Lake Jipe

Shallow, narrow and enclosed by dense beds of tall papyrus, Lake Jipe runs for 10km along a natural sump – nowhere more than 3m deep – on the Kenya border between Kilimanjaro, the main source of its water, and the Mkomazi Game Reserve. It’s an atmospheric body of water, with a fabulous setting: the Pare Mountains to the south, Chala crater rising from the flat plain to the east, and – when the clouds clear – Kilimanjaro hulking over the northeast skyline. Lake Jipe is seldom visited, and almost never from the Tanzania side, but it is reasonably accessible, and there’s quite a bit of wildlife around, since part of the northern shore is protected within Kenya’s unfenced Tsavo National Park. Gazelle and other antelope are likely to be seen in the arid country approaching the lake, and cheetah and lion are occasionally observed darting across the road. The lake itself extends over 28km2 and is teeming with hippopotami and crocodiles, while the papyrus beds harbour several localised birds, such as lesser jacana, African water rail, pygmy goose and black egret. Elephants regularly come to drink and bathe along the northern shore, especially during the dry season. Look out, too, for the lovely impala lily – this shrub-sized succulent, known for its bright pink and white flowers, is common in the dry acacia plains approaching the lake.

The junction town for Lake Jipe, called Kifaru, straddles the B1 some 40km south of Moshi. At Kifaru, turn to the east along a reasonable dirt road towards Kiwakuku. After about 15km, turn onto a track running to the left, distinguished by a blue signpost reading Jipe and, up ahead, a hill with a prominent bald boulder on top. Follow this track for about 2km, and you’ll be in Makayuni on the lakeshore. In a private vehicle, the drive from Kifaru takes 30–45 minutes, depending on the condition of the road, so it would be feasible to visit Jipe as a day trip from Moshi. The only public transport from Kifaru is the daily bus to Kiwakuku. This generally leaves Kiwakuku at 04.00, passes the Makayuni junction at around 06.30 and arrives in Kifaru at 09.00 to start the return trip at around 14.00. One Moshi-based safari company that regularly arranges day or overnight trips to Lake Jipe is Akaro Tours.

Once at Makayuni, it’s straightforward enough to arrange to be poled onto the lake in a local dugout canoe, whether you want to fish, watch birds, or just enjoy the lovely scenery and hope for glimpses of big game on the nearby Kenyan shore. Expect to pay around US$3 for a short excursion or US$10 for a full day on the lake. The best time to head onto the lake is in the early morning or late afternoon, when it’s not too hot, game is more active, and Kilimanjaro is most likely to be visible. Getting out onto the open water first involves a long pole through shallow papyrus marsh, with brightly coloured kingfishers darting in front of the boat and hippos grunting invisibly in the nearby reeds. This stretch can be quite difficult with two passengers weighing down the dugout, so it’s best to take one per person. There is no accommodation near Lake Jipe (along the Tanzanian shore, anyway) but it is permitted to pitch a tent in Makayuni for about US$1 per head. Aside from fish, no food is available locally, and you’ll need to bring all drinking water with you, too. Mosquitoes (and occasionally lake flies) are prolific on the shore, so do cover up at dusk. Away from the lake, a few basic guesthouses can be found in Kifaru.

 (c) Philip Briggs 2009


2 thoughts on “Lake Jipe

  1. philipbriggs says:

    A retreating lake?

    Although the papyrus that encloses Lake Jipe gives the lake much of its character, the rapid expansion of the plant over some 50% of the water in the last few decades is possibly symptomatic of a dying lake. Certainly, local fishermen, who now have to reach the open water along shallow canals cut through the crocodile-infested reeds, claim that the fish yield decreases every year along with the amount of open water. The probable explanation for the recent proliferation of papyrus – which can only grow at depths where it can take root in soil – is that the lake has gradually become shallower, due to increased silt levels in the water that flows down from Kilimanjaro. In a chain of cause and effect, the infestation of papyrus on Jipe would thus appear to be a result of the extensive deforestation and a corresponding increase in erosion on Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes over the last 50 years.
    Whether or not this process will result in the lake drying up entirely is a matter of conjecture, but researchers have expressed serious concerns for its future. The loss of Jipe would be immense, not only to the thousands of villagers for whom the lake has traditionally formed a source of freshwater and protein, but also to the wildlife that is drawn to its water during the dry season. Measures that would contribute to the lake’s future – and which are in any case ecologically sound – include an extensive reforestation programme on the Kilimanjaro footslopes, and an attempt to modernise traditional farming methods that tend to cause soil erosion as land pressure intensifies and the earth is worked harder.

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