Spend a leisurely day discovering the natural and cultural highlights of Nairobi
By Ashley van Schalkwyk
Nothing more than a desolate frontier backwater just a century ago, Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi has undergone a remarkable transformation. Having started life as a depot on the Uganda Railway in 1899, it’s now one of Africa’s largest and most influential cities, with the enviable moniker as the continent’s safari capital.
An established hub for business and culture, Nairobi is home to thousands of Kenyan businesses and more than 100 major international companies and organisations. Additionally, the Nairobi Securities Exchange is one of Africa’s largest and the second-oldest exchange on the continent, capable of making 10 million trades a day.
But while Nairobi has all the hallmarks of a modern urban city, it has much to offer the leisure visitor looking to let off some steam.
Wide open spaces
Named after the Masai phrase for a watering hole, enkare nyarobi, which means “place of cool waters”—referring to the Nairobi River that flows through the city—the abundant parks and dense tree cover quietly whisper an invitation for you to come explore this vibrant metropolis.
The most famous of these lush green spaces is Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park, bordering on the central business district. Here you’ll find locals relaxing around the artificial lake or in the quiet reading nooks, history buffs inspecting the several national monuments, and skateboarders showing off their skills in the assembly ground. The latter is also used for the occasional political or religious gathering.
Adjacent to Uhuru is Central Park, with its memorial to Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, and the Moi Monument, built in 1988 to commemorate the second president’s first decade in power. There’s a great playground for children as well as plenty spots for a picnic.
Another notable open space is Jeevanjee Gardens, the only park in the city directly owned by the people—having been donated by AM Jeevanjee, an Asian-born entrepreneur in Kenya, to the poor of Nairobi as a resting area. Have a sat on the artistic benches after exploring the authentic sculptures.
Back in time
An excellent starting point on a tour of Nairobi’s museums would be the one dedicated to the life of Karen Blixen, the pioneer Danish coffee farmer. She achieved world fame through her highly acclaimed memoir, Out of Africa, and the subsequent Oscar-winning movie starring Meryl Streep.
Her lovely colonial house on a 1 800-hectare farm was bought by the Danish government in 1964 and presented as a gift to the Kenyan government when it achieved independence. It has been operating as a museum since 1986.
At the Nairobi National Museum, you’ll not only learn more about the four pillars of Kenya’s national heritage—its history, nature, culture and contemporary art—but also have an opportunity to shop and dine at a number of facilities. The famous Snake Park, Botanical Gardens and Nature Trail are also housed within the museum grounds.
Lying just 7km from the city, Nairobi National Park, the first of its kind in Kenya, was officially opened in 1946; however, the area had been set aside as a game reserve in the early 1900s due to an increase in human and animal conflicts. Back then, Nairobi’s estimated 14 000 residents would arm themselves with guns at night to protect themselves against lions. People also complained that zebra and giraffe destroyed their flowerbeds! Once proclaimed as a reserve, settlers were happy to roam the bushveld on horseback among the wildlife.
Also called Kifaru (“Rhino”) Ark, the national park is one of Kenya’s most successful rhinoceros sanctuaries, and is one of a handful of parks where you’re certain of seeing a black rhino in its natural habitat.
Part of the park’s cultural heritage are the rock shelters and overhangs that in the past were used by the Masai and the Ndorobo hunter-gatherers. On an overhang in the Mokoiyete Valley, you can find rock paintings dating back more than a hundred years. These abstract motifs portraying painted shields and dwellings are believed to have been made by Masai pastoralists during their warrior initiation ceremonies.
The renowned African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) Giraffe Centre in Lagata, just outside Nairobi, is a must-visit—particularly for curious children. It was set up as a breeding centre for the endangered Rothschild giraffe, a subspecies only found in the grasslands of East Africa. In this natural sanctuary, you’ll be given a rare opportunity to climb a platform and come face to face with these gentle giants. You’ll also be able to feed them, allowing you an up-close look at how they use their prehensile tongues to remove leaves from prickly acacia branches.
Giraffe wander freely through the gardens here, and occasionally visit the Giraffe Manor: a beautifully maintained colonial home that now serves as an exclusive guesthouse. Don’t be surprised when one of these characters pushes its head through the French windows to inspect your breakfast!(Giraffe Manor)
Another animal sanctuary that shouldn’t be left off your itinerary is the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where elephant, rhino and other vulnerable animals are rehabilitated. It was established in 1977 by Daphne Sheldrick, whose husband David was one of Kenya’s best known game wardens and an important figure in the ivory poaching wars in Tsavo National Park.
Best known for its Orphan’s Project, the trust has set up a haven for elephant calves from all over the country that have been orphaned by poaching. When they’re stable enough to survive on their own in the wild, they’re carefully reintroduced into wild herds in Tsavo National Park.
A bit of culture
Immerse yourself in Kenya’s diverse ethnicities at the Bomas of Kenya. Established to preserve, maintain and promote their rich cultural values, here you can experience various crafts as well as dance and musical performances by the BomasHarambee national dance company.(Bomas of Kenya)
But the Bomas aren’t just about dancing. At Utamaduni (“Culture”) Restaurant, tantalise your taste buds with the delectable menu of unique cultural foods from various Kenyan communities. Come try the nyamachoma (barbecued meats) and ugali (maize porridge), Abagusii matoke (plantains) and Abaluhya ingokho (chicken with green vegetables) in a relaxed natural setting among traditional huts, or bomas.
Karen Blixen Museum – www.museums.or.ke/karen-blixen
Nairobi National Museum – www.museums.or.ke/introduction
Nairobi National Park – www.kws.go.ke/parks/nairobi-national-park
AFEW Giraffe Centre – www.giraffecentre.org
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
Bomas of Kenya – www.bomasofkenya.co.ke