In search of a palanquin

Published Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 29 April 2017

Lake Chala - a crater lake on slopes of Kilimanjaro - with the Kenya-Tanzania border running through the middle. Copyright Luca Borghesio
Lake Chala – a crater lake on slopes of Kilimanjaro – with the Kenya-Tanzania border running through the middle. Copyright Luca Borghesio

Lounging in the circular living room of Grogan’s Castle with stunning views of Kilmanjaro’s two peaks Mawenzi and Kibo on the western side, the Pare mountain in Tanzania on the southern side and the plains of Tsavo on the eastern side, l chance upon an issue of Old Africa with a really interesting story of Lake Chala –which leads us to this little visited jewel lake in the caldera of Kilimanjaro straddling Kenya and Tanzania.

It’s a story of an epic expedition in 1891 by a woman – May French Sheldon – an American explorer and writer.  Way ahead of her time, she left London unaccompanied by a male escort carrying gold rings to present to African chiefs and people who would help her in her explorations.

She was obviously a woman of means. She hired porters to carry her in her palanquin when she tired of marching. Adventurous, free spirited she explored Lake Chala – and while the men in her entourage were afraid of climbing down the steep sides of the caldera where the enchanting jade lake lay, she scrambled down to reach the waters.

I wonder if she swam in it because at the time Grogan hadn’t put in his dwarf crocs imported from Madagascar in the hope of farming them for their skins. But she did leave her palanquin buried somewhere in the caldera in the hope that if she returned she’d find it.

Fast forward to present. Driving out of Taveta the busy town on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border that’s surrounded by farms irrigated by canals many from Grogan’s time between 1930 and 1950, the road is rough with white dust blowing. Parts look like moonscape. The plan is to stop at the lake (look for the palanquin) and continue to Amboseli National Park driving along the volcanic range of the Chyulus.

The lake isn’t signposted, so it’s a little confusing which dusty track to take. A local boda-boda points to the direction, the GPS confirms it. I’m fascinated by Sheldon’s determination to find the lake where many still pass it today totally unaware of this pristine lake.

The first rough track leads us to the rim– which reveals the stunning jewelled blue lake in the crater 300 feet below. There’s no path leading down the steep slopes – but l remember in 2011 we parked by a path.

Turning around –we find the right dusty moonscape route with the help of the GPS to another part of the rim with a path. The jewelled lake shimmers in below in the otherwise non-descript hill on Kilimanjaro’s slopes.

It’s a fascinating lake – deep, almost two kilometres down. Sheldon’s imagination went riot when she wrote of her Chala expedition – she talks of gigantic crocodiles which couldn’t have been but also of the rich forest and wildlife and the lake full of fish. The forest is there but thinner and the fish – the endemic Lake Chala tilapia (Oreochromis hunteri), that during her time was plentiful is now listed Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red list – one step short of going extinct

In current times there’s an exciting find – a new diatom species floating on Chala’s water – called Afrocymbella barkeri. Diatoms are algae with silica cell walls that do not decompose. Because Chala is very deep, its sediments are not often disturbed which helps to preserve them. According to the scientific journal, a climate record has been collected relying on the diatoms going back 25,000 years. The plan is to return for further drilling into the sediments to unlock the past.

High on the rim, wings spread and it’s the African fish eagle circling the lake. The men run down, take a quick dip safe in the knowledge that Grogan’s crocodiles have all been killed by the local fishermen (but in 2002 a young British girl was killed by one while swimming). The fishermen aren’t around, the palanquin isn’t found because it’s too late and we have to reach our destination while there’s still light.

Travel Taveta

Explore the off-the beaten roads. From Taveta, drive to Chala. Carry a picnic lunch and water – it’s very hot. Swim in the beautiful lake at your own risk – but it’s very refreshing.

Taveta to Amboseli via Loitokitok – the road is murrum almost to Loitokitok. It’s a beautiful drive with stunning views of Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro shorter peak. A lot of the land is under farming – tomatoes.

Distance: Nairobi to Voi-328 km

Voi to Taveta -100km

Taveta to Loitokitok – 80 km

Loitokitok  to Kimana Gate Amboseli National Park – 30 km

Loitokitok  to Erimito Gate Amboseli National Park – 63 km

Stay at: Taveta – at Grogan’s Castle built by Grogan colourful character of the Cape to Cairo walk between 1898 and 1900 – supposedly for the love of a woman.


Lake Jipe KWS – inexpensive self-catering bandas on L. Jipe –carry your food to cook. Enjoy game drives in the southern part of Tsavo West National Park that shares the international border with northern Tanzania.

Check KWS for current rates and advisory into national parks.

Or Lake Jipe Safari Camp  by the KWS gate to Lake Jipe