Kenya Safari and beyond
A classic safari, then into the lesser known parts of Kenya; the historic coast and the northern arid areas.
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A safari - a must in Kenya
To western eyes, Kenya is a tourist destination; a tourist destination primarily for safaris; the wildebeest, the lions, the elephants, all the big stuff that makes natural history TV viewing. Beyond that, it has a reputation as a seaside resort; lazing on a beach along the gorgeous Indian Ocean. It’s all true, with plenty of packages set up for a few days of safari followed by a few days on the beach.
For the solo backpacker it offers this and more. The safaris are easily accessible and a fraction of the cost when bought from a tour company. I was prepared to miss the beach angle. Sunbathing alone on a beach is not for the solo backpacker, although I might have made use of the exotic snorkelling and diving options.
I arrived in Nairobi with no plans, yet the following day was off on a safari. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need a little digression on Nairobi.
As this was one of my more recent trips, well into my retirement I booked a hotel from the UK, the cheapest in the guide book. Having read the horror stories about Nairobi, I also asked the hotel to pick me up from the airport. All this went well, despite dire warning from my guide book about the city.
The hotel was some way outside the city centre in what appeared to be affluent suburbs. From the main road, the taxi entered a gated area. A guard on duty checked the destination and we were allowed in. The hotel itself was inside a high perimeter fence with a steel gate, a bell and intercom. Despite this it was all very homely with a sense of warmth from staff who clearly understood the needs of backpackers. One such need was for a safari, and immediately after checking in I was offered a number of options. In truth the choice was between a four day and a five day. At little more than the cost of a few nights in a hotel I felt it could hardly go wrong.
Things didn’t go wrong. I had imagined that we would get glimpses of lions and elephants whereas we were close up watching the lions gnawing at a fresh kill, and elephants wandering alarmingly close. The final day at Lake Nakuru was a little less dramatic as the lake is low resulting in fewer flamingos than we had expected. Accommodation likewise was outstanding, with a tent to myself with toilet and hot shower.
The Kenyan Coast
After the safari, the other great draw of Kenya is its beaches; not likely to be relished by the over 60s solo backpacker. Avoiding the highly developed southern beaches I headed off to the northern coasts. As a British citizen unloved by Islamic fundamentalists, I was advised not to go beyond Malindi . Although it is some way from the Somalia border, tensions are high as a result of Kenyan involvement in attempts to stabilise its neighbour.
I have to confess to flying from Nairobi as the price was reasonable. And it was easy. Malindi is a delightful town; relaxed after the worrying reputation of Nairobi.
Malindi is the seaport where Vasco Da Gama set off off towards India in the 15th century. Remains of the Portuguese colonisation are scattered around the town. Although Vasco Da Gama’s pillar is a little underwhelming, there is a delightful thatched church reputedly erected by him and known to have been visited by St Francis Xavier. But Malindi is fundamentally a seaside town with a mix of fishing and local Kenyan tourism.
Scattered along the coast a series of ruins reminds us that the African coast was a highly developed centre for trade long before the arrival of European colonisation. Easy transport along the coast by fast matutus running between the main centres makes these ruins accessible. (A matutu is a passenger minibus.) One memorable city is that of Gede, a medieval Swahili town, with its ruined palaces, mosques and town houses. Unlike manicured western archaeological site, you can wander freely ‘discovering’ little gems of ruins seemingly lost in the forests. Nearby is Mnarindi with its well preserved mosques and carved inscriptions.
The coastal town of Kilifi is a draw to backpackers with one particularly delightful backpacker lodge, a little out of town but a great place to relax. Here you can find a local motor bike rider to take out to the wild coast or find a peaceful area to hike.
It’s hard not to be enthralled by Mombassa. It’s not for its historic site, although Jesus Fort is quite an attraction, but for its rich trading past reflected in the faces of the local people. Although little is known of its early history, it was a significant port in the Indian Ocean trade routes. As a result, the early inhabitants the Thenashara Taifa (Twelve Nations), a Swahili clan are now blended with peoples of India, Arabia, and of course Africa. To the brief visitor such as me, this is intriguing, but beneath the surface there are ethnic and religious tensions held in check by a tight security grip. Like much of the coast Mombassa, most of the population is Muslim.