Kenya’s capital Nairobi isn’t the easiest city to get a fix on, or even one that you’re necessarily drawn to. Most travellers use this cosmopolitan capital with its relentless traffic jams as no more than a business halt or glorified coach stop. There’s a characteristic eagerness to get to the unleashed natural beauty that distinguishes the rest of the country. In the two days that I spend here however, I realise that I’ve underestimated this city–entirely my own loss.
For everywhere the eye looks in Nairobi, there’s eloquent juxtaposition, an encyclopaedia of counterpoint. This is the only city in the world which can boast a 12,000-hectare national park (home to four of the Big Five), just 7km from the city centre. Here, where business is booming and it’s imperative to keep my wits about me, I’m also able to easily surrender to a kiss from a friendly giraffe or have my heart warmed at an elephant orphanage.
Visit the Elephants
Decorum has been cast to the winds. Charging in a line towards green-coated handlers wielding milk-bottles are scores of baby elephants. Some babies have milk dribbling down their chins. Others, sufficiently fed, are wallowing in the muddy watering hole, their bottoms provocatively positioned in the air. Every morning at the usual public visiting hour of 11am, this tender tableau unfolds in the large fenced-off mud-enclosure at the Elephant Orphanage, located inside Nairobi National Park.
While we continue to ooh and aah over the elephants enacting their complex social behaviour, the handler shares the journey that the orphanage has made. With the passion that only those deeply involved with a project can exhibit, he explains how over 28 years, there’s been the rehabilitation of over 130 orphans, and the rescue of many others who lost their parents to the brutal ivory trade. He describes how it took three decades of experimenting–with the milk formula and the complex rearing rituals for the orphans–until they could finally be reunited with their herds.
A baby elephant splashes her way out of the muddy watering hole and comes towards me playfully. “Stand tall, if you don’t want her to think you’re a new toy,” I’m advised, “These large frisky creatures, ever playful, don’t know their own strength.” The individual stories of the orphans end up jamming a large lump down the collective throat. For those moved to action, it is possible to adopt (sponsor the upkeep of) the elephant you choose through the fostering programme. The money you pay towards its welfare also allows you special afternoon-visitation rights. Open daily 11am-12pm; entry KES 500 (approx. â‚¹310); sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
Giraffe Kissing at the Giraffe Center
“Can you take a photo of me kissing this giraffe?” a visitor to the Center asks me. I oblige. She climbs aboard the viewing platform, holding a feeding pellet (for a Rothschild’s giraffe, an endangered species of giraffe, found only in East Africa), between her lips. As this leggy, gorgeous creature leans forward, tongue out, to relieve her of her offering,she squeals and backs away. Mr Rothschild smiles patiently. He’s seen this behaviour many times before. After several attempts, her lips meet his waiting tongue, and the transaction takes place.She emerges flushed and happy. He looks around for the next eager customer to kiss.
But it’s not just for experiences involving tactile oddity, and a chance to gaze on the endangered Rothschild, that the Giraffe Center is so special. It’s the ability to incorporate both playful and serious elements into its functioning, which give it heart. The Center’s mandate continues to revolve around protecting the Rothschild, the population of which had declined gravely as a result of unsustainable agriculture practices. The education programme run by the Giraffe Center is not just statistics, but based on real-time observations and experiences, which make the experience here all the more compelling. Open daily 9am-5pm; entry KES 1,000 adults (approx. â‚¹620); giraffecenter.org.
The Maasai Market
This moveable feast of an open-air market–it moves from place to place everyday of the week–is a treat for those on a quest for cheerful souvenirs. My friend finds things that she didn’t know she wanted, until she got to this sprawling compost of stalls. With the zeal of an evangelist, she stuffs her bag with East African prints, brightly coloured handmade jewellery, animals made of banana fibre, beaded slippers and fabric in every colour of the rainbow. There’s every manner of items made from wood on sale, from giraffes to mugs.
The market displays the energy of unregulated market spaces–a little bargaining is expected. But do keep in mind that the people who sell their crafts are small-scale producers; their products are their livelihood. So if you profess concerns about the survival of small-scale industry and labour intensive manufacture, you might want to temper your bargaining.
Karen Blixen House
Even if you’ve only been to Africa by armchair, it’s likely that you are familiar with the Karen Blixen memoir, Out of Africa. The house that Blixen owned with her Swedish husband, Bror Van Blixen, was once the centre piece of a farm and now a museum. It became a much-visited space with the release of the film version of Out of Africa. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the text, the house communicates much about the late 19th century through its architecture. The rooms are spacious, the verandas distinctive, the tiled roof and stone construction speak eloquently of the nature of residences built in the European suburbs of Nairobi at the time. See museums.or.ke/karen-blixen.
If scented objects were made of the air here, they would smell like barbecued meat. I follow my nose in the direction of this tantalising aroma and end up at Carnivore, a restaurant made popular over the years for its dishing up of most meats imaginable. Beef, pork, lamb, chicken and farmed game meats, skewered on Maasai swords and roasting over a ginormous charcoal pit, greet me at the entrance. Soon after, a waiter dressed as bush doctor arrives and offers me a Dawa cocktail. This ‘medicine’ of vodka, lime, sugar and honey lubricates conversation and the rest of the evening.
I wish I’d worn pants with an elastic waistband–this is an all-you-can-eat feast. Course after course arrives at the table in breathless assault. Crocodile, a meat that in its whiteness may be closer in appearance to fish but tastes like chicken, has a bit too much gristle for me. The ox testicles are squishy and leave a distinctive aftertaste. The camel I enjoy (it reminds me of beef ). All the other meats (beef, pork, lamb and chicken) that arrive in quick succession would sweep the votes for sheer succulence and taste. Tipping over the flag at the table implies that you’ve surrendered, just before you hit complete food coma. See tamarind.co.ke.
Nairobi National Park
I’m dressed like Lawrence of Arabia, head and neck bundled up against the mud and the wind–not a typical get-up for a ramble through a big cosmopolitan city. Dressing in this self-regulating eco-system is forgiveable, however, when one is heading to the Nairobi National Park on a game drive. Against an urban backdrop of skyscrapers and buildings lies what can only be described as five-star biodiversity. In open grass plains and acacia bush live over a hundred mammal species and four of the Big Five (lion, buffalo, leopard and the endangered black rhino). Among the new friends you meet are some among the 400 species of bird-life, of which 20 are seasonal European migrants. This beggars any received knowledge of what to expect from cities. Especially when you consider the possibility of ending the day with the spectacle of a herd of zebra cavorting by the purple-gold glow of an African sunset, and then taking only a short drive back to a nightclub for some more wild life, albeit of a completely different nature. Entry $43; kws.go.ke/parks/nairobi-national-park
Nairobi National Museum
I hadn’t the time, unfortunately, during my 48 hours here to visit the National Museum. But if you plan carefully, the museum–so the locals tell me–is an ‘essential experience’. After its re-opening in 2008 post an extensive refurbishment, this imposing structure has much to be recommended. The exhibits contextualise the history of Kenya (and East Africa), natural surrounds (a fossil collection, stuffed birds and mammals) and culture (insights into local tribes through artefacts). That there’s a snake park (everywhere you go in Nairobi you’ll find a shelter dedicated to some species), botanical gardens and a nature trail on the grounds implies that you may want to allocate some time for this one. See museums.or.ke/introduction.
There are no direct flights from Delhi, but Kenya Airways has interline agreement with Jet Airways and Vistara to reach Mumbai or Dubai and then board the Kenya Airways flight (from approx. â‚¹30,000 round trip from Mumbai). Other options are Qatar Airways, Air Arabia, Etihad, Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates, all providing excellent daily connectivity to Nairobi via a single point.
Public transport not being terribly reliable, it’s probably best to book your visits in Nairobi through a tour operator/travel agent or take a taxi. You can self-drive through the Nairobi National Park, but here too it’s best to book through an operator, and have a driver/guide who is conversant with and able to efficiently navigate the routes through the park.
Visa & Currency
Available on arrival, but travellers can get an e-visa prior to their travel from evisa.go.ke (issued within 48 hours of applying). The cost of a single-entry, short-stay visa is US $50. Visas are free for children under the age of 16.1 Kenyan shilling (KES) = approx. â‚¹0.65
Where to Stay
DusitD2 Nairobi: If being removed from the sound of the traffic, and at the same time being minutes away from the CBD, means anything to you, head to the Dusit. With stylish and spacious rooms that come with all the largesse that people who carry very little require, not to mention a litany of restaurants to choose from, this one ticks all the boxes. From â‚¹15,000; d2nairobi.com.
Tune Hotel: What the rooms lack in size, they make up for in value. Comfortable beds in super-clean rooms, hot showers and perfect security are what you can be assured of returning to in this standard-option hotel. From â‚¹5,000; tunehotels.com.