Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake covering an area of 67,850 square kilometers. This vast expanse, about the size of the Republic of Ireland, forms the headwaters of the River Nile. The nearest major town next to the lake is Kisumu, which is 350 kilometers from Nairobi by road.
Three nations share the waters of the lake – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Kenya’s share is the smallest (3785 square kilometers) but there is a busy network of waterways between the trading towns and villages, which lie along the shores of the lake. Passenger boats and small cargo vessels ply daily from Kisumu as far as the Tanzanian border and north to Port Victoria near Uganda. Kisumu, the largest town in western Kenya and the nation’s third largest (population over 250,000), is the home of several small industries notably fish processing and cotton goods manufacture.
Kisumu town came into existence with the completion, in 1901, of the first section of the Kenya Uganda Railway five years after plate laying began 1000 kilometers away in Mombasa. It was briefly called Port Florence. Only forty years earlier, the English explorer Speke, having traveled along the western shore of the lake reached a place he named Ripon Falls. It was these cataracts, at what is now Jinja in Uganda, which he proclaimed the source of the Nile.
Lake Victoria is Kenya’s sports fishing mecca. Phenomenal records of enormous Nile Perch, some weighing 50 to 100 kg, have been caught from the Kenyan shores. In terms of local commerce, fishing for Tilapia and Nile perch provides a living for many of the Luo people who live along the lakeside. The fish are sold at local markets or to the processors for sale in Nairobi and export markets.
Most of the fishing is from small picturesque dugout canoes, equipped with lateen sails. The lake once had abundant hippo and crocodile but now these are reduced. Halfway between Kisumu and Homa Bay, near Kendu Bay is a small inland crater lake, Sindi, offering a sight of flamingo foraging through a surface of emerald algae. There is also a famous heronry very near to Kisumu where as many as a thousand large water birds nest and breed between March and July. Homa Mountain, gaunt and grand, dominates the peninsular behind, which shelters the small town of Homa Bay. Near to Homa Bay are two islands, Rusinga and Mfangano. Rusinga is locally acclaimed as the burial place of Tom Mboya, a great son of Kenya. Rusinga Island can be reached from Mbita point which is a mecca for insect study and also hosts the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE).
The next island over on Lake Victoria is Mfangano Island, which is also home to of several fishing villages. The island offers a unique opportunity to see the colorful life on the lake, where fishing villages have not changed in centuries, the bird life is superb and seeing the families of otters is an added bonus.
On the island sits the Mfangano Island Lodge, an exclusive lodge with selected number of cottages and a capacity of 12 guests. Famous statesmen like US president Jimmy Carter and the Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev have enjoyed the experiences at Mfangano Island Lodge.
On each of the islands, and also on nearby Takawiri Island, there are fishing camps providing boats for hire and some simple accommodation in sublime settings. Much of the business of these camps comes from the Masai Mara accommodations, where every morning, planes pick up guests for the less than half hour’s flight to the lake. Takawiri Islands can be reached by road from Kisumu via Homa Bay to Mbita and by ferry from Luanda K’otieno beach, which is a 45-minutes ride on the lake’s ferry. However, boating trips are an ideal way to see the best of the island and its water based attractions.
The other islands: Mbasa and Mholo islands are a few metres apart. Both are famous for abundance of bird life. Uninhabited by man, the islands have many bird species including egrets and the fish eagle. There are also many monitor lizards, which feed on eggs and birds. Visiting these islands at sunset is an incredible experience. Thousands of birds fill the air, literally carpeting both islands as they descend to roost among the rocks and trees. With the last rays of the sun turning the waters of the Lake to gold, this is one of Kenya’s greatest natural spectacles. Ndere Island Game Park, a documented National Park inside Lake Victoria is another gem. Antelopes and crocodiles are in plenty.
Lake Victoria basin is inhabited by diverse people whose livelihood depends on the lake. From the Ssese Islands of Uganda to Mageta Island and Takawiri Island of Kenya. From Mwanza in Tanzania to Bukoba, there are several ecotourism projects to visit even as you join the villagers for cultural activities. AfricanMecca recommends at the least a one night stay on Lake Victoria.