I visited Kenya in November to January 2016-17 during my Masters and collected data for my thesis.
I was fortunate to find a project with fieldwork in Kenya, and I collaborated on a project studying a rare songbird, named the Taita apalis, which is only found in one place in the whole world.
On that occasion, I spend the majority of my time in the Taita Hills close to the Tanzanian border, although I didn’t cross the border to Tanzania.
In the following paragraphs you can read some practical info such as safety and transportation.
After this section you can read about my favorite experiences in Kenya:
Karen Blixen Museum, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Nairobi National Museum!
Practical info about visiting Kenya
M-Pesa and SIM-card
If you plan to stay in Kenya for long-term, you can consider getting a local SIM-card and M-Pesa setup on your phone. M-Pesa is a mobile money transfer system developed in Kenya, which works well if you don’t like carrying cash around. Most shops accept M-Pesa, and it is really easy to use locally. I got my Safaricom SIM-card and M-Pesa account on my phone at the Sarit Center in Nairobi, just remember to bring your passport.
Transportation around Kenya
I would personally never use public buses for long drives (for example Nairobi to Voi or Nairobi to Mombasa). If you travel more than locally (e.g. within the city limits) you should use a large coach bus. There are several big companies operating in Kenya, such as the James Bus.
Using public buses will not only lower your comfort traveling in this humid country but also your personal safety on the road.
Within Nairobi, it is fine to take the local transport instead of a cab. Usually, it is a big, loud and colorful ‘party bus’ which are owned by private individuals. There are few regular stops on the route, and if you are not at one you simply wave down a bus and ask the staff where it is heading and if it stops where you are going. I personally went with the public transport when I visited the Sarit Center and the National Museums of Kenya and barely had issues.
There are almost no traffic lights, which means you have to learn the way of crossing the road without limiting your safety. If you have traveled in Asia this should be no issue for you :).
In the Taita Hills, public transport is regular passenger cars which drive you from town to town. In a regular passenger car, it is customary to fill four people in the back seat of the car. You can also hire a scooter or motorbike taxi to drive you to specific places (in case you are going to Ngangao or Vuria in the Taita Hills). I personally did this, but make sure the driver understands if you want to drive slowly and safer. Drink driving is regularly happening, please do not compromise your safety.
I had little issues with safety in Kenya, as long as you keep your wits with you. I did not go out after dark in Nairobi and had no issues walking around town on my own during the day. If you have any concerns, check the latest report from UK Government advice on Kenya.
Do not flash expensive phones or cameras in the streets, even if it is tempting to take photos. Carry your valuables close to you, such as a fanny pack or pouch hidden under your clothes. I had literally just arrived in Nairobi and was carrying a backpack on my back, within seconds someone tried to unzip a compartment, and I put it in the front to watch it carefully.
Getting from the Nairobi Airport to the city center
I was fortunate to have a volunteer working with me during my fieldwork, and was picked up at the airport. You have several options to get from the airport to the center. We went with the public bus, which is extremely cheap but takes a lot longer than you would expect. Traffic in Nairobi is horrible since traffic is directed through Nairobi instead of around. It took us three hours to get from the airport to the center with a public bus around rush hour, which starts around 4 pm.
If you are new to Africa I advise you to take the expensive option and get a taxi to drive you. Remember to have the doors locked and windows closed for safety. With a taxi, you should be in the center in 30-45 minutes.
Where (not) to stay in Nairobi
I stayed at probably the cheapest hotel in the city center. I will not name it here as I won’t recommend it. If you travel to East Africa you probably have a budget that allows you to stay in decent hotels. Even my cheap hotel had security guarding the entrance, as they are very vigilant in Nairobi about safety. I stayed within 600 meters of the Nairobi National Museum and thought this neighborhood was safe to walk around during the day.
Shopping in Nairobi
I stayed in the capital for almost a week to finish preparations for the fieldwork. I visited shopping centers most days, including the Sarit Center and the Westgate Center. Here you might feel very comfortable in this Western atmosphere, with nice restaurants and high-end shops.
Outside the Sarit Center you will find a huge market with little shops selling souvenirs. Hundreds of small shops with varying content offering soapstone figures, wooden cutlery, artwork and more.
Activities in an around Nairobi
In the following paragraphs you can read about my experiences visiting the Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, the Giraffe Center, the Karen Blixen Museum and the National Museums of Kenya (in no particular order).
National Museums of Kenya
Being affiliated with the Ornithology Department at the museum I was obliged to pay a courtesy visit. A visit to this museum was a day well spent, you can even just go there if you only have a few hours.
The museum display cultural heritage, natural history, and geology. You can add a visit to the Nairobi Snake Park inside the museums’ premises. You can easily spend four hours in this museum including having lunch or dinner.
If you are into wildlife, the park surrounding the museum holds a variety of birds such as the stunning African Paradise-flycatcher.
The Giraffe Center
I visited the Giraffe Center as a part of a TripAdvisor tour, and this was the first stop of three.
The center is open from 9 am to 5 pm, you can check out the rates and more if you are not joining a tour like me on their website. The entrance fees go to conservation education work.
At the giraffe center, you get really up close and personal with the giraffes, as seen in this photo below. You are equipped with a handful of pellets, which you can feed to the hungry giraffes. They are literally in your face!
I spent about an hour and a half at the giraffe center, including feeding the giraffes and listened to an educational talk about giraffe biology and conservation.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) Elephant Orphanage Nairobi
I visited the Elephant Orphanage as the second stop on my TripAdvisor tour. The orphanage is only open every day from 11 am to noon to visitors.
Visiting the DSWT was a lifelong dream of mine, and getting to know some of the young elephants was really a life-changing experience. These elephants are rescued from the wild, where their mothers have suffered from poaching, or simply the baby falling down a well or a mud hole and then being abandoned by the mother. The life of an elephant is quite heartbreaking, and I cannot do anything other than highly recommend you to visit the Orphanage, should you be in Nairobi.
The visit to the DWST Elephant Orphanage
At 11 am, all the orphans are herded to this area where they are fed their milk formula bottles, and where you get to take pictures of them while they might interact with you. There is usually a crowd of people, which means you might not get in the front by the rope, but when you travel solo it’s a perk to squeeze in :).
In the afternoon, you can browse the souvenir shop for cool t-shirts or other items, where the money goes to the Orphanage (keepers, conservation and of course the ellies!). You may also choose to ‘adopt’ an orphan, read much more about this on their website. Make sure to follow their Instagram for cute updates and stories from the orphanage.
The Karen Blixen Museum
The Karen Blixen Museum was the last of the three stops on my TripAdvisor tour. On the day of my visit, a wedding was held in the beautiful garden at the Museum, which made the experience so much more special.
Baroness Karen Blixen was a Danish writer known for her novel ‘Out of Africa‘, which was pictured in a movie with the same title where Meryl Streep played the role of Karen. Everyone who ever fell in love with the movie or was enchanted by the book should visit the home of Karen Blixen. Today it serves as a museum of Karen Blixen’s life on the farm, and the tours are led by students educating themselves within the tourism industry.
Karen lived in the house in Nairobi from 1917 to 1931 when she returned home to Denmark due to severe illness.
Not only do you get to experience the interior of the house, you also get a tour around the farm to see some of the machines that were used in her time. As it is not allowed to take photos inside the house I can only show a picture from outside, but the decorations and furniture are mostly original and quite fascinating.
© All photos are my own and may not be used without permission.