8 lakes you have to visit in Africa
We threw ourselves in at the deep end in our search to find which of Africa's 677 lakes are worth a dip
From vast land-locked seascapes teeming with diverse wildlife, to knockout-pretty Pantone-popping alien ponds, Africa can claim some of the most ravishing lakes anywhere on earth. Here’s our pick of the finest from across the continent…
This spellbinding inland sea, splayed attractively across the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, is no less magnificent for the fact it’s the work of industrious humans. Created in the late 1950s when the almighty Kariba Dam stemmed the flow of the Zambezi river, it’s still the world’s largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume – 140 miles long by 24 miles wide – and supports a thriving ecosystem of crocodiles, hippopotami, tiger fish and sardine-like kapenta. Numerous islands – Chete, Sekula, Chikanka – support their own elephant populations, and the protruding remnants a drowned forest make for a haunting sunset photo op.
One of Africa’s ‘Great Lakes’, Kivu straddles the boundary between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s pretty setting on the East African Rift Valley means it’s slowly being pulled apart over the course of millions of years. Which means dramatic volcanic scenery, albeit with the risk that one day its colossal store of underground methane might be unleashed..For now Lake Kivu’s wildlife, and especially its bird population, is hypnotic, with African Fish eagles, blue flycatchers, tropical boubous, pelicans and tiny malachite kingfishers producing endless flourishes of avian eye candy.
Separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow chain of sand dunes, this shallow three-square-kilometer lagoon is most famous for is rosy pink hue. Most striking around the dry season – especially January – Retba’s cheerful fuchsia colour is a result of its incredibly high salinity, up to 40% in some areas (that’s saltier than the Dead Sea) and the Desulfohalobium retbaense bacteria that consequently thrives here. Locals show up in droves to slather themselves in protective shea butter and excavate the salty bed for sale as a preservative, while tourists love bobbing about in the viscous ripples. Talk about seasoned travellers.
If you need proof that Africa’s lakes are dynamic, fluctuating systems then look no further than Lake Nakuru. The name means ‘dusty place’, but since that was coined it’s become a soggy haven for wildlife, most notably everybody’s favourite flamboyant waders the flamingoes. In the past decade or so, if anything, it’s been inundated with too much water, which has put off the flamingoes. But most recent info indicates they’re back in mind-bending numbers, alongside white and black rhinos, Rothschild giraffe, lions and hyenas.
Profoundly ancient – at least a million years old, with some bits probably over eight million – Lake Malawi is a mecca for biologists fascinated by its unique ‘mbuna’ or cichlid population. It’s estimated there’s at least 850 distinct species of this eye-catching fish in the lake – that’s more species of fish than all the freshwater bodies in Europe combined, by the way. Exceptionally clear, at least on the the surface, the ‘lake of stars’ also boasts a ravishing array of bankside scenery, from sandy beaches to wooded hillsides to moody swampland fringed with photogenic palm trees. It’s shore to impress.
The oldest and longest – 420 miles from north to south – of east Africa’s Great Lakes is also the deepest, hoarding a staggering 16% of all the world’s fresh water. Bounded by Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Zambia, it’s a world-renowned centre for sports fishing, with large populations of giant Nile perch, goliath tiger and lake Tanganyika yellow-belly fish just itching to be reeled in. Nearby Gombe Stream National Park – made famous by beloved primatologist Jane Goodall – is a great place to look out for chimpanzees. Definitely don’t try and catch them.
A comparative youngster at just 400,000 years old, this rain-made beauty – the largest tropical lake on earth – is widely recognised as the source of the river Nile. As many as 40 million people live in its watershed, with 6% considered of its surface area considered Kenyan, and the rest divided roughly equally beterrn Tanzania and Uganda. Tourism wise, Uganda’s Ssese archipelago is the biggest draw, with 84 islands comprising beaches, tropical forests and monkey sanctuaries. Special shout out to Mutumbala beach on Buggala Island, which happily combines white sand with a welcome absence of crocodiles.
Don’t be fooled by the Caribbean-like appearance of this oval turquoise lake and its apparently bone-white sand. Lake Assal, around 75 miles west of Djibouti City, is the second saltiest lake on earth. Lurking 155 metres below sea level, thanks to its position on a geological depression where three tectonic plates are yanking the very landscape apart, it’s an inhospitable spot. Locals have been mining its precious ‘white gold’ since time immemorial and flogging it to cities in nearby Ethiopia via long, picturesque camel caravans. Worth a surreal float about in, unless you have an open cut. In which case maybe give it a miss.