Naivasha is a town of many colours, oscillating between the good, the bad and the ugly.
It hogs headlines for all the wrong reasons, including weird happenings such as the infamous cannibal incident linked to a street urchin and the 2008 post-election violence.
But hosting a global event – the recently concluded World Rally Championship (WRC) Safari Rally – highlighted the positive side of the town, also famed for its links to the making of a nation called Kenya.
The rally was won by Frenchman Sebastien Ogier.
His class act kept crazed fans glued to TV sets or dancing with joy in the wild.
Eons ago, it was known as Happy Valley due to the escapades of British aristocrats – infamous for “wife swapping” and other decadent lifestyles.
In the mid-2000s, Happy Valley was again put on the global map, owing to the legal battles of the Lord Delamere scion Tom Cholmondeley.
Naivasha-born retired teacher Geoffrey Muhoro has seen the town evolve to become the focal point of international attention.
Blessed with a photographic memory, the 80-year-old octogenarian has vivid recollections of the town that dates back to the pre-independence period.
“Even before independence, Naivasha was popular due to famous personalities like Lord Delamere and his wealthy club of friends who lived in the fast lane,” said Mr Muhoro.
Mr Muhoro had run-ins with the colonisers.
On March 15, 1961 he was the first African to be granted a licence to operate a beer-selling outlet in Naivasha, which he christened Smiling Bar, after he was denied permission to buy a bottle of beer at La Belle restaurant, which still stands today.
“I had been in a fierce altercation with the management of the bar operated by white settlers and I kept pushing before I was allowed to own a bar,” he recalled.
He said what was called Naivasha district at the time, comprising Ol Kalou, North Kinangop and South Kinangop, was the place to be.
“Naivasha has a rich history that dates back to colonial times. Most of the wealthy settlers lived in Naivasha and their penchant for a good life was evident,” he said.
With money to throw around, the town of choice was Naivasha, with La Belle their favoured joint.
“Aristocrats and their girlfriends used to frequent my bar and La Belle Inn to take their favourite liquor, make merry and have fun,” he added.
He said Naivasha’s hosting of the WRC motorsport event rekindled memories from decades ago, with thousands of people trooping to the town to watch the event that attracted rave reviews in the media.
Just like in the old days, people who travelled from far and wide made merry, sipping their preferred drinks by the roadside, some of them doing so right in the middle of the roads.
“I have never seen a thing like that in my entire life. Kenyans love fast life and it was on display during the global event,” said Pastor Francis Mwangi.
But the industry that reaped big was the hospitality sector, with Nakuru Country Tourism Association chairman David Mwangi revealing that players smiled all the way to the bank.
“The returns were good and almost all the hotels, ranging from budget and standard to high-end, in Naivasha, Gilgil and Nakuru were fully booked,” he said.
The county, he said, played host to more than 10,000 international guests and about 100,000 local visitors during the three-day event.
“Goodies trickled down to the traders who erected tents at spectator stages like Hells Gate National Camp, Sleeping Warrior and Chui Lodge during the competition,” Mr Mwangi said.
He was optimistic that many hoteliers had recouped much of the losses they made last year and at the beginning of 2021 as a result of Covid-19 movement restrictions.
He said the event ran smoothly, save for the gridlock that took a toll on motorists on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and the Naivasha central business district.
The Nakuru Country Tourism Association, he added, had initiated talks with Kenya Railways to ferry clients to the lakeside town during such events in future as a way of addressing traffic snarl-ups.
He said stakeholders would conduct a postmortem to discuss the misses and hits of the rally but was quick to add that they were yet to receive any formal complaints about the way the event was hosted.
“Going by the comments by the World Rally aces, it is crystal clear that everything happened as earlier scripted, with some committing to return to the country as tourists,” he added.
Mr Mwangi said beaming the event live to a global audience not only put the country on the global rally map but the specific towns of Nakuru and Naivasha stand to benefit.
Some of the landmark features that caught the attention of viewers was the power stage at Hells Gate National Park where drivers raced with zebras and gazelles galloping in the open vegetation.
Buffaloes could be spotted from afar, foraging in the wilderness as zooming cars blew dust, to the amusement of rally lovers and hawk-eyed photographers.
The scenic park teemed with a sea of humanity as young and old trooped to the park with a scary name that at one time reverberated with the crash of missile fire when it was used as a World War II artillery training ground.
The beautiful scenery was a sight to behold for holidaymakers who love sightseeing while a climb to the towering cliffs was a breathtaking session.
Voyagers and nature lovers are allowed a free walk in this wildlife sanctuary.
Justus Bwire was among rally diehards who made their way to the famed park and enjoyed the serene atmosphere.
“It is definitely a moment to savour. The choice of the section was a masterpiece by rally organisers. It will leave a lasting memory among thousands of rally fans,” said.
Safari Rally brought good tidings Kenya will enjoy for a long time
The Naivasha Inland Container Depot (ICD), which has largely remained low-key, was abuzz with activity as cargo to be used during the WRC event was ferried to warehouses.
Race organisers shipped in 60 forty-foot containers through the ICD, with storehouses benefiting from the ripple effect of the motorsport event.
Former Nakuru County Chamber of Commerce boss Njuguna Kamau said that with the global audience being treated to a 25-hour quality production, the country stood to gain.
Some 155 television stations beamed the event live. Mr Kamau said this was a game changer, with the country expected to welcome more tourists in the coming years.
“The only damper is the coronavirus, which has largely restricted movement, but the availability of vaccines is a big boost in the fight against the disease,” he added.
He expects a big turnaround in the hospitality industry, which experienced depressed fortunes owing to the effects of the global pandemic.
With Kenya granted the rights to host the event in the next five years, stakeholders are expected to cash in, going by the recent experience.
“We are also expecting the economy to grow. Bringing back the rallying event was a masterstroke,” he said.