Millions of years ago the earth's crust was weakened and it tore apart, creating a split thousands of kilometres long down the continent of Africa up to 62 miles (100km) wide in places. Volcanic eruptions on either side caused the floor to sink into a flat plain creating the Great Rift Valley.
It is one of Kenya's characteristic features and divides the country in half, from north to south, with stunning panoramas and beautiful escarpments. The wide valley is scattered with a few volcanoes and several lakes; it is inhabited by grazing animals, Maasai herders, and small-town dwellers.
The string of alkaline lakes known for their stunning scenery and abundant bird life include Lakes Naivasha, Elementeita, Nakuru, Bogoria, and Baringo. The uniqueness of these lakes lies in their high concentration of sodium carbonate from the surrounding volcanic rocks. This creates an ideal breeding ground for algae and a thriving environment for fish, which in turn attracts millions of birds to feed on the abundant food supply. Each of the lakes has a different water composition ranging from freshwater to very saline and brackish, with different bird life attracted to each.
Along the southern shore of Lake Naivasha is the former home of naturalist and painter Joy Adamson, author of 'Born Free', which is now the Elsamere Conservation Centre, incorporating a guesthouse and a small museum. Visitors are invited to join the guests daily at 4pm for a sumptuous tea on the lawns of the beautifully peaceful lakeside setting, occasionally joined by the mischievous Colobus monkeys with a taste for cheesecake. The museum has displays portraying the true story of Joy and the lioness Elsa that she raised from birth, and her attempts to return her to the wild, as well as her paintings and personal artefacts. There is also a video shown about the story of Elsa the lioness.
Lake Naivasha is a shimmering waterscape of floating hyacinth surrounded by mountains, and the skies above are pierced by the distinctive cries of the fish eagle. Brightly coloured kingfishers dart into the waters from their papyrus perches and ugly Marabou storks strut along the shoreline like cantankerous sergeant majors. The trees are home to Colobus monkeys and at night the earth shudders with the movement of grazing hippos. The southern shore of the lake is lined with hotels, campsites and guesthouses, prettily situated either on the shore or higher up on the slopes of the mountain with fantastic views over the lake. Boat trips are a popular way to explore the lake and also the private Crescent Island Game Sanctuary.
Named for the pair of massive red cliffs of the Njorowa Gorge that encloses a geothermic area of hot springs and steam vents, Hell's Gate is one of the two parks in Kenya that allows visitors to explore on foot, making it an ideal place for hiking, cycling, camping and rock climbing. It is famous for its natural steaming geysers, and the towering cliffs provide an eagle and vulture breeding ground. The wide plains are home to numerous animals, such as zebra, buffalo, eland, gazelle, hartebeest, warthog and baboon and the experience of walking alongside a giraffe or past a herd of zebra is a memorable one.
One of the most popular ways to explore the park is to hire bicycles at the park gate and ride unaccompanied down to the gorge. The bikes are not always in the best condition but they are cheap and the journey is a wonderful experience; if you do get tired or stuck with a bad bike the route is patrolled regularly by rangers who give stragglers lifts. Upon reaching the gorge it is best to hire a guide to help you along the hike route: the guides help you traverse the route through the canyon and explain the interesting geological origins and features of the landscape, as well as explaining the local mythology and Masai names given to the features. After the tour you can ride back to the gate or get a lift. It is also possible to camp in the park.
Although tiny, this park has a high concentration of game with everything wildlife enthusiasts could wish for (except elephant). Lake Nakuru is one of Kenya's most important rhino sanctuaries. Apart from the rhino, there are several prides of lion and it is the best place to spot leopard. The surface of the shallow alkaline lake covers about a third of the park and the saline concentration supports a blue-green algae that attracts thousands of flamingos. This pulsating pink carpet covering the fringes of the lake is a breathtaking sight and at any disturbance the air above becomes a noisy confusion of long pink legs and reddish wings in flight. The flamingos, and generally rich birdlife, make the park extremely popular with bird watchers, although some ornithologists have complained that the lake is sustaining fewer and fewer birds. Large flocks of pelicans are also attracted to the rich food source in the lake and waterbuck and the rare Rothschild Giraffe are common sights along the shores. The park has several high points with good lookouts and waterfalls, and monkeys and baboon frequent the rocky cliffs. Watching the sun rise over Lake Nakuru is a special experience. As the park is so small, it is easy to explore it in a day.
One of Africa's greatest natural spectacles is the annual wildebeest migration between Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti national parks happening sometime between June to October each year. Up to two million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and Thomson's gazelles make this ancient journey, seeking greener grasses as the seasons change. The quest for new life is closely linked with death as predators stalk the enormous, ever-moving herds, from lions in the grasslands to crocodiles during the dramatic, frenetic river crossings.
The river crossings at the Grumeti River and Mara River are the most popular part of the migration to witness and there are many great camps set up near the rivers in the Mara. A thrilling way to experience the migration is on a riding safari, when your horses can actually wander among the animals, or in a hot air balloon, which gives you breathtaking views. The exact timing of the migration varies each year and is difficult to predict, although generally June to October is the best time to plan your visit. The herds usually migrate back to the Serengeti in December and January and some visitors like to try and catch the spectacle in reverse, as the animals return to Tanzania.
The Great Rift Valley is a remarkable geological feature and a very popular tourism region in Kenya. The main attractions of the Great Rift Valley are the wonderful national parks and safari opportunities enabled by the wealth of wildlife. It's a particularly good area for birdwatchers due to the string of alkaline lakes which attract flamingos, pelicans, and many other species to the scenic valley.
The freshwater ecosystems at Lake Naivasha and Baringo, the nature reserve at Lake Bogoria, and the Nakuru National Park are a source of endless fascination, teeming with an incredible diversity of birds and large concentrations of animals. At these destinations, visitors can go on water safaris and get up close to the wildlife of the lakes.
Hell's Gate National Park boasts noticeably different landscapes to the parks centred on the lake system and is the place to go if you want to learn about the geological formation of the region and the local mythology that surrounds the rock features and hot springs. Hell's Gate is also special because visitors are allowed to walk or cycle among the wildlife.
Other worthwhile things to see in the Great Rift Valley include the Elsamere Conservation Centre, which showcases the life of Joy Adamson and the lioness Elsa of Born Free fame, and any number of wonderful lookout points from which to admire the valley and take photographs.
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