My heart was pounding out of my chest as I tried to swallow the lump in my throat.
I pressed the record button on my camera and pointed it directly ahead. I’ve never had a surgeon’s hands. And that day, they were even shakier. Still, I had to capture the moment in anyway possible.
There they were, their heads and backs bobbing up and down in the murky waters. From afar, they looked like tiny stone islands on the horizon. Our motorboat sputtered to a stop mere meters away from Africa’s deadliest killers.
We knew we were too close for comfort when the mother hippos began snorting at us – a warning sign. She urged to leave peacefully or there would be dire consequences. Our boat captain laughed off our fears, but fortunately abided our wishes as we continue onward in our expedition at Lake Naivasha.
About 100 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, Lake Naivasha is nestled atop the highest plateau in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. There, millenniums of shifting tectonic plates and seismic activity have created an intensely rugged yet fertile landscape. The lake is fed by the Malewa and Gilgil rivers, and is assumed to have an underground outflow.
The fertile area around the lake is teeming with wildlife – including over 400 different species of birds and a large population of hippos. The fresh waters of the lake also attract nearby giraffes, zebras, buffalo, warthogs, impala and many more.
There are over a dozen campsites around the lake making Naivasha a popular recreation destination for Kenyans, as well as international tourists.
*campsites are lined with an electric fence and located a safe distance away from Hippo nests.
Aside from camping and fishing, the most common activities to do at Lake Naivasha are wildlife excursions.
You’ll be loaded into a small, motorized boat with a local guide. Knowledgeable guides will be able point out and identify wildlife and give a couple of tidbits on the history and culture of the area.
You can ask your guide to get you as close as possible to the various animals that call the lake home – including the hungry, hungry hippos and the prehistoric death-machines called crocodiles.
Most of the time, guides are experienced and know to keep a safe distance. Still, that doesn’t mean the experience will be free of anxiety.
My guide seemed to have flown a little too close to the sun. At one point, we approached a huge family of hippos – at least 20 or more pissed-off behemoths. My girlfriend Dasha and her family – with whom I traveled with – had lived in Nairobi for some time and were quite familiar with hippo-viewing etiquette.
If a hippo makes an aggressive blowing sound, it is usually a warning sign you are too close and need to back away. If the same hippo goes under water, you need to GTFO ASAP. Despite their size, hippos are extremely fast swimmers and can close in on an idling boat in no time. If you see air bubbles heading your way, it may be too late.
Despite requests to not come any closer, our guide insisted we creep up on the nest for a better view.
“Don’t, worry, I’ve been doing this for years.”
Fortunately, once several females started snorting and snarling, he did the right thing and moved on. Afterwards he asked if we wanted to visit a crocodile nest.
No thanks. I only brought one change of underwear.
Regardless of my anxious encounter with hippos, the lake excursion was truly magnificent experience. I reveled at the chance to see some of Africa’s most majestic animals in what looked like a setting straight out of The Lion King. I watched giraffes graze the Acacia trees that lined the lake. I watched a family of warthogs foraging in the brush. And my personal favorite moment came when our vessel approached a floating flock of flamingos. Watching the flurry of bright pink birds taking flight was truly unforgettable. Costs can vary, but the price to rent a boat is typically 3,000 shillings (or $30), which can be split between up to six people.
Several companies offer day-trip packages from Nairobi. These types of day-tours may be the most convenient way to reach the lake, however, they can be quite expensive – ranging anywhere from $90-200 USD.
I’d recommend arranging your own transportation – either renting a car or traveling by matatu. I was fortunate enough to visit with Kenyan residents who owned a car. But if I was traveling alone, I’d have headed over to Accra Road where you can purchase tickets for matatus.
There, you’ll likely be approached by a flurry of salesmen waving tickets and trying to get you on their shuttle. Ticket prices can vary wildly, but on average, you should pay around 400-600 shillings ($4-6) for transport from Nairobi to the town of Naivasha.
If you’re not sure where you need to get off, just ask the driver. Generally, they are warm, friendly and happy to help you out. Once you arrive in Naivasha, you’ll need to hop on a different shuttle to reach the lake shore. Find the Naivasha bus depot (where you’ll see more matatus lined up), go inside, and ask around for the cheapest fare to Carnelley’s, Fisherman’s Camp, Fish Eagle, Crayfish Camp or Crater Lake camp. All stops are located on the same loop road around the lake. Fare should cost around 100 shillings ($1).
If you’re driving yourself, you’ll want to take A 104 north for about 85 kilometers before turning left on Kenyatta Rd – which will take you straight into Naivasha. It’s worth a stop at some of the viewpoints along A 104 where you can see the expanse of the Great Rift Valley with Mount Longonot looming in the distance.
Once in Naivasha, turn left on Moi Ave. which becomes Moi S. Lake Rd. Follow the loop around the lake and look for signs pointing you to campgrounds or boat docks. The total trip should take about 1.5-2 hours depending on traffic.
Have you explored Naivasha? Got any tips or suggestions that I may have missed? Let me hear about your experiences in the comments below.
Also published on Medium.