Kenya Travel Guide: ‘Jambo’ is such a joyful word; it’s impossible to say this Swahili greeting without a lilt in your voice and a smile on your face. It even made Hemingway cheerful, who said: ‘I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.’ You’re going to get a lot of Jambos when you visit Kenya, which will without fail put you in the ‘Hakuna Matata’ frame of mind (No Worries).
All your stresses will seem insignificant when you immerse yourself in Kenya; the vibrancy of Nairobi, the vast open plains of the Masai Mara, the tropical coastline and a melting pot of 70 tribes and cultures reflecting African, Arabic, British and Indian influences. The combination is nothing like you’ve ever experienced before, and when my thoughts turn to Kenya I get a deep yearning to return.
Nature’s own landmarks
Photo credit: Richard Prety
There cannot be a Kenya travel guide without mentioning the stunning landscapes. Kenya’s most striking landmarks are nature’s own; the Great Rift Valley cleaved apart by enormous forces is visible from space, but is best seen on land from the edge of the Ngong Hills — an hour south-west of Nairobi. The steep sides plunge thousands of feet to the valley floor, and the vast plains stretch to a far-off horizon in Tanzania. A series of lakes create a north/south necklace of freshwater through Central and East Africa, with a special little bracelet of soda lakes in Kenya that are home to thousands of flamingos. You may expect a purely visual experience when witnessing the dramatic sight of these extravagantly pink skinny-legged birds, but they are real chatterboxes and sound rather like a colossal chorus of frogs. The flamingo spectacle is currently to be found at Lake Bogoria until they decide to return to Lake Nakuru.
The greatest wildlife show on earth
The next recommended stop on this Kenya travel guide is the savannah grasslands of the Masai Mara. With big skies and abundant wildlife, Maasai warriors and lion kings, this is the Africa of your dreams. It’s certainly the epitome of ‘Out of Africa’, which was filmed right here and is my favourite place in Kenya. I never tire of hearing the grunt of thousands of gnus when the wildebeest migration is in full swing (July to October) and marvel at their long, snaking, single-file lines as they make their way across the plains to only they know where. Seeing a migration river crossing requires being in the right place at the right time, but there’s now a handy app to help improve the success rate. HerdTracker plots the precise location of the great wildebeest migration in real time to a Google map through live reports coming from lodges, rangers, pilots and guides.
Immersion is total when staying in a tented camp, letting the night sounds permeate through the canvas. Glamping (glamorous camping) is the order of the day, which no Boy Scout or Girl Guide would recognise. The only resemblance is sitting around a log fire at night telling stories. But your Mara tales would be of the cheetah that sought shade right beside your game drive vehicle, the champagne breakfast surrounded by grazing animals after your hot air balloon ride and the wisdoms you learned from a Maasai Moran (warrior) about their peaceful, egalitarian society and 15 year cycles of life.
Some surprises in Nairobi
Photo credit: Roger Smith
While the Masai Mara is a must-see on this Kenya travel guide, don’t do what I did for years and ignore Nairobi National Park. With over 46sq miles of game reserve within sight of the city skyline, it has all the big animals except free-roaming elephants (you’ll get plenty of those at most of the other reserves in Kenya), although inside the park you should dedicate the hour between 11 am and noon to visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust — the most successful orphan–elephant rescue and rehabilitation programme in the world. Watch the keepers take orphaned baby elephants and rhinos for their daily play and mud bath and help this pioneering conservation organisation protect the wildlife and habitat in East Africa.
For a very different endangered animal encounter, head a little way out of Nairobi to the Giraffe Centre, where you can look straight into the long-lashed eyes of rare Rothschild giraffe from a viewing platform and feed them pellets and receive a sticky lick from an extraordinary long tongue.
Seeking sunshine & sand
Photo credits: Xiaojun Deng
Now for a change of scenery on this Kenya travel guide! Kenya’s national parks and reserves are not just for terrestrial wildlife — its Indian Ocean coastline has several marine parks, protecting species like four different turtles, dolphins and dugongs. There’s safe swimming inside a trough of ocean created by an offshore coral reef running all the way up the coast. Resorts offer diving and snorkelling in crystal clear water averaging a heavenly 26-28°C, with air temperatures a perfect 27-31°C.
Arabic influences along the East African coast go back as far as the 8th century when Arabs first established trade. But over time, everyone wanted a part of the rich east/west trade and Mombasa saw many masters: Portuguese, Sultans of Oman, British and German colonists. But the ornate Jamia Mosque and the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer confirms Mombasa as a Muslim city. And it’s from the intermingling of Arabic and African that the melodious Swahili language and culture emerged and the Jambo salutation that puts a smile on your face. The cuisine is distinctive at the coast too with coconut milk seafood curries infused with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. Add a Dawa cocktail to the occasion (vodka, lime and honey in crushed ice) and you’ll soon feel in the mood for a little chakacha dancing — a sexy hip-wiggling dance that originated along the Kenyan coast.
Kenya’s top 5 other iconic sights
With so much else to appreciate in this Kenya travel guide, see how many of these other iconic sights you can fit into your visit:
- Mount Kilimanjaro fronted by elephants in Amboseli National Park
- Camel train led by Samburu bedecked in colourful beaded jewellery
- A clear view of Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest mountain after Kilimanjaro
- The wild spaces of Tsavo – Kenya’s largest national park
- Lamu Island where donkeys rule the roads
Gifts to take home
Leave space in your luggage to take a little of Kenya’s allure home with you from markets and bazaars and safari lodge shops. I stuffed a red Maasai blanket and a colourful Khanga (sarong) into my suitcase, then bargained for a chess set carved in soapstone and beadwork to give as presents. The large plank-like wooden Bao board had to go as hand luggage, complete with baobab seeds in a leather pouch with which you play this delightful African game. And don’t go thinking you can’t buy that tall wooden giraffe, you can! Just hang a Fragile sticker straight onto it unwrapped, and its visibility should help get it home in one piece.
Notch up the sights on this Kenya travel guide from the luxury of safarichic properties, including Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, Almanara Luxury Villas Diani Beach, Fairmont Mara Safari Club, and Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel Nairobi.