trademark brightly painted, long, narrow canoes, one man at either end, facing each other, become a familiar sight. The rooms are huge, especially the honeymoon suite, which is double story, perched over the lake in a triumph of stone and thatch. The pièce de résistance is a downstairs bath separated from the lake by just a window. It’s surely one of the world’s best-located tubs. The next morning the weather gods play roulette and throw the first storms of the year at us. Primeval it is, extreme weather in all its glory, a fury of noise and wind. Despite the deluge, Sam heads out, determined to show me Bird Island, home to what seems like every cormorant, fish eagle and egret in the world. We make the trip en route to Rusinga Island Lodge, and I’m sad to leave the wildness of Mfangano. ‘Semekiah. But you can call me Sem. Welcome to Rusinga.’ He’s seriously good looking, a fitting introduction to a very good-looking lodge. Sem shows me round and suggests tomorrow’s excursion – Ruma National Park to see the new rhinos and roan antelope. Rusinga Island Lodge is gentler than Mfangano, rolling grass lawns to the water’s edge rather than a steep tropical jungle. The chalets are more contemporary, too – a delightful mix of local Luo craft and European sophistication. Big verandas offer lazy afternoons of tea and reading while watching the fish eagles at play. Not so for me. Ruma National Park, the only one in the area, is a good two hours away, through the area’s typical rural landscape of small villages and tiny communities. The roan are there, but the rhinos are hiding and, truthfully, I want to get back to the lake. This I can do any weekend in South Africa. Lake Victoria is a once-off treat, and the open waters are entirely addictive. I’m the only guest that evening at Rusinga, frustrated that I can’t share the astonishing sunset, open dining room and post-tempest, pond-like lake with someone else. The colours catch fire and the evening chorus of fish eagles and nesting hamerkops give way to cicadas and the gentle lapping of the tide. There’s no noise. No grey generator buzz, no far-off city glow, no nothing. It’s primordial, and over coffee on the pier – me and an armada of lantern-lit fishing canoes – I’m reminded it’s near here that Mary Leakey first found her 18-million-year-old Proconsul africanus skull that ignited the hunt for hominid origins in the Rift Valley. That’s about right – how wonderful that it hasn’t changed much after all these years... GETTING THERE Kenya Airways flies direct to Nairobi from Johannesburg four times a day. There are connections throughout the day from Nairobi to Kisumu, in Kenya, the nearest town to the lake. From Kisumu it is an hour-long road transfer to Mirau and a 30-minute ferry trip to Rusinga Island. Mfanango Island Camp is a further half hour away by boat. All transfer arrangements can be made by the lodges. Both establishments have their own airstrips and private transfers are possible from Nairobi or the Maasai Mara, where both have sister lodges. Contact Kenya Airways at LAKE VICTORIA Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest and shallowest fresh-water lake at 69 000km2. It is shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Big as it is, the lake is only the remnant of a vast inland sea that stretched from Somalia to Zambia. It’s also one of the few lakes in the world not fed by rivers – instead it relies almost entirely on rain to fill it and has dried up at least three times in its lifetime. The famed White Nile river flows from its northern reaches. Fishing is the main industry and there is little formal tourism. Safety in the Kenyan section – the northwest of the lake – is excellent; communities are mostly rural, accommodating and very friendly. This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of House and Leisure.