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For the uninitiated, Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, can be daunting. Planes touch down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), located within the vast expanse of the Nairobi National Park, but the bush soon gives way to the bustle of a large African city. From the teeming traffic, to the manic matatus (minibus taxis), cows wandering down busy roads, large crowds of people, hawkers leaping to peddle their wares through open car windows, not to mention the usually sweltering heat, arriving in the country’s largest city can jolt the senses.
Start your visit at the Nairobi National Museum, which houses permanent and temporary exhibitions exploring the country’s cultural, natural and historical heritage. Of particular interest is the Cradle of Mankind permanent exhibition, which showcases Kenya’s unique role in the archaeological discoveries of human evolution. Exhibitions exploring the various Kenyan ethnic groups and their traditions are also well presented and worth a visit, particularly if you harbour an interest in Kenya’s kaleidoscope of cultures. From here, head to the centre of town, towards the Maasai market, where you can pick up all manner of artefacts and souvenirs. Just prepare for the tugging, the sweet talking and the haggling of local market vendors.
Escape the bustle of the town centre and head towards the Giraffe Centre, situated in Lang’ata suburb and established in the late 1970s to protect the endangered Rothschild giraffe, found only in the grasslands of East Africa. Jock Leslie-Melville, the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish Earl, founded the centre when he and his wife started a giraffe breeding programme. Also worth a visit is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a sanctuary for orphaned elephants, rhinos and other animals, and the suburb of Karen, the famous setting of the 1985 blockbuster, Out of Africa, based on memoirs penned by Danish baroness, Karen von Blixen. Blixen’s house, set in beautifully manicured grounds, is now a museum.
Naivasha and Nakuru
When you have had your fill of Nairobi, take a trip to Lake Naivasha, situated 90 kilometres from the capital down a road that runs along the edge of a cliff, affording incredible views of the Great Rift Valley. The Lake is home to over 600 hippos as well as a surprising number of endangered black colobus monkeys, which leap enthusiastically from tree to tree.
Some 70 kilometres further north is Kenya’s second city, Nakuru, with Lake Nakuru National Park located just outside. This park is well known for two colours: blue and pink, the former because of the water of the lake, the latter due to the huge flocks of flamingos that have made the shore their home. The park also has a thriving rhino population – a rare sight in other places these days due to intense poaching.
Kenya’s infamous Maasai Mara is, perhaps, the best place in the world to experience an African safari. The concentration of animals living in the Maasai Mara, which covers over 1,500 square kilometres in the south-western Narok county of Kenya, is astounding, particularly when it comes to big cats. In the Mara – as locals call it – the search for the “Big Five” (the five most dangerous animals in Africa) is top of everyone’s mind. Exuberant, well-informed game ranger guides will do their utmost to ensure you enjoy superb sightings of these magnificent animals. Wildebeest, gazelles, zebras, giraffes and a vast array of birds round out the experience.
If time permits, try to visit one of the local Maasai villages to experience the nomadic lifestyle of this cattle-herding people, whose men are reputed to be fierce warriors. Each village is completely surrounded by thorn-bush fences to keep stealthy lions and leopards from getting too close to the vulnerable inhabitants.
While the Maasai Mara is captivating no matter when you visit, between the months of July and October it is the setting for one of the New Wonders of the World: the Great Wildebeest Migration. During this period, in excess of two million wildebeest make their way from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania across the border to the Maasai Mara in Kenya – one of the most beautiful natural occurrences to behold.
Mombasa and Nearby Diani
Mombasa is Kenya’s main port and has long been a vibrant trading city. Indeed, historical texts dating back as far as the 12th century mention the port of Mombasa as a hive of trading activity. Its rich trade history attracted visitors from the Middle East, Europe and Asia, many of whom vied for and fought to control the city and port over the years. The city’s old streets make for a wonderful stroll, especially if you enjoy eclectic architecture.
Fort Jesus, an impressive stronghold built by the Portuguese in 1593, lords over Mombasa. In the decade following Kenyan independence (1960 to 1970), the fort was excavated and restored and now houses a museum. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.
Mombasa plays an important role in connecting much of East Africa to the world, with road and rail connections via Mombasa linking land-locked East African countries like Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda to shipping trade routes.
A short distance from Mombasa, down the glorious Indian Ocean coastline, is Diani, with its immaculate beach. The Indian Ocean is home to a dazzling array of colourful fish and marine wildlife, and local fishermen are more than willing to captain informal snorkelling trips out to the coral reefs. Here, you can enjoy the red starfish and colourful tropical fish while swimming lazily in the warm water. Just beware of lurking eels!
It is possible to join an organised day excursion to the Diani Chale Marine Park and Reserve, situated a little further down the coast towards the Tanzanian border. Playful pods of dolphins swimming alongside the boats as they travel into deeper waters commonly surprise visitors heading to nearby coral reefs to snorkel.
There are plenty of other beautiful beach spots scattered along the Kenyan coast. Many people favour Malindi, a quaint ocean town dating back to the 14th century, and Watamu – renowned for the proliferation of turtles in the area – as beach retreats of choice.
A trip to Kenya will leave you both tired and invigorated, dusty and laden with souvenirs, but most importantly, spell-bound. One visit is not enough to fully comprehend this country. A visit to Kenya will leave you wanting to come back.
– Ventures Africa