Immerse Yourself in Magical Kenya
Culture, wildlife and a stunning landscape wait for you
“The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.” — Karen Blixen, “Out of Africa”
A scholarly Kenyan guide completed our museum house orientation and asked if anyone in our American group had questions. An elderly gentleman in the rear piped up, “Why do you people pronounce it ‘Ken-ya’ when ‘Keen-ya’ is the way the British pronounce it?” The guide responded, “The British did not hear the name correctly and so they pronounce it in their own manner.” This exchange typified for me the overwhelming view of Africa in general and Kenya in particular. Kenya is a magnificent land with a culture and history as well as wild animals that cavort practically on request.
An authentic Kenyan adventure should encompass all aspects of the country. Kenya has much to offer that is unique and adds significantly to our understanding of the history of mankind. The safari experience is only one aspect, albeit an important one, of a visit to Kenya. My advice, do not limit yourself to jeeps and binoculars. Lift your head and take in the beauty that surrounds you, learn the history, soak up the culture and I promise you will truly begin to understand this ancient civilization and feel the magic and mysticism of the land.
Kenya, 226,196-square-miles, is approximately the size of France. The nation’s most outstanding physical feature is a portion of the 5,400-mile Great Rift Valley, formed more than 20-million years ago when the earth’s crust split and a valley was formed in the fissure. The rift’s Eastern course bisects Kenya and varies in width from 20 to 100 miles and in places the escarpment is as much as 3000 feet high.
Kenyan tribal legend tells us that in the beginning Mogai, the Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature, created Kere-Nyaga, a large mountain, where he rested and a place from which mankind could see the wonders Mogai had brought forth. The first British who came to the country asked the indigenous Kikuyu what the mountain was called and they responded, “Kirinyaga.” The British, unable or unwilling to correctly pronounce the name, began to document it as “Kenia.” No matter how you choose to pronounce it, it means “holy place” or “Mountain of God.”
Mount Kenya is the second tallest mountain in the country, Nelion, its highest peak, is 17,060 feet high. The mountain is situated in an area that is both a National Park, a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Numerous routes ascend the mountain but the three most popular approaches are Naro Moru, Chogoria and Sirimon. The climb averages five days. Mombasa’s Fort Jesus was constructed in 1593, and has been a museum for the past 50 years. A tour of the fort is filled with interesting locations. Don’t miss the 1800 Omani House constructed on the site of the 1698 execution of the captain of the fort. The Site Museum displays artifacts uncovered during archeological excavations.
The Maasai Mara National Park and Wildlife Reserve is one of the world’s dream destinations. The 583-square-mile area is renowned for its annual wildlife migrations, safari game drives and Maasai villages. Within the portion of the Serengeti ecosystem are nearly 100 animal species, more than 2 million herbivores and 507 bird species. The Mara also has one of the highest lion densities on the continent. All of the animals within the reserve belong to the government, making it a crime to kill one.
The pastoral Maasai migrated into the region from the Sudan and have become Kenya’s most recognized tribal group. Their customs remain largely intact and their manyattas, family compounds within the reserve, can be visited. Cattle are kept in pens within the center of the circle. Guided tours include an orientation, a home visit, and exhibitions of Maasai customs and dancing. Young males, who showcase their skills by jumping as high as possible into the air, perform the dances. While it may appear insensitive to join a guided tour to a manyatta, it should be noted that the proceeds of this “cultural exchange,” and that of any purchases made on-site, go directly to the Maasai.
Naivasha Road is the primary route between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara. There are points along the way that allow great views of the Great Rift Valley, and rocks along the roads are painted with colorful drawings and messages, in several places.
There are three alkaline lakes in the country and the smallest of them, Lake Elementeita, is accessed from Naivasha Road. The lake is an important breeding ground for the white pelican and home to about 440 other bird species. In 2005 it was designated a RAMSAR Wetland based on its importance to the world. Seven-miles from the Elementeita is Gambles Cave, an archeological site from the Post-Pleistocene Era.
The freshwater Lake Naivasha, just off the main road, is the highest lake in the country. The name comes from the Maasai word Nai—posha or “rough water.” The lake is less than 10 miles away from the spectacular Hell’s Gate National Park.
One of the more recent side trips available to visitors is the “Obama Tour.” Obama’s father, who was born in a Kenyan homestead in the Nyanza province, received a scholarship to the University of Hawaii where he was the first African student to attend. He married Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, when they were both students. He died as a result of a Nairobi car accident in 1982. In 1988 Barack Obama visited his ancestral home for the first time. Tours following in the footsteps of President Obama can be booked at local travel agencies.
Kenya’s capital Nairobi is a unique city with wide thoroughfares and tall buildings and it is not unusual to see a traditionally garbed Maasai warrior talking on a cellphone. Tours of the city should begin at the Nairobi National Museum founded in 1930. Here you can obtain enough information on Kenya’s natural, cultural and historic background to make the other sites more comprehensible. The tour usually begins outside with a volcanic stone sculpture, “Mother and Child,” by Francis Nagenda and proceeds inside to galleries on two levels. A very impressive Tower of Gourds is a featured display on the ground level. Gourds, dippers, collected from nearly 50 different tribal groups, represent Kenya’s diversity. The tower reaches the ceiling and provides a wonderful photo op. The Cradle of Mankind Gallery recounts the history of mankind from his earliest origins. Life-sized dioramas show us how early man lived and skeletons on display trace man’s growth and development.
The Nairobi Railway Museum may be a little difficult to locate but I urge you to persevere. Founded in 1971 to preserve and present the history of the railroad in East Africa, it does this through a series of indoor showcases and exterior rolling stock. The interior is one large gallery crammed with models, artifacts, photographs and posters.
August 7th Memorial Park was dedicated on August 7, 2001 on the former U.S. Embassy site to memorialize a terrorist attack of 1998. The park features a sculpture made of debris recovered from the site, a granite slab listing the names of those killed and a Peace Museum that features photographs and documents that tell the story of the attack.
Karen von Blixen-Finecke, born to a wealthy family in Denmark in 1883, was a published author by the age of 23. She moved to Kenya and established a coffee plantation in the Ngong Hills, the largest in the country. Her best-known book, Out of Africa, detailing her life in Kenya, was published in 1937. She died in 1977 of malnutrition and left a sum of money to the more than 1,000 Africans who had worked on her plantation. The Karen Blixen Museum is located in a suburb named Karen, in her honor. The house contains many original objects, photographs and pieces of furniture as well as items used in the 1985 Meryl Streep and Robert Redford film version of “Out of Africa.” Her study is 100 percent original and in the living room only the desk is a replica. The grounds, gardens and the gift shop are included with admission.
Langata Giraffe Centre, funded by the African Foundation for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) was established in 1983 to protect Rothschild’s giraffes. Visitors can climb the steps to a circular viewing platform that allows them to interact with the animals. These regal animals are trained to come when called, and feeding them is part of the thrill.
The political history of Kenya is recalled and honored at numerous locations throughout the city. On a driving tour you can visit all the significant historic sites within a day. I suggest, contacting an agency and hiring a private car with driver so that you can tailor your sightseeing by choosing your venues and maximizing your time.
The 1899 arrival of the railroad in Nairobi established it as a trading center and important point between Mombasa and Lake Victoria. The completion of the railroad would prove the impetus for Kenya’s colonization by the British, and Nairobi would become the apex of the Kenyan resistance to their incursion on their hereditary homeland.
Colonizers settled on land adjacent to the railroad in the Highlands and the Maasai were relocated to two native reserves. In 1915 all male Africans were ordered to carry an identification card, in order to leave the reservation. In 1921, the East African Association (EAA) was founded to protest against racist policies and programs. Many Kenyans felt that fifty years of peaceful protest had failed and thus the Mau Mau Rebellion was born. Contrary to popular belief, the Mau Mau were not a tribe but guerilla fighters. The name is actually a corruption of the words “Uma Uma,” which meant, “come out, come out.” Things came to a head in 1952 when a state of emergency was declared, 77,000 Kikuyu were sent to concentration camps and their leader was arrested and sentenced to seven years. By the end of the uprising more than 11,000 Mau Mau were dead, as well as about 32 settlers and 90,000 Africans.
Though it appears the revolution failed, ultimately the British realized the cost was too high to retain the colony. The first African parties were formed in 1960 and in 1963 Kenya was deemed an independent nation. Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first president. Parliament House was built on the City Square and visitors can watch the proceedings from the public gallery when it is in session. Bordering the building, the office of the President, City Hall and Kenyatta’s Mausoleum. A large, bronze, portrait statue of Jomo Kenyatta sits in 7, 585-square-feet City Square. The 12-foot figure is seated clad in official African regalia and holds an iconic fly-wisk, a Maasai symbol of authority.
Uhuru (“Freedom”) Gardens is a superb setting for one of Kenya’s most notable national treasures, the 100-foot Uhuru Monument.
A sculptural group of four freedom fighters are raising the Kenyan flag. The focal point of the memorial is a visual depiction of “Nyayo,” “Peace, Love and Unity, ” a pair of hands clasping a heart with a dove above. An additional monument with a fountain commemorating Independence was added nearby in 1988.
Uhuru Gardens are located a short drive from Nairobi’s most famous establishment, the Carnivore Restaurant. The restaurant has been a hit on all levels, service, cuisine, décor, entertainment and ambiance, since 1980. All types of charcoal grilled meat are offered skewered on Maasai swords, ostrich, camel, chicken, beef, pork, crocodile, etc. Food is carved at your table and you are served until you, literally, lower the flag on your table. The complex also includes shopping opportunities. Carnivore is consistently rated as one of the top fifty restaurants in the world. Do not pass up this experience and be certain to order a “Dawa,” the signature cocktail.
Kenya is so much more than a game park and the adventures are nearly endless. This really can be the trip of a lifetime. Information on visas, currency and all other aspects of Kenyan tourism is available at Kenya’s official website.
I wish you smooth travels!
*Numbers, spellings and dates vary by source. I have relied heavily on the writings of Jomo Kenyatta for information.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories on Kenya; in the spring issue of The Hunt magazine, coming soon, you’ll read about editor Merrill Witty’s safari to Kenya.