Mad descent into Chala

Lake Chala in the Tsavo. This pristine lake where many still pass it today, totally unaware of its presence. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

What you need to know:

Rupi Mangat and friends visit an obscure lake in the Tsavo that’s replete with history.

Lounging in the circular living room of Grogan’s Castle in the Tsavo, I chance upon an issue of Old Africa with a really interesting story of Lake Chala.

It’s the story of an epic expedition conducted by a woman – May French Sheldon – in 1891. She was an American explorer and writer, and way ahead of her time. She was also a woman of means. 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 hired porters to carry her in her palanquin when she tired of marching. 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. When she left, she left her palanquin buried somewhere in the caldera, hoping to find it if she returned.

This story leads us to visit this jewel lake in the caldera of Kilimanjaro. The plan is to stop at the lake, look for the palanquin and continue to Amboseli National Park along the volcanic range of the Chyulus.


Driving out of Taveta, the busy town on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border that’s surrounded by farms irrigated by canals built between 1930 and 1950, the road is rough. White dust blows. Parts of the area look like moonscape.

The lake isn’t signposted, so we’re not sure which dusty track to take. A local boda boda rider points to the direction, the GPS confirms it. I’m fascinated by Sheldon’s determination to find this pristine lake where many still pass it today, totally unaware of its presence. 

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 from here, but we turn around and, with the help of the GPS, find the right dusty moonscape route to another part of the rim with a path down.

It’s a fascinating lake – deep, almost two kilometres down. Sheldon’s imagination went riot when she wrote of her Chala expedition. She talked of gigantic crocodiles (which couldn’t have been), rich forest and wildlife, and the lake full of fish. Today the forest is there, but thinner, and the fish – the endemic Lake Chala tilapia – is now close to extinction.

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 the diatoms. They will help to provide a climate record for the area, as the ‘records’ these diatoms keep go back 25,000 years. They are a little slice of history.

High on the rim, wings spread; it’s an African fish eagle circling the lake. The men run down and take a quick dip. But we don’t find the palanquin; it’s too late and we have to reach our destination while there’s still light.



Travel Taveta

Explore the area from Taveta 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.

Try Taveta to Amboseli via Loitokitok; the road is murram almost to Loitokitok. It’s a beautiful drive with stunning views of Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s shorter peak.


  • Nairobi to Voi - 328km

  • Voi to Taveta - 100km

  • Taveta to Loitokitok - 80km

  • Loitokitok to Kimana Gate, Amboseli National Park - 30km

  • Loitokitok to Erimito Gate, Amboseli, National Park - 63km


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