The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all but essential travel to areas within 60km of the Kenya-Somali border, Garissa County, Lamu County (not including Lamu or Manda islands), those areas of Tana River County north of the Tana river itself, and within 15km of the coast from the Tana river down to the Galana (Athi-Galana-Sabaki) river. Safari destinations and the southern coast are unaffected. Click here for more information.
Vast savannas peppered with immense herds of wildlife. Snow-capped equatorial mountains. Traditional peoples who bring soul and color to the earth. Welcome to Kenya.
When you think of Africa, you’re probably thinking of Kenya. It’s the lone acacia silhouetted on the savanna against a horizon stretching into eternity. It’s the snow-capped mountain almost on the equator and within sight of harsh deserts. It’s the lush, palm-fringed coastline of the Indian Ocean, it’s the Great Rift Valley that once threatened to tear the continent asunder, and it’s the dense forests reminiscent of the continent’s heart. In short, Kenya is a country of epic landforms that stir our deepest longings for this very special continent.
Filling the country's landscape, adding depth and resonance to Kenya’s age-old story, are some of Africa’s best-known peoples. The Maasai, the Samburu, the Turkana, the Swahili, the Kikuyu: these are the peoples whose histories and daily struggles tell the story of a country and of a continent – the struggle to maintain traditions as the modern world crowds in, the daily fight for survival in some of the harshest environments on earth, the ancient tension between those who farm and those who roam. Drawing near to these cultures could just be a highlight of your visit.
Kenya is the land of the Masai Mara, of wildebeest and zebras migrating in their millions with the great predators of Africa following in their wake, of endangered species like black rhinos managing to maintain their precarious foothold. But Kenya is also home to the red elephants of Tsavo, to Amboseli elephant families in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro and to the massed millions of pink flamingos stepping daintily through lake shallows. Africa is the last great wilderness where these creatures survive. And Kenya is the perfect place to answer Africa’s call of the wild.
The abundance of Kenya's wildlife owes everything to one of Africa's most innovative and successful conservation communities. Through some pretty tough love – Kenya pioneered using armed rangers to protect rhinos and elephants – Kenya stopped the emptying of its wilderness and brought its wildlife back from the brink after the poaching holocaust of the 1970s and 1980s. More than that, in places like Laikipia and the Masai Mara, private and community conservancies fuse tourism with community development and wildlife conservation to impressive effect. In other words, if you want your visit to make a difference, you've come to the right place.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kenya.
This 16th-century fort and Unesco World Heritage treasure is Mombasa’s most visited site. The metre-thick walls, frescoed interiors, traces of European graffiti, Arabic inscriptions and Swahili embellishment aren’t just evocative, they’re a palimpsest of Mombasa's history and the coast writ in stone. You can climb on the battlements and explore its tree-shaded grounds. The fort was built by the Portuguese in 1593 to serve as both symbol and headquarters of their permanent presence in this corner of the Indian Ocean. It’s ironic, then, that the construction of the fort marked the beginning of the end of local Portuguese hegemony. Between Portuguese sailors, Omani soldiers and Swahili rebellions, the fort changed hands at least nine times between 1631 and the early 1870s, when it finally fell under British control and was used as a jail; it opened as a museum in 1960. The fort was the final project completed by Giovanni Battista Cairati, whose buildings can be found throughout Portugal’s eastern colonies, from Old Goa to Old Mombasa. The building is an opus of period military design – assuming the structure was well manned, it would have been impossible to approach its walls without falling under the cone of interlocking fields of fire. Within the fort compound, the Mazrui Hall, where flowery spirals fade across a wall topped with wooden lintels left by the Omani Arabs, is worthy of note. In another room, Portuguese sailors scratched graffiti that illustrates the multicultural naval identity of the Indian Ocean, leaving walls covered with four-pointed European frigates, three-pointed Arabic dhows and the coir-sewn ‘camels of the ocean’: the elegant Swahili mtepe (traditional sailing vessel). The Omani house, in the San Felipe bastion in the northwestern corner of the fort, was built in the late 18th century and has a small fishing dhow outside it. Inside there's a small exhibition of Omani jewellery, weaponry and other artefacts. The eastern wall includes an Omani audience hall and the Passage of the Arches, which leads under the pinkish-brown coral to a double-azure vista of sea floating under sky. There's a museum in the centre of the fort that displays finds from 42 Portuguese warships that were sunk during the Omani Siege in 1697, from barnacled earthenware jars to Persian amulets and Chinese porcelain. Like the rest of the complex, they are poorly labelled and woefully displayed. Despite this, the fort is unmissable. If you arrive early in the day, you may avoid group tours, but the same can’t be said of the guides, official and unofficial, who will offer you tours the minute you approach the fort. Some of them can be quite useful and some can be duds. Unfortunately you’ll have to use your judgement to suss out which is which. Official guides charge KSh1200 for a tour of Fort Jesus or the Old Town; unofficial guides charge whatever they can. If you don’t want a tour, shake off your guide with a firm but polite 'no', or they’ll launch into their spiel and expect a tip at the end. Alternatively, you can buy the Fort Jesus guide booklet from the ticket desk and go it alone.
Occupying a plot within Nairobi National Park, this nonprofit trust was established in 1977, shortly after the death of David Sheldrick, who served as the antipoaching warden of Tsavo National Park. Together with his wife, Daphne, David pioneered techniques for raising orphaned black rhinos and elephants and reintroducing them into the wild, and the trust retains close links with Tsavo for these and other projects. The centre is one of Nairobi's most popular attractions, and deservedly so. After entering at 11am, visitors are escorted to a small viewing area centred on a muddy watering hole. A few moments later, much like a sports team marching out onto the field, the animal handlers come in alongside a dozen or so baby elephants. For the first part of the viewing, the handlers bottle-feed the baby elephants – a heartwarming sight. Once the little guys and girls have drunk their fill, they proceed to romp around like toddlers. The elephants seem to take joy in misbehaving in front of their masters, so don’t be surprised if a few break rank and start rubbing up against your leg! The baby elephants also use this designated time slot for their daily mud bath, which makes for some great photos; keep your guard up, as they’ve been known to spray a tourist or two with a trunkful of mud. While the elephants gambol, the keepers talk about the individual orphans and their stories. Explanations are also given about the broader picture of the orphans project and some of the other projects in which the trust is involved. There's also the opportunity to 'adopt' one of the elephants. For those who do, there's a chance to visit when your elephant returns to the stockades around 5pm every evening – advance bookings essential. The trust is also home to a number of orphaned rhinos, many of which, like the baby elephants, mingle with wild herds in Nairobi National Park during the day. One exception is Maxwell, a blind rhino who lives in a large stockade for his protection. To get here by bus or matatu, take 125 or 126 from Moi Ave and ask to be dropped off at the KWS central workshop on Magadi Rd (KSh80, 50 minutes). It’s about 1km from the workshop gate to the Sheldrick centre – it’s signposted and KWS staff can give you directions. Be advised that at this point you’ll be walking in the national park, which does contain predators, so stick to the paths. A taxi from the city centre should cost between KSh1500 and KSh2000.
Welcome to Kenya’s most accessible yet incongruous safari experience. Set on the city’s southern outskirts, Nairobi National Park (at 117 sq km, one of Africa’s smallest) has abundant wildlife that can, in places, be viewed against a backdrop of city skyscrapers and planes coming in to land – it's one of the only national parks on earth bordering a capital city. Remarkably, the animals seem utterly unperturbed by it all. The park has acquired the nickname ‘Kifaru Ark’, a testament to its success as a rhinoceros ( kifaru in Kiswahili) sanctuary. The park is home to the world's densest concentration of black rhinos (more than 50), though even the park's strong antipoaching measures couldn't prevent poachers from killing one of the rhinos in August 2013 and then again in January 2014. They were the first such attacks in six years, and reflect the current sky-high Asian black-market price for rhino horn. Lions and hyenas are also commonly sighted within the park; rangers at the entrance usually have updates on lion movements. You’ll need a bit of patience and a lot of luck to spot the park’s resident cheetahs and leopards. Other regularly spotted species include gazelles, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, ostriches and buffaloes. The park’s wetland areas sustain approximately 400 bird species, which is more than in the whole of the UK. Matatus (minibuses) 125 and 126 (KSh50, 30 to 45 minutes) pass by the main park entrance from the train station. You can also go by private vehicle. Nairobi tour companies offer half-day safaris (from US$75 per person). Apart from the main entrance, which lies 7km from the city centre, there are other gates on Magadi Rd and the Athi River gate; the latter is handy if you’re continuing on to Mombasa, Amboseli or the Tanzanian border. The roads in the park are passable with 2WDs, but travelling in a 4WD is never a bad idea, especially if the rains have been heavy. Unless you already have your own vehicle, the cheapest way to see the park is on the shuttle, a big Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) bus that leaves the main gate at 2pm on Sunday for a 2½-hour tour. You need to book in person at the main gate by 1.30pm, but do call ahead if you want to do the tour, as times can change.
Kenya’s wonderful National Museum, housed in an imposing building amid lush, leafy grounds just outside the centre, has a good range of cultural and natural-history exhibits. Aside from the exhibits, check out the life-size fibreglass model of pachyderm celebrity Ahmed, the massive elephant that became a symbol of Kenya at the height of the 1980s poaching crisis. He was placed under 24-hour guard by President Jomo Kenyatta; he’s in the inner courtyard next to the shop. The museum’s permanent collection is entered via the Hall of Kenya, with some ethnological exhibits such as the extraordinary Kalenjin cloak made from the skins of Sykes Monkeys and a mosaic map of Kenya made from the country's butterflies. But this is a mere prelude. In a room off this hall is the Birds of East Africa exhibit, a huge gallery of at least 900 stuffed specimens. In an adjacent room is the Great Hall of Mammals, with dozens of stuffed specimens. Off the mammals room is the Cradle of Humankind exhibition, the highlight of which is the Hominid Skull Room – an extraordinary collection of skulls that describes itself as ‘the single most important collection of early human fossils in the world’. Upstairs, the Historia Ya Kenya display is an engaging journey through Kenyan and East African history. Well presented and well documented, it offers a refreshingly Kenyan counterpoint to colonial historiographies. Also on the 1st floor, the Cycles of Life room is rich in ethnological artefacts from Kenya’s various tribes and ethnic groups, while at the time of writing there was also an exhibition (which may become permanent) of Joy Adamson's paintings covering Kenya's tribes. If you’re keen to really get under the skin of the collection (or the adjoining Snake Park), consider a tour with one of the volunteer guides who linger close to the entrance of both the National Museum and the Snake Park. Tours are available in English, French and possibly other languages. There’s no charge for guide services, but a tip is appropriate.
If you loved Out of Africa, you'll love this museum in the farmhouse where author Karen Blixen lived between 1914 and 1931. She left after a series of personal tragedies, but the lovely colonial house has been preserved as a museum. Set in expansive gardens, the museum is an interesting place to wander around, but the movie was actually shot at a nearby location, so don’t be surprised if things don’t look entirely as you expect! Guides (nonmandatory but useful) are included in the admission fee, but they do expect a tip. The museum is about 2km from Langata Rd. The easiest way to get here by public transport is by matatu 24 via Kenyatta Ave, which passes right by the entrance. A taxi from the city centre should cost KSh1500 to KSh2000.
This centre, which protects the highly endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, combines serious conservation with enjoyable activities. You can observe, hand-feed or even kiss one of the giraffes from a raised wooden structure, which is quite an experience. You may also spot warthogs snuffling about in the mud, and there’s an interesting self-guided forest walk through the adjacent Gogo River Bird Sanctuary. This is one of Kenya’s good-news conservation stories. In 1979 Jock Leslie-Melville (the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish earl) and his wife, Betty, began raising a baby giraffe in their Langata home. At the time, when their African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) was just getting off the ground, there were no more than 120 Rothschild’s giraffes (which differ from other giraffe subspecies in that there is no patterning below the knee) in the wild. The Rothschild’s giraffe had been pushed to the brink of extinction by severe habitat loss in western Kenya. Today the population numbers more than 300, and the centre has successfully released these charismatic creatures into Lake Nakuru National Park (home to around 45 giraffes), Mwea National Reserve, Ruma National Park and Nasalot National Reserve. To get here from central Nairobi by public transport, take matatu 24 via Kenyatta Ave to the Hardy shops and walk from there. Alternatively, take matatu 26 to Magadi Rd, and walk through from Mukoma Rd. A taxi from the city centre should cost around KSh1500.
The best museum in town (and the second best in Kenya) is housed in a grand Swahili warehouse on the waterfront. This is as good a gateway as you’ll get into Swahili culture and that of the archipelago in particular. Exhibitions focus on boat-building, domestic life and weddings, the intricate door carvings that you're likely to encounter (from Swahili and Omani to Kijumwa, Swabu and Bajun) and traditional silver jewellery. Don't miss the ceremonial siwa (side-blow) horns of ivory and brass. Of note are the photographic displays of traditional women’s dress – those who consider the bui - bui (black cover-all worn by some Islamic women outside the home) restrictive might be interested to see the shiraa, a tent-like garment (complete with wooden frame to be held over the head) that was once the respectable dress of local ladies. There are also exhibits dedicated to artefacts from Swahili ruins, the nautical heritage of the coast (including the mtepe, a traditional coir-sewn boat meant to resemble the Prophet Mohammed’s camel – hence the nickname, ‘camels of the sea’) and the three tribes that inhabit the northeast of Kenya: the Pokomo fishermen from the Tana River delta, the Boni hunters that reside near the Somalian border and the Maasai-like Orma, famous for their animal husbandry. Guides are available to show you around for a tip.
Mzima Springs is an oasis of green in the west of the park that produces an incredible 250 million litres of fresh water a day. The springs, whose source rises in the Chyulu Hills, provides the bulk of Mombasa’s fresh water. A walking trail leads along the shoreline. The drought in 2009 took a heavy toll on the springs’ hippo population; the population is stable at around 20 individuals. There are also crocodiles and a wide variety of birdlife. There’s an underwater viewing chamber, which gives a creepy view of thousands of primeval-looking fish. Be careful here though, as neither hippos nor crocs are always confined to the water. Impressive it may all be, but it's not quite up to the hyperbole of the inscription at the entrance to the site and which claims Mzima Springs to be 'undoubtedly the greatest attraction in Tsavo West National Park, if not the whole country'…
At the base of Ngulia Hills, this 90-sq-km area is surrounded by a 1m-high electric fence and provides a measure of security for around 80 of the park's highly endangered black rhinos. There are driving tracks and waterholes within the enclosed area, but the rhinos are mainly nocturnal and the chances of seeing one are slim – black rhinos, apart from being understandably shy and more active at night, are browsers, not grazers, and prefer to pass their time in thick undergrowth. These archaic creatures are breeding successfully and around 15 have been released elsewhere in Tsavo West National Park. For all the security, one rhino was poached from inside the sanctuary in April 2014, with two more taken on 31 December 2016 amid reports of budget cuts and diminishing resources to fight poaching. Even so, there are plans to expand the boundaries of the sanctuary to the south.
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