Kenya : So much more than just a safari destination!
When people mention the country name 'Kenya', admittedly most think of 'safaris', but when I visited in 2011, I soon discovered Kenya had so much more to it than that. I had been to Africa only a couple of times before, but I had always wanted to sample Kenya. It is still the jewel in the crown as far as many travellers are concerned. I booked a 16 day overland trip into East Africa, taking in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. My starting point was the capital Nairobi, a city of over 3 million inhabitants. It's a thriving city and worth a wander downtown to the central business district, where you can get a lift up the top of the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre (below)
From high up above this circular tower, you have a great 360' view across one of Africa's most contrasting of cities. When you first stare out at the skyscrapers around you, it makes you wonder if you're still in Europe or North America. However, as look beyond the CBD, you can see as far as the famous slums of Kibera, which are also worth a visit out towards the international airport.
If you get the chance, be sure to catch a local bus out to the local district of Karen, where you can visit and wander around the former plantation house of Karen Blixen, the Danish lady who featured in the Oscar winning film Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Here you get a great historical insight into Kenya's days as a former British colony around the time of WW1. Karen Blixen was an amazingly strong willed woman who ran a coffee plantation outside of Nairobi in the most testing of circumstances. You are free to roam around the plantation house and grounds which are kept almost as authentically as back in 1914.
After staying a couple of nights in the Panafric Hotel, I teamed up with an overland company called Gecko Adventures, but now merged with well known Australian company, Intrepid Travel, along with around 20 other international travellers. They specialise in small group trips from as little as 8 to 28 days. We loaded our big Mercedes truck up with food and we headed south to perhaps the best known game reserve in the country, the Masai Mara. The excitement as I awoke on the very first morning at the basic but functional Acacia campsite was fairly overwhelming. I awoke to the sound of far away hyenas and an array of bird life twittering.
I hopped aboard a great big Mercedes overland truck, kitted out for the rigours of potholed Kenyan roads but also the unpaved tracks of the game reserves. We entered the great Masai Mara with its rolling plains and small copses of trees.
Our first sighting of mammals were zebra and wildebeest. Our truck rumbled on deeper into the wilderness, hoping to give us our first sighting of lions. Indeed it wasn't too long before we actually stumbled across a pride of lionesses perched upon precipice. Hairs stood on the back of my neck as I anticipated their next move. They each spotted a couple of lone buffalo in the distance. Would we get to see a kill in action? Tension!
Alas, so we didn't get to see a live kill, but just watching the lionesses stalking their prey was a real buzz in itself. We saw them make a run across the plains but then give up as the buffalo got wise to the move. The rest of the day, we got to see an array of animals, from giraffes, wildebeests, many types of antelopes. For me, one of the big highlights was waiting besides the Mara River, watching crocodiles in anticipation of a possible kill on any lone wildebeests trying to cross. Alas, it was explained to us that we had just missed the world's greatest single animal migration by a few days. Wildebeest cross the river here and wander towards the Serengeti in nearby Tanzania in search of fresh pastures to feed on.
I can safely say I was buzzing by the time we finished our day visiting a local Masai tribe, who gladly showed us around their mud-brick village houses. We even got a personal tour inside some of their homes, in which they even share with some of their livestock.
The Masai tribesmen entertained us with a fertility dance in which I got to join it too. Needless to say, I failed to win this dance and marry the top lady of the local village!
The next day we travelled further north to Lake Naivasha. Here we got to sample a fantastic boat ride in a thunderstorm, seeing up close, a whole host of bird life such as pelicans and kingfishers. We even finished the day at the historic house of Joy Adamson, of Born Free fame. Her and husband George were famed for raising a lion cub, which became a famous book and a film back in 1966.
Lake Naivasha was absolute proof that Kenya was not just about safaris and game reserves but the many lakes of Kenya provide a more serene setting which boasts world class bird watching. I was highly taken by the boat trip we took across the lake under leaden skies, to the sound of distant thunder. Our penultimate destination was Lake Nakuru, which as a soda lake attracted literally millions of flamingos at certain times in the year. For me, the highlight of Kenya was parking up beside the giant lake and taking in the site of buffalo roaming around the waters edge, not caring about their strutting pink wildlife counterparts, thousands of flamingos! Unforgettable and breathtaking!
Our final destination was the Kenyan Highlands which are a little cooler than the plains further east. We were treated to a personal tour of one of the many tea plantations, which still supply some of our Western supermarkets this day, but under stiff competition many Asian tea producers. In Kericho, we stayed a night at an actual working tea plantation and after nights of camping we got a comfortable hotel bed for the night.
I can safely say that Kenya is a wondrous destination which rivals any other in East Africa for it's wildlife but it has massively varied landscapes and a fascinating colonial history which still has influence on the modern day country's functions. I won't stick my neck out and say Kenya is the best of them all but I can safely say if you visited it, you'd be far from disappointed. As you may be aware, Tanzania just next door to Kenya has some kick ass sites to rival Kenya too! More that to come in a few weeks time. Until next week folks, when you can read about my near death experience white water rafting on the Nile in Uganda!
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