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Lake Victoria -- also known as Victoria Nyanza, Ukerewe, and Nalubaale -- rakes in the superlatives: it is the largest lake on the African continent by surface area, the largest tropical lake in the world, and the second largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. Joined by five others, Lake Victoria is one of the Great Lakes of Africa, extending into three countries: Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania (6, 45, and 49 percent, respectively). Lake Victoria provides drinking water, hydroelectric power, water transportation, and economic development to the area. The lake supports industries such as commercial fishing, agriculture, trade, tourism, and wildlife preservation.
Though Lake Victoria has been around for more than 400,000 years, the first accounts of human arrival come from Arab traders in the 1100s, who arrived in search of gold, ivory, and slaves. Europeans later arrived in 1858, when British explorers John Hanning Speke and Richard Francis Burton arrived on a central Africa exploration expedition. Believing the lake to be the mouth of the Nile, Speke named it after Queen Victoria of England. Debate ensued on whether the lake actually held title as Mouth of the Nile, and many explorers arrived to either prove or refute Speke's claim. Eventually, the American Explorer Henry Morton Stanley discovered the lake's outflow at Ripon Falls, thus validating Speke's original statement: Lake Victoria forms the headwaters of the great Nile River.
Ripon Falls in Uganda was the only natural outlet for Lake Victoria. With construction of the Owen Falls Dam and Nalubaale Power Station in 1954, the original Falls were submerged. An agreement between Uganda and Egypt dictated that water releases through the dam would correspond with the natural outflow before damming. The Uganda Electricity Board (UEB) operates the power station, which supplies electricity to Uganda and neighboring Kenya. Uganda completed a second hydroelectric powerhouse, the Kiira station, in 2003, and a third power station at the Bujugali Falls has been planned. However, due to prolonged drought and hydropower generation, Lake Victoria water levels have fallen to their lowest levels since 1951, with serious negative impact on fishing, transportation, electricity, and tourism. The three countries bordering Lake Victoria have prepared National Environmental Action Plans, acknowledging that cooperation is necessary to address the challenges of water pollution, biodiversity loss, land and wetlands degradation, and deforestation.
Though Lake Victoria extends into Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, international water travel is not possible. Visitors to the area must choose their country, and the offerings are many. One of the most common ways to reach Lake Victoria is by safari, allowing you to visit the lake, its islands, and several neighboring national parks.
Kenya offers rich natural and cultural offerings, and a visit to the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria will give you insight into the people and animals that make their home here. Western Kenya is largely unexplored, and absent are the mass of safari vans that so often dot the African landscape. Instead of mass tourism, here you'll participate in cultural immersion and get even deeper insight to African life by overnighting in a home stay. You'll soon find that community-based tourism is a central part of life here, educating visitors and helping local communities sustain themselves.
A Kenya-based Lake Victoria safari usually starts in Nairobi to Ndere Island National Park. Located in the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria, the island has been uninhabited since 1986. Ndere means "meeting place" in Dholou, and here you will first meet the lake's waters, flora, and fauna. If you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of African fish eagles, hippopotamuses, swifts, and Nile crocodiles that are known to make their home here. Later, travel to Homa Bay, a town and bay on the southern shore of Winam Gulf. Gaze at the vast Mount Homa, investigate Ruma National Park, and keep your eyes peeled for giraffes, roan antelope, and hartebeests. Next stop is usually Rusinga Island, which includes a history museum, native Luo people, and growing sustainable tourism options. Several safaris will also take you to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where you will meet the native Maasai and explore the landscape before heading back to your home base.
A visit to Lake Victoria's Tanzania coast will likely bring you to one spot: Rubondo Island National Park. The only national park in the country, the 93 square mile island is a mass of green trees, sparkling blue waters, and varied wildlife. Nature lovers will enjoy seeing giraffe, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, monkeys, otters, suni antelope, and marsh mongoose, though bird watchers will be those most satisfied by a visit to Rubondo Island National Park. Home to almost 400 bird species, the island is a avian paradise of cormorants, kingfishers, hornbills, ibises, storks, flycatchers, herons, and many birds of pray, including the world's highest density of fish eagles. There are several tours available on-island, and lodging options are also available, allowing visitors to make the most of their time on Tanzania's Lake Victoria coast.
Uganda, which Winston Churchill called the "pearl of Africa," offers Lake Victoria visitors incredible scenery, vast wildlife populations, and volcanic ranges, all with a background of beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks. Rare mountain gorillas live in the mountains, and among Uganda's tourist offerings are a Gorilla Safari and Chimpanzee treks, offering you scenic vistas and shoreline explorations.
Your days visiting Lake Victoria will be filled with wildlife watching, birdwatching, and appreciation of the varied African landscape around you. Depending on your time constraints and trip goals, choose your country wisely, and you will glimpse the Lake Victoria that Arab traders and European explorers first discovered.
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