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Dusk in the Great Rift Valley and hippos are coming out to play. One by one they emerge from Lake Naivasha, joining flocks of marabou stork along the water.

It’s a beautiful scene, sipping on a beer as hippos graze barely ten metres away. It’s also a classic safari scene. Except I’m not on a safari. Lake Naivasha is one of Africa’s best-kept secrets because you can encounter an abundance of wild animals, without needing to pay for a safari.

An intimate wildlife experience on Lake Naivasha

Drink in hand I watch the sunset. Coming from the speakers is Biggie Smalls. “No…no…no…notorious…” And as Biggie sings notorious a hippo emerges from the lake. I wonder if the DJ knows and does this every night, waiting for the giant before dropping some B.I.G..

Soft spotlights illuminate the grass and the hippo grazes peacefully. The beer costs USD 3 and camping costs USD 15. Now I’m being served pizza as a troop of vervet monkeys eye up any leftover crusts.

Later that evening I hear the sound a hippo makes. Loud grunts resonate across the campsite, keeping me awake. Two males are fighting and while I can’t see them, I hear the clash of heads, followed by the monotonous huffing and panting of the loser.

The next morning I’m awoken by marabou stork, enormous birds that look big enough to peck me to death. They live in the trees above my tent and are quite a sight, a metre tall with enormous beaks.

Eating breakfast I watch black and white colobus monkeys swing past. While the vervet monkeys are mischievous, scurrying around the grass and hoping to grab any leftover toast, the colobus are peaceful. Sitting elegantly in the tree branches they provide another intimate wildlife experience on Lake Naivasha.

Visiting national parks around Lake Naivasha

Monkey and hippo encounters come as standard on this lake. Small national parks nearby provide even more wildlife experiences.

Hell’s Gate National Park is best on a self-guided mountain bike safari. Rent a bike from Fisherman’s Camp or at the turn off to the park. Then cycle for two to three hours, with buffalo, giraffe, warthog, zebra and some of Africa’s largest antelope species.

A bike will cost around USD 10 dependent on your bargaining skills. The park fee is USD 26 for foreigners, plus USD 2 for the bike.

Crater Lake Game Sanctuary has a similar array of wild animals, on a landscape fringed by acacia trees. You can also visit Crater Island Game Sanctuary. Both sanctuaries open onto Lake Naivasha and do not require a guide.

You need to pay USD 30 to enter either sanctuary. Once inside just go for a walk. These are some of the only places in Africa where you can do a self-guided walking safari. The lack of elephants and big cats make this a safe experience here.

Also consider Longonot National Park, a stunning volcanic crater. It’s a two-hour hike to the summit and another 90 minutes to hike all around the rim. You should spot giraffe and buffalo inside the crater but the wildlife isn’t as abundant as in other parks.

The essential wildlife experience is a boat trip on Lake Naivasha. This gets you up close with wading hippos and an abundance of birdlife, including flocks of flamingos.

Prices vary dependent on where you take a boat from (almost every camp has a local boat and boat operator). You’ll pay per boat so it’s better to get a group together to share the costs (expect to pay around USD 20 per person).

You don’t need a guided tour! Planning a Lake Naivasha trip

The best thing about Lake Naivasha is not needing a tour. Stay at one of the camps along the lakeshore and book the activities as you go. While most Kenya safaris start at USD 150 per day, staying around the lake offers self-guided safari on a budget.

With three days you visit all the parks and see lots of hippos every evening. This makes it a good weekend trip from Nairobi.

Where is Lake Naivasha?

Tucked into the Great Rift Valley in the heart of Kenya, Lake Naivasha is a two-hour drive north of Nairobi.

How do you get from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha?

Most north-bound buses from Nairobi will stop in Naivasha town. However, it’s usually faster and cheaper to use one of the small dedicated minibuses (known as matatus) that travel between Nairobi and Naivasha, or Nairobi and Nakuru, via Naivasha. Matatus are a safe local experience.

These minibuses leave when full from outside Odeon in Nairobi’s CBD. When in the CBD ask for the Nakuru-bound “Mololine Express”. These will drop you at Naivasha Junction, around one kilometre outside the town.

In the same CBD area you can find direct Naivasha matatus. These are older vehicles that drop you directly at the Naivasha terminal. From here you can switch onto a South Lake Road matatu to reach any of the Lake Naivasha camps.

Where can I stay in Lake Naivasha?

A string of lodges and “camps” are located on the lakeshore. Luxury options include Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge and Kiboko Luxury Camp.

Camp Carnelley’s and Fisherman’s Camp are further away from the town. Their accommodation is relatively basic but comfortable. Both have campgrounds for your own tent.

Fisherman’s Camp is our choice for a rustic camping experience because this is where you’ll see the most wildlife around the camp grounds. You can rent a safari tent with mattress and camp next to the lake – just bring a sleeping bag. Expect to pay around USD 15 per person.

The rooms at Fisherman’s Camp are very basic. If you don’t want to camp it’s better to stay at Camp Carnelley’s or Fish Eagle Inn next door. Then you can still visit Fisherman’s for drinks and dinner – make sure you come at least an hour before sunset.

Moving on from Lake Naivasha

Lake Nakuru National Park is another two-hour drive further north. The superb private conservancies of the Laikipia Plateau are within half a day’s drive to the northeast.

One great option is to first visit Lake Naivasha to ease into the safari experience. Then use the bulk of your holiday budget for a more ambitious Kenya safari, such as in the Masai Mara.

From Naivasha you can also take a direct bus to Kampala in Uganda. Or you travel all the way north to Samburu.

Lake Naivasha experiences

Do you have experiences in Lake Naivasha you want to share? Our Africa Freak contributor last visited in March 2019 and updated information is always helpful to our readers, particularly around park fees, animals and camps.