Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is dimly lit and depressing. Worse still, if you happen to land there at 0230 in the morning! Outside though, is a land altogether different, and one that begs to be explored.
In fact, sharing a fence with the aerodrome is Nairobi National Park, the world’s only wildlife conservation in such close proximity to an urban centre. As we drive along its perimeter in pitch darkness, I try hard to imagine what lies beyond. Daybreak couldn’t come sooner!
A fellow Libran, Ibrahim was born on the 3rd of October 2011 to Daisy II and Jock Junior. When he turns 2, he will relocate to one of the country’s many national parks. For now though, he’s available for viewing in Langata, a western suburb of Nairobi, at the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife’s Giraffe Centre.
For those of you squirming at the very thought, squirm not, for the saliva of a Giraffe is known to have antibacterial and healing qualities to it!
Out of Africa
Along lush roads lined with plantations, and not far from the Giraffe Centre, lies a century old colonial residence, home to Danish author Karen Blixen, between 1917 and 1931. Six years after returning to her country, she penned down her memoir, Out of Africa, much of it based on her time here. With the Ngong Hills providing the backdrop, and a sprawling estate adorned with cactus, palms and pines, that very house is a national museum today!
On the instructions of my host, our guide gives us an express tour of the manor. As we walk through the many corridors and rooms, the aroma of old teak is omnipresent, and vintage pieces of furniture are everywhere – an old lantern, a gramophone, a bureau, a writing table – most of them original, some replicas, and others gifts from Universal Studios. Each with its own intriguing story. For history or film buffs, or for anyone with a little time, the Karen Blixen Museum is a must – the tour is free, and it’s well worth the effort of getting there.
For a city considered to be the largest in East Africa, distances in Nairobi aren’t particularly big, but traveling the shortest distance can often take the longest amount of time. With virtually no public transit to speak of, and 2-lane thoroughfares dominating the cityscape, traffic jams plague Nairobi. They can spring up anywhere and at any time, and there’s no telling when they’ll abate!
But the Kenyans are an especially polite and patient lot and nowhere is this better manifested than in their driving manners. On James Gichuru Road, as I head towards Central Nairobi, the scene is no different…
No one attempts to form their own lane and get ahead, not one person honks, and everyone seems only to happy to yield to the other! As Indians, we have a long way to catch up, and much to learn from them!
The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
Nairobi, as a city, only came to be at the very end of the 19th-century, when it was chosen as the site of a depot, on the under-construction railway from Mombasa to Kampala. The building of the Uganda Railway, as it came to be known, has since been the subject of many a story, most recently the film, The Ghost and the Darkness. J.H. Patterson’s work, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, is probably the best known of the lot, documenting everything from the tribes and topography of East Africa, to the very daring act of the Lion, who practically walked into inspection carriage #12 and dragged away Superintendent Charles Ryall!
There’s probably no better place than the Nairobi Railway Museum to get up to speed with the city’s history – and to some extent the country’s too – through artifacts, literature, and plenty of enthralling exhibits, including the very carriage in which Ryall fell victim to the man-eater!
The name Nairobi derives from Enkare Nyrobi, meaning ‘cold water’, the Masaai name for the Nairobi River. Nairobians often refer to it as the ‘Green City in the Sun‘. The city has plenty of each – several water bodies, no shortage of green areas, and a fair bit of sun. Located just north of the Equator, at an altitude of ~5900 ft, means that residents of this city enjoy incredibly good weather too, all year round!
To its north sits Mt. Kenya, while Mt. Kilimanjaro lies to its southeast – on a clear day, both are within sighting distance! On those not particularly clear days, there’s plenty else to choose from – conservancies, nature reserves, and national parks – all within a few miles of the city centre.
In the Lavington section of West Nairobi, as the evening chill picks up and magic hour descends, I sip a hot cup of tea on my friend’s sprawling terrace, and begin to appreciate, even more, why the city is such an expat haven!
The cup that cheers
Despite its close proximity to Ethiopia – often credited to be the place where Arabica originated – coffee was only cultivated in Kenya as late as 1893. But the high plateaus and acidic soil of the country were perfectly suited to coffee plantation, and today Kenyan coffee is regarded amongst the very best in the world!
The industry employs almost 6 million people, most of them working in small co-ops, and the coffee they produce is traded weekly through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. Evidently, there’s plenty of it to go around, but one convenient way of sampling the brew is through any of the 14 locations of Nairobi Java House.
Before we begin our journey for the day, we drop in at the Valley Arcade branch of the coffee chain for a quick breakfast. The much-anticipated Cup of Joe certainly hits the spot – it is bold, aromatic, and full of flavour – and a single serving will do the trick just fine 😉
Nairobi lies not far from the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley, a trough that runs from Tanzania in the south to Ethiopia in the north. On its path can be found a chain of volcanoes – some still active – and a string of 7 lakes. Lake Naivasha is one such, located some 100 km northwest of Nairobi, along the Old Naivasha Road.
Once past the suburbs of Nairobi, the drive there is extremely pleasant, with the last few miles along local roads, flanked by several greenhouses. Floriculture is big business around Naivasha, with most of the flowers ending up in European markets.
We drive a little distance further to Crayfish Camp, one of many resorts that are located along the expansive shores of the lake, and favoured by my hosts. Two handsome German Shepherds greet us at the entrance and lead the way in. The camp is renowned for its namesake fish, caught fresh from the lake, while Tusker is the beverage of choice at Laughter Pub, the camp’s watering hole. All of it served in one sublime setting!
Joseph, or Captain Joseph as he prefers being called, is our designated guide for the day. He welcomes us onto his boat, negotiates a rate favourable to all, and then sets sail from the little jetty at Crayfish Camp. As he begins describing the course we will be taking, he turns the boat around, as if headed back to shore. He reaches behind to a little pouch, extracts some kind of fish, and then calls out to his friend perched high on an Acacia tree.
Within seconds, and in complete sync with Joseph throwing the bait high above the water, an African Fish Eagle swoops in for the kill, plucks it out of thin air with practiced precision, and flies away with its catch firmly ensconced between its talons!
No sooner has the Captain finished his little trick, the boat is back on its original course, and while we’re still recovering from the spectacle, he draws our attention to something entirely different – a Hippopotamus – one that is clearly not amused by our presence on the water!
It is my first Hippo sighting and I am visibly excited! Soon enough though, we run into several Hippos, even whole families of them! The lake, it seems, has a sizeable population of the same. But Naivasha is better known for its birds.
Spanning an area of 139 km², Naivasha is the largest and highest of the Rift Valley lakes, and the 2nd largest freshwater lake in the country, attracting no less than 400 species of birds! For bird-watchers, it doesn’t quite get bigger or better than this!
In the 30-odd minutes we’ve spent on our boat so far, we’ve spotted everything from Masked Weavers to Whistling Ducks, Egyptian Geese to Yellow-billed Stork, and might I add, come within touching distance of many! But it is the meeting of the Great Cormorants, with a lone Grey-headed Gull eavesdropping, that remains the most endearing image on the lake for me…
The town of Naivasha lies to the northeast of the lake, a little distance away on the Old Naivasha Road. En route is the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute or KWSTI, one of many training units in the country. Their campus is located east of the highway, whereas their sanctuary lies to its west. As we’re driving along, we unwittingly stumble upon a harem of Zebras in the thicket, necessitating a quick detour from the highway!
As we make our way along the dirt road, a good many scamper away, while one amongst their lot tries hard to camouflage itself. It almost works. But not before I’ve got my first ever shot of the beautiful striped beast 😉
Turns out, its a day of many firsts for me! Right across from them are two Impala rams, locked in battle. It is their mating season, and the adult male of the species will do what it takes to keep the bachelors, and weaker males, at bay!
And all this we’ve gotten to see just off a highway – that’s Kenya for you!
At Naivasha, we cross over the Nairobi – Kisumu rail line and join A104, a highway that links Uganda to Tanzania. Our route back to the city along A104 is a little longer in distance than the Old Naivasha Road, but my hosts have chosen it wisely. It runs at a higher elevation, and in doing so, provides a bird’s-eye view of the Great Rift Valley!
We pull over at one of the overlook points, surrounded by colourful curio shops and a lone tea stall. Ahead of us are unhindered views of the valley. In the fore and higher ground are several lush acres of land under cultivation; in the distance, shafts of sunlight piercing through the clouds. The glorious panorama crowned by the peaks of Mt.Suswa, Mt.Margaret and Mt.Longonot.
A meal to remember
They start you off with Dawa, a drink that is essentially made of Vodka, Honey and Lime, and rumoured to have its origins in Brazil. Dawa means ‘medicine’ or ‘magic potion’ in Swahili, quite similar to what it implies in Hindi. And probably just as well, cause most of us would probably need a magic potion to get through the meat feast that is Carnivore!
The menu today, at this storied Nairobi eatery, includes Ox Meatballs, Ostrich and Crocodile meat, amongst others! It’s probably best to leave your inhibitions behind and go with the flow here, or then watch the proceedings with an utterly bemused look!
Wilson Airport at 7 in the morning is a sea of chaos. There’s plenty of confusion about which terminal we should be at, whether our luggage should be checked in or not. In the middle of all that, a case of mistaken identities! To top it all, not a morsel to eat, nor a drop to drink! It couldn’t be a worse start to the day.
But then, I glance over to my baggage tag and realise that all will be well in the world. This is it, I tell myself, we’re off to the Mara 😉
A full set of pictures from Nairobi & around, can be seen here.