In the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s independence, exhaustive Kenyan traveller Richard Trillo explores 50 of the country’s best-known attractions – and suggests some lesser-known diversions and distractions along the way. If you’re looking for a great long weekend away, or already planning a trip, there’s bound to be something here that will encourage you to travel more around your country over the coming year.
Top wildlife sightings: big five, little five
The sagacious and charismatic elephant is Kenya’s icon: a herd of them sculpted outside Nairobi airport; appearing in the news for trampling crops or being poached for their ivory; top of the list for safari visitors and appearing on every bottle of the nation’s most popular beer, Tusker. But there’s another elephant: the elephant shrew, a primitive, rabbit-sized, mash-up of a mammal from the coast, that you can see quite easily in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest near Watamu.
The critically rare black rhino, like the elephant, is one of Kenya’s “Big Five” – a hunter’s set co-opted by photo safari-seekers – which has its equivalent “Little Five”. Flying rhinoceros beetles, like miniature dive-bombers, zoom at the lights of safari lodges in many parts of the country. Unlike their big namesake, carrying its US$100,000-worth of horn, rhino beetles are still numerous enough.
The same can’t be said for lions, of which around 2000 live in Kenya, among a total population in Africa of about 30,000. Monitored by wildlife rangers, fast-breeding, quick to kill livestock and quick to fall victim to spears, lions live in most of Kenya’s savannah regions, padding over their miniature namesake, the ant lion. This fearsome beast, not much bigger than a match-head, constructs conical ant-traps in the ground, often in the sandy soil of safari camp paths, at the bottom of which it waits, poised, with its jagged jaws agape, for a busy ant to tumble down and be sucked dry.
No such scheming ever occurs with the buffalo, number four of the Big Five, which is content to chew the cud, occasionally getting belligerent with an over-curious vanload of tourists. Prized by hunters for its magnificent horns, this wild bovine is still one of Kenya’s most impressive big beasts. It’s small-fry peer, the buffalo weaver, is a bit of a cheat – merely a highly social, shock-billed bird with a noisy voice, often seen feeding on the insects attracted to a smelly herd of buffalos.
The final pairing in the Big Five /little-five team could hardly be more incongruous: the leopard is so secretive that it’s hard to assess how secure its population is. There’s nothing like hearing the rasping voice of a leopard near your camp to have you tucking in a bit tighter with the hot water bottle – and few sights quite so macabre as the stripped skeleton of an impala impaled on a branch high in a tree. Down on the ground, the delightfully inoffensive miniature version – the leopard tortoise – could hardly be more different except in colouring, though it’s only the shiny hatchlings, fresh from the egg, that display real black and gold. Adult leopard tortoises, which you can see all over the country up to about the altitude of Nairobi, can grow to nearly half a metre in length.
Top five parks, and top five sanctuaries
The Masai Mara National Reserve is the most popular park in the country, and during the wildebeest migration it shows, as minibuses jostle for position for the best camera angle.
Do yourself, the Mara ecosystem and the local community a huge favour and instead of staying in the reserve, choose one of the Maasai-owned, privately-leased conservancies that fringe the state-controlled reserve. Now numbering more than half a dozen, the conservancies offer the outstanding wildlife-viewing of the reserve without the tourist crowds. For great predators and a range of superb camps you simply can’t beat the Mara Naboisho Conservancy.
The Mara region is spectacular all year round, but some other parks are more seasonal. Visit Tsavo West National Park after the rains and your camera sensor will be bathed in emerald foliage, azure skies and vivid orange earth. But you need the dry season for the best gameviewing. Close to the southern edge of the park, Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary is a carefully managed option, where the local people have a stake in the safeguarding of their precious elephants, predators and plains wildlife.
Similarly, if you’re looking at a short safari from the coast to Tsavo East, give the crowded areas near Voi a wide berth and either stay deep in the park, or choose a neighbouring sanctuary, such as Ngutuni, where there’s plenty of wildlife, but only one modest and affordable lodge.
For those fabled views of Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is the park to visit, but neighbouring Selenkay Conservancy, where you’ll be hosted by the local Maasai community, has all the wildlife and none of the crowds.
In the north, the traditional target is beautiful Samburu, with its alien-looking doum palms and plenty of elephants and big cats. But to get there you drive through (or fly over) the former ranch lands of Laikipia – now turned to conservation and small visitor numbers. Sosian Ranch is just one example, where you can watch wild dogs, track other predators, ride, do game walks or jump in the river (hippos permitting).
Top five museums and historical monuments (and five you’ve never heard of)
Of Kenya’s many museums (www.museums.or.ke), the century-old National Museum, close to the centre of Nairobi, is the standout and Kenya’s general HQ for all things historical and wildlife-related. Keep your expectations in check – it’s no Smithsonian – but since its 2008 refurb it makes for a fascinating and informative visit, especially worthwhile before going on safari.
Right in the centre of town, the museum of the National Archives does a great job on Kenya’s cultures, without the crowds.
On the coast, the showpiece history attraction is 16th-century Fort Jesus, with its Portuguese sailor’s graffiti and museum displaying Chinese pottery and Omani furniture.
A fort of a different kind lies off the A1 highway in the Rift Valley near Webuye: Chetambe’s Fort is named after the Bukusu resistance leader who died alongside hundreds of his spear-wielding troops under a hail of maxim gun fire from a British assault in 1895. There’s not much to see but the ditch that surrounded it, but you can talk to elders about their parents’ accounts of the massacre.
Indigenous ruins tend to be thin on the ground: the most impressive example is the mysterious stone city of Gedi, in the jungle near Watamu, north of Mombasa – a popular place, best in the late afternoon when the paths are brooding with atmosphere. Little-visited stone circle ruins litter parts of South Nyanza, near Lake Victoria, with one – the extensive complex of Thimlich Ohinga – being reminiscent of Great Zimbabwe in its dry-stone construction of giant circular walls. Go there and you’re almost certain to be the only visitor.
Of Kenya’s regional museums, the Kisumu Museum is one of the best, and does a great job with limited resources. Not far away, in the hills near Sotik, the Museum of the History, Art and Science of the Kipsigis People in Kapkatet may promise more in its name than it delivers in its collection, but is an inspiring place nonetheless, especially if its elderly curator is on the turnstile to welcome you.
The excellent Lamu Museum is a required visit – and the whole town lives up to the living museum cliché – but there’s another museum on an island on the other side of the country that is worth visiting – the Abasuba Community Peace Museum, on Mfangano in Lake Victoria, which displays the cultures and rock art of a remote corner of East Africa.
Kenya’s top five beaches – and five less well known
The brochures tend to wax eloquent about the soft white sands of Diani Beach and the coconut palms that arch overhead along its entire length. What they’re less informative about is the incessant pestering of the touts and salesmen – “beach boys” – for whom Diani is one huge sales pitch. Keep going south and you soon reach the more relaxed strand of Galu and eventually Kinondo Beach, where the crowd is often just you, with the lapping Indian Ocean… and the coconuts.
To the north of Diani lie the iconic sands of Tiwi Beach, with its various cottage developments, private houses and one or two hotels. What no holiday company will suggest is a stay at Ngombeni Beach. Just a few minutes drive south of Mombasa, it has one or two boutique guest houses, but no hotels, no restaurants and definitely no beach boys – just unlimited beachcombing, toe-dipping and cave-exploring.
Back in hustler territory, Silversands Beach at Malindi is the natural habitat of the Italian-speaking beach boy, where nothing will convince them (“Ciao, signore!”) that you don’t speak a word. So, grab a cab and ask for Ras Ngomeni and, as you cross the bridge over the Sabaki River, north of town, you leave the crowds behind. Here lies an endless soft crescent and the archetypal beach bum’s barefoot hideaway – Che Shale – where you can learn to kitesurf.
A few kilometres south of Malindi, Watamu Beach – with its waving Casuarina trees, coral rock islands, limpid waters and indulgent bars – would give any beach in the world a run for its money. Yet just a little further south, at Kilifi, Bofa Beach trumps even Watamu, with the whitest, powderiest soft sand you could ever hope for.
Finally, far to the north, the beach backed by sand dunes and stretching the length of Lamu island, is accessible only on foot. Across the creek lies Manda Beach, with its low-key scattering of places to stay, from Robinson Crusoe-style huts to a chic seaside resort.
Top five mountains, top five hills
The highest peak in Kenya – and Africa’s second highest mountain – 5199m Mount Kenya is the physical and metaphorical centre of the country, homeland of the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu people who farm its slopes, and offering several options for hiking to the “tourist peak”, Point Lenana (4985m). Between Nairobi and the mountain, the conical hill of Ol Donyo Sabuk (‘Big Mountain’ in Maa) rises from the pineapple fields near Thika. Like Mount Kenya, it’s a national park, and there’s a switchback road to the peak – where communication towers poke up incongruously above the bush – with fine views en route.
The peaks of Kenya’s second highest mountain, Elgon, which straddles the border with Uganda, are much wilder and loftier. Like Mount Kenya, Elgon is an extinct volcano, its steep slopes flanked with remarkable-looking afro-alpine flora such as giant heather, giant groundsel and weird, fluffy giant lobelia. Elgon may be comparatively seldom visited, but to its east the Cherangani Hills are right off the tourist trail. This buckled range, criss-crossed by dirt roads and footpaths and rising to more than 3500m, is still heavily forested and home to rare wildlife including bongo.
Very much on the safari circuit (though most tourists photograph it as they drive by rather than climbing it) is the volcanic cone of Mount Longonot in the Rift Valley, near Naivasha. Hiking to the rim and walking around the crater takes half a day. Also more often viewed from afar than visited are the densely forested Shimba Hills, rising behind Diani Beach, where one can see elephants and Kenya’s only sable antelopes.
Northern Kenya has plenty of hills and mountains rising from the deserts, but none are more impressive than the gigantic shield volcano of Mount Marsabit. Worn away by millions of years of erosion, its heights are cloaked with cloud forest and pocked with crater lakes.
From Nairobi, the serrated crest of the Ngong Hills are a reminder of the wild country all around the booming capital. A Maasai legend tells how they were formed when a giant tripped on Kilimanjaro and clutched the earth as he fell.
Kilimanjaro, although not physically in Kenya, is a towering presence that dominates the southern plains and creates the momentous backdrop for the plains and lakes of Amboseli National Park.
Chyulu Hills National Park lies just to the north and receives a fraction of Amboseli’s visitors. You can walk and ride in these enchanting beautiful hills and explore the moss-hung forest along the crest.
Top five rivers
Kenya’s longest river, the Tana, rises in the Aberdare range and flows past Meru National Park, its tributaries watering the arid plains of eastern Kenya before meandering in a succession of forest-fringed oxbows down to its huge coastal delta – a highlight view of any flight to Lamu.
The biggest river in the north, the Ewaso Nyiro, is somewhat enigmatic. Flowing north from the Aberdares and Mount Kenya, it meets hard rock and turns east to form the spine of the Samburu ecosystem – a somewhat quixotic lifeline, as through the course of the year it often varies from surging brown flood to drying out completely. It finally peters out in the deserts of northeast Kenya, where it feeds a huge seasonal marshland area, the Lorian Swamp.
In southwest Kenya, the Mara River streams off one of the country’s biggest water catchments, the Mau Escarpment, then snakes its way through the safari country of the Masai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti, and finally empties into Lake Victoria. The same rains that fill the Mara River generate pasture for hundreds of thousands of nomadic wildebeest – the so-called “Great Migration” that sees countless young and weak animals snagged by crocodiles or trampled under hoof as they attempt to cross the river.
It’s a measure of Kenya’s ethnic patch-work that one of its biggest rivers has three names: from its source in the Aberdare range to its mouth north of Malindi, the Athi-Galana-Sabaki starts as a racing torrent and river rafting venue, then cuts through the heart of Tsavo East National Park and finally flows into the Indian Ocean north of Malindi, accounting for the strong seasonality of water clarity on the north coast.
By comparison, the Tsavo River is a junior partner, watering Tsavo West National Park and flowing into the Galana. The confluence was close to the spot where, in 1898, bridge-builders on the Mombasa railway – the ‘Lunatic Line’ to Uganda – grappled with an engineering problem while their numbers were steadily depleted by two lions, the Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
Top five lakes
Kenya is studded with lakes – from shallow, briny sumps to papyrus-fringed expanses swarming with birds, where hippos roll and crocs play log. The best known is Lake Nakuru, in the heart of the Rift Valley, once the home to hundreds of thousands of flamingos.
For several years, however, as Nakuru has flooded and its salinity has lowered, Lake Bogoria, 80km further north, has been their preferred feeding ground, where you’ll find them in surreal pink formations filtering algae from the saline soup.
Further south, freshwater Lake Naivasha, with its country house hotels, cottages, shoreline retreats and the nearby attraction of Hell’s Gate National Park, has become the perfect weekend escape for Nairobians. It’s also the location of some of Kenya’s best backpacker camps. It even has some add-on lakes of its own: a silted-up bay called Oloiden, now separated from the main lake, which often has its own retinue of flamingos, and the hidden Green Crater Lake, just behind the main lakeshore.
Lake Baringo is the other freshwater lake in the Rift Valley and, with its peaceful shores, pretty islands and record-beating birdlife, it surpasses Lake Victoria for magnetic appeal, though Victoria’s remote and hilly shoreline south of the lakeshore city of Kisumu is a beautiful surprise.
Everything about Lake Turkana is surprising. No matter how prepared you are for the adventure of getting here, the magnificent harshness of the rocky, desert environment and the dramatically contrasting cultures of the people who live around it are an unforgettable experience. Three islands dot its 250km length: the imaginatively named North, Central and South islands. Central Island is a crocodile breeding ground, a location of crater lakes within the lake where mother crocs tend their broods. Visit in the hatching season (May) and nowhere in Africa feels so strange and removed.
Top five experiences
Every one of the millions of grazers and browsers in Kenya – from tiny dik-diks to giraffes –risks meeting a bloody end in the jaws of a predator. Although hunting often takes place at night, seeing a kill is an experience you should be prepared for, and one that’s less uncommon than you might expect – partly because vehicles are increasingly used as cover by wily predators. Lion kills (rough and ruthless) and cheetah kills (much more elegant) are the most frequently seen.
At the gentler end of the wildlife encounter spectrum are two experiences that you can have only in Nairobi: kissing a giraffe at the Giraffe Centre in Langata and meeting an elephant orphan at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage in Nairobi National Park. You’ll get a sticky kiss from one of the giraffes if you hold a feed pellet between your lips, to be swiped away by its long, blue tongue. The baby elephants are walked out to meet visitors between 11am and noon every day.
Many of the best experiences on the coast take place in, or under, the water. In the coastal forests, though, you can hug a rainforest giant in a sacred grove or kaya. The first to open to the public is Kaya Kinondo, behind Kinondo Beach, at the southern end of Diani Beach, where enthusiastic guides explain Digo culture and traditions.
For a more robust engagement with traditional culture, it’s possible to train with warriors at a number of locations in the Masai Mara and Laikipia. On Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, north of Mount Kenya, you can opt for three days with Laikipiak Maasai warriors, learning bow-shooting, spear-throwing, club-hurling, animal-tracking, dancing, singing and story-telling. In the Mara basin, Maji-Moto Eco-Camp includes Maasai weapons-training and hilarious mock club fights between teams, using fleshy palm shoots known as “elephants’ toothpicks” that whirl noisily through the air and inflict a sharp slap when they strike you.
Top five scenic roads
Northwest of the capital, the highlands plummet into the Great Rift Valley. Nairobi to Kijabe on the old escarpment road is one of Kenya’s most compelling routes, peppered with ‘Great Rift Panorama’ viewpoints and curio shops selling carvings and local produce.
Drive around the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, from Embu to Meru, and you’ll frequently have similarly huge vistas over verdant vegetation to the plains and high peaks beyond.
The main route to Amboseli National Park – the 100km strip of smooth blacktop linking Emali and Oloitokitok – is one of the best roads in the country for views of Kilimanjaro. Africa’s highest peak is notoriously coy, but on a dustless dawn at the end of the rainy season, when it shakes off its duvet of clouds, there’s no more beautiful sight than the sun illuminating a fresh blanket of snow on its eastern slopes.
Drives in the parks and highlands are often chilly. Down at the coast, however, the road from Mombasa to Shimoni is invariably warm and humid at any time of the day or night. With the windows down you’ll get the full benefit of the coast’s panoply of aromas, from wood smoke and frankincense to frying fish and orchards of ripe mangos. And after you pass the last town, Ukunda, with its junction for Diani Beach, the scene becomes increasingly pretty, with big-leafed cashew trees, stands of coconut palms over whitewashed village houses and eventually a wide-open plain of swaying sugar cane, traced by streams where crocodiles drift. It’s a scene that hasn’t changed much in decades.
In contrast, the new highway that bends like a race track through the arid lands from Isiolo to Merille in northern Kenya has opened up a landscape that was always there but previously wasn’t visible for clouds of white dust – or went unnoticed as your eyes remained glued to the treacherous, rocky road. The new highway – the best in the country – courses past huge buttes of sandstone, through sparsely inhabited bush and wooded plains, where you’ll pass roaming elephants and ostriches, and zebras crossing the road.
Top five Kenya Gold
Gold has long been mined in a number of places in western Kenya, and the Pokot people still pan for gold flakes in the streams running off the Cherangani Hills into the Rift Valley. Unless you count Kenya’s modern glitterati (who are as fond of their gold jewellery as the next elite), you’re not likely to see much cultural evidence of gold except in the Lamu archipelago, where the ladies of Pate island traditionally wore rows of gold earrings, and can still sometimes be seen displaying their worldly wealth on their ears.
Coastal history from the extreme south of the country tells of a cache of gold supposedly buried under a baobab tree in Vanga by German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck at the beginning of World War I. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s said to be cursed.
When travelling, you’re much more likely to come across Kenya Gold, the coffee-flavoured Tia Maria-style liqueur that’s a favourite of duty-free shops at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport.
If you’re lucky, however, you may have the pleasure of being led on safari by one of the country’s exceptionally qualified gold-level safari guides, possibly while staying at a gold-rated eco-camp.
Runners won’t need reminding that the western highlands are home to some of the world’s best athletes – and you can train with Olympic gold medallists in one of the high-altitude training camps at Iten in the Rift Valley.
Kenya has a host of golden wildlife, from golden-rumped elephant shrews to golden-breasted starlings, but the prize sighting – rarely attained – is of a golden cat – a secretive, sleek, nocturnal hunter of the Mau and Mount Elgon forests.
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