A taste of paradise in the Kenyan wilderness
Island Camp, Lake Baringo, Kenya
In the middle of a lake in western Kenya there is an island, and on this island is a demi-paradise. The lake is Lake Baringo, the island is Ol Kokwa, and the paradise is Island Camp.Skip to next paragraph
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As so often in Africa, the approach to this paradise is not propitious. On a recent trip to Kenya, my husband and I drove to Lake Baringo from the north, and we struggled to find and follow the few signs posted for the camp. We finally discovered ourselves in a treeless village, made up of tin huts overflowing with staring children; the afternoon sun was blinding in its glare. At the far edge of the village, we emerged on the lakeshore, in a clearing of baked mud.
With trepidation, and under the watchful eyes of several young men who seemed only too eager to carry our baggage, we unloaded the car and followed along behind the men as they deposited themselves and our luggage in a low-lying boat.
And what a boat! An antediluvian remain of weather-beaten gray, its long planks strung together virtually by force of habit alone. The engine looked like a tin pot with a notched wheel on top.
When the skipper finally got it started, wrapping a rope around the wheel and pulling over and over, we set off, a sizable crowd: my husband and I, our guide, three men carrying luggage, the skipper, a man who appeared to be his assistant and who gave much advice (which was not generally heeded), and, in the prow, a shirtless smiling man who shielded himself from the hot afternoon sun with the tattered remains of a large black English umbrella.
The boat chugged along so slowly that it barely rippled the water. Lake Baringo is surrounded by mountains, which loomed blue-black in the afternoon haze. The lake's many small islands jut out from the water almost vertically; a few revealed solitary mud-and-thatch rondavels, but most seemed deserted. I felt like an explorer tracking uncharted water, 65 miles north of the equator.
After 35 minutes, we saw bright green tents emerging from the trees of a rocky island ahead. The skipper pointed excitedly: ''Ol Kokwa,'' he said to us: a village of rondavels perched on the northern part of the island, the tents growing ever larger as we approached the southern end. We pulled up to the floating dock, and I saw not what an explorer might expect to see, but sailboats , motorboats, water skis, and wind-surfing equipment.
My husband and I walked up a steep path cut through stone. Stopping to catch my breath, I noted a myriad of desert flowers hanging over the rocks and bobbing up and down in the warm breeze. There was a profusion of acacia trees, their thin leaves swaying gently. We continued up and up, until we came to an open, thatched roofed bar and lounge, where we were greeted by a sprightly dark-haired Englishwoman who encouraged us up the last remaining steps with a laugh and then introduced herself: Ruth Barnett, the manager of Island Camp.
Island Camp was established in 1972 by three Kenyan ''settlers'' (white Europeans). Of the partners, Jonathan Leakey, brother of paleo-anthropologist Richard Leakey, is most directly involved with the daily operations.
In planning construction, Leakey and his partners decided to follow the natural topography of the land. Because of their sensitivity, the lounge, dining room, and pool are each on different levels and have a feeling of intimacy. Each tent seems sheltered and secluded in its own rocky niche.
There are 23 tents at Island Camp and two traditional rooms, providing accommodations for up to 50 guests. Each tent faces the lake and boasts a ''porch'' area with wooden chairs. Although not luxurious, the tents are more than adequate: two beds on wooden planks (surprisingly comfortable), a table with a reading lamp behind each bed, and a partitioned dressing room, complete with mirrors and a place for hanging up clothes. The ''back door'' of each tent opens onto a concrete lavatory and shower area.