The winding path curves off from the main Chala-Rombo road in Taveta. The path, dusty, narrow and dilapidated, climbs up the gentle slope to the rim of the high crater walls that shields little-known Lake Challa from the rest of the world. All around, the wild bush is sparse, dry and thorny.
In the sweltering mid-morning heat, scorpions and lizards crawl deeper under shrubs seeking shade. The land layout is deceptive. The ruggedness, dust and general unattractiveness of Challa area conceal one of the most magnificent but under-exploited marine resources in Kenya.
From the tip of the crater, the spectacularly breath-taking view of Lake Challa spreads out in her serene glory. The turquoise waters of the 4.2km2 Crater Lake swishes back and forth as a chilly breeze blows over it. A family of black sparrows whizz over the waves in a dizzying moves before flying away into the thick canopy of forest around the lack.
“It is undiscovered paradise of some sort,” explains Barnabas Maimbo, a tour guide in Taveta sub-county.
Being at the border of Kenya and Tanzania, Lake Challa is jointly used by dozens of fishermen from Challa villages in both countries to eke out a living. It is home to the endemic Lake Challa Tilapia which normally is sold locally. On a bluff at the Northern edge, a huge concrete boulder is erected as a beacon to mark the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania.
A crudely-hewn path meanders its way down over forty meters to the shores of this lake. Other scenic features include spectacular towering bluffs and tall giant trees in the forest around the lake that excite few visitors who tour the area.
Lake Challa was formed over quarter a million years ago from volcanic eruption. Local folklore however says the lake appeared after a woman cooking food in a pot got swallowed when earth opened and water came out. The stories notwithstanding, this fresh water lake remains under exploited tourism resource.
Mzee Ramadhan Leshamta, 78, says Lake Challa remains largely unknown by both local and international tourists because the Ministry of tourism has failed to utilize her full potential.
He adds that it took the intervention of the Royal British Army to build a path leading to the lake in 1964 as relevant Kenyan department napped.
Since then, Royal Navy soldiers, divers from Israel and researchers from universities in US make frequent tours at the lake to dive and to conduct research on marine activities.
“The lake has been lying idle for decades. It only attracts a few visitors annually yet it has the potential to be the most attractive tourist site in Kenya,” he said.
Lake Challa has also a dark history. The lake rose briefly to international infamy in 2002 after the death of Amy Nicholls, 18-year student from UK, who tragically died following a crocodile attack while swimming in the waters. Her body was recovered two days later at the bottom of the lake.
Her death prompted KWS and Kenya Police to ban swimming in the lake.
While Kenya’s side of Lake Challa wastes away, Tanzania’s side remains vibrant with tourism activities.
Built strategically at the rim of the crater overlooking this water body, Lake Challa Safari Camp, a luxury tented camp which opened in 2013, is a testament of Tanzania’s government commitment to exploit this resource.
The camp also offers a magnificent view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Hundreds of tourists visit the camp to enjoy hiking experiences offered by Tanzanian guides.
Kenyan investors blame bureaucracy, lack of support and corruption as reasons that discourage tourist stakeholders from setting up camps on the Kenyan side.
Mzee Kea Leshamta, a retired flight controller, says lack of goodwill from both county government and ministry of tourism are to blame for absence of meaningful investment around the lake
In 2015, he presented a proposal to Taita-Taveta County government to set up tourism cottages around Lake Challa but was unable to raise over sh 600,000 required to process the required documents. Amongst activities he had proposed in the cottage design were rock climbing, canoeing, mountain biking, jungle safari and camping. Ultimately, the project became too expensive and finally gave up on the idea altogether.
“When advocating for blue economy, we should also focus on other inland lakes and not just the oceans. There is need to relook at the registration and licensing to make these resources readily exploitable,” he said.
However, it is not just the potential for tourism that has been ignored. The cultural significance of Lake Challa amongst the Taveta community also remains unacknowledged and is at risk of disappearing as urbanization spreads.
While communities like Mijikenda have Kaya Forests as their holy shrines which are acknowledged by relevant ministries, Taveta community regard Lake Challa as their traditional site for ancestral worship and sacrifices.
Mzee Leshamta reveals the lake has acted as a shrine for the community for centuries. He explains that the Council of Elders locally known as Njama would converge on the shores of Lake Challa to offer sacrifices in times of calamities like drought, mysterious diseases and inexplicable deaths.
The community has five clans namely Mnene, Zirai, Ndingiri, Ruttu and Suya. However, only selected elders from Umba, a sub-clan of the Mnene clan, were allowed to offer sacrifices at the Lake Challa in a highly secretive rite.
The rite includes lowering a live black heifer with ropes, down a distance of 30 meters from the top of the crater to the deep waters. The heifer would be washed away by the currents.
“The sacrifice is only done by selected elders. By the time the elders left the lake side, their wishes would have been granted,” he said.
This cultural attachment to Lake Challa has seen members of communities around this Crater Lake protect it from degradation and other destructive human activities.
But fears abound over the survival of the lake as the water levels continue to drop. Climate change and human activities in Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania are said to contribute to this emerging threat.
Mr. Maimbo said the waters of the Lake Challa have dropped by over 20 meters in the last three decades. He says the springs at Kilimanjaro might be drying and the effects are being felt on the lake.
“The lake waters have gone down. All these cliffs around were once submerged in the lake,” he explained.
By Wagema Mwangi