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A wooden boat on a lake

The filmic beauty of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley

What do the films Out of Africa, The Lion King and Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life have in common? Well, makers of all three movies drew inspiration from the incredible beauty of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Out of Africa is set in the Ngong Hills, a series of green peaks along the valley. The legendary landscapes of Hell’s Gate National Park form the backdrop of The Lion King. And Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life was actually shot on location in this park as well as at nearby Lake Naivasha.

There’s a reason why filmmakers love this part of Kenya. The scenery in the Great Rift Valley is simply breath-taking. It includes wide plains, dramatic cliffs, freshwater lakes and volcanoes. The climate is mild, with temperatures usually below 28 °C, making it ideal for outdoor shoots. It’s also known for its variety in wildlife. And its proximity to Nairobi means it’s only a 1-2 hour drive from the capital. 

Wide views of sunny green hills and mountains
The magnificent views of the Great Rift Valley

Having been to Kenya for work several times in the past, I can attest the Great Rift Valley is mind-blowingly beautiful. And it’s not just its natural sights that make this place so special. Its people are amazing too – they’re incredibly friendly, warm and welcoming and English is widely spoken (alongside Kiswahili and many other local languages). This is also the home of the Maasai people with their distinctive customs and dress. Anyone who is keen to get a taste of East Africa’s beauty would do well to start here.

A woman sleeping in a chair in the sun
Time for a nap

Hell’s Gate National Park is one the region’s most famous nature reserves. It’s relatively small – small enough for a day trip – but has so much to offer. It’s filled with gorges, rock towers and cliffs. And although Lion King fans might be disappointed not to find many lions here, you will likely encounter plenty of zebras, baboons, hyenas, antelopes, gazelles and buffalos. In addition, you can spot hundreds of bird species, including several raptors. 

Wide views of plains and volcanic mountains
Mount Longonot in the distance

A few kilometres north of Hell’s Gate lies Lake Naivasha. The lake derives its name from the Maasai word ‘Nai’Posha’, meaning ‘rough waters’. This might give you the impression that we’re talking about some sort of wild and unpredictable body of water here. However, most of the time Lake Naivasha is surprisingly quiet and peaceful. It is only when stormy weather arises that the water can suddenly become rough and produce high waves.

A tour guide with a group at the shores of a lake
On the shores of Lake Naivasha

Much more unpredictable are the countless hippos that reside here. Whilst they might look quite chubby and cute, hippos are actually among the most dangerous animals in the world. Quite a few fishermen in Naivasha have been attacked and killed by these oversized creatures, so you’d probably want to stay inside your boat when taking a tour of the lake. Just sayin…

Hippos in a lake

One of the things I can really recommend is taking a boat tour across the lake to Crescent Island. This private island is a game reserve and was one of the shooting locations for Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. There are no roads on the island and the only way to get around is by foot with a guide. But where else do you get to walk between the zebras, giraffes, impalas and wildebeests in their natural habitat?! Safari doesn’t get much better than this. By the way, did you know the word ‘safari’ is Kiswahili for ‘journey’?

A giraffe in the sunshine
Crescent Island: where else do you get to watch wildlife this close in its natural habitat?!

Although it’s only a 90-minute drive from Nairobi (traffic and weather permitting), staying the night near Lake Naivasha allows you to make the most out of your trip. There are hotels in all sorts and sizes around the lake, but one of my personal favourites is Sawela Lodge. Situated on the shores of Lake Naivasha with views of the volcanic Mount Longonot, this locally owned hotel was built with respect for its environment and is run by the loveliest people. The lodges are big and plush but fit in beautifully in their natural surroundings. Unlike some of the neighbouring luxurious lodges, Sawela has not paved everything and feels lush and green. What’s more, it’s not just ‘mzungu’ (white people) that are staying here, but also lots of Kenyan business people and well-off families from Nairobi. I have so many fond memories of this place! Writing this post just makes me want to go back instantly…

Asante sana, Kenya. I hope to be back soon. And I hope that reading this post will have enticed you to start planning your own trip to Kenya’s Great Rift Valley too. This place deserves to be admired!

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