Thursday, May 6

Baringo’s Transformation

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baringos transformation

As long as I’ve known Lake Baringo – half a century – its warm waters have been burnt-orange, framed by rust-coloured rocks, with the indigo backdrops of the Tugen Hills and Laikipia Escarpment. Back in the 1880s, Joseph Thompson “discovered” Baringo, fed by seven permanent rivers and replete with game and long grass. Today only two rivers – the El Molo and Ol Arabel – run into the rocky desert that surrounds the lake and its brown colour was generally blamed on soil erosion. I say “was” because water levels have risen since 2011, creating a clear blue 120 square mile Baringo – more than twice its former size. So why the dramatic change?

Baringo, lying at the narrowest part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, is not the only lake to have grown. While the meteorological department has reported that the Rift and its catchment’s rainfall patterns have been average, the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources has blamed the rise to siltation of the lakes due to degradation of the catchment areas. But scientifically speaking, it’s all apparently the fault of regional tectonic movements, which create near-field and far-field compressional and tensional stress fields. Currently, with increased stress, the lake levels aren’t predicted to drop any time soon, whatever the rainfall, although the good news is that they may not rise much either.

High waters have already drowned much of Baringo’s accommodation. Roberts’ camp on the mainland has lost plenty of campsite and some of its charming cottages. Neighbouring Lake Baringo Club is submerged. The lodge on Samatian Island remains open, albeit downsized with new kitchen – after the water enveloped its old one along with the infinity pool, bar and several of its lakeside rooms. Baringo’s largest island, Ol Kokwa, is now two islands, but in spite of losing some lakeside dwellings, its southern end still rises high enough to have kept dry one of my favourite destinations.

Island Camp – Kenya’s second oldest tented camp in Kenya – was originally Leakeys’ archeological dig site, developed into a delightful camp by Jonathan Leaky, Alan Douglas-Dufresne and Willie Roberts in 1972. In 1996, after Lonrho’s stint of ownership, Perrie Hennessy bought it and in 2012 he was joined by partners, Michael Beamish and Dr. Bonnie Dunbar (the latter of Karen Blixen Coffee Garden fame). Now it’s called Island Camp Resort and has been completely renovated.

I visited in January to celebrate a friend’s 50th – the perfect party place. After a sweaty drive, it’s a relief to leave the car under an acacia tree and take the banana boat to the island. Mid-afternoon the lake is perfect blue and we gasp on arrival at how the lake has risen. From our plunge pool on the private veranda of our “superior” room, which is very comfortable and large enough for an extended family, we try to get used to the lake’s new blue look. There are even better views from the top pool and bar, the dining room, the lounge and main bar (built around an ancient Njemps game forged into the rock) – in fact everywhere you stand there’s a fabulous view and thanks to desertification Baringo’s lovely shores aren’t ruined by hectares of plastic greenhouses.

A glass of wine in hand we watch the water turn jade green under the setting sun’s softer rays – and finally a sheet of liquid gold as the sun drops behind the distant Tugen Hills, where our ancestor’s footprints are fossilized human in pre-cambrian rock. Meals are taken in the open-sided dining room where the view and multitudes of affable birds at breakfast conspire to keep you for yet another coffee. Fortunately we are here for two nights and the second is party night. The staff pull out all the stops, and after poolside sundowners with views east and west, we tuck into a sumptuous barbecue. The food is excellent, with the retention of old Island Camp traditions such as chilled soups in the heat of the day, but also including many innovative improvements. Staff are friendly and even remember the name of a guest from England who hadn’t visited for almost a decade.

This is bird watchers’ paradise, I muse over my next morning’s teafeast on our terrace, with Baringo’s daring feathered population swiping the sugar and biscuits. We watch the tiny northern masked weavers and a spotted warbler. Wheeling over the lake below are beautiful blue-cheeked bee-eaters. A monitor lizard appears and a dwarf mongoose scuttles into the undergrowth. Although it’s tempting to do little more than watch birds, eat and swim, there’s plenty to do here: boat trips to the Ruko Wildlife Conservancy where 8 Rothschild’s Giraffes (also known as Baringo giraffe) were translocated from Soysambu conservancy. The camp will arrange a champagne breakfast to end your walk around Ruko Island – or you can take a birdwatching boat trip around Ol Kokwe, feeding fish eagles and watching herons beside Gibraltar while sipping sundowners. In spite of crocodiles. Baringo is the perfect place to waterski: both my kids learned in these slightly saline waters.

Baringo is home to some interesting local peoples: the Njemps (who arrived in the area in the 1700’s), Tugen (originally from South Sudan) and Pokot (whose ancestors migrated down from the Nile in 500BC) as well as its 470 species of birds and 7 species of fish, not forgetting the hippos, crocodiles and many interesting species of snakes.

To some a snake-friendly island in the middle of a crocodile-infested lake might not sound inviting. But believe me when I say it’s my idea of Heaven. Besides it’ll keep they away the sort of people you don’t want to share paradise island with anyway.

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