80 AND COUNTING – A RETURN TO LAKE NAIVASHA
(The new enlarged entrance to the Lake Naivasha Country Club, welcoming as ever)
The calls of the fish eagles echoed across the extensive manicured grounds in the early hour of the day as the first rays of light crept across the horizon, just as it must have sounded 80 odd years ago. Ever since the erstwhile Sparks Hotel’s construction was started in 1931, at the very spot where I now sat on the verandah of my cottage to soak up the birdsong from the tall ‘fever trees’, aka acacias, did this distinct bird call capture the imagination of owners, managers and travelling guests alike, nature’s wake up call for sure and greatly assisted and enhanced by the myriads of other birds making the Lake Naivasha shores their habitat and singing their hearts out day in day out to the delight of visitors from the city but also from abroad, who probably see more birds at Naivasha in a day than in a year back home where they come from.
(Across the water is ‘Crescent Peninsula’ formerly ‘Crescent Island’, now connected to the mainland)
The lake since then has seen variations in water levels, and at present, probably for a variety of reasons, the water is well back from the time the Sparks’ set out to build their little hotel, a time when Crescent Island was indeed still an island as opposed to ‘Crescent Peninsula’ as it now appears to have become.
The first five rooms, still standing today at the same spot though repeatedly modified, enlarged and modernized were completed by 1933, allowing Ann and Herbert Sparks to take in paying guests but the ‘official’ opening, cutting tape and cake and all, still took until Christmas Day in 1935 when according to records obtained the ‘Sparks’ was fully booked
The hotel soon gained a reputation as a comfortable and conveniently located rest stop for those taking the hard road from Nairobi into the Great African Rift Valley or vice versa, but only when Imperial Airways commenced their long distance flights between London and Durban with the legendary ‘flying boats’ – huge ‘beasts’ in those days – was it that the hotel began its rise to fame and glory which lasted to the present day.
These flying contraptions landing on water came from the River Thames via the Mediterranean Sea to the Nile delta near Alexandria and then flew along the river with further landings in Khartoum before breaking the journey in Naivasha, the lake being Kenya’s first international airport in a manner of speaking.
Crews and passengers stayed on land for night stops along the route and the trip taking several days allowed in particular the passengers to take in some real life experiences en route, with lions reportedly still roaming the floor of the Rift Valley back then and their roars being heard at night, causing probably fear and hopes amongst the airline guests for the swift onset of daylight, considering the stories passengers had heard about the man eating lions of Tsavo which had taken quite a few fellow Englishmen in their days and more locals in addition to the ‘imported food’.
Transport to and from Nairobi was by available cars or trucks or in the worst case by ox drawn wagons, having to make the way up the escarpment and across the Limuru hills before reaching the then capital of the colony. Ancient pictures still remind the guests of what is today called the Lake Naivasha Country Club, giving a glimpse back into times long passed but still remembered by a few as this correspondent can vouch for.
During the Second World War the hotel was for a brief period converted into a boarding school when the ‘Prince of Wales’ had to be evacuated until the Abyssinian campaign had been concluded and the Italians been defeated in their only African colony.
In the early 1940’s the hotel changed hands twice according to records found, first bought by one Mr. Storey, no other names found before his manageress a Miss Evelyn Denwett bought it off him in 1944 and changed the name to ‘Lake Hotel’.
A rather nondescript period evolved with little information found in the short time I was back in Naivasha, between the end of the war and independence for Kenya, and just a few years after Kenya became a republic Michael Cunningham – Reid bought the hotel and promptly renovated and refurbished the hotel, building more rooms in the process to cater for the growing demand by the local farming community, then still largely white ex-Brits who had taken Kenyan nationality on independence and the initial trickle of tourists coming to Kenya on big game safaris.
(Zebras and waterbuck are ‘friendly’ and freely roam the grounds of the club but best be careful not to walk up to a hippopotamus when seen)
Notably, not far from the Lake Hotel’s extensive grounds is Elsamere found, now a memorial and educational site cum museum for the work done by George and Joy Adamson who propelled Kenya into the international spotlight with their efforts to successfully release captive lions back into the wild at the Kora Game Reserve in Northern Kenya, while they still spent much time every year at their lakeside residence.
‘Dodo’ Cunningham – Reid, Michael’s wife, was often seen at the hotel, inspite of Block Hotels, in the 70’s THE hotel, resort and safari lodge management company in Kenya and training ground for a number of first class Kenyan hotel managers, having taken on the management of the Lake Naivasha Hotel, getting her hands on the gardens and even the service on weekends back in the 70’s when this correspondent made the Naivasha lakeside his weekend stomping ground. During those years the property grew in size and the final addition, a more remote lake side Presidential Cottage, was THE place to be for a Saturday night when wanting to impress.
A crowd favourite until this day, the Lake Naivasha Hotel was a perfect stopover between the Northern national parks and the Masai Mara for the increasing number of safari guests who flocked to Kenya in those days and while talks have been more off then on between the Cunningham – Reid’s and Block Hotels, the latter eventually managed to buy it lock stock and barrel in 1989, at which time the name became the Lake Naivasha Country Club. Block Hotels and owners United Touring Company or better known as UTC eventually suffered of the owners financial woes and related problems and today the LNCC is managed by Sun Africa Hotels, which also got the famous Keekorok Lodge in the Masai Mara – the first ever built in the game reserve back in the 60’s and the Lake Baringo Club in their portfolio.
For this correspondent the trip to Naivasha during a stopover in Kenya enroute to Uganda was a welcome opportunity to also see how the roads between Nairobi and Naivasha have improved, as the route chosen down the ‘old escarpment road’ was in perfectly good shape and not one pothole to be seen or experienced during the 100 or so kilometre journey from the capital.
(Escarpment road view point into the Rift Valley with Mt. Longonot dominating the horizon)
The view points at the escarpment, more than there used to be in the old days, were still a ‘must’ stop to take photographs, with the Mt. Longonot volcano, now a national park, rising majestically from the floor of the Great African Rift Valley. Another eye catching feature of course is the original satellite station near Mt. Longonot, which with the giant dishes pointed skywards keep Kenya connected to the world, now of course supplemented by three major underwater fibre optic cable systems which enter the country at Mombasa. Plenty of plains game was seen once down on the bottom of the Rift Valley, zebras, impalas and gazelles, but no giraffes, wildebeest, leave alone a cheetah or two or even a lion as was the case in the ‘old days’. Saying this makes me feel slightly weird, but considering that I have been around the block for more than 3 ½ decades in East Africa now this may be forgiven by my readers.
Visit www.sunafricahotels.com for more information like tariffs, reservations and details on their other properties which include the upcoming ‘Sovereign Suites’, nestled in Limuru’s green hills above the city of Nairobi but more about that at a later time.