The Big 5

Make 2015 the year you explore and see Kenya

KenyaKenya, the country that invented the safari, is richly endowed with natural, cultural and historical attractions, from Mt Kenya to the Masai Mara’s great wildebeest migration, and from the soda lakes of the Rift Valley to the lost city of Gedi. Much of this heritage is threatened, however, by the current downturn in tourism revenue, which supports communities and pays for essential management and security. Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guide to Kenya, highlights his own top five reasons to visit Kenya in 2015.

1 Sacred forests and stunning beaches
The coast of Kenya is a cultural melting pot, sheltered by one of the Indian Ocean’s biggest coral reef systems. Creamy white coral sands shelve into a turquoise lagoon all the way from the Lamu archipelago in the north to the old slave town of Shimoni in the south – with breaks for the odd river mouth where dense mangrove forests spring from the warm waters. Some of the most picturesque beaches are in southern Kenya, especially along the developed and usually busy Diani Beach and its much quieter neighbours to the south, Galu and Kinondo.

Some of the coast’s earliest inhabitants, the Mijikenda (meaning ‘Nine Tribes’), arrived hundreds of years ago on the coast from a semi-mythical homeland called Shungwaya, somewhere in the north. Fishers, farmers and herders, each tribe settled in one or more clearings, called ‘kaya’, in the coastal forest behind the shore. The Digo, the people of Diani Beach, had three main kaya, each of which is preserved as a sacred forest. Kaya Kinondo has now been opened to visitors, and a dedicated group of Digo guides is on hand to show you around. At every step your guide displays impressive knowledge of the fauna and flora, from ‘herbal Viagra’ to the social life of yellow baboons. In the heart of the forest, the original 16th-century clearing is overgrown but still protects buried charms from the homeland and the graves of venerated ancestors. In this area, photography is forbidden. Visitors must wear sarongs (provided), walk respectfully and abstain from any displays of physical affection – unless towards the giant forest trees, the hugging of which is positively encouraged.

Where? When?
The entrance to Kaya Kinondo lies 11km south of Diani Airport. The kaya is open Mon-Sat 8am-5pm; entry US$12, including guided visit. Visiting at any time of year is rewarding, but, for the most atmospheric exposure, choose a dry early morning during the rainy season in May or June.

2 Big tuskers and other magnificent megafauna 
Kenya’s elephant population may have tumbled, thanks to ivory poaching, from 160,000 in the late 1980s to around 30,000 today, but this is still one of the very best places in Africa to experience the extraordinary sensation of close proximity to one of the largest land mammals that has ever lived.

Kenya banned all hunting in 1977, and most Kenyan elephants aren’t fazed by tourists approaching sensitively in 4WD vehicles. You can often drive close to browsing herds, and hear their low-frequency acoustic rumbles as they communicate with each other, tug branches from trees, or wrench grass from the ground, kicking it with a front foot to remove unwanted soil before stuffing it into their mouths. Elephant interactions are fascinating, as the matriarchs keep an eye out for the little ones, and young males play-fight with each other and mock-charge your vehicle. As Paula Kahumbu, conservation campaigner and CEO of Wildlife Direct, said: “We have not even begun to scratch the surface on how smart, emotional and similar to us elephants are.” Every park fee helps protect them: without the tourists, the rangers won’t get paid.

Those other highly endangered giants of the African plains, eastern black rhinos, of which Kenya is home to 620 of the continent’s remaining 5000, are relatively secure in Kenya and easy to see in the closely protected wildlife conservancies. While the less-threatened white rhino is a docile, sociable grazer, black rhinos bulldoze solitarily through dense bush, cautiously nibbling leaves, and fleeing with surprising agility at the first sign of an intruder. Michael Dyer, who runs the Borana Conservancy, believes that their future is dependent on income from tourism: “Any downturn in tourism will have catastrophic effects on our ability to deliver a safe haven… there is simply no better time to visit us.”

Where? When?
The classic elephant parks are Amboseli in southern Kenya and Samburu Reserve in the north. But it’s Tsavo East, between Nairobi and the coast, that is the home of Kenya’s last remaining ‘big tuskers’, where a dozen or more mightily endowed veteran bulls stride the plains more warily than most Kenyan elephants, their priceless tusks almost scraping grooves in the red earth. For the best chance of seeing them, visit Tsavo East at the end of the dry season in September or October. For elephant views with Kilimanjaro radiant in the background, go to Amboseli when the rainy season clears the air – April or May. For close encounters of the rhino kind, all year round, stay on the Borana Conservancy at Borana Lodge, or at one of the camps or lodges on the Lewa or Ol Pejeta conservancies, or in Meru National Park.

3 Cultural encounters
Kenyans like to talk of there being 42 tribes in their country, and often use the word with proud affection – a reminder of ethnic diversity and the many mother tongue languages they grew up with. True, conflicts arise between forging a national identity and loyalty to an ethnic community, but these tensions rarely impact on visitors. What you are likely to notice is a remarkable, often colourful range of dress and physical appearance, especially in the more traditional livestock-herding areas, where pastoralists move their cattle, goats or camels across the plains in search of pasture. The easiest area to inhale traditional culture is at a village or enkang in Maasai-land, the ecosystem of the Mara River basin made world-famous by the Masai Mara National Reserve and its iconic red-robed warriors. Entering a Maasai enkang for the first time, with its rich aroma of woodsmoke and manure, the thorn bush fence, the low houses of dung and mud, and the hordes of scampering, fly-faced children, is a truly ‘foreign’ experience for every visitor. Many Maasai still dress in the traditional style, whether herding cattle or tourists, with braided and decorated hair, a red, toga-style shuka, a short sword at the belt, and plenty of beads. But don’t be surprised if you then bump into your guide in town and find him in chinos and a collar shirt.

For a less commercial experience of traditional culture, ask to visit your guide’s own enkang rather than a village that routinely serves as a stop on the tourist trail. Alternatively, head north: the villages of the Samburu (ethnic cousins of the Maasai, who speak a related Maa language) are less often visited and are fantastic fun in the evening when the cows come home. You can even do a camel-assisted walk through Samburu land.

For the ultimate culture clash party, take a safari to Lake Turkana, ideally to coincide with the annual Lake Turkana Cultural Festival. During this jamboree dance troupes and camp followers from the fearsome, feather-head-dressed Turkana and a dozen other northern tribes converge on the lakeshore to sing and dance, flirt, argue and attend reconciliation workshops, all in their best traditional finery.

Where? When?
If you want to try ‘warrior training’, some of the smaller tented camps in the Masai Mara ecosystem and in northern Kenya organise hilarious throwing battles for their guests, using huge, rubbery plant pods, and spear-throwing, jumping and bow-and-arrow competitions. Some go further, with cultural awareness sessions and work experience with the herds. The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival 2015 takes place at Loiyangalani from 29-31 May.

4 Conservancies: communities, cameras and conservation
Little more than a decade ago, the only way to go on safari in Kenya was to visit one of the national parks – government-run game reserves created for the conservation of wildlife and the benefit of tourists. Local people were doubly excluded – prevented from grazing their herds or accessing water in the parks, and denied any share of the revenue brought by tourism, except what little they could wring from village visits or souvenir sales.

That changed with the creation of the Selenkay Conservancy, near Amboseli National Park, an area of Maasai grazing land owned by the local Maasai community. The conservancy’s founder Jake Grieves-Cook, a former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board, explained why the change had to happen: “Without tourism there is no way that all these large tracts of land can continue to be kept as wilderness and a home for wildlife. The best way for people to support conservation and help protect the habitat is to come here now and go on a safari.”

On Selenkay, and now on five similar conservancies in the Mara ecosystem, Maasai landowners lease former grazing areas to responsible tourism operators like Grieves-Cook, who run small, luxury tented camps, run by traditionally dressed local Maasai and with exclusive rights to guide their visitors on photographic game drives and bush walks in the conservancies. The wildlife is flooding back from the over-used national park areas and, by slow degrees, the Maasai cult of ever-increasing cattle herds is evolving into a more balanced partnership with tourism, the forces of modernisation and the needs of wildlife.

Where? When?
The conservancy model is spreading rapidly across Kenya, with more than a dozen community conservancies in Maasai, Samburu and other traditional areas across the country. In Laikipia, northwest of Mount Kenya, large private landowners have also embraced the idea on their once exclusively livestock-rearing ranches. These are now mixed conservation and cattle enterprises, or exclusively devoted to conserving and breeding rare species, notably the black rhino. Some safari camps in the conservancies close in the rainy seasons (April-May and November), but many are open all year round, with nightly rates much lower outside the peak summer holiday and Christmas-New Year periods.

5 Nairobi, another kind of urban jungle
In the optimistic years after independence, Kenya’s capital could live up to its claims to be the ‘Green City in the Sun’ and the ‘City of Flowers’. Then during the decades of dictatorship, the city acquired a crueller nickname – ‘Nairobbery’.  Today, while street crime has declined, with an estimated four million people coping with unrestrained growth, Nairobi is no garden city – although a huge new residential and shopping zone called just that has recently opened off the Thika Superhighway.

What infrequent visitors to Nairobi often forget – and what many residents most enjoy about their city – is that it is indeed one of the greenest capitals in the world. Where most cities would have endless suburbs, Nairobi has a national park with some of the best rhino viewing in the country. No less than 117 square kilometres of wildlife-rich savannah and forest starts right by the city centre, and is home to lions, buffalo, giraffe and a multitude of plains grazers, all free to move in and out of the park to the south.

The capital has smaller parks of highland jungle, too, one of them with jogging paths, streams and even a couple of waterfalls. Then there are museums, galleries and more shopping malls than any retail therapist would responsibly prescribe; and a triumphant inventory of brew-pubs, shisha bars, cafe-bakeries, fusion restaurants, fast-food joints and bistros that could keep you eating and drinking at different addresses every day for several years. The city where mobile money was pioneered (Safaricom’s M-Pesa system has transformed Kenya’s economy) is by any measure East and southern Africa’s most dynamic and innovative commercial, financial, media and tech hub – and no slouch when it comes to partying, music and fashion. None of which denies the existence of sprawling shanty towns where the sewage runs in the gutter – though even in Kibera, the biggest of these slums, you’ll find Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile repair kiosks alongside the street food and second-hand clothes sellers. Visit Nairobi with an open mind and you may well find you really enjoy it.

Where? When? 
Do a walking tour of the CBD, escorted, if you wish, by a guide from your hotel, including an elevator-ride to the top of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for views of the city and as far afield as Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Back down to earth, see how most of Nairobi lives by walking the alleys of Kibera accompanied by a guide from a tour operator based in the slum. In the leafy suburbs, visit the Giraffe Centre in Karen and the world-renowned elephant orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park. Every driver knows the convivial Talisman restaurant, which does great weekend brunches and often has live music in the evenings. Mix with local music fans at the family-friendly Blankets and Wine festival (first Saturday of every month; see social media for details). Nairobi’s climate is comfortable all-year, with hot, sunny days and mild nights from January to March, and cloudy days and cool nights in July and August.

Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com) offers tailor-made safaris selected from more than 100 hotels, camps and lodges across Kenya, reviewed in detail on their website. Based on the team’s extensive travels and research, their itineraries are backed up by detailed support and advice throughout the booking process.

Want some more suggestions for travelling to Kenya in 2015?
Then take a look at the Travel Kenya magazine, sponsored by Kenya Airways and published for Brand Kenya, available on the MSAFIRI app as well as at msafirimag.com, kenya-airways.com, brandkenya.co.ke and travelafricamag.com