The starting point for most East Africa safaris, Nairobi is a thriving metropolitan city of contrasts. It is also the only city in the world to contain a game park: see four of the Big Five at Nairobi National Park, just 17km from the airport.
Once a brash frontier town, Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has grown into a thriving, cosmopolitan city. Born of the building of the Lunatic Express, East Africa’s great railway linking the port city of Mombasa to the centre of the continent, Nairobi was once the seat of Kenya’s colonial administration and the centre of revels for the notorious Happy Valley set of the 1930s.
Today the starting point for most safaris, it is a city of contrasts – the green upmarket suburbs seem a world away from crowded slums like Kibera. In the bustling city centre, business execs rub shoulders with rural folk fresh off the bus from ‘upcountry’ while its multicultural mix is reflected in the churches, mosques and temples dotting the city, and glittering high-rises form a distant backdrop for browsing giraffes.
Nairobi National Park is the only game park located in a city – it is possible to encounter four of Africa’s Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo and heavily guarded rhino less than 17 kilometres from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). Wilson Airport, the busiest light aircraft airport in Africa, literally borders the park. All planes flying directly to Kenya’s far-flung parks and lodges leave from here, so, while the park’s wildlife may be blasé about planes overflying the park, the planes’ passengers are often agog at their first sighting of zebras or antelopes.
Travellers who linger before boarding one of those planes will be amply rewarded, not only by the delights of the park and its surrounds but by the many attractions of the city. In Nairobi’s hotels and lodgings, guests have their pick of anything from modern hotels that would be at home in New York or Dubai to the leafy tranquillity of golf resorts and luxurious lodges in the peaceful outer suburbs.
Two of Kenya’s most storied hotels are in the bustling city centre; the oldest, the Stanley Hotel, has seen various incarnations since it first opened in 1902, while the Norfolk Hotel opened its doors in 1904. Famous people who have graced the luxurious Norfolk’s verandah include US President Theodore Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and such modern-day luminaries as Kofi Annan, James Earl Jones and Angelina Jolie. The Stanley’s Thorn Tree Café is named for the acacia tree growing in the centre of the restaurant, where travellers on safaris past and present have pinned notes for their friends on the trunk – fittingly, as this was Nairobi’s first post office. While in the centre, take time to visit the poignant Bomb Blast Memorial Park on Haile Selassie Avenue, at the site of the old US Embassy where 213 people were killed and approximately 4 000 injured in the 1998 terrorist attack.
An array of excellent restaurants satisfies Nairobi appetites. The traditional warmth of Kenyans is evident in the welcoming treatment of children in most restaurants. With a significant community of people of Pakistani and Indian ancestry, Nairobi boasts some of the best Indian cuisine outside the subcontinent. The delectable feta and coriander samosas with tree tomato sauce are reason enough to visit Talisman Restaurant in Karen. But you can also savour authentic Italian, Japanese and Korean food in the city’s restaurants. More adventurous visitors can get local with a visit to a nyama choma (roast meat) joint for tasty barbecued goat or beef. Kenya’s most famous nyama choma place must be the Carnivore Restaurant adjoining the Nairobi National Park. Roast meat is carried to the tables on swords and sliced onto diners’ plates until they surrender by tipping over the flag on their table. In contrast, its sister restaurant, the elegant Tamarind at the exclusive Serena Hotel, is renowned for its delicious seafood. Roadside stalls selling freshly roast maize cobs, with lime and chilli salt, are worth a stop for a surprisingly filling snack.
The Ngong Hills made famous by the opening lines of Out of Africa—in the novel by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and in the movie—are visible from Nairobi National Park, and between the park and the hills lie the suburbs of Langata and Karen, named after the author. The Karen Blixen Museum is housed in Karen’s old farmhouse and many of the film’s interior scenes were shot here. Nearby is Kazuri Beads, where handcrafted beadmaking sustains disadvantaged community members.
A very bumpy drive away is the wonderful Kitengela Glass, where glass is recycled into hand-blown glassware. The creativity of the owners and master glassblowers is evident not only in their glasses and vases but also in the cool and quirky buildings, sculptures and mosaics dotting the property. The domed building housing the furnaces is itself an artistic landmark.
Be sure to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, next to the park’s Masai Gate, for an unforgettable experience. The trust rescues orphaned and abandoned elephant calves and it cares for them here until they are old enough to be released into Tsavo West National Park. The public is allowed access to the orphanage for just one hour a day but that hour will become one of your fondest memories. The baby elephants, surely among the planet’s cutest denizens, effortlessly steal hearts with their antics and their close relationship with the dedicated staff who look after them day and night. Anyone sponsoring or ‘adopting’ an elephant can arrange to visit ‘their’ calf just before bedtime for greater insight into a wonderful program. ‘Parents’ receive regular bulletins on the progress of their baby.
Also in the neighbourhood of the park is the AFEW (African Fund for Endangered Wildlife) Giraffe Centre, a conservation and breeding centre for the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Feeding this beautiful creature pellets from a platform may give visitors a giraffe’s-eye view of the surrounding indigenous forest but attention is concentrated on liquid, long-lashed beauty of the giraffes’ eyes and the quivering of their long black tongues outstretched for more treats. An occasional head-butt reminds lax admirers that they are there to feed the residents! Giraffe Manor is an exclusive boutique hotel in the same grounds, housed in a gracious, ivy-covered manor dating from the 1930s. The excellent cuisine is occasionally overshadowed by an inquisitive giraffe dipping its beautiful neck through a dining room window.
Nearby, the Matbronze foundry and gallery, started by sculptor Denis Matthews and suitably located on Kifaru (rhino) Lane, features an impressive range of wildlife bronzes. Delicate bird statuettes and jewellery pieces complement the powerful elephant, buffalo and lion sculptures. For anyone wanting to explore Nairobi’s art scene further, find works by notable artists at galleries such as One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, Banana Hill Art Gallery started by Shine Wadu and The GoDown Art Centre, which gives working space to several up-and-coming and established artists.
Things to do
• Game viewing
• Eating out
• Shopping for art, crafts & curios
• Close-up encounters with giraffes & baby elephants
• Sport – golf, Safari Sevens, Nairobi Marathon
• Birdwatching – 645 recorded bird species
• Cultural visits
• Walking tours