East Africa is famous for big game safaris and beaches, but two of its most enjoyable attractions are not so well known. If you are passing through East Africa’s hub and Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, wait-a-bit (also the name of a thorn tree found in Kenya), and take a day or two to discover this “green city in the sun”. Here you will find distinctive art and crafts, art galleries and museums, fine dining, often in garden restaurants, and close encounters with some very charming locals, giraffes and baby elephants. If you are jet lagged or fatigued after flying in from the US or Europe, a couple of days exploring Nairobi could be just what you need to help reset your clock before going on safari.
Where to Go
At the top of your agenda, put the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. The last four years of drought, together with increased poaching due to recent decisions regarding the international sale of stockpiled ivory have been very hard on Kenya’s elephant population. This has brought many more orphaned elephants to the sanctuary than ever before. There are currently more than twenty. Sometimes only a few weeks old when they are found wandering and lost by herdsmen or gamekeepers, they return to the wild at the age of four, and remain attached to their keepers for life. It is actually true that an elephant never forgets a person they have known and trusted. How close can you get to them? They love it when you scratch their back.
The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was created in 1977 to honor David Sheldrick, a wildlife management pioneer and the first game warden of Tsavo National Park. Open to visitors from 11:00 a.m. to noon daily (except Christmas) admission is KShs 300 or USD 5.00 per person for non-residents. Enter the orphanage by the Mbagathi Gate to Nairobi National Park, off Langata Road, about 10 kilometers from City Center. It is a short walk from the parking to the playground, where you will meet the current orphans and learn about them from their keepers, who give very informative talks and answer questions while their charges romp and roll in the mud, take baby elephant formula from giant baby bottles, and investigate their visitors.
You can assist the Sheldrick Trust by “adopting” a baby elephant for the minimum adoption fee of $50. (Visit http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/) Since the cost to feed even a baby elephant can reach $750 per month, your support is appreciated. If you have adopted a baby elephant, you can also visit during the evening feeding time at 5 pm daily, and you will receive monthly updates from the Sheldrick Trust on the activities at the elephant orphanage, new arrivals, and the transition back to the wild of older orphans. These stories are often heartwarming. People in the bush show real concern for the welfare of lost baby elephants, making sometimes heroic efforts to rescue them. Interactions among the orphans and between orphans and keepers reveal the compassion and intelligence of these animals.
Not far from the Elephant Orphanage, Giraffe Center is also located at the edge of Nairobi National Park on the outskirts of the city, in the suburb of Karen, on Koitobos Road. From the elevated giraffe feeding station, you can discover what beautiful eyes and amazing tongues these gentle creatures have. Giraffe pellets are available for hand feeding, an experience not to be missed. Mount the feeding platform and the sanctuary giraffes will nuzzle you with their huge soft noses and lick pellets from your palm with their incredibly long sticky tongues. Hand washing facilities are available in the courtyard below.
The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) was established in 1979 to try to restore the wild population of the severely endangered Rothschild’s giraffe (one of three species found in Kenya), whose numbers had dwindled to little more than 100 animals. Through relocation and breeding programs, the population has been re-established in many parks around the country, and now exceeds 300 animals. Donations to support the center are devoted to the giraffe breeding program and to a number of different conservation education programs for Kenyan children. (Visit www.giraffecenter.org) Over 50,000 children from the slums of the city visited the center in 2008. AFEW’s primary objective is to raise awareness of the importance and value of the nation’s wildlife among the local population. Giraffe Center is open from 09:00 to 17:30 daily, admission is KShs 700 for non-residents.
In addition to these two fascinating animal sanctuaries there are a number of other interesting stops in the area. Karen Blixen ran her coffee farm here in the early days of white settlement in Kenya, as recounted in the film Out of Africa with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. The Karen Blixen House is now a museum. The little bungalow is filled with photos of the era and gives a sense of life in Kenya in the boom years of the early 20th century.
There are several unusual gift shops nearby that are known for quality and fair fixed prices. Utamaduni is a craft cooperative with a huge collection of African art and crafts available for hassle free browsing, Tomhogany produces useful and decorative items from African hardwoods, Matt Bronze uses lost wax methods for fine art bronze castings of African wildlife, and Kizuri produces kiln fired beads and pottery. These shops are all signposted if your driver isn’t sure where to find them.
In Westlands, closer to City Center, RaMoMa on 2nd Parklands Ave. displays modern African art including painting, sculpture, photography, and some hard-to-define objets d’art. Located in a large, rambling mansion that offers good viewing in its many rooms, it is open from 09:30 to 16:30 daily (closed on public holidays). Entrance is free, and there is a coffee shop in the garden, and an interesting gift shop with local art and crafts.
The National Museum of Kenya, located on Museum Hill, has been steadily improving since extensive renovations were completed last year. Exhibits catalogue the wildlife and tribal cultures of Kenya. The Herpetarium next door is particularly interesting given the large number of species of venomous snakes in East Africa (more than 30). Both are open 8:30 to 18:00 daily, and there are gift shops and a cafe offering sandwiches, cold drinks and coffee on site.
Where to Stay
While there are excellent hotels in City Center (The Hilton, the Fairview, and the New Stanley are all good choices) you may prefer to stay in Westlands, where security is better and amenities are more accessible. Depending on traffic, Westlands is only about ten minutes beyond city center when coming from the airport. The Holiday Inn on Parklands Road is well managed and has pleasant gardens. The Jacaranda is less expensive and within walking distance of Sarit Center, where you will find shopping, coffee shops (Dorman’s and Java House), one of Nairobi’s best bookstores for Africana (Textbook Center), and a good internet cafe (Easy Surf). Also nearby is the Westgate Mall. Art Cafe in the mall is a popular place to lounge with a cappuccino and an almond croissant, and wireless internet is free.
If you must stay near the airport because of an early flight out, the closest hotel is Panari House on Mombassa Road, where the Pampas Grill serves all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbeque.
The safest and most practical transport solution is to use an established taxi company – this will allow you to move about safely and without delays. Princess Cabs and Jatco are based in Westlands. Your hotel can help you contact a reliable service. Plan your itinerary in advance, together with your driver, so that you avoid traffic congestion points and minimize your time on the road. Rental by the full day is an economical choice if you intend to make many stops. Expect to pay around Kenya Shillings 5,000 ($65) for the day; evening outings are extra.
Where to Eat
After wildlife encounters and craft shopping in Karen, but before 3:00 pm when the kitchen closes, try a late lunch at Talisman restaurant. Occupying an old colonial style house with multiple fireplaces (remember, it gets cold in Nairobi) and open to a large garden, Talisman is a Nairobi icon. The feta and coriander somosas with tomato chili jam are a delight. Good food and a nice wine list make this a pleasant place to relax before returning to town. If Talisman is fully booked, a few hundred meters down Ngong Road is Osteria of Karen, also with a charming garden and excellent food.
Rumor has it that there are over 400 restaurants in Westlands. In any case, there are a variety of cuisines available. All of the following are very popular among the Nairobi expat community, with a full meal with wine for two averaging around KShs 4,000 ($50):
Haandi, famous in East Africa for very rich and delicious North Indian cuisine, is in the Mall at the Westlands roundabout. Open House, just across the road, offers Goan style seafood and other dishes, is much less expensive and equally delicious.
Mediterraneo on Woodvale Grove offers fine Italian cuisine and excellent pizza (takeaway in fifteen minutes) together with an interesting selection of Italian wines in a very cozy atmosphere.
About Thyme on Eldorama Ravine Road is a good choice for vegetarians. Their pumpkin and amaretto ravioli are a local favorite.
The Phoenician, just around the corner from Sarit Center on Karuna Road, started out as a Lebanese pizzeria. More recently, they added a sushi bar with exotic dishes that keep the place packed every night of the week.
Zen Garden is a new restaurant slightly beyond Westlands on Lower Kabete Road. Dim sum are the house specialty, but their menu features an eclectic mix of fusian Asian cuisine.
A Little Night Life
Three popular local hangouts for after hours (and even wee hours) food, drinks and music are Gypsy’s Bar near the Jacaranda Hotel, Mercury Lounge in ABC Place, and Havana on Woodvale Grove. These are lively places, and can become very loud as the evening wears on, but they are perfectly safe, and are vibrant with local color – African, Asian, and European locals fill these bars, not tourists.
Let’s be honest, “Nai-robbery” is notorious for crime, traffic, and pollution. As long time residents in E Africa we avoid the worst of the hassles by doing our exploring on the weekends, when traffic is relatively light, and we minimize our time out and about after dark. Basic Nairobi survival skills require that you always lock the car doors, wear nothing extravagant to attract attention (jewelry, watch, handbag), know where you are going and be purposeful, avoid and ignore anyone who accosts you, and leave valuables including wallet and credit cards in the hotel safe if you must go out walking.