Safari Holiday: Jambo Kenya!
In her memoir that immortalised Kenya, Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen wrote that everything within sight in the country is made for greatness, freedom and unparalleled nobility. More than a century later, Christina Voskou finds that the spirit of Blixen’s Africa prevails
CAPITAL CAPTURE: A sweeping view of the city skyline and urban park in Nairobi, Kenya
Within the city of Nairobi, the land is still untou-ched in many areas, with few modern structures blocking the beautiful African sky, and with nature at its most unadorned state. The old structures scattered around the city bring to life a past within.
Nairobi is well known for its chaotic traffic. This city of trees is full of people on foot and in cars that do not stop but, paradoxically, hardly move. Nevertheless, the traffic snarls do not bewilder the locals. The traffic can come to such a standstill at certain hours of the day that red and green signals do not make any difference. Nobody can move.
In a reflection of that much beloved Swahili phrase Hakuna Matata — or ‘no worries’ — the locals are so used to it that it’s not unheard of for them to stop their engines, step out of their cars and mini vans and strike up conversations with fellow motorists to pass the time. I am certain that if it were possible, they would set up small coffee tables next to their vehicles and enjoy a warm cup of that famous Kenyan coffee.
NATURE’S PALETTE: The beautiful colours of the African sky as the sun goes down
In the distance, I can hear people whistling Swahili songs while they go about their daily routine. Lovely faces and rich smiles fill the roads and the street sellers offer a product range from candy to textiles and even small towels. Large birds flying in the sky make the lampposts their resting point.
Most travellers choose to base themselves out of some of Nairobi’s centrally-located luxury hotels — such as the Sarova Stanley, which once played host to Ernest Hemingway — which are secure and, traffic permitting, offer easy access to some of the city’s most popular sights. For a taste of colonial Kenya, the Windsor Golf Club and Giraffe Manor offers rooms, sprawling grounds and an oppor-tunity to hear all those delightful nighttime sounds that the city-based ear is unaccustomed to: the frogs, the crickets, the ducks.
BULLISH: Wild buffaloes grazing in the Mara
Despite its reputation, compounded by recent events, and the fact that it’s primarily seen as a springboard into Kenya’s safari trails, Nairobi has much to offer the intrepid traveller. For instance, you can visit Blixen’s “Bogani” (forest) house, currently a museum lying at the foot of the Ngong (Swahili for ‘knuckles’) Hills. Previously a part of her farm, the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden and Restaurant (Tamambo) is a great spot for a meal or refreshment. A short distance away, the Giraffe Center is the place to go for an intimate encounter with this beautiful animal.
If you have some time on your hands, you can also visit the National Museum, the Snake Park, the Uhuru Gardens, the National Park, the Elephant Orphanage and the Nairobi Gallery. For an extraordinary meat feast, don’t miss out on the Carnivore, one of Nairobi’s most popular restaurants and a regular feature on travellers’ itineraries.
The Masai Mara National Reserve is often the focal point of any visit to Kenya, and for good reason. Located in the southwestern corner of Kenya, approximately 270 km west of Nairobi, it borders Tanzania and is home to some of the country’s most spectacular wildlife.
TALL TWOSOME: The Rothschild Giraffe at the Giraffe Center
The short Air Kenya flight (www.airkenya.com) from Nairobi Wilson Airport, often on a single engine turboprop, harks back to the glory days of flying: a single security check, a boarding pass that you need to hand back, an oppor-tunity to have a pilot’s eye view of the flight, a co-pilot passing back a box of mints and a landing on a dirt airstrip. Yet, this short flight will, on a clear day, provide you with some of the most spectacular views you would ever see.
Visas: Most nationalities outside the African continent require visas. The country’s embassy in Abu Dhabi requires that part of the application process be done online. For more information, visit: www.kenyaembassy.ae
Vaccinations: For more information on vaccinations, visit the Travel Clinic at the Dubai Health Authority’s Al Mankool Health Centre.
Stay safe: Simple precautions will allow you to enjoy Kenya without incident. Doing your research beforehand, investing in a theft-proof backpack, staying aware and saying ‘no’ can make all the difference.
Game drives or safaris as they are widely known, allow you to have close encounters with lions, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, cheetahs, leopards and if you are lucky, a rhinoceros. If you are feeling adventurous, a balloon safari (www.balloonsafaris.biz), gives you a unique aerial perspective of the wildlife.
Although the sheer number of tourists in the Mara can take away its serenity, you get the sense that animals don’t feel threatened by their human visitors; guides tell stories of how elephant herds learn to trust humans in the Mara and continue grazing, seemingly oblivious to the hordes of picture-snapping tourists, but turn aggressive once they leave this secure preserve.
The Great Migration usually takes place between July through September, and this is probably the best time to visit. For every night you spend in the Reserve, a fee of $70 is collected by the community for the preservation and protection of wildlife and the sustenance of local tribespeople.
Accommodation ranges from basic campsites to luxurious lodges and themed tented accommodation.
A stopover at one of the Masai villa-ges is a must. Though the Masai people do not receive many visitors, they are very friendly and welcoming of guests curious to learn about their tribe. Dressed in their distinctive red shukas or blankets, both men and women wear elaborate jewellery on their arms and neck. Their sandals are made of cowhide. The red colour, a sacred and important colour for the Masai, is worn for protection against wild animals.
A visit to the Orobama village (our guide spells it out for us and jokes that it’s often confused with a certain world leader’s name) can be organised with your hotel or lodge and requires a fee of $20, a sum which is shared by the community. But the experience does not feel transactional: we were treated like family and asked to return with open hearts. They presented their homes, sang a welcoming song and performed a traditional dance. The “jumping dance”, a competitive practice performed only by the men of the tribe, makes for an excellent photo-opportunity.
ANIMAL FARM: An elephant grazes, oblivious to the clicking cameras
As soon as we left, I knew that the experience I had at the village would be one of my most memorable from a holiday. Though we enjoyed the sunshine and the warmth of the Mara for days, at the village the tribe elders said: “It will rain today.” Despite the heat and the clear skies, they were certain of the forthcoming rain. On the journey back, that afternoon while watching a herd of hippopotamus, we spotted rain in the reserve where the village stood. The rainbow which appeared after in the savanna was not the only reason for the smile on my face, as I recalled the certainty of the wise elders.
On the last day in the Mara, the most beautiful sunrise is visible just a short walk from the un-fenced hotel. That’s the great thing about the Masai Mara: you have a great view from almost anywhere you stand. Though the temperature was about 10°C, the warmth of the rising sun allowed us to stay out longer, waiting for that perfect photograph of the glowing orb rising over the Mara. My love affair with Africa had begun in Kenya, a home away from home.
No account of the country is complete without its association with Danish author Karen Blixen, who wrote widely about Africa. In 1985, Blixen was immortalised on screen when her best-known book Out of Africa was made into a film, with Meryl Streep playing the lead
Not a tall tale
The Rothschild giraffe, named after British banker, politician, and zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild, is found only in East Africa. A very endangered giraffe subspecies, only a few hundred of them survive