Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, began life rather less than a century ago as a shanty town around the railhead established by the builders of the Uganda Railway. Within 90 years it has grown into east and central Africa’s premier city with a population of about two millions. In that time the downtown section has become a cosmopolitan scene of broad tree-lined streets, high-rise offices, hotels and apartments. Several parks offer walks among a mixture of exotic and indigenous flowers, shrubs and trees. A ribbon of green which runs alongside the city’s main highway, includes a new sports complex and stadium, the city’s most historic cemetery, a nine hole golf course, two parks, the University playing fields and Chiromo forest and Arboretum. On the other side of the highway, near this point, is the National Museum with its outstanding displays of early man, ethnic regalia, Kenya fauna and a vivid display of the struggle for independence. Near to the museum is a snake park. By the railway stations is the Railway Museum with its exhibition of old steam engines, lovingly restored and maintained and the coach from which a Superintendent Ryall was hauled out by one of the man-eating lions of Tsavo in 1897. The history of the building of the railway – which became known as the ‘lunatic line’ – is vividly portrayed with fascinating impedimenta, including the cow-catcher seat on which former president Theodore Roosevelt rode in style during his big game safari in 1908. At one time the railways and the harbours were jointly administered so there are also relics of that era. The wardroom table and other memorabilia of the German warship, the Konigsberg, recall its heroic death during the first world war.
The Karen Blixen Museum is 20 km from the city centre in the suburb which bears her name. Worth a visit but more for nostalgia than fact. The visit can be combined with a look at Daisy Rothschild’s home, Giraffe Manor, (which is also one of Kenya’s best known home stays) and the Giraffe Centre for close up encounters with some of Daisy’s relatives. Returning to the city a visitor passes Bomas of Kenya where Kenya’s folkloric art and dance is on display daily.
Nairobi has a wide range of hotels, some with restaurants among the best in the country, offering French, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Korean and of course, Kenyan dishes. There are six casinos, two theatres and several cinemas. Nairobi is not celebrated for its nightlife although there is a range varying from the saucy to the sophisticated.
Sport is well catered for with 11 golf courses, numerous tennis and squash courts as well as soccer, rugby and cricket fields. All the main hotels can make arrangements for a visitor to be able to play whatever sport is requested.
Shopping is, a major visitor pastime and has the advantage of being fun since, with the street and market vendors, haggling and bargaining are expected. The main shopping areas, as far as visitors are concerned, are contained within a rectangle no more than a kilometre on its longest side and bounded in the west by Uhuru Highway, in the north by University Way thence in a south by Moi Avenue, completing the rectangle by City Hall Way. Within this are there are two markets, the City Market and very near to that a craft market, sometimes called the “Blue Market” off Tubman Road. The City Market has a wide selection of crafts as well as a dazzling display of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Kenyan crafts are known worldwide particularly the wood carving of the Akamba and the soapstone carvings, often abstract, of the Gusii. The famous Kenya woven sisal basket, kiondo, has become so popular in the west that some countries, as far away as the Philippines, have begun to copy it. There are scores of sophisticated craft shops where the price is higher than the markets but so also is the quality.
African Heritage is the best known of these and has created an international reputation not only for crafts but also for clothing and design. In the suburb of Lang’ata is Utamaduni a collection of 17 shops plus a restaurant all under one roof. The shops sell everything from fabrics to furniture and there are craftsmen creating their work on the spot. Utamaduni is easily visited en route to the Giraffe Centre and the Karen Blixen Museum. It is also quite near the new Ostrich Park a mini Ostrich Farm and also a craft centre. Apart from crafts, gemstones are also great buys, although in this case buying in the streets is definitely not recommended. Fine specimens of locally cut malachite, sodalite, fluorspar, blue-lace agate, haematite and jasper as well as petrified wood are all easily obtained. Two stones stand out for their rarity and their value: tanzanite, a brilliant sapphire-like gemstone and tsavorite, a match for any emerald. Both these stones sell in Kenya for half their New York price. Other local gemstones include rubies, amethysts and malaya garnets.
The sale of all game trophies, and objects made from them, is prohibited by law so the ‘elephant hair’ bracelets which you are likely to be offered in the street are either illegal or plastic, more likely the latter. The ‘lion claw’ jewellery is more likely to be made of camel hoof.
Nairobi National Park
Nairobi, as a capital city, is unique in having a wildlife park on its doorstep. Indeed the city abuts the park on all but the southern perimeter so it is possible to photograph a rhino, browsing peacefully among the whistling thorn with high rise office buildings in the background. Some of the wildlife is migratory and when there is grazing and water outside the park it moves out into Maasailand through the unfenced southern boundary. But there is also a resident population of plains game and carnivores so a visit at any time of the year is rewarding. Well laid out, with exceptionally well-maintained roads, the park is a model for all others, geophysically and administratively. Of the most popular species only the elephant is an absentee. But the rest of the Big Five – leopard, lion, buffalo and rhino – as well as a multitude of other creatures are well represented.
The Athi River at the park’s far end forms a delightful natural boundary to the park and provides shady walks through a riverine forest well populated with monkeys and birds and in the river pools, hippo and crocodile. Large populations of giraffe, wildebeest, eland and Thomson’s gazelle dominate the plains, with strutting secretary birds and powerful ostrich as attractive counter-points. The park’s prides of lion are well observed by the park staff and an inquiry at the gate, when entering, will usually elicit their whereabouts. Cheetah, too, have made the park famous and these might be located with a similar inquiry. More recently the Park has been designated as a rhino sanctuary and more than 50 rhino have been moved into the park from remote parts of the country where poaching was rife. So Nairobi Park is really the most favoured place in the country to see rhino. Along the south western boundary of the park the scenery is magnificent. This is an area of steep valleys created by streams joining the Athi river. Hyrax are plentiful on the rocks alongside the road and sure-sighted may spot klipspringer or mountain reedbuck generally unobserved by the thousands of visitors who search the park annually. Later, on this boundary road there are splendid views over the Kitengela plains, the dispersal area for the park’s ungulates. The park side of the river is an area favoured by zebra.
Within the park’s 117 sq. km there are over 80 species of mammals and more bird species than can be found in the whole of the British Isles. During the rains, both the long and the short, wild flowers are in profusion and there are places where the plains are an unending wave of yellow daisies (Bidens palustris) which seem not to be liked, as food, by any wildlife. Near the main gate to the Park is the Animal Orphanage. Rather than a home for the lost and lame it is maintained more for those Kenyans who are unable to visit parks than for visitors to the country who may find it difficult to reconcile caging animals within a wildlife sanctuary. Near the Banda gate Daphne Sheldrick runs a true orphanage where she cares for young elephants and rhinos. Visitors are allowed to visit after 4 p.m. and a donation is expected. Young elephant may not always be present as they are not kept longer than necessary.
A Day Out From Nairobi
The journey to Olorgesailie prehistoric site is a dramatic one, climbing over the slopes of the Ngong Hills before descending into the Great Rift Valley and Maasailand. The site is some 60 km from the city centre and was once, about half a million years ago, a hunters’ camp on the edge of a now vanished lake. The area has been well excavated (by the Leakeys) and a knowledgeable guide is available to take you on a fascinating walk. Fossilised bones of prehistoric creatures, all much larger than their present day descendants, are displayed where they were found and the tools and weapons of the hunters lie around in astonishing numbers. There is a small museum and there are some huts which can be rented on a self-help basis. The area can be very hot. The road which takes you to Olorgesailie continues to Lake Magadi a mesmerising expanse of crystalline trona on the surface of a shallow multicoloured lake. Hot springs bring a never ending supply of soda from below to evaporate in the torrid heat of the region leaving a crust of sodium carbonate, much of which is exported to Japan. Equally surprising is the wonderful birdlife, flamingo are prolific adding their pink to the rainbow colours of the minerals and the water.
In the opposite direction from Nairobi is Ol Doinyo Sapuk National Park, the mountain of the buffalo, which rises from the haze some 50 km from Nairobi. In Kenya terms the mountain is not high (2,150 m) but it has several attractions, not least that with a sturdy car, you can reach the summit without effort! Surrounding the summit is a primal forest with some of the giant plants, notably Lobelia giberroa associated with the Afro-alpine zones of higher equatorial mountains. Birdlife is diverse and there is some wildlife although the terrain and the forest make game viewing very difficult. The views from the summit are stunning. On clear days, particularly in December and January the snow peaks of Mount Kenya stand out crystal clear and on the grasslands and plains between that mountain and Ol Doinyo Sapuk hundreds of small dams, diamonds on green velvet, sparkle in the exuberant, pellucid morning air.
The park is reached by taking the Garissa road from Thika where after some 20 km a signboard points right to Fourteen Falls and to the park. Fourteen Falls was recently declared a National Park and a short stop to view the falls is well worth while. A broad cascade of white water plunges 30 m over a precipice with many lips – giving rise to the name.
Ol Doinyo Sapuk National Park remained unconquered – at least in recorded history – until 1902 when a D. Powell-Cotton reached its summit. Not long after, the legendary Sir William Northrup MacMillan, an American millionaire from St. Louis, acquired the mountain and a great deal of ranch land at its foot and created a home where he entertained a succession of eminent visitors among them Winston Churchill and ex-President Theodore Roosevelt. When he died he bequeathed the mountain to the nation and was buried there. The road to the summit passes his grave and those of his wife and their servant Louise Decker.
An interesting half day out takes in the coffee and tea plantations a little north of Nairobi. The route passes through densely populated farmlands of the Kikuyu where maize, beans and bananas are grown for food alongside the cash crops of coffee or tea. Still climbing towards the foothills of the Aberdares some plantation coffee is reached. Soon after, the lime green fields of tea come into view. Your Kenyan tour operator can organise a visit to a tea factory to see how the green leaf is processed into ‘made’ tea. Between the coffee and the tea plantations is a small inn, the Kentmere Club, where lunch can be taken in an outstanding setting.
Both Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru can be seen on a day out from Nairobi.