Whether you’re hankering after the Big 5 or just want to get a taste of the East African jungles, hot-air balloons to chartered flights, exotic meats to vegetarian fare, we discover that Kenya has it all and then some.
Our first international vacation together isn’t to the Maldives or Switzerland. My significant other and I both being wildlife enthusiasts, it seems only natural that Kenya is a desirable destination.
We board our Mumbai to Nairobi Kenya Airways flight with trepidation as neither of us has ever flown this airline in all our zipping across the globe. It actually turns out to be very comfortable, with excellent service and food. Even in Economy, the crew is very generous with the alcohol — I request a Bailey’s Irish Cream miniature and they insist on giving me four! With the passengers who get unruly after a few drinks, they are quite firm, with the burly purser stepping in to stop any disruptive behaviour. But they meet courteousness with a double dose of it and we have some lovely conversations with the cabin crew on our six-and-a-half-hour flight.
Already charmed by the kindness of Kenyans by the time we land at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and head to our hotel, we know we are in for a treat of a trip. Nairobi has as many contrasting sights as Mumbai does. Posh areas brimming over with bougainvillea-filled bungalows, business districts that look the same as anywhere in the world, and poor neighbourhoods where residents are dealing with unsanitary conditions, terrible roads, and overcrowding. The traffic snarls are, if possible, even snarlier than those in Indian cities. But there’s a certain rhythm to everything that you soon tune into and get a deeper understanding of the culture beyond the toothy “Jambo!” smiled at tourists at every step.
The five most fun things to do in Nairobi
- A visit to the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is an eye-opening first encounter with African elephants. With one of these magnificent animals killed almost every 15 minutes by poachers, drought, or disease, the orphanage is a safe haven for baby elephants who have lost their parents. Started by the late Dame Daphne Sheldrick more than 50 years ago, it has helped save hundreds of elephants and other animals, rehabilitating them and returning them to the wild. We spend an hour watching the ellies being fed with super-sized bottles, enjoying a roll in the wet mud, and bumping each other for fun. The babies are naughty and so adorable in their innocence, that almost everyone there has their hearts full and tears welling up in our eyes. You can even adopt and sponsor the well-being of one or more of these peppy pachyderms.
- The Nairobi National Park, dubbed the Kifaru Arc by locals, has plenty of black rhinos to spot in case you aren’t going off into the wilderness. Visit the Ivory Burning Monument here, which marks the spot where former President Arap-Moi destroyed poached ivory and banned its trade back in 1989.
- A popular stop for tourists, especially families with kids, is the giraffe centre run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife at Langata. Here, you can wait atop a wooden platform with a basketful of special ‘biscuits’ that are snapped up by the graceful, long-necked wonders with their long, sandpaper-textured tongues. Although going into the wild is best for us and the animals alike, this experience is great for the gram and for introducing children to animals in a non-threatening environment.
- The Nairobi National Museum is a treasure trove of archaeological artefacts, contemporary art, and natural history exhibits.
- If you’re a non-vegetarian and an adventurous eater, a visit to Carnivore might just be the ticket. The restaurant has an all-you-can-eat tableside service, which means the servers bring you gigantic skewers of piping hot meat that you can sample until you are close to bursting. Apart from all the usual domestic meats and poultry, there’s also a chance to try farmed ostrich and crocodile. I almost miss a flight as I am busy eating the tasty peppery ostrich meat balls! Their vegetarian meal, beautifully spiced and cooked in coconut milk like a South Indian or Thai curry, is really delicious too.
Feeling like a queen at Aberdare
The Aberdare National Park is in central Kenya, only a short drive (164 kms) from Nairobi, although chartered flights are an option too. You immediately feel the crispness of the mountain air as you approach the entrance of the Aberdare Country Club, from where you can glimpse the Aberdare mountain range.
We stop here for lunch before heading inside the 766 square kms park, which is at an elevation of 2,000 and 4,000 metres above sea level and has a diverse topography, ranging from wetland moors, bamboo forests, and deep valleys intersected by rivers. We’ve carried a small bag with just the essentials for an overnight visit to The Ark inside, which has three decks and lounges with floor-to ceiling glass, including a ground-level bunker where you can spend all day (and night) watching animals and birds visiting the watering hole and salt lick right outside.
The Treetops hotel nearby, also inside the Aberdare National Park, is where, in 1952, Princess Elizabeth (as she was at the time) found out she was Queen of England. While I don’t receive news on such a phenomenal scale, I do feel like royalty with the sheer access to the wildlife viewing in absolute comfort.
The cosy rooms here don’t have locks on the doors and there’s a buzzer that’s rung in case of wildlife visiting in the middle of the night! We wait to see whether there’ll be one ring (for elephant), two rings (rhino), three (leopard) or four rings for (unusual sightings). As soon as the first one sounds, we jump out of bed to rush to see a whole herd of elephants congregating for a party.
We don’t need the gentle xylophone playing along the corridors at 6.30 am because the Southern Boubous have already woken us up with their whistling duet outside our window.
The beautiful Rift Valley that’s causing ideological rifts
It’s time to continue our extraordinary journey into the heart of Kenya. We do a photo stop with a sweet reptile at the Nyahururu Falls, which is one of Kenya’s highest points at 2,360 metres above sea level.
From here, the Central Rift Valley is really close by. As we gaze across the green bowl of the valley from a vantage point above, the thought that this could be the birthplace of all humankind swirls all around us and takes our breath away. In reality, it might just be one of the many starting points of human civilisation, but the Out of Africa theories are tantalising indeed.
The road trip continues to the floor of the valley, to lakes Naivasha and Nakuru, two of the eight lakes here, which support plenty of birds and animals. Lake Nakuru National Park, which has over 400 bird species living in it, is a UNESCO World heritage site as well as a wetland of international importance according to the RAMSAR convention. It isn’t flamingo season when we visit in October, but we see hundreds of pelicans and many other water birds on the shores, and several Rothschild’s giraffes and rhinos, which have been moved to the national park here to save them from extinction due to poaching.
Into the magnificent Maasai Mara
The 262 kms stretch from our resort in Lake Nakuru to the Keekorok Lodge inside the Maasai Mara National Reserve is a bumpy one. A seven-hour drive that features a changing landscape from the lush to the arid, dust spinning in columns, and the people we pass looking longer and leaner every kilometre! The Maasai people are as hardy as the Acacia trees that dot the vast expanses here. Our chauffeur regales us with stories about these hunters and herders, who live in Maasai villages that are circular concentrations of huts, and their practice of blood-letting their cattle to survive on a hunt or in times of great draught and famine.
By the time we drive in through the gates of our luxury resort, I’m almost doubting whether I do want to meet a Maasai warrior in person at all. But all these inhibitions are swept away by their dazzling (and genuine) smiles, when we pass by their homes and see them hard at work, wearing their traditional tribal clothing and jewellery. At the resort too, there’s one fixing the TV and another diligently keeping away monkeys from the premises.
From our forest-facing room at Keekorok, we watch as a hot-air balloon rises up at dawn. This is a unique and thrilling way to see wildlife, especially the great wildebeest migration of a million of these large antelopes crossing over from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the acacia woodlands of the Maasai Mara every year from late July to early September.
Safari, so good
The game drives in Kenya are very different from those in India. Back home, we spend hours circling through the jungle and, if we’re lucky, we catch a sight of a big cat or two, apart from deer and other smaller creatures.
In Kenya, it’s a sight a minute, and you just can’t put away your camera or sit down for a breather. I spend all my time standing up and spotting wildlife through the open top of the 4×4 Toyota Hiace we are in (this is the vehicle we’ve been road-tripping in from the start and it’s a marvellous mix of city smoothness and off-road sturdiness.
Since the African savannah is so boundless and the animals so plentiful and used to human presence, the game drives here are not conducted in silence as we do in India. All the safari drivers are constantly on their walkie-talkies, comparing notes and a chorus of “Roja, roja!” (that’s how Roger in the Kenyan accent sounds) becomes so much a part of the gaming experience.
The big five — lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes, and rhinos — are quickly checked off our list, but on our journey, we also see a whole host of many different species. Zebra, various types of deer, gazelles, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, baboons, ostriches, and other unique birds aplenty. It’s interesting to watch the dynamics of the various groupings of these wonderful creatures as much as it is to see their splendour.
In the Mara, we get to experience lions in many different moods. Huge ones with massive manes sleeping on the top of spindly acacia trees that seem like they can barely take the weight. A pride of 10 sleepy ones dozing in the shade, only one or two bothering to wake up to notice us. And then the exciting spectacle of a group of sprightly lionesses planning and executing a high-energy hunt together as the sun reaches the horizon on its journey downward and the males wait lazily on the sidelines to see what will be served for dinner.
What to pack for Kenya
- Your Yellow Fever vaccine certificate. You need to take this before you leave, else you’ll have to be quarantined on your return to India.
- A pair of powerful binoculars. Although most of the wildlife can be easily seen with the naked eye, binocs will allow you to see the details even better.
- Sun protection. A hat or scarf will be useful on dusty safaris in the sun. Stylish sunnies will keep your eyes safe. And sunblock will save your skin, literally.
- A useless ID. Because, let’s face it, there’s corruption in Kenya as well. If a cop stops your vehicle on the Nairobi streets to try and make a quick buck, you’d rather give him an old college/office swipe card or duplicate photo ID that he can keep than something you will need to retrieve at all costs, literally.
- Plenty of shopping money or credit cards and an extra bag. There is just so much you can buy just off the curio shops along major routes! Intricately carved wooden artefacts, beautifully hand-painted home décor items, textiles, tribal jewellery… you’ll start to wish you had more friends back home to shop for! And then there’s their lipsmackingly delicious Amarula Cream Liqueur, made with marula fruit, that is an absolute must buy. You do find it in some duty-free shops these days, but it’s much more fun (and affordable too!) to buy it at the source.