Kenya Travel Guide
"Here you will find the most important information about Kenya"
Kenya served as an important mediator in brokering Sudan's north-south separation in February 2005; Kenya provides shelter to approximately a quarter of a million refugees including Ugandans who flee across the border periodically to seek protection from Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels; Kenya's administrative limits extend beyond the treaty border into the Sudan, creating the Ilemi Triangle.
Founding president and liberation struggle icon Jomo KENYATTA led Kenya from independence until his death in 1978, when President Daniel Toroitich arap MOI took power in a constitutional succession. The country was a de facto one-party state from 1969 until 1982 when the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) made itself the sole legal party in Kenya. MOI acceded to internal and external pressure for political liberalization in late 1991.
The ethnically fractured opposition failed to dislodge KANU from power in elections in 1992 and 1997, which were marred by violence and fraud, but are viewed as having generally reflected the will of the Kenyan people. President MOI stepped down in December of 2002 following fair and peaceful elections. Mwai KIBAKI, running as the candidate of the multiethnic, united opposition group, the National Rainbow Coalition, defeated KANU candidate Uhuru KENYATTA and assumed the presidency following a campaign centered on an anticorruption platform.
Kenya, regarded by many as the ‘jewel of East Africa’, has some of the continent’s finest beaches, most magnificent wildlife and scenery and an incredibly sophisticated tourism infrastructure. It is a startlingly beautiful land, from the coral reefs and white sand beaches of the coast to the summit of Mount Kenya, crowned with clouds and bejewelled by strange giant alpine plants. Between these two extremes is the rolling savannah that is home to game parks such as Amboseli, the Masai Mara, Samburu and Tsavo; the lush, agricultural highlands with their sleek green coat of coffee
and tea plantations; and the most spectacular stretch of the Great Rift Valley, the giant scar across the face of Africa. One-tenth of all land in Kenya is designated as national parks and reserves. Over 50 parks and reserves cover all habitats from desert to mountain forest, and there are even six marine parks in the Indian Ocean. Tourist facilities are extremely good. There are many organized safaris, but visitors with the time and money may choose to hire their own vehicle and camping equipment.
Kenya also has a fascinatingly diverse population with around 40 different tribes, all with their own (often related) languages and cultures. The major tribes include the Kikuyu from the central highlands, the Luyia in the northwest, and the Luo around Lake Victoria. Of them all, however, the most famous are the tall, proud, beautiful red-clad Masai, who still lead a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle of cattle-herding along the southern border.
Kenya does have its downside as a tourist destination. Rampant corruption means that many of the roads are in poor condition and driving can be a chore. Urban crime is high and continuing inter-tribal skirmishes and banditry are a threat in some areas of the North. More prosaically, the tourist trade has taught people there to think of foreigners as open wallets. Prices for everything from park fees to hotel rooms are set way above the local level. There is enormous pressure to buy anything and everything, often at ridiculously inflated prices, and even taking a photograph in the local market is likely to incur a cost.
The second-largest city in Kenya, 500km (300 miles) from Nairobi, Mombasa town actually sits on an island. Until the ascendancy of the Western powers in the Indian Ocean, Mombasa was second only to Zanzibar as a center for trade with Arabia, India and the Far East – slaves and ivory were exchanged for spices and small goods, and later for gold dollars. Mombasa is still an important port, prospering from its position at the head of the only railway into the Kenyan interior, but visitors are likely to find the rakish grey forms of foreign warships to be more typical of modern Mombasa than the flotillas of Arab dhows that still collect in the Old Harbour. Mombasa is the headquarters for Kenya’s coastal tourist trade, but has none of the fine beaches to be found to the north and south. There are, however, several places of interest: the Old Town retains a strongly Arab flavor, with narrow, crowded streets and street vendors selling all manner of local and imported craftwork; Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in 1593 and taken by the Omani Arabs in 1698 after a 33-month seige, is now a museum and worth visiting (open 0830-1830 every day of the year, including son-et-lumière shows); the Old Harbour is an interesting place for early morning and late afternoon strolls, and is often filled with sailing dhows from the Yemen and Persian Gulf. For those who want to go shopping with atmosphere, Biashara Street is probably the best place to go to buy kikoi and khanga cloths; the main city market is the Makupa Market, off Mwembe Tayari and there is a floating market at Tudor Creek, to the north of the city. There are plenty of dhow trips here, and around the harbor if you fancy a spell on the water. The tourist office is on Moi Avenue near the Giant Tusks (Mon-Fri 0800-1700, Sat 0800-1200; tel: (11) 315 922 or 223 465). Staff are very helpful.
Most of the beach resorts which are actually listed as Mombasa are some way out of town, along a 120km- (70 mile-) stretch of coast. To the north of the city, resorts such as Bamburi Beach, Casuarina Beach, Kenya Beach and Nyali Beach are amongst the older developments with easy access to the city center and activities, restaurants and clubs. The Kenya Marineland and Snake Park, Bamburi Quarry Nature Trail, which also has a butterfly farm, the Mamba Crocodile Village in Freretown, and the Ngomongo Villages cultural park, showing off the lifestyle of 11 different Kenyan tribes, are entertaining for children and adults alike. Serious souvenir shoppers should head for Bombolulu Workshops and Cultural Village, where 260 disabled men and women produce high-quality leatherwork, jewelry and other crafts. There is some good diving on the somewhat damaged coral reef of the Mombasa Marine National Park, off the Nyali headland.
The best beaches, such as Likoni and Tiwi (popular with backpackers), stretch out for some distance along the South Coast, reached only by ferry from the city center. The best and most famous of them all is the 10km long, dazzlingly white Diani Beach, some 40km (24 miles) south of the city, lined by a string of large resort hotels. A short way inland, the 192 sq km Shimba Hills National Reserve is the most accessible place to see big game for those staying on the coast, although the wooded vegetation does not always make it easy. It does, however, boast a lot of leopard and Kenya’s only population of sable antelope. In the far south, little Shimoni is an increasingly popular center for diving and deep sea fishing, with three small marine parks, Kisite Marine National Park, Mpunguti National Reserve and Wasini Marine National Park within easy boat-trip distance. The coral reefs around here are spectacular and there are dhow trips to go dolphin-watching.
Malindi, 125km (80 miles) north of Mombasa, was once the center of a powerful kingdom. Today it is a small, somewhat tatty resort town, but the Malindi and Watamu Marine National Parks are nearby. Here the coral reef is close enough to the white sand beach to walk out at low tide and you can snorkel, dive or watch the technicolor fish through a glass-bottomed boat. There are also several operators running deep-sea fishing charters. A small white cross on the bay marks the arrival in 1499 of Vasco da Gama, the first European ever to visit the Kenyan coast. Close to Watamu, the Gedi National Park protects the well-preserved ruins of a Swahili city, founded in the 13th century and destroyed by Somali raiders in the 17th century. The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, south of Watamu, and the little village of Mambrui, north of Malindi, are also worth a visit.
Lamu Island, 200km (125 miles) north of Malindi, is an exceptionally beautiful place with fine, white sandy beaches, sailing dhowsand a fascinating town. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island and the streets are so narrow that donkeys and hand-carts are the only vehicles that can negotiate them. The area is strongly Muslim and the only places on the island to buy alcohol are in a couple of the larger tourist hotels.
Lamu Town was founded in the ninth century and is one of a handful of Swahili towns whose many mosques and fine old Arab houses with impressive carved wooden doors have survived intact. There are a couple of excellent museums; the Lamu Museum and the Swahili House Museum. The Fortress is also open to the public. Other attractions in the city include the Hindu Temple in Mwagogo Road, off Treasury Square, and the bazaars. The best beaches are about 2km (1.2 miles) south of the town at Shela, or on the nearby islands.
Fishing trips may be taken by dhow, and day trips to the 14th- and 15th-century ruins on the nearby islands of Manda and Pate can be arranged with local boat owners. On the Prophet’s Birthday there is a week-long festival with dancing, singing and other celebrations. Many Muslims come to Lamu from all along the coast to enjoy this celebration. The best time to visit the island is outside the main tourist season (April to November).
Southeastern Kenya is low, dry, flat savannah country, much of it taken up by the vast Tsavo National Park, a collection of privately owned game ranches in the Taita Hills and the smaller Amboseli National Park, on the Tanzanian border.
Tsavo National Park
The largest park in Kenya, Tsavo covers a mammoth 21,000 sq km (8000 sq miles). It is actually managed as two separate parks - Tsavo East, most of which is closed to the public, and Tsavo West. Between the two, the Taita Hills are the setting for most of the local game lodges, all of which stand on private concessions run as part of the same ecosystem as the park itself. Despite a drastic fall in the elephant population, caused by massive poaching in the 1970s and 80s, numbers are again on the increase and it is possible to see large herds. Much of the land is open savannah and bush woodland inhabited by buffaloes, a few rhinos, lions, antelopes, gazelles, giraffes and zebras. Crocodiles and hippos can be seen at Mzima Springs in the northwest of the park. Nearby, the Shetani Lava Flow is a 50 sq km lava bed formed by an eruption in the Chyulu Hills. As well as being rich in wildlife, Tsavo has a wealth of birds, with over 440 species recorded.
Amboseli National Park
A small park by Kenyan standards, covering 329 sq km, Amboseli lies on the Tanzanian border 220km (140 miles) from Nairobi. The fine view it affords of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain (5895m/19,340ft), draws many visitors, but the park itself has seen better days. The once-lush savannah is now largely a dust-bowl and most animals have retreated into areas of scrub forest and marshland.
The ‘Green City in the Sun’ is an attractive city with wide tree-lined streets and spacious parkland suburbs. Its pleasant nature together with judicious investment in facilities such as the Kenyatta Conference Center have made Nairobi an important center for international business and conference activities. However, despite the capital’s appearance, urban crime is on the increase and visitors are advised to take precautions such as avoiding certain areas, or walking anywhere at night (travelers are advised against walking alone through Uhuru Park at any time). There is a full range of shopping opportunities, from purpose-built American-style malls to African markets, and a variety of restaurants and nightclubs. There are open-air swimming pools at the Boulevard, Jacaranda and Serena hotels – non-residents may pay to swim.
Other places of interest in or near Nairobi include the Bomas of Kenya, a short distance outside the city center, where displays of traditional dancing are put on for visitors; the Kenya National Museum with its particularly good ethnographic and archaeological exhibits (this is where many of the earliest human remains, discovered by the Leakeys at Olduvai, Koobi Fora and other well-known prehistoric sites, are displayed); and the Snake Park, opposite the museum, which houses snakes indigenous to East Africa and a few from other parts of the world. Adjacent to Snake Park is a collection of traditional mud and thatch huts and granaries containing tools characteristic of different tribes. In the suburb of Karen, the Karen Blixen Museum occupies the farmhouse made famous by the author’s book, Out of Africa.
Although it is just 8km (5 miles) from Nairobi city center, Nairobi National Park still seems a savage and lonely place during the week (carloads of city-dwellers invade at the weekend). It was Kenya’s first national park and today still looks much as it did in the early photographs – wild, undulating pasture dotted with every kind of East African plain-dwelling animal except elephants. At the gates to the park is the Animal Orphanage where young, sick and wounded animals are cared for. Also near here, the Langata Giraffe Center offers the enchanting opportunity of hand-feeding the resident Rothschild giraffes.
North of Nairobi, the road climbs steadily through the suburb of Thika and rich agricultural lands, offering excellent views of the Great Rift Valley. The eastern wall of the Rift is made up by the Aberdare Mountains, while further east still looms the vast bulk of Mount Kenya. Between the two are several attractive small towns such as Nyeri; Nyahururu, home of the Thomson’s Falls; Muranga’a, whose cathedral tells the story of the Mau Mau rebellions in a series of colorful murals; Nanyuki and Naro Moru, both acting as starting points for those wishing to climb the mountain.
Aberdare National Park
The park is set amidst a densely wooded mountain range rising to over 4000m (13,000ft), adjacent to Mount Kenya. It is possible to see elephants, rhinos, dik-dik, leopards, lions and monkeys as well as rare forest antelopes such as the bongo. However, the thick vegetation and misty alpine climate hides most wildlife from the inexpert observer, the exceptions being giant forest pigs, baboons and buffaloes, which often sleep or feed beside the many dirt tracks. Most visitors prefer to watch for animals from the comfort of the park’s two lodges, ‘Treetops’ and ‘Ark’, both built on platforms overlooking clearings which are floodlit at night. On the higher slopes, giant alpine plants sprout from an almost perpetual fog. There are many waterfalls, the greatest being Guru Falls, which drops over 300m (1000ft). The western face of the mountain range is the sheer Mau Escarpment, which falls dramatically to the floor of the Great Rift Valley.
Mount Kenya National Park
Conical Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano, is the second-highest mountain in Africa, at 4986m (16,358ft) above sea level. The national park covers 600 sq km (230 sq miles) of forest and bare rock straddling the equator, all above 1800m (6000ft). The mountain may be climbed without special equipment, but it is advisable to take time so as to avoid altitude sickness. The ascent is very beautiful with the vegetation ranging from farmland to thick forest, bamboo forest, open moorland, giant alpine vegetation, sheer rock and finally, at the summit, year-round snow fields. The lower slopes are one of the last haunts of the black leopard and the black and white colobus monkey. Climbers should be accompanied by a guide. Porters are also available and there are huts to stay in along the way. Plenty of warm clothes are required as well as one’s own food supplies. A Rockclimber’s Guide to Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro can be bought from the Mountain Club of Kenya, PO Box 45741, Nairobi (tel: (20) 602 330.
The Great Rift Valley
About 20 million years ago, a vast seismic scar was torn across the face of Africa, stretching for nearly 6000km (3600 miles), from the Red Sea to the Drakensberg in South Africa. Known today as the Great Rift Valley, it is at its most dramatic and visible in central Kenya where escarpment walls 2000m high plunge to the flat-bottomed valley floor, decorated by a small string of volcanoes and brackish soda lakes.
Driving down into the valley from Nairobi, the first landmark on the valley floor is the almost perfect cone of Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano (2885m/9466ft), that has recently been gazetted as a national park. The walk up is hard, but worth it both for the wildlife and the final spectacular views of the crater and along the Rift.
Known for the abundance and variety of its birdlife and spectacular views, freshwater Lake Naivasha, is one hour’s drive from the capital, and the center of a booming horticultural industry. The south shore is lined by hotels and guest houses, popular as a weekend retreat from Nairobi, with the option of boat trips to little Crescent Island. Also on the south shore is Elsamere, home of Joy and George Adamson and the real setting of Born Free, their effort to return the lioness, Elsa, to the wild. It is now a small museum, guest house and conservation center. Nearby, Crater Lake is another small volcanic crater and Hell’s Gate National Park, both of which allow you to walk amongst the wildlife. Happy Valley, center of the ‘White Mischief’ scandal is a short distance north of Naivasha, in the foothills of the Aberdares. Much of the socialising in the 1920s took place in the mansions surrounding Lake Naivasha, notably the Djinn Palace (still there, but closed to the public).
Lake Elementeita is the first of the brackish soda lakes in the string. There is a small game reserve on its shores and excellent birdwatching. Also nearby is a small but fascinating prehistoric site, Kariandusi.
Kenya’s third-largest city, Nakuru is situated a little further north still, about 230km (140 miles) west of Nairobi. A vibrant town, with a huge central market, it is a good place to hunt down souvenirs (keep an eye on wallets and bags). Lake Nakuru National Park was once said to be home to half the world’s total population of pink flamingos and, even today, visitors in winter will encounter these ungainly birds in vast numbers, along with around 450 other species of bird. Although tiny, this gem of a park has huge concentrations of game (everything except elephant). Above all, it is one of Kenya’s rhino sanctuaries, and it is possible to see up to 15 of these magnificent animals in one game drive. Also near Nakuru are Hyrax Hill, another important prehistoric settlement, and the Menengai Crater, an extinct volcano with a vast caldera. You can drive right up to the rim.
Lake Bogoria National Park, about 70km (42 miles) north of Nakuru, surrounds a long thin soda lake, dramatically set at the foot of the 600m-high Laikipia Escarpment. It also has good game-viewing and giant flocks of flamingos, and area of belching geysers and hot springs lie in one corner of the park, which have dyed the surrounding rocks a kaleidoscope of colors.
Of the most northerly of the string of lakes (approximately 118km (65 miles) north of Nakuru), Lake Baringo is a large, beautiful freshwater lake with excellent birdlife. There is a permanent tented camp on the island at the lake’s center where boats may be hired to cruise through the reeds at the northern end, a habitat rich in water fowl, egrets, giant herons and fish eagles. With village tours on offer and a huge variety of local tribes, this is one of the best places in Kenya to explore the rich human culture of the country.
With the exception of the magnificent Masai Mara, Western Kenya is rarely visited by tourists and there are fewer hotels and lodges of international standard. On the plus side, the area is stunningly beautiful, culturally diverse and offers a real chance to explore the country away from the crowds.
Masai Mara National Reserve
Situated 390km (240 miles) from Nairobi in the southwest corner of the country, this reserve, owned by the local Masai Council but operated as a national park by Kenya Wildlife Services, is a slice of Africa as seen by Hollywood (much of the film Out of Africa was shot here) – a vast rolling plain beneath the Oloololo escarpment that forms part of the vast Serengeti plains in neighboring Tanzania. Each year, this is the spectacular setting for the great migration, the constant clockwise motion of an estimated two million wildebeests and zebra who arrive in the Mara from late June onwards, heading south again in September. Continually harried by predators, thick columns of exhausted animals eventually converge at one spot on the Mara River and wait nervously to cross. A panic anywhere within the herd is transmitted flank-to-flank until it reaches those by the river, who fall 6m (20ft) into water already bloodied and bobbing with bloated carcasses. The inelegant beasts must swim past crocodiles, hippos and flapping vultures to join the sparse but growing herd on the other side. The stench is unimaginable and while it is undoubtedly fascinating, also requires a strong stomach to watch the immense distress.
During the migration season (July/August), the reserve’s resident lions lounge prominently in the sun, fat and seemingly placid, and apparently indifferent to tourists. Other animals to be seen, at any time of the year, include elephants, cheetahs, baboons, gazelles, giraffes, jackals, hyenas, water buffaloes, ostriches and several types of antelope. There are numerous lodges and tented camps both within the park and on its immediate borders. Mara Serena Lodge, Mara Sopa Lodge and Keekorok Lodge are the best known of the hotel-style properties. Governor’s Camp is the largest of the camps. For true luxury, try Bateleur’s Camp or Cottars 1920s Safari Camp. Most of the small lodges and camps have their own airstrips. A highlight for any visitor is the hot air balloon trips which operate from Governor’s Camp, Sarova Camp and Fig Tree Camp. Masai tribespeople live on the reserve’s fringes. They are very keen to sell traditional bead necklaces and decorated gourds to tourists, or to pose for tourist cameras in return for a fee.
West of the Mara, on the Ugandan border, Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, a vast inland sea that is also the source of the fabled Nile River. Kisumu, Kenya’s fourth city, made its reputation as the inland end of the Lunatic Line railway and a trading center with Tanzania and Uganda. These days, the lake steamer and trade have gone and the city struggles to survive on the few tourists who head over to the lake. Three islands, a little further south, near Homa Bay – Rusinga Island, Mfangano Island and Takawiri Island – have luxury lodges which provide excellent fishing and birdwatching. In the far south, tiny Ruma National Park (painfully reached by an appalling road) protects several rare species such as the roan antelope and Rothschild giraffe.
Inland, Kisii is the center of production for most of Kenya’s trademark pink and white soapstone, while the area around Kericho and the Nandi Hills is tea country, with vast estates flowing across rolling hills.
The Kakamega Forest Reserve is Kenya’s last surviving patch of primeval rainforest, a wonderful cool green cave of soaring trees and tangled vines, with hundreds of species of birds, around 60 of which are found nowhere else in the country.
The northwest of the country is largely agricultural, its steep hills patchworked by terraces and villages. The two main towns of Eldoret and Kitale act as jumping off points for many stunning scenic tours. The most important attraction in the region is Mount Elgon National Park, the Kenyan half of a giant forested volcano (4321m/14,178ft), famous for its mountain flora and fauna, its wonderful birdlife and for the elephants who scratch salt from the walls of Kitum Cave. To the north, the Cherengani Hills offer excellent mountain hiking and the tiny Saiwa Swamp National Park. To the east, bordering the Rift Valley, are the Tugen Hills and the dramatic escarpments of the Kerio Valley.
Due north of the Central Highlands is a belt of savannah which provides a home to several game-rich, if less visited, national parks, including Samburu, Meru and Kora, plus a whole host of small game reserves, few of which have any tourist facilities. The far north of Kenya is largely desert, difficult to travel, remote and wild. Unfortunately, much of the area is also troubled by inter-tribal violence and banditry and tourists should take local advice before traveling in the region. It is possible to fly up to Lake Turkana, the largest of the Kenyan soda lakes, on the Sudan border.
Meru and Kora National Parks
Located 400km (250 miles) from Nairobi, Meru National Park remains one of the more unspoilt parks, an oasis within the parched land all round, with 13 rivers lined with Doum palms and mountain-fed streams watering richly tangled woodlands on the slopes of the Nyambene Mountain Range. To the east, the park is adjoined by Kora National Reserve, a largely dry area bisected by the great Tana River. Both areas have plenty of game but were badly affected by poaching in the 1970s and 80s. Security has been strengthened these days and there are three lodges and several campsites in Meru, all operating happily. However, security is still a concern in less well-trodden areas.
Samburu Game Park
An area of semi-desert halfway between Nairobi and Lake Turkana (see below) that provides a rare chance to see the oryx, gerenuk, reticulated giraffe and Grevy’s zebra. Ostriches and elephants are easily spotted in this open habitat. There are two lodges, Samburu Lodge and River Lodge, both of which hang out bait to attract leopards for the guests to study whilst sitting at the bar. The park takes its name from the Samburu people, distantly related to the Masai.
There are several parks and reserves in the far north of Kenya, gathered around Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolph). This extraordinary lake has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Running for several hundred miles through windswept and largely uninhabited deserts, the lake contains many unique species of fish and marine plants and has recently gained a reputation as a fishing resort. Several lodges have sprung up on the eastern shore to cater for this trade and, consequently, general tourism is expected to increase. Despite the harsh climate, many of Kenya’s better known animals manage to survive here, as do the tiny people of the El Molo tribe, who fish the eastern waters. There are two large volcanic islands in the lake. The flooded crater of the southernmost island has a resident population of unnaturally large crocodiles. The lake is subject to violent storms that disturb algae to produce remarkable color changes in the water. Those who wish to visit Turkana are advised to fly. The road takes two days, crosses immensely harsh landscape and there is danger of violence.