Kenya was going to be our first taste of life in East Africa, but we were a little more nervous about travelling here than usual. Just a few days before we came, politics in Kenya had reached it’s witching hour.. the Supreme Court had just overturned the results of a recent election, leaving everyone wondering what would happen next (recall, the 2007 elections in Kenya when mass protests had led to killings across the country). So it was an interesting time for us to visit, and while the political situation didn’t resolve itself while we were there, we still had a great time in the company of friends and new experiences. (Side-note: a re-election did happen in Kenya on October 26th, but unfortunately there were further controversies surrounding it… )
Kenya, as the biggest economy in East Africa, is a place where tourists/expats can easily find ‘western-style’ comforts (at US-dollar prices) and incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but at the same time still encounter challenges such as a lack of consistent infrastructure, unstable politics and poverty – all which have created a perceived need for high security (think electric barbed wire and armed guards) wherever you go.
In Nairobi, we were really fortunate to be hosted by our friends, AD and Kristina, who were nice enough to have us visit even as they were getting ready to have their first baby in just 2 weeks time. Over 3 weeks in Kenya, we saw two very different sides of the country: the busy city life in cosmopolitan Nairobi and Mombasa, and the incredible wildlife of the Savannahs. These great experiences made us quickly forget about some of the challenges; here are some of our top highlights (as well as one cautionary tale) from our trip:
1. Taking the SGR Train from Nairobi to Mombasa (I know it’s strange to rate a train ride as a highlight, but…)
Taking the brand new SGR train was one most interesting cultural experiences we had while in Kenya. Kenyan’s love this train. It’s only a few months old and has been built as the first phase of a multi-year plan by a Chinese-African partnership to bring better infrastructure to East Africa. Before this train, Kenyans had to choose between really expensive plane tickets, or terrible roads to get across the country.
People all around us were taking selfies on the platform as if the train itself was their destination (and not Mombasa)! The best moment on the train was when we heard a HUGE gasp from a crowd of people. At first, we thought something had gone wrong, but couldn’t have been more mistaken. It turns out that there are only 2 SGR trains running in opposite directions, and when the trains cross, people always gasp in amazement because it makes them realize just how FAST they are going. I loved this moment, and it made me remember that infrastructure like trains are really amazing and shouldn’t be taken for granted! You can check out our video of the moment here:
Our train experience only got better. When we passed by Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, we saw elephants and zebras grazing in the distance. Trains and wildlife, together?! That was the moment when I really felt like I had been transported to another country, if not, another universe! To me, the SGR train was an attraction in and of itself, and with an economy ticket priced at only 700 Kenyan shillings ($8.50 CAD) for a 5 hour ride, it was a great value.
2. Experiencing Cultural Mombasa
Mombasa, Kenya’s second biggest city after Nairobi, was a blast of culture, history and… tuk tuks?! The city is still East Africa’s biggest port and people from all around the Indian Ocean settled here centuries ago making the city a cool mix of Kenyan, Middle Eastern and Indian culture. So much so that when I asked a restaurant for their best local dish, I was recommended biryani (which is really a classic South Asian dish) :).
To put things simply, Mombasa can be described in 2 parts: an island where the heart of the old city and the port are, and mainlands where some of Kenya’s most beautiful beaches (and of course, tourists/ex pats) can be found. We chose to stay in the heart of the island with a Kenyan women who runs a homestay that she uses to help keep Mombasa’s street children in school (a great cause). The island is old, noisy, and crowded, so I am glad were able to stay with a passionate Kenyan who was happy to show us places we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see!
Similar to India’s rickshaws, tuk tuks are the best way to get around, and while Mombasa (like India) may feel like sensory overload, people are laid back and chatty. The coolest part of the island is the Old Town, where you can see a mix of European and Ottoman architecture. Unfortunately, the district is quite rundown and we were only able to take a few pictures of the Old Town since we were warned about pick pockets in the area (which perhaps, made the experience all the more exciting?!).
We eventually made it to Diani, a beach town on Mombasa’s mainland where we spent a few days enjoying the seafood and white sand beaches. There wasn’t much else to do but relax, and it couldn’t have been more different than the island, but we’re happy to have experienced both sides of Mombasa.
3. Getting peed on by a leopard in Nairobi
In a previous post, I shared our incredible safari experience in the Masai Mara here
, but if you’re not willing to spend a small fortune and take long road trip to do a safari, then there are still so many other ways to get a glimpse of Africa’s so-called big 5 mammals (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino) within the city.
At the Animal Orphanage, we finally got to see the leopard (an animal that eluded us during our safari!). There’s a good variety of animals to see at the orphanage (e.g., cheetahs, lions), but the star of the show is the leopard because they say it’s a very shy animal and hard to spot in the wild. So naturally, we couldn’t help but linger around the leopard’s cage, ooing and awing at it’s every move. Ian had his photo-taking reflexes in high gear, when suddenly… out of NOWHERE, the leopard lifted up it’s tail, then lifted up it’s back leg and PEED on him!! We were all stunned. When we asked one of the center’s employees if she could explain the leapoard’s behaviour, all she could do was double over in laughter! We left confused, but entertained.
Another highlight was a visit to David Sheldrick’s Wildlife Trust
, where you can watch the keepers feed young, orphan elephants for one hour between 11-12 pm. All of the elephants were rescued and are being rehabilitated so that they can eventually be released back into nature. What I liked most is that during the feeding, one of the keepers shares the story/background of every elephant within the group.
At Nairobi’s Giraffe center,
we were able to feed and learn more about a specific type of giraffe that is only found in East Africa, called the Rothschild Giraffe. Giraffes seem gentle, but are actually really strong! Fun fact: Giraffe’s can apparently kill a hunting lion just by kicking out it’s legs. At the center, the giraffe’s are in captivity but only so that they can be bred and then eventually released to one of Kenya’s national parks.
4. Hiking and Biking with Zebras in Lake Naivasha
Having only packed a carry-on and day pack with us on our trip, Ian and I quickly realized that our hopes of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya weren’t going to happen since we didn’t have the right gear. So instead, we decided to get some exercise in Lake Naivasha, an area that just a 1.5 hour drive north-west of Nairobi and accessible by a road that takes you passed Africa’s Great Lift Valley.
We packed some warm clothes, and set off for a 2 day trip to Hell’s Gate National Park and Mount Longonot. Day 1 was spent biking through Hell’s Gate National Park. The best part of the biking experience was the scenery – each side of the path is flanked by animals such as antelope, giraffe, zebra and warthogs. At the end of the path, we chose to hike down a gorge with a guide that claimed to be a Masai warrior who had earned his title by killing a lion. Whether or not that story was true, we found him to be really personable and helpful when navigating the steepest parts of the gorge.
We spent the night at Camp Carnelly’s. We didn’t need to book ahead, and while our room was simple (but clean), the restaurant on-site was outstanding. We had a huge meal of fish curry made from Nile perch from Kenya’s Lake Victoria.
On Day 2, we ditched our bikes and prepared to hike up Mount Longonot, which has been dormant for the last 150 years or so. The hike up to the top is short (1-1.5 hours, depending on how fast you go), but is steep the whole way up. We didn’t meet anyone on the way up, except for someone who was burning garbage (inevitably left by tourists on the trail), a practice that is commonly done in East Africa to get rid of waste. Mount Longonot may not have been Mount Kenya, but the short hike was challenging enough for us to be sore for the next day or two 🙂
5. Living in Nairobi
Living in Nairobi was the perfect way to have a small glimpse into what life would be like living in the city. We experienced the periodic power and water interruptions, did yoga at the infamous Westgate Mall (the site of an unfortunate terrorist attack in 2013), and had some very memorable meals. The best part was that we got to make new friends.
We met Jeena and Shahail at a meal called ‘Koroga’ with friends. Koroga is a Kenyan concept inspired by south asian flavours, where you make your own curry or meat outdoors. The restaurant provides the ingredients (and sometimes helps you cook your meal, like in our case!), while you gradually cook your meal over a coal stove. One good meal always leads to another… soon, Jeena and Shahail invited us over to their place for a fantastic home-cooked biryani that we couldn’t refuse.
The grand finale of our visit was getting to meet Kristina and AD’s new baby daughter, Lila, who had been born just a few days before we were scheduled to leave to Uganda. Here we are, with Lila and her proud parents 🙂
A Cautionary Tale: An overnight bus from Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda
Travelling by plane in Africa can be really expensive, so we decided to put our comforts aside and book an overnight bus-ride to Kampala, Uganda from Nairobi. We thought it would be wiser/safer to travel by night so that we could reach Kampala in the day, but it turns out that we were wrong…
We felt really accomplished once we had found our bus in the city center (picture navigating through 3 blocks reamed with cars and people, buses parked haphazardly in random locations with no signage, and having to squeeze your way through a crowd of people to get onto the bus once you’ve found the correct one), and were excited to start watching the country’s scenic views go by as we sat back and relaxed.
But a few hours after we had left Nairobi, our bus was suddenly stopped. It was dark, just after 10 pm, and were were in what looked like the middle of nowhere. Directly in front of us was a large, angry crowd of people, blocking all traffic on the road, with our bus being at the forefront of the chaos. A ‘matatu’ (a type of communal bus that are known to drive dangerously, had hit a motorcyclist, fatally. The crowd had turned into a mob, surrounded our bus, and was blocking all traffic from passing. We were told that if our bus tried to move, the crowd would burn it down!
It was a chilling experience. Not only because we were suspended in a few hours of uncertainty before the police arrived to calm the crowds, but because the real victim of this experience was the person who lost their life. May they rest in peace.
We wanted to properly thank everyone who contributed to our experience of Kenya: Kristina and AD (and their new baby, Lila!), Jeena and Shahail and finally, Mr. & Mrs. Kurugu for their hospitality and letting us have a glimpse into their day-to-day lives in this beautiful country!