Nairobi had always been a place in between. It started out as a stop-over on the Mombasa – Kampala railway route (for the Lunatic express); and is still being taken the same way by tourists, as a stop-over for the resupplies before leaving for the safari or pristine beaches of Mombasa and Malindi. But this capital city of Kenya, and the financial capital of East Africa is a destination in itself. Attributed the sobriquet ‘Green capital of the sun’, Nairobi has endless bounties to offer. An African city, known for great music and carefree lifestyle, carrying the whiff of old colonial charm, doling out dreamy moments like feeding baby elephants, hanging out with giraffes, riding an ostrich and endless options to shop African souvenirs; Nairobi gives tourists all reasons to tick all the checkboxes of a good travel destination.
A big board reading ‘Hakuna Matata’ (‘No problem’ in Swahili) welcomes you as you come out of Airport. Clear, azure blue sky, soft breeze and songs of countless birds, all out to greet you, sets the pace for a good travel days ahead.
Well in Nairobi, you don’t need to plan, you need to have mood to go out and explore. And one shouldn’t wait for long; wear your safari hat, drape a jungle suit, prepare yourself to get your camera rolling and head out for a safari at Nairobi National Park, world’s only National park within the city boundaries. Or fresh off your meeting with few hours to kill before you need to be at the airport and be at the park, situated at a comfortable distance of 10 kms from Nairobi central. And if you are very lucky, you might just catch sight of a herd of buffalo or giraffes as you make your way to the city from the airport. Infact, few days after I arrived in Nairobi, I came to hear of a massive traffic jam because of three lions who had strayed out of Nairobi National Park to the city roads. Having a National park within city boundaries is a prize for the thrillophiles. And mind you, Nairobi had been a starting point of safaris since the the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.
I love Nairobi for its colonial charm, hospitable people with warm smiles and priceless silence. Try imagining a place with no honking of cars, every other stranger you meet on street greeting you with a smile and ‘Karibu’ (welcome) or ‘Habariyaku’ (how are you) and everytime you hop a taxi, you are dished with a sweet ‘Asante’ (thankyou). Well this place is different, culture is different, where everyone leaves early from office on Fridays for clubbing and where every weekend people throng in to buy their favourite tribal souvenirs from the Masai Market or where casual meetings happen over the world famous Kenyan tea.
I started my day with a visit to David Sheldrick wildlife trust inside the Nairobi National Park, where the keepers take baby elephants and rhinos for mud bath. Next to it is the Langata Giraffe center. These are probably the most recommended spots in Nairobi and usually packaged with a game drive in Nairobi National park. But when you are in Nairobi, it’s important for you to look beyond these usual options.
Trying the less tried options
I recommend you to beat the usual to try the less tried. Why not take a detour to Kazuri beads factory near the coffee plantation of Kazuri. Kazuri are beautifully handmade beads which shaped by women who work at the workshop. One can take a guided tour of this workshop and shop around for some remarkable earrings, necklaces and bracelets made from these unique beads. It is a short tour and can easily be combined with other adventurous activities like a visit to Masai ostrich farm and a joyful ride on an ostrich.
A little excursion from the city will take you to beautiful landscapes of tea plantations in Tigoni. Situated at above 7000 feet from sea level, Tigoni offers you a spectacular view of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Ngong hills and acres of tea plantation stretched to the horizon. Many tea farms in Tigoni accept visitors, and a day break can be planned. My two favorites are Kiambethu Tea Farm and Brackenhurst. The Kiambethu farm house is set within beautiful gardens surrounded by acres of tea and indigenous forest – home to the Colobus monkey and plenty of other wildlife. The entire trip can be covered in a day and costs 3000 KSHs only.
Another 30 minutes ride from the main city, brings you to a welcome exception of a Brown’s cheese factory in Limuru. Cheese is not so African, but this extensive tour exposes tourists to the art of cheese making and you may even try to get a hand on it, with some practical lessons as a complementary gift.
Shopping for African Souvenirs
Something that’s clicks the most to me in Nairobi is the Masai market. Set everyday but in different locations of the district, Masai market is quite a welcome place for people looking to capture the tribal beauty of the place. From beaded earings and bracelets to wonderful variety of artifacts, masks, jewelry, stoneware and clothing, silver and amber necklaces as well as crosses hang in glass cases next to masks and statues, the market has a rich display to offer. But the Masai market, is always a battle field for seller’s truest skills of persuasion and buyer’s skills of bargaining. So it goes like this, they quote a price on a piece of paper (as they say ‘business is a secret thing’) and then ask you for your quote. And before you get into the market, let me tell you that I have bought stuff quoted at 25000 KShs for 2000 KShs (and I’m not a good bargainer). For some more high quality shopping experience, one can visit the African heritage on Kenyatta Avenue, the Gallery Watatu for local art and the Antiquity shop in the Hilton Arcade. For unique gifts, some made from recycled flip-flops and cans, head to Marula Studios (sometime you get them in Masai market too) in Karen. For innovative design, jewelry and unique home decor pieces, head to Spinners Web.
Founded as a stop-over for the famous ‘Lunatic Express’ from Mombasa to Kampala, Nairobi has grown as a sprawling welter of different cultures. Today Nairobi’s skyline surprises first-time visitors, and its charm takes you decades back. The venerable Norfolk and Stanley hotels recall the elegance of an age long since past. Rains never fail to bring out the hidden beauty of the city and brilliant bougainvillea lining the highway from the airport, flame trees shouting with color, and, in October, the lavender turning the horizon with the blossoms of jacaranda make Nairobi the real ‘Green city of the Sun’.