Christmas might be a time of joy and love – but for true peace, head to Lake Elmenteita where, as Jackson Biko discovers, silence rules.
The sight of a sleeping Maasai is a rarity. Sleep, a Maasai once told me, is for babies and pregnant women. Easy now, Ole, I remember thinking. But on the shores of Lake Elmenteita I found myself gazing up at a reclining moran who loomed over me. This was no slumbering giant, of course, but the broken remains of ancient volcanic calderas, known to the local Maasai as Elngiragata Olmorani – Sleeping Warrior; during the colonial era it became known as Delamere’s Nose, after the British settler who expropriated vast swathes of the land bordering the lake. But it’s the Maasai name that stuck. And it’s this snoozing moran that towers over Pink Lake Man’s Ecolodge, a charming little getaway nestled in the forest on the southeast shore of Lake Elmenteita. On my drive from Kikopey – the pitstop on the Nakuru-Nairobi highway famed for its succulent nyama choma – I almost thought I’d taken the wrong turning: the lodge is nigh invisible, camouflaged by the canopies of yellow-bark acacia. When it first opened five years ago, accommodation consisted of just three rustic, single-bedroom cottages – the type of simple cabins that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn could have comfortably called home (though with rather more modern bathrooms). But it has since evolved, albeit slowly and stylishly, adding a two-bedroom family-friendly house with a fully fitted American-style kitchen, large verandah and living room with homely fireplace. And for the intrepid, nearby there’s a treehouse near a rugged gorge, and shady camping areas with fine facilities. The units are all tastefully furnished with natural materials and local art, while solar power is backed up by a generator at night.
The lake’s name is derived from the Maasai Ol Muteita – ‘place of dust’. True, the land around Elmenteita can be arid between January and March, the air laden with dust. But the lake itself is very much alive, designated a Ramsar Site – a wetland of international importance – and part of the Rift Valley soda lake system listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. The green colour of its shallow waters is caused by the algae that provide food for the tiny crustaceans; those, in turn, feed the diverse and profuse birds that flock here – some 450 species.
It’s best known for its flamingos, which alternate between the region’s lakes, sometimes wading in Elmenteita, at other times preferring Nakuru; at times Elmenteita hosts more than a quarter of the world’s population of lesser flamingos. Its lava islands provide nesting sites for great white pelicans – their only breeding area in the Rift Valley. In short: birdwatchers, this is for you.
But the true beauty of Pink Lake Man’s is in the silence. The place is almost eerily still. The only sounds are the soft murmur of the wind and the calls of the countless birds. This is the ideal place for completely winding down – the perfect antidote for the excesses and activity of Christmas and New Year – because here, everything slows down to a crawl. And so did I.
In the heat of the afternoon I lounged on my verandah with a book and a glass of wine. But the book lay unopened; I just relaxed. The lake, spread before me, shimmered in the sun, teeming with pink dots – flamingos wading and feeding. In the distance I spotted a herd of cattle stoically trooping past, followed close behind by a Maasai boy whose shuka flapped and danced in the wind.
Next day, one of the lodge’s staff took me to the huge, phallic obelisk under which lies Lord Cole, another British settler whose story is as checkered as any other in the history of colonial Kenya. Brother-in-law to the same Lord Delamere whose nose was honoured by the nearby hills, Cole built a huge ranch just behind the spot where Pink Lake Man’s sits today. He also shot hundreds of zebras, but it was after shooting a local – who he claimed had stolen one of his sheep – that he was deported. He sneaked back, only to be forced to flee again. Finally his mother pleaded with the British Government to obtain permission for him to return.
In the 1920s, his farm was afflicted by drought, fires, rinderpest and East Coast fever. By 1929 Lord Cole, blind in one eye and confined to a wheelchair, was a broken man. Making his way to the viewpoint where his monument now stands, he shot himself. It’s a sombre tale that somehow seems far removed from the serenity of the place today.
I returned to the lodge where I was greeted by Anthony, a gentleman who, as well as taking care of the lodge, also doubles as the chef. Anthony is amiable and very professional – and to say that he knows his onions is a huge understatement. Throughout my visit Anthony whipped up delectable dishes: chicken tikka, pan-fried fish, crispy vegetables. He served breakfast by the lake, on foldaway tables and canvas chairs, while dinner was laid out on the verandah, with a roaring fire lit outside.
If my days at the lodge were soundtracked by silence, the nights were even more profoundly still. Save for the crackle of the fire, all sound fell away. An occasional owl hooted, and I caught the distant howls of some wild animal, but little else disturbed my idyll. There are no TV sets here, no telephones. No music blaring from passing cars. Nature rules with a – much welcomed – tyranny of silence.
Late on my final night at the lodge I joined friends to drive out to the hot springs that lie at the foot of the sleeping moran. There, under the moon, we cracked open a bottle of wine and jumped into the natural Jacuzzi. It was a charmed moment. Lying back in the steaming pond, head resting on a stone and sipping my wine with the widest of night skies stretched above me, a serenity settled in my soul. Nothing else mattered: just me, my drink, my friends, the warm, soothing water, and peace in my heart.
3 more great New Year escapes
1 Severin Sea Lodge, Mombasa – Opening up onto a private Indian Ocean beach, 12km from Mombasa, this Swahili-styled hotel has 188 rooms of various comfort levels, as well as a spa. Don’t miss the Arabian dhow excursion to Fort Jesus. www.severinsealodge.com
2 Satao Luxury Camp, Tsavo East – Satao, part of the ‘Out of Africa’ Collection of chic luxury camps, comprises 20 en suite tents, each with a patio and view of the camp’s own waterhole. www.sataocamp.com
3 Kigio Wildlife Lodge, Gilgil – The 12 eco-friendly suites here nestle amid yellow-fever tree woodland, overlooking the Malewa River – a charming retreat, just 120km from Nairobi. www.kigio.com