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Adventures in the North, Part III: Hotels Bouncing Back from Twin Tragedies of COVID-19 and Rising Lake Waters

The rising water levels in Lake Turkana, as seen from the beaches along the Eliye Springs Resort in Turkana County. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

On the western shores of Lake Turkana, about 554km north of Nairobi, is Eliye Springs Resort.

It is about an hour and half journey by road from Lodwar town in Turkana County. If in Lodwar town, you will drive for about 15km on the Lodwar-Kalokol road, and then take a detour on the Lodwar-Eliye road, a ride in the jungle that eventually brings you to this gem in the desert.

Along this 45km stretch, you will sample picturesque views of sand dunes and dry savannah, the desert anthills, and a jungle that stretches to the horizon with handful of kraals dotting the way.

You will occasionally come across a herd of camels browsing in the searing heat and at others, a herd of hundreds of goats, majestically nibbling away shrubs in the unforgiving heat.

Then you will soon be ushered into swathes of white sand, and a magnificent green of palm trees and into cool embrace of the pristine waters of Lake Turkana, also known as the Jade Sea due to what the Magical Kenya prides as ‘‘almost incandescent colour of its waters, which strikingly appear blue-green.’’

It is here, that Eliye Springs Resort, tucked in the bosom of these palm tress and cool waters of the lake, has been welcoming visitors since 1969, quickly becoming a tourist magnet in the region.

Eliye Springs Resort on the western shores of Lake Turkana, in north-western Kenya. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

‘‘It is a paradise in the desert,’’ Mr. Dennis Biwott, the resort manager tells me.

Over the years, it offered a unique holiday experience to foreign tourists who flocked the area from across the world, to sample the paradise in the north, at the beaches of the world’s largest desert lake.

It is only in this lake, formerly known as Lake Rudolf, that you will get three islands with crater lakes, a haven for migrant flamingoes, a breeding ground for crocodiles, hippopotamus and venomous snakes.

It boasts the Southern Island National Park, the Central Island National Park and the Sibiloi National Park. The Lake Turkana National Parks have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

COVID-19 and the fury of a Rising Lake

The extent of the rise of water levels in Lake Turkana in 2020. Those submerged palm trees used to sit on the sandy beaches of the Eliye Springs Resort.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

The resort has made strides, offering unrivalled service experience. This was until March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic landed in Kenya and paralyzed business in the country.

The tourism and hospitality business was hard hit. A raft of containment measures were rolled out by the Government to stem the tide of the pandemic.

Hotels closed or scaled down business. With the airspace closed in the early months of the pandemic up until August 2020 when the measures were eased, tourists who used to flock Eliye Springs resort dissipated.

But this wasn’t the only challenge. In April of 2020, the water levels of Lake Turkana were rising, at an alarming rate.

A cottage destroyed by the rising water levels in Lake Turkana. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

At first there was no alarm.

‘‘We initially saw it as the usual tides, but the water levels continued rising, at a rate of about two (2) centimetres a day from April to August 2020. At this point we got concerned,’’ says Biwott.

When the situation got worse, the hotel had to swing into action. Its prized cottages were marooned within no time.

‘‘We were greatly affected. At least seven (7) cottages were destroyed. They were unique Turkana bomas. These were the trademark of the hotel. The raging waters also destroyed two boats. We lost an estimated KSh. 10 million ($9,000). We rescued whatever we could, including furniture and other items.’’ he says.

One of the two boats destroyed by the rising water levels of Lake Turkana at Eliye Springs Resort. The tragedy has occasioned huge damages to hotels along the western shores of the lake.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode

The hotel’s 35-bed capacity was whittled down to just 20.

It was not just Eliye Springs Resort that felt the wrath of Mother Nature. Four other hotels on the western shores of the lake were affected.

Two other establishments, which operated mainly as tented camps, and were a bit farther from the lake, weren’t as affected by the natural calamity, but they never escaped the COVID19 plague.

Springing Back to Business

One of the new cottages constructed at Eliye Springs Resort as part of rebuilding efforts following ravages by the rising water levels in Lake Turkana.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

Given the twin tragedies that dampened the business, the hotel is picking up its bits and pieces, to stand again, as the famed paradise in the desert.

At the moment, the resort is operating on half its human capacity, as it gets its footing, again.

‘‘We opted not to completely close down as we monitored the situation. At the same time it was not possible to keep all the staff at work. Currently about nine (9) out of 18 staff are back to work. We hope once the situation normalizes, everyone will be back to work again,’’ he added.

The hotel is working round the clock to reconstruct the damaged infrastructure.

‘‘We are putting up three new cottages. We plan to construct four more. The few items we salvaged from the destroyed structures are still fit for use so we won’t have to start from scratch,’’ says Biwott.

Inside the new cottage. PHOTO: Chiimbru Gimode.

Over the years, the hotel’s niche customer base has been foreign tourists, but the COVID-19 crisis has brought about a need to refocus the business, especially to appeal to the domestic market.

‘‘As a tourist hotel, our main market was the foreign tourists, and with the closure of the airspace and reduction in tourists numbers, we have seen a surge in local tourists and are thus remodeling put business to appeal equally to the domestic market. It is this market that is now sustaining us,’’ observes Biwott. The resort had a good run over the 2020 festive season with a good number of local tourists patronizing the business. It is now diversifying more into conference tourism, targeting corporates as it hopes to leverage this new frontier into the future

Renewed Hope

You can catch your drink by the lakeside, with a spectacular view of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, stretching for about 250km north to south.PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

It is not known when the lake’s waters will go back to its pre-April 2020 levels.

‘‘The lake doesn’t have an outlet thus the water levels are receding very slowly. The only way it loses water is through evaporation.  We therefore don’t expect it to go back to its previous levels soon. As a precaution, we are now putting up structures far away from the shores, to minimize similar risks in the future,’’ notes Biwott.

With the airspace open and the COVID-19 pandemic being contained, it is just a matter of time before the hotel goes back to normalcy, much bigger and better.

‘‘We have grown over the years and we want to tell the people out there, there is something incredible in Turkana County. With the support of the County government, we continue to bring Turkana to the world,’’

The hotel boasts tents, manyattas and standard rooms, to the guests’ delight.

Inside the cottages at Eliye Springs Resort. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

Guests can have the experience of a life time enjoying boat rides to the islands in the lake, or take a safari 100km north to Nariokotome, an archeological site and home to the Turkana Boy or better still to the eastern side of the lake to yet another archeological site, the Koobi Fora or the Sibiloi National Park. Other activities include bird watching and fishing.

You can also enjoy a sumptuous dinner or catch your favourite drink by the beach or in the bush, self-cooking and for those yearning for a honeymoon of a lifetime; Eliye Springs Resort is calling.

For Mr.Biwott, the relative security in that area has increased customer confidence in the hospitality industry along the western rim of the lake.

A newly acquired boat at Eliye Springs Resort. Beside it is a small weather station. PHOTO: Chiimbiru Gimode.

He also reckons that the Lodwar Airport continues to boost their business a great deal as well as the impending plans to tarmac the Lodwar-Eliye road which he hopes will dramatically open up the area for even greater prosperity.

There are good things happening in northern Kenya and Eliye Springs Resort is just the first among equals.

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