“The water playfully laps against the small, wooden boat rocking it rhythmically back and forth as if to the lake’s very own sweet tune. The sun smears itself across the evening sky, splashing it in striking orange hues as a fish eagle flutters across my periphery. I am yanked out of my reverie by the fisherman’s paddle tapping incessantly against the wood, and as if in response, a hippo’s head bobs out of the water and starts inching towards us.”
Set in western Kenya on the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria, the port city of Kisumu is a vibrant melting pot of culture and activities begging to be explored by the open-minded wanderer. Wendy Watta makes some suggestions to get you started…
1 The Kisumu-combo: fish, boat rides & birdwatching
Kisumu’s lake setting makes it unsurprisingly synonymous with fish, boat rides and birdwatching. The locals have broken down the art of preparing tilapia (because if you watch how it is handled from the moment a fisherman traps it in his net to the way a chef meticulously plates it up for a patron then it really is an art) to two options: deep or wet fried. The fish is traditionally served with ugali, kachumbari and sukumawiki or some other indigenous vegetable. Take a boat ride and you’ll discover the lake’s magnificent flora and fauna which your captain will often point out as you gently glide over its fresh waters.
Check it out: Kiboko Bay
Staring out onto the jetty from the outdoor terrace while tucking into the house special of wet fry tilapia is like looking out onto a breathtaking painting whose beauty you can’t quite articulate (and not just because of what’s going on in your palate). Contributing to the atmosphere are creaking wooden floorboards and red metallic railings lined with lanterns hoisted up on poles on both sides. Add to this the boats that are docked and eagerly waiting to have you aboard and you’ll see why it’s a favourite.
For luxury accommodation right by the lake, the cottages at Kiboko Bay are your best bet. This is also one of the only spots around where you can get luxury motorboats that can offer excursions to bigger groups.
This area comprises a series of brightly coloured semi-permanent eateries dotted along the lake. Due to competition among the close-knit restaurants, you will be hounded by waiters, each scrambling to entice you to their spot. This is not the place you go to for polished silverware but its charm lies in the authenticity of the experience. Make like a local and eat with your hands.
To avoid the chaos particularly from the entrance, drive further along the bumpy dirt road until you get to the last restaurant called Tilapia Beach. It is a lot more spacious, clean and well organised.
3 Hippo Point
This is an open viewing area but, despite its name, you are more likely to catch a great sunset or spot various birds. It’s a great place for picnics or to hire a boat, but is yet to be fully tapped for the amazing potential it has to increase tourism to the area.
Dunga Hill Camp is a good alternative and even has a restaurant and bar that often plays benga and rhumba music.
4 Dunga Beach
In the wake of the sunrise, hard-working fishermen row back to shore in brightly coloured boats with even brighter smiles. Eager buyers jostle to be given first pick of the day’s catch and you will likely never see bigger catfish or Nile perch in the country. By around midday, fishmongers adorned in striking African print fabrics will start setting up little makeshift barbecues to roast the fish, all the while chatting heartily. Grinning kids run errands or roll old bicycle tyres up and down the jetty while men tend to their boats. The energy here is infectious!
Dunga Beach is one of the cheapest places to buy fish in Kisumu and without middlemen.
5 Impala Park Sanctuary
For nature lovers, this walking sanctuary has about 115 bird species, nature trail circuits, free-roaming zebras and impalas, baboons, monkeys, an animal orphanage with caged lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, zebras, as well as jackals, buffaloes and the endangered sitatunga antelope. It’s a great site for ecology and wildlife research.
Check out: Kisumu Yacht Club
They set up fishing competitions, waterskiing and boat racing as well as sailing excursions every other day. The club also has various types of vessel to hire out.
Nestled within the serenity of the park is a unique and secluded wheelchair accessible eco-lodge with 12 elegant cottages overlooking the lake – the ideal accommodation for luxury-seeking nature lovers.
Old: Renowned musician Suzanna Owiyo hails from Kisumu and her music is a contemporary fusion of traditional western Kenya sounds (featuring instruments like nyatiti and orutu). Her hit song Kisumu 100 was released in 2001 during Kisumu’s centennial celebrations as an ode to the city.
New: The latest afro-rap sensation out of Kisumu is Vicmass Luodollar whose high-quality video for the hit single Simbe Adek was shot in various spots around the city including Jubilee Market, Lwang’ni, the Acacia Premier Hotel and Kisumu Sports Ground.
Close to Kisumu
Kit Mikayi is a 40m-high rock formation along the Kisumu-Bondo Road whose name translates as ‘stone of the first wife’. Also known as ‘the weeping rock’, it is said that Mikayi went up a hill to cry when her husband took a second wife and that she has been weeping ever since. An alternative tale tells that her husband would spend so much time at the caves within the rocks that she started joking that he was visiting his second wife – both allude to polygamy. A drive to this site will reveal how such Luo homes were traditionally set up.
A story is told about a mighty warrior called Luanda Magere whose name translates as ‘built of rocks’. He was said to have supernatural powers and during battle, arrows and spears would simply deflect off his body. He defeated the Nandi (Luo’s foes at the time) so many times that they eventually sent him a beautiful girl to marry under the guise of a truce, but her real mission was to find out his weakness. One day Luanda fell sick while his first wife was out so he asked the Nandi girl to bring him medicine and administer it on his shadow. When she made a small cut on it, she saw it bleed. That very night the girl crept out and told her people. They in turn attacked and one warrior threw a spear at Luanda’s shadow and he fell, died and turned to a boulder which exists to this day.
Where to stay
Acacia Premier Hotel
The balcony on the fourth level treats guests to an unmarred view of a slice of the city and the magnificent lake further beyond. Accommodation includes standard and superior rooms as well as the Bay and Presidential suites. Catch yet another spectacular sunset at Aqua Pool Bar & Grill or listen to music at Buzz Bar – they have regular events so check their website beforehand. Ask the barista at the coffee lounge to fix you a latte then settle to supper at the all-day dining Café Acacia whose menu has Indian, Pan-Asian, Italian and African options. Achieng’ Oneko Rd (www.acaciapremier.com)
Take a matatu, tuk tuk, motorbike or taxi to get around town. There is no standard fare meter so negotiate where possible.