When Lake Naivasha was an international airport


A flying boat landing in the water. Above, Naivasha’s Sparks Hotel ( now country club) hosted the immigration and boarding facilities for new arrivals. FILE

Forget Kodak, the latest entrant in the graveyards of technology, – but who would have ever thought that Lake Naivasha “International” Airport would be lying desolate, virtually unknown and with little historical acknowledgement.

It is hard to imagine how technology trashes some businesses and lifts others. Let us look at Lake Naivasha for starters.

This was actually Kenya’s first international airport when planes from mostly European destinations would land at the lake, pick and drop passengers. The flying boats — as the passenger planes were generally known-— ended when advance in aviation technology allowed large planes to land on dry earth and hence the boats could not compete with the new Boeing 707s— at least from 1958.
Previously, those who could not afford the “Flyboat” services — as they were known— could either take the ship from Mombasa and travel by train.

The year 1958 was the turning point for Naivasha. It was when Boeing unveiled their 707 and it was this time that Mau Mau prisoners finished the construction of Embakasi Airport, the predecessor to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The opening of Embakasi (it is today used by the military) saw Lake Naivasha’s place diminish together with the facilities that had been built to cash in on the flying boat arrivals.

Thus, today and in terms of glory the 55-acre Lake Naivasha Country Club still remains the premier airport hotel in Kenya.

It not only offered the immigration facilities required for new entrants into the colony, but has a rich aviation history. When the club opened in 1937 (as Spark’s Hotel) it was to give the arrivals some boarding facilities and it still has the green lawns and acacia that dotted the place then. Besides, this was an area that had countless number of game, giving new visitors to the then Happy Valley a chance to sample some of the best scenes in the continent.

As the “staging post” for Imperial Airways flying boat service, that operated between London and Durban, Lake Naivasha’s Spark’s Hotel became was one of the best known in the region. The choice of Naivasha was actually apt.

The town had one of the best railway stations and the lake was of no interest to fishermen after a series of ecological blunders in 1926 saw the introduction of a voracious predator that diminished the fish species.

When the first route via Naivasha was inaugurated in January 1932 it was supposed to be a mail-only route to Cape Town. But three months later, the lake was opened to passengers and it took a week for a flying boat from Britain to reach Naivasha and ten days to Cape Town!

Actually, Naivasha had been chosen by the first long range air transport company in Britain, The Imperial Airways, due to its unique position and economic potential. With an average depth of five metres (by 1930s it was estimated to be six metres) the runway was easy to mark and even today some of the runway wooden posts are still visible in low tide.

By the time the British Airways was formed in 1935, Naivasha was the choice airport for Imperial Airways. The two would later merge to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1945 and continue operations in Naivasha.

At times passengers would land in Uganda’s Lake Albert for lunch and dinner before they were flown to Naivasha the next day.
After 1949, the airport closed down and Sparks Hotel lost a place in the international map. It became simply Lake hotel before it was turned to Lake Naivasha Country Club.

There is still another story of this Club. It became a secondary school during the 1940s after students at the then Prince of Wales (now Nairobi School) were relocated and their school turned into a military hospital.

As an airport, Naivasha could not survive technology. But it had its “Kodak moment”. For real.

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