An island in Lake Victoria offers 21st-century accommodation and the chance to see some of the oldest paintings on the planet. Frank Partridge mixes the prehistoric with the modern

"Strap yourself in now," said Rex, the New Zealander piloting our five-seater Cessna out of the Masai Mara towards Kenya's remote north-western tip: "we're going to hit some turbulence."

I did what I was told, but looking out of the window for signs of an approaching storm, all I could see was pure, unremitting blue in every direction: there hadn't been the suspicion of a cloud since dawn, and there was nothing visible now.

"How do you know?" I asked. "We're coming to the lake. It's so big it creates its own weather system. Hold on tight."

Sure enough, a minute or two later we were gently but persistently knocked about by some unseen thermals, as the sky blue up above was gradually mirrored by a limitless expanse of aquamarine down below. Lake Victoria: the largest body of water in the parched continent of Africa – as big as Scotland, with a quixotic climate that is distinctly Caledonian. Large enough to change character, of its own volition, from glassy stillness at dawn to a thundering, frothing maelstrom by mid-afternoon.

It was mid-afternoon, as it happened, but Rex and his trusty Cessna did their stuff, and we swooped in smoothly to land on the rough dirt airstrip on the island of Mfangano, a few kilometres off the Kenyan shore, with Uganda another 300km over the horizon. Having spent a fair amount of my youth gazing westwards at the North Atlantic and wondering how far it was to Newfoundland, I never expected a mere lake to create such intimations of infinity, but Lake Victoria did. How could it be that European explorers took so long to discover it, and only did so by accident? As recently as the 1860s, the search was on to identify the source of the Nile, which was how it came to be discovered, and years later, English explorer Henry Stanley still misunderstood it, writing: "The sea is fresh, is good and sweet; the sea is like wine to drink for thirsty men."

Victoria is not a sea: its waves and weather are the consequence of equatorial rain filling a basin formed by prehistoric earth movements, producing a rich harvest of fish that has been reaped by man since he began harnessing nature. On Mfangano island there are remote enclaves where you feel little has changed since that time.

The lake is so big that it embraces three countries: Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – but Kenya, with only 6 per cent of its shoreline, has the largest island – Mfangano – which has been occupied by man since we depicted the world with pictures rather than words.

On the island there are caves which contain some of mankind's earliest recorded artistic impressions. Unable to reach the caves by road – because this island of 20 fishing villages and 22,000 people still has no proper road – I took a long-boat water taxi to Mwanga, where the guide was alerted by a call from the skipper to help us moor at a flimsy wooden quay.

Thirtysomething Daniel, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, has lived in Mwanga all his life, and as a government employee overseeing an "official" national museum his task is to keep the cave path clear, mend the fences when they're damaged by goats, and decode the coloured circles that the ancients inscribed on the limestone walls. The admission charge of Ksh200 (£1.65), Daniel explained, would go towards the cost of building a new school to give the village kids access to the three Rs without having to clamber for several tough kilometres through the untamed bush.

The "cave art" consists of a series of circles and whorls representing the moon, which was seen as the source of rain. They were imprinted on the granite with a mix of goats' blood and crushed herbs, and were probably associated with rain-making ceremonies. Then as now, rain was seen to be a good thing. When it rained, there was sufficient food for everyone, and peace broke out. In times of drought, though, tribes fought each other for land and crops, and when things got sticky up to 200 people would shelter in the deep cave, with the hunter-gathering men on one side and the domestically orientated women on the other, the latter taking their instructions from a female elder, who installed herself in a fissure in the rock that formed a natural throne, and passed on her household tips.

The roof of the women's section is blackened from the smoke of their cooking. When did all this happen? We don't really know, but on the tiny islet of Nzenze, further out into the lake within a couple of kilometres of the (nautical) border with Uganda, rain-making ceremonies are still practised under the shade of a banana tree on the beach.

Over the next year or two, Mfangano will change beyond recognition when the first round-island road is completed, electricity will be available for every household, and a filtration plant will provide uncontaminated water to those who live near enough to carry their plastic containers home.

Until then, night-time light is restricted to kerosene lamps and the few households which can afford private generators, and – oh, I almost forgot – the luxury, all-frills camp in a secluded bay which is the only place on the island deemed fit to house visitors from the Masai Mara to stay overnight. The accommodation, amenities and service at the Mfangano Island Camp is as attentive to detail as any five-star lodge in the game park, and if even a small proportion of the price finds its way to the fishing communities of Mfangano island, then it will be money well spent.

Traveller's guide

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) operates daily flights from Heathrow to Nairobi from £385.70 return. Governors' Camp (see below) can arrange transfer flights from Nairobi.

Staying there

The writer stayed at Mfangano Island Camp, a Governors' Camp (00 254 20 273 4000; www.governorscamp.com) which offers full board and accommodation for $256 (£146) per person per night, based on two people sharing. His trip was arranged by Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk).

More information

Kenya Tourist Board (020-7367 0931; www.magicalkenya.com)

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