African fish eagle perched on a branch high above Naivasha Lake

Lake Naivasha and its Denizens

Observe majestic African fish eagles, dive bombing kingfishers and bloats of wallowing hippos in the calm, shallow waters of one of Kenya’s most accessible lakes…

The day after we returned from our visit to Kenya’s East Coast, we went on a trip up north, to the Hell’s Gate National Park and Lake Naivasha. I already wrote about the former, and here is the story of the second half of that day trip. After the bicycle ride through Hell’s Gate and the hike through the gorge, we worked up an appetite. Fortunately, Lake Naivasha and its many lodges were a stone’s throw away, so we headed there for lunch and a short break before we got on the water.

Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge – Colonial Charm in a Beautiful Garden

We chose to have lunch at the Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge and it was an absolutely magnificent choice. It is an upscale destination and every part of it justifies that status. The buffet lunch was superb, but what really set it apart for me were its garden and the lounge area.

Two waterbucks resting on the grass in the garden of the Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge
Waterbucks resting in the hippo-manicured garden of the Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge

The garden is well worth the visit and an eventual overnight stay. The lodge’s chalets border it on one side in a semi-circular shape, while its other side is open to the lake itself. The grass in the garden is perfectly manicured and, apparently, the staff are not to take credit for it. The many hippos that bask in the lake’s shallow waters during the day come out to graze at night and keep the grass trimmed for free.

Two benches in the garden of the Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge, surrounded by a heard of waterbucks
You can spend an afternoon reading on these benches surrounded by a grazing herd of waterbucks

Break Amongst the Waterbucks

There is an odd, wrought iron bench here and there around the garden. I spent a few precious moments on one of them after lunch, enjoying the view and observing the resident herd of waterbucks. It was a perfect moment of tranquility and meditation. The hustle and bustle of the day seem to totally stop once you cross a little decorative fence and set your foot on the lawn. The silence totally envelops you and even an odd wandering monkey or a colourful bird flying around looking for insects seem to behave in an unobtrusive, respectable fashion. I can really imagine revisiting the lodge and staying the night just so that I can enjoy one afternoon with a good book on one of these benches.

Colonial style lounge in the Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge, with leather armchairs and a fireplace
One of the colonial style lounging areas in the Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge

However, our agenda for the day was quite packed and there was not that much time for chilling out. So, we were soon back in the car again, for a short trip down to the lake shore.


I must admit that I did not research much about the best way to do a boat safari, but our guide Chris, as always, had a solution. Apparently, if you are staying in the lodges around the lake, boat safaris should come included with your stay. Also, in case you are visiting for lunch, like we did, they can organise a safari for you. However, that is then much more expensive than what you can organise for yourself a few hundred metres down the road. Your driver/guide will surely know somebody, they always do. The boats may be a little more rickety, but the experience will most probably be the same. Also, you can negotiate a good fee for a private boat, allowing for much more freedom.

Portrait of a giraffe feeding on yellow-green bush
One of the resident giraffes trimming the hedge 🙂

The People of the Lake

While Lake Naivasha is rightly famous for its birdlife and many wallowing hippopotamuses, one should not forget that not all of the people living on its shores are dependant on tourism. For many of them, it is their bread basket, well, more accurately a fish basket. During our boat safari, we encountered a great many fishermen. Some were dragging their nets through the lake’s shallow waters, while other were fishing, perched atop one of the many dead trees dotting its surface.

A group of fishermen walking though the shallow water of Lake Naivasha
A group of fishermen wading back to the shore through the shallow waters of Lake Naivasha

For a lake that boasts more than 400 bird species amongst its regular denizens, the fish diversity is actually almost non-existent, due to a human factor. Common carp was allegedly accidentally introduced into the lake in the early days of the twenty first century and now accounts for more than 90% of caught fish. It is yet another example of the unfortunate meddling of humans in nature’s affairs, that usually ends badly, often for both nature and humans.

Group of children playing in the reeds near the shore of Lake Naivasha
Children playing hide and seek in the dense reeds on the edge of Lake Naivasha

While you are gliding along the calm surface of Lake Naivasha in your safari boat, you may be surprised to find out that its name comes from the local Maasai expression “Nai’posha”, that translates as “rough water”. Apparently, the same storms that can cause sudden flash floods in the Hell’s Gate National Park, can also create havoc here.


Lake Naivasha lies at a height of approximately 1900 metres above sea level. It is a relatively shallow lake, with an average depth of 6 metres. That also varies wildly, in relation to the rainfall patterns. It almost dried out completely back in 1890 and has had several major dips since. The lake is fed by two permanent rivers and a number of transient streams. As it does not have a visible outlet, it is speculated that there is an underground outflow.

Two fishermen catching fish in Lake Naivasha using a small net
These two fishermen are using a small net to catch fish in Lake Naivasha

Boat Safari – Eagles, Kingfishers and Hippos

As I mentioned earlier, Lake Naivasha is home to more than 400 bird species. That makes it a prime destination for birders from all over the world. Indeed, even before we pushed our boat away from the shore, a flock of pelicans daringly crossed right in front of us. During your safari along the lake, you are likely to encounter countless birds, of all shapes and sizes. Kinfishers, eagles, pelicans, cormorants, egrets, and many other species share the lake’s waters with numerous hippos and other creatures that regularly visit its shores.

A group of dead trees with many birds' nests on them, mostly of the African fish eagle
These dead trees are a home to many birds, mainly African fish eagles

African Fish Eagle – the Majestic Ruler of the Skies

If you come from a Western country, any mention of eagles creates that tingling sensation of awe and mystery. These magnificent birds feature so prominently on many coats of arms, banknotes, and flags. However, they are virtually extinct in most so-called first world countries. With that in mind, I was expecting to maybe catch a glimpse of an eagle, should I be so lucky.

African fish eagle sitting atop an acacia tree
African fish eagle sitting atop an acacia tree, observing the lake surface for a possible catch

You can imagine how surprised I was when we saw the first of many thickets of dead trees that dot the lake’s surface. The trees’ top branches were sprinkled by familiar black and white shapes. I could not believe my eyes as we were getting closer and those shapes dissolved into not one, not two, but half a dozen African fish eagles. It was a scene beyond my wildest imagination, as cliché as that expression may be. Thicket after thicket, one giant acacia tree on the shore after another, eagles seemed to be everywhere. I think that I saw at least thirty during our short boat trip.

African fish eagle on top of a dead tree
Beautiful African fish eagle, an amazing bird, perched at the very top of a dead tree that it is using as an observation point

Rich hunting grounds make for happy eagles

As we took our boat safari quite late in the afternoon, the eagles were rather docile. African fish eagles do most of their hunting early in the morning and settle for the day before noon. They thus remained perched on their bare high branches. Sometimes, they would turn around, observing the lake’s surface, but did not fly. We saw the crews of other boats try to lure them with small fish bait, but with little success. The waters of the lake are rich with their prey and they simply do not lack food. Although I did not see them hunt, I am actually very happy that it is so. Just observing them in such great numbers was an amazing experience.

Pied kingfisher sitting in the branches with a freshly caught fish
There are many pied kingfishers around Lake Naivasha – this one showing off his freshly caught fish

Kinfishers, the Nature’s Tiny Dive Bombers

On the other tip of the predatory scales, at least when it comes to size, the action seemed to be non-stop. The tiny pied kingfishers seemed relentless in their pursuit of prey. They also would not stop moving, save for the few seconds when consuming their freshly caught fish. I do not know if they were trying to stay away from potential predators, or simply looking for better fishing spots, but they tirelessly hopped between the low branches, constantly turning every which way. There were countless kingfishers in the bushes surrounding the lake. It was sometimes possible to see a dozen at once. They also seemed to be thriving, a good sign for the ecosystem of Lake Naivasha.

A bloat of hippos (yes, groups of hippos are called bloats) on the edge of Lake Naivasha, enjoying their afternoon nap

Close Encounters with Africa’s Deadliest Mammal

Save for humans, that is. Puns aside, Lake Naivasha is home to a vast number of hippopotamuses. Although estimates surprisingly vary a lot, there are at least 400 hippos in the lake. They spend most of their days wallowing in the shallows, and come out to the shores to feed at night.


For animals that spend more than 16 hours per day in the water, can easily hold their breath for more than 5 minutes, and can even sleep underwater, using a reflex to pop up, take a breath and sink back down without waking up, it is a borderline incredible fact that they simply cannot swim. They cannot even float, their bodies are too dense for it. They basically simply walk or bounce along the bottom, using their feet to propel around.

Black and white photograph of a hippo, half submerged in the water, looking at the camera
This solitary hippo seemed to be the only one that paid attention to our boat, so we kept our distance, just in case

There are countless stories about the danger the hippos pose to humans. And you know what, they are mostly true. In 2018 alone, the hippos of Lake Naivasha killed 6 people, one of which was a tourist who came far too close to take a photograph. However, there are also numerous exaggerations about their aggressiveness. They are aggressive, highly territorial animals, but they will never get out of their way to chase anything that they do not perceive as a threat. So, exercising basic caution when close to the bloats of hippos should be more than enough to keep one safe.

Spoonbill standing on dry branches above Lake Naivasha
This is the first spoonbill we ever saw in the wild, with its really strange beak

We Will Come Back

Our day’s agenda was really packed on this day and we unfortunately did not have much time for a longer boat safari. We also did not get chance to visit the Crescent Island Game Sanctuary. You really need at least half a day for a basic visit to Lake Naivasha. On our next trip to Kenya, we intend to spend at least a night here, preferably two, as we believe that there is so much more to discover in this magnificent location.

Panorama of Lake Naivasha, with its tree covered shoreline
Beautiful panorama of Lake Naivasha, the dense trees covering its shores

FAQs for Lake Naivasha

Where is Lake Naivasha located?

Lake Naivasha is located in Kenya, north west of its capital, Nairobi, outside the town of Naivasha in Nakuru County. It is part of the Great Rift Valley.

How to get to Lake Naivasha from Nairobi?

While there are quite a few public transport options available, we really would not recommend any. Private tours are available everywhere in Nairobi, for really decent prices. Make sure you take the B3 Escarpment Road, which allows for some magnificent views of the Great Rift Valley.

Where to stay at Lake Naivasha?

We only experienced the above mentioned Lake Naivasha Sopa Lodge. It is a luxury lodge, with all its pluses and minuses. If you are interested in history and a bit more authentic experience, the Elsamere Lodge is a very interesting alternative.

What to do at Lake Naivasha?

Well, a boat safari is an absolute must. Try to go early in the morning if you hope to see the eagles hunt. The Crescent Island Game Sanctuary is another place that is well worth a visit. You should really combine Lake Naivasha with a visit to the adjacent Hell’s Gate National Park.