Volcanic desert landscapes crawling with thousands of Nile Crocodiles.  Millions of flamingos colouring the sky in a bright pink hue. Fossils dating back over a million years. The Great Lakes of Africa is the collective name for some of the most enchanting lakes in the world, harbouring an extraordinary diversity of endemic species in and around the water. But their fresh water systems also support millions of people with water, food and livelihoods and visitors can enjoy water activities and excursions.

The lakes lie scattered along the two arms of the East African part of the Great Rift Valley, which plays host to dramatic landscapes and some of the greatest wildlife diversity on earth.  The area is remarkable for archaeo-paleonthologic, environmental and socio-economic reasons.

The Eastern Rift valley lakes are a mix of freshwater and alkaline or saline water, the latter serving as a haven for migrating birds, most famously flamingos. The birds feed on crustaceans and plankton masses in the lakes, which also feed the fish there. The Western Rift Valley lakes are freshwater and home to more than 1,500 cichlid fish species. as well as other fish families. You will also find numerous Nile crocodiles, elephants, gorillas and hippos in the area.

The best-known lakes are the larger lakes, such as Lake Victoria, Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika. But let’s take a look at some of the lesser known lakes and their specific interest.

Lake Turkana kenya
Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya stretching into Ethiopia, is the world’s largest permanent desert and alkaline lake. The area is remote and attracts few visitors, which has helped preserve its natural wilderness. It is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The landscape is dry, barren and scorched in contrast to the bright turquoise colour of the water, caused by algae rising to the surface of the lake. Three national parks are situated here, two of which – Central Island and South Island – are on the volcanic islands in this lake. These islands can be explored on foot and offer views of thousands of Nile crocodiles, but also hippos, water turtles and hundreds of bird species, most notably flamingos. Sibiloi National park is called the cradle of mankind and harbours the famous fossil site at Koobi Fora.

Lake Kivu, the sixth largest lake in Africa, forms the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, south of the Virunga Mountains and north of the misty rainforest of Nyungwe. Lake Kivu is a fresh water body that is poor in fish species, crocodile free and hippo free which makes it perfect for all kinds of water sports. Canoeing, kayaking or boat cruising are popular past-times, and organized one to three-day trips can be booked, visiting islands, such as Amahoro island or Napoleon island, the latter is known for its very large bat colony.

Bats at Napoleon Island, lake Kivu
Bats on Napoleon Island

The beautiful road along its Rwandan shore from north to south starts in Gisenyi, via Kibuye to Cyangugu and meanders through rolling hills and green tea plantations, eucalyptus trees and bananas with beautiful vistas over the glistening water.

Lake Natron, an alkaline soda lake in the northern part of Tanzania is known for its serene and lunar beauty. It is the most important breeding site for Lesser Flamingos in the world.

 

Lake Natron tanzania
Lake Natron

The lake is fed by hot springs and small rivers and the water then evaporates, having nowhere to go. This process leads to high concentrations of sodium carbonate and minerals which were once used in Egyptian mummification. The shallow water and hot climate can make the water temperature go up to 60 degrees and the interaction between micro-organisms colour the water from deep-red to orange and pink. Even though it can burn the skin and eyes of animals that are not adapted to it, the area has a thriving ecosystem. During breeding season, more than 2 million flamingo wade the shallow waters. Their nests are built on small islands in the lake during the dry season, keeping them safe from predators. Walksaround the lake and to the streams and waterfalls along the nearby escarpment make for a fantastic adventure off the beaten track.

This article appeared in Inzozi Magazine, Summer 2018 issue under the title “The Enchanted Great lakes of Africa”

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