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For decades, Nkunga, a panoramic crater Lake in Meru County located in the Eastern part of Kenya was revered and devotedly protected by locals. Considered sacred, the Lake was only accessible to rainmakers and elders who offered sacrifices to appease gods in times of calamity.  Lately the water mass that nourishes elephants in Lower Imenti Forest and provides water to neighboring communities is slowly getting covered by aquatic grass. 

Source: Discover Meru County  

“There is more water underneath,” says our guide Daniel Kimathi perched on a rock. He points to a spectacularly green mass of aquatic grass that carpets Lake Nkunga Sacred Lake in Meru County. Looking down from the rock draped by weeds, one gets a view of calm waters of the lake glinting under the afternoon sun.  

The crater lake on the Eastern region of Kenya, is tucked in the Lower Imenti Forest which is part of Mt. Kenya Forest Reserve and surrounded by trees with stunning vistas. The bowl shaped crater that lies on the foot of Africa’s second tallest Mountain came to be as a result of a volcanic eruption and overtime it filled with water from underground springs. The volcanic eruption expelled the rocks that presently dot the surroundings. 

Source: Explore254 

For years, Nkunga Lake has been a sacred site for the Ameru people. It was at Nkunga where elders met to sacrifice to ward off evil spirits whenever calamity struck. In the event of calamities such as drought, elders would gather here and slaughter a goat and throw grains into the lake. The rains would come even before they left the Lake,” says Kimathi, a resident of Nkunga village. 

The Ameru People 

Source: Blue Gecko  

The Ameru people are a Bantu ethnic group that inhabit the North Eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya which is the highest mountain in Kenya and the second highest in Africa. The Ameru people reside in two counties Meru and Tharaka Nithi which are among the 6 counties straddled by Mt. Kenya. The two counties are on the Eastern part of the country. The region is endowed with fertile soils and favorable climatic conditions that allow for farming activities and production of crops such as tea, coffee, potatoes, wheat, soghurm and maize. Similarly, the two counties are endowed with multiple tourist attractions including Mt. KenyaMeru National ParkLewa ConservancyLower Imenti ForestNgare Ndare Forest among others. The Ameru belief in a God referred to as Murungu in the local language. They are traditionally governed by a council of elders known as Njuri Ncheke .  

Source: Kenya Safari  

The Lake still holds religious significance to the locals. Pointing to a dry spot of blood on the leaves of a tree, Kimathi explains that some locals had recently visited to offer sacrifices. To date the local elders sacrifice at the Lake to ward off evil spirits. Ameru legends and myths state that the Lake was protected by a seven headed dragon ‘Nkunga’ that swallowed anyone or anything that went near it. The locals referred to the Lake as ‘Iria ria Nkunga’ meaning the Lake of the dreaded dragon.  

Quenching thirsts 

Source: ABSfreepic  

Situated 10 Kilometres from Meru County, the Lake also offers nourishment to dozens of elephants that inhabit the surrounding forest. If one is lucky, they are likely to spot a herd of elephants quenching their thirst or bathing . The exit to the Lake is lined with an electric fence meant to ward off the elephants from surrounding farmlands. Waiting for the elephants within the vicinity therefore would mean that one gets trapped with no place to escape. The elephants can however be easily spotted on a 5 KM stretch of the forest that lines the Meru / Nanyuki road.  

The 200 metre deep crater is a haven for birds including crested cranes, Egyptian geese, Hadada Ibis, and African Darter. The Lake is inhabited by large numbers of Tilapia fish while trout fish was recently introduced by Kenya Wildlife Service the government agency that protects the forest . However, fishing in the lake is prohibited. There are regular sightings of several of the many bird species in the forest. 

A tapestry of stunning vistas, rocky outcrops, heavy floor vegetation and the wildlife make Nkunga a place of unforgettable adventures. That topped up with its tranquil surroundings make it a great spot for picnics. Despite its beauty, the Lake has failed to fully tap into its tourism potential. Most of the Lake’s water mass is covered with aquatic grass and submerged weeds.  

Untapped tourism potential 

Source: Answers Africa  

Previous attempts to remove vegetation from the Lake, create picnic sites and introduce canoe riding failed leaving it in a neglected state. “In 2001, a donor had offered to rehabilitate the Lake but they withdrew before the project was completed,” says Kimathi. He notes that the Meru County government has plans of ridding the lake of the weeds in a bid to attract more tourists. 

Along a narrow winding path, our guide leads us to a gaping cave under an old indigenous tree on the shores of the Lake. The cave is one of the shrines where people come to pray with the belief that prayers offered in this holy place are always answered. 

As the sun slips over the green canopy of trees, we exit the Lake surroundings just in time to avoid encountering the elephants that come to drink water at the Lake. Besides, the clouds begin turning dark a sign that it may soon rain. 

Unexpected sightings 

Accessing and exiting the Lake is a tricky endeavor that involves carefully sliding beneath electric charged wires. When we are safely out of the Lake’s vicinity, we drive on a winding dirt trail that skirts its way up a hill offering a sweeping view of the surrounding forest and teasing glimpses of the Lake. 

In less than 1 Km we leave the detour leading to the Lake and join the Meru Nanyuki highway. As we head towards Meru, we pass through the lush cloud of the forest by the roadside. The stretch of greenery along the highway is part of the Mt. Kenya Forest Reserve that straddles the Equator in the Central Highlands of Kenya.  

Source: Kenya Information Directory  

We come across a group of baboons nonchalantly grooming each other along the busy road and also spot a lone elephant emerging from the forest foliage in an attempt to cross the road. There are road signs warning motorists to slow down on this stretch to allow the animals to cross. As we drive away from the forest, we can hear close and distant bird and animal noises.  

Source: Faunographic 

A Haven for Elephants and Picnics

Nkunga`s tranquil surrounding makes the site perfectly suited for picnics and exploration on feet be it through easy walks around the Lake or guided tours by locals within the surroundings for a chance to learn the culture of the Ameru people. Lake Nkunga`s main attraction is the elephants that traverse through the forest as they migrate each year from Mt. Kenya out to the grasslands. The Lake is also a key mating spot for elephants. Notably, there is peaceful coexistence between wildlife and residents in neighboring villages who share the key resource.  Perhaps a proof of the reverence locals attach to the Lake.

Evelyn Makena

Evelyn is a Kenyan journalist living in Nairobi, the only city in the world with a national park. She writes stories on health, environmental conservation, entrepreneurship, gender, and travel among others. You can read some of her writings on People Daily - Kenya, The Independent- UK, and Impacthub Media. Evelyn is often found hanging in the outdoors.