Western Highlands:

This fertile farm county is lush with vegetation and beautiful rolling hills, yet tourists are few and far between. The region is home to the Luo people, the third largest ethnic group in Kenya. Western Kenya is the most densely populated part of the county so travelers can tour with ease on a well developed road system. Western Kenya is also the agricultural center of the country with fertile farmland to the north and vast tea plantations in the south.

The towns in the western highlands are small, agriculturally-oriented service towns much like mid-western America. The real attractions for tourists are clustered outside these towns: Mt. Elgon and Saiwa Swamp national parks near Kitale, the tea plantations surrounding Kericho, the Kakamega Forest near Kakamega, and the Cherangani Hills northeast of Eldoret.

Kisii is a remote town with very little tourist travel despite the fact that this is where the famous soapstone is mined. You can visit the village of Tabaka, 11 km beyond Kisii, to experience a working quarry. The entire village is involved in the quarry operation which includes the actual carving as well. Three active quarries are currently operating, each employing up to 50 people. The carvers are all men and most produce 6 - 10 carvings per day.

As the main center of the region known as the Gusii Highlands, Kisii is also home to the Gusii people. The Gusii are a Bantu-speaking people in the middle of a non-Bantu region: the Kipsigis, the Luo, and the Maasai all speak unrelated languages. As with most towns and villages, the market is the liveliest place to experience the people first-hand.

Kericho is the heart of Western Kenya's tea plantations. The lush green vegetation thrives with the daily afternoon rain showers. As the world's third largest tea producer, this product is one of Kenya's most important and vital exports. The hills around town are covered with acres of tea bushes as far as the eye can see. The town was named after Ole Kericho, a Maasai chief killed in the 18th century by the Gusii during a land dispute. Today Kericho is home to the Kipsigis people who are part of the larger Kalenjin group.

Mt. Elgon Region

This area is known for its daily torrential rains that drench the region. Travelers are advised to complete their journey by early afternoon to avoid getting caught on impassable roads. The Kakamega Forest Reserve is a 45 sq km swath of tropical rainforest in the heart of an intensively cultivated agricultural region. The reserve is the only remaining section of such forest in East Africa and is home to 125 species of hardwood trees and hundreds of species of birds and animals, many of which are found no where else in Kenya. The Forest Department maintains a four-room rest house as well as a large nursery for propagating trees and shrubs. Tours can be arranged with little trouble and the side trip is well worth the effort.

The Cherangani Hills are part of the rift valley system and extend for about 60 km northeast from the town of Eldoret. The hills form the western wall of the Elgeyo Escarpment and are ideal for camping and hiking. The hills are dotted with small towns and are home to the Marakwet people who migrated here from the north. Kitale is a small agricultural town and serves as an important take off point for travelers exploring the Mt. Elgon region. Kitale is home to the National Museum of Western Kenya which contains excellent ethnographic displays of the Turkana people as well as animal and geological information. The outdoor exhibits include traditional homesteads of numerous tribal groups and a nature trail which leads through virgin forest behind the museum.

The Saiwa Swamp National Park sits just north of Kitale in a 2 sq km area of swampland surrounding the Koitobos River. This tiny park was set up originally to protect the natural habitat of the Sitatunga antelope in Kenya. The reserve is only accessible on foot and boasts numerous walking trails which skirt the swamp. Mt. Elgon National Park covers a 169 sq km area on the eastern slopes of Mt. Elgon. The free-standing volcanic cone sits on the border with Uganda and the Mt. Elgon range is the fourth highest in Kenya. A spectacular range of vegetation can be found on the mountain that features lush rainforest at the base followed by dense bamboo forests at the higher elevations. Giant alpine vegetation cover the moorlands at the very top of the mountain range. Not far from the entrance gate (approximately 9 km), a series of deep caves have been formed from eroded volcanic ash and serve as natural salt licks for the elephant population. The largest and most accessible are the Kitum Caves where it is possible to see the gouge marks made by the elephants foraging for the minerals from the walls.

Lake Victoria & Kisumu

Lake Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world and covers 67,483 sq km. The lake is not part of the rift valley system and, at only 100 meter deep, is very wide and shallow compared to other bodies of water. Lake Victoria acts as a boundary between Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, yet international water travel between the countries is no longer possible. The only lake excursions available occur between Kisumu and ports farther south. Kenya actually owns only a tiny 3,785 sq km corner of the lake.

The lake attracted great interest from Europeans after its discovery. In 1858, John Hanning Speke was the first European to cite the vast lake as the source of the White Nile. The assertion was ridiculed until H.M. Stanley eventually proved him right in 1875. The colonial powers had hoped to open a navigable route along the Nile to the Mediterranean. Their attempts to reach Uganda across the lake were also responsible for the creation of the East African Railway and the colonization of the Kenyan Highlands.

Kisumu is the third largest town in Kenya with a population of approximately 160,000. The town was originally founded as the inland railhead of the East African Railway in 1901. Kisumu had been a busy port town since its early days, but the break up of the East African Community in 1977 coupled with the cessation of international ferry services on the lake substantially slowed the town's once bustling pace.

Kisumu boasts some interesting sites in addition to Lake Victoria. Impala Park is a game sanctuary and animal orphanage and home to the rare sitatunga antelope. Hippo Point is famed as an exceptional vantage point for viewing hippo, not to mention Lake Victoria's spectacular sunsets. Also of interest is the Kisumu Musuem which features a display of local traditional customs and crafts. Outside there is a Luo homestead consisting of the husband's mud and thatch home and separate houses for each wife. The Kisumu market, one of the busiest and largest in Kenya, provides a fascinating glimpse into the day to day existence of the peoples of Western Kenya. Kisumu is probably the best place to buy Kisii soapstone carvings and the Wanachi Craft Shop near town, a local cooperative, features crafts made by local women.

There are numerous small villages around Lake Victoria of interest to the traveler. Ndunga Beach, a fishing village near Kisumu, is a wonderful place to experience the traditional lifestyle of the lake fishermen. Local villagers can be hired to provide canoe tours through the papyrus reed beds to see hippos and birds. Mfangano Island has some obscure rock paintings and a small fishing village, but it is now most popular as an up-scale fishing camp. Ndere National Park, a 4.2 km island game park features snakes, hippos, crocidiles, sitatunga and numerous species of water bird.

Near the small town of Homa Bay is the volcano shaped Mt. Homa and Ruma National Park. This 120 sq km park encloses the Lambwe Valley. Most of the animals found here have been imported, including Kenya's only herd of roan antelope. Rusinga Island is home to an exclusive fishing camp and the tomb of Tom Mboya (1930-1969), the nationalist leader assassinated in Nairobi during the political unrest of the late 60's. Mary Leakey first put this tiny island on the map with her discovery of a 3 million year old skull belonging to Proconsul Africanus. Additional fossils were also found dating back 17 million years.

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