After years of bad headlines about pirates and hijackings, sex tourism and terrible killings, even the toughest wannabe G.I. Jane travelette could be forgiven for being more than a tad cautious about travelling through East Africa.
The country is probably known for three main things: big-game safari, amazing marathon runners and The Lion King. However, there is a host of differing cultures and religions within this one vast country; from the smog-filled bustle of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, to the Mombasa coast, which is the closest place to paradise that I have ever experienced.
Kenya’s bustling capitol Nairobi (photo via iisd)
Landing at Jomo Kenyatta airport was a complete assault on the senses…everything you experience is so bright, colourful, and overwhelming. And with Nairobi’s crime statistics place above Johannesburg in Africa’s most dangerous cities, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the city dubbed “Nai-robbery”. However, by sticking to a few safety measures, such as traveling by taxi after dark and avoid being a conspicuous tourist (large camera, clean t-shirt and beige shorts), it’s easy to enjoy a hassle-free stay.
There are heaps of places to stay that are fairly backpacker friendly. Milimani Backpackers was a good find (despite Lonely Planet reviews) where it’s easy to meet fellow young travellers, always useful in what can be a lonely and overwhelming city for a solo backpacker. My initial hurriedly-booked budget hotel did have the highlight of a roof-top pool with epic views, but it also served gizzards for breakfast (chicken oesophagus, in case you didn’t know). I was pleasantly surprised.
Our stay in Nairobi became increasingly colonial in style with many restaurants decked out in the style of a typical westerner’s impression of a Swahili restaurant. A perfect example of this was ‘The Carnivore’ which was a meat-packed, over-excitable version of what is essentially Beefeater grill plus tribal paintings and wooden masks.
It was also filled with affluent wealthy Kenyans and other ‘Mzungus’ (a name white Westerners need to get used to in Africa). ‘Mzungus’ literally translates to ‘foreigner’, but has various disparaging meanings depending on how it is used. The set menu is the ‘done’ thing where they bring you several courses, starting with a tier of salads and sauces (one for each meat) with a little white flag on the top. Then the onslaught of beef, turkey, chicken wings, ostrich, crocodile begins, with the waiters bring over laden skewers to your table and cutting it straight onto your plate. This carries on until you literally cannot eat any more and are forced to take the flag out of the tier as surrender. Interesting feeding experience, but sucks to be a vegetarian there.
The Wild Plains
Safaris are the next logical step from Nairobi, but watch out for sharks and touts who constantly try to con an extra dollar and shilling out of you. Make sure that you do your homework before booking anything, researching what is the appropriate price for your package.
Safaris are hard to describe in words; better portrayed by pictures. It is strange how you become obsessed with spotting the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) as if they’re trump cards that you have to collect.
photo via safari africa
Be warned: a time on safari can resemble an extremely exhilarating Christmas Day. Three vast meals await you, prepared by a personal chef (a part of most safari packages) whilst being sat in an uncomfortable chair in front of a nature show. The difference being that this time, you are on the stunning African Savannah with incredible sunrises and the thrill of the chase.
There are a multitude of trip combinations to choose from depending on how much time you have, budget and where you want to go. We took the path of Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha over five days. Yes, it gave us a wide aspect of the country; from the cooler mountain country and back down to the Savannah, but in hindsight it was probably too much time spent almost exclusively inside a camper van. It was surreal and pretty mind-blowing to be in a small mini-bus with a wild lion strolling past in its natural habitat. God only knows what the animals thought of all of us with cameras glued to our faces, but it was incredible.
The Mombasa Coast, Kenya A.K.A Paradise.
Nairobi is sweaty, irrepressible and daunting so it was a relief to leave and arrive at Diani Beach, just south of Mombasa.
Diani Beach is calm, laidback, beautiful… still sweaty but like stepping into another country. Swimming in the warm Indian Ocean followed by an ice-cold ‘Tusker’ beer compensated highly for the sleepless night coach and the two ‘matatus’ (death-trap twelve-seater transit vans) to get there.
Matatus’s in action via Global Crossroads
Stilts Diani is a fantastic gem of African accommodation, which is tucked away in the tree-tops just five minutes walk from the beach. You can camp if on a tight budget, or stay in one of their rustic tree-top cabins, complete with mosquito nets and that all-important fan. We made life-long friends here, which was easily done because of the communal feel and the organised Friday night barbeque (yes, more meat). Just find your way here, and it will be hard to drag yourself away.
Diana Beach sunrise via wanderlust
As an ex-pat haven, there are a few too many ‘mzungus’ in Diani to make it feel real, or like anything other than the sort of holiday you would have if you won the lottery. Postcard-perfect views are only obscured by the all-too familiar sight of elderly European women who come to find young African men to entertain them for a suspected cash settlement at the end of the night. Other than the sex trade, Diani beach is incredible, but if you left Europe for more than beer and beaches then there are still other places to explore.
Photograph via Turisti per Caso
Wasini Island, Kenya
This island lies off the southern Indian Ocean coast of Kenya and is sparsely populated and undeveloped with no cars or roads. Essentially just a Muslim village, Wasini Island form part of Kisite Marine Park where tourists can go snorkelling for extortionate amounts.
photo via twendende
But this island deserves a mention for travellers who are up for leaving the comfort of Diani Beach for the half-day trek to no-electricity Wasini. Wasini encapsulates the traditional Muslim elements of Kenya, all too easily glossed over by travel guides. This part of the trip did teach us to befriend locals and that sometimes, those who are trying to sell you things will actually work out in your favour. What you gain in cultural experience is sometimes worth the extortionate amounts that you pay, for example, a local guide offered a Swahili cookery lesson at his house after getting to know us.
We sat on the mat of their hut in their biggest room, learning how to roll out chapatis and make samosas (very difficult), whilst a multitude of young children ran around us saying the Swahili greeting ‘Jambo’, shyly at first then growing more confident until we had a conversation. It was genuinely an experience that will be hard to forget: actually seeing how different life is for families in remote Swahili communities. It is definitely not the poverty-stricken, hopeless existence that is sometimes portrayed in the media so revealed another refreshing side to the multi-faceted Kenyan life, which ended our trip and encapsulated the many elements of the country.
The idea of Kenya for a first time Africa backpacker is fairly daunting, so the useful mantra would be to remember your A B C:
A = (be) Assertive
B = Brave
C = Confident
Adopting these traits should ensure that you stay savvy enough to relax, involve yourself with Swahili traditions, and enjoy the good-natured, humorous company of most Kenyans. Kenya has so much to offer, embrace it and have the most memorable experience of your life.
*guest post written by Hazel Beevers