Let it be known that I have a weakness for velvety beaches, turquoise blue waters, and cloudless skies. I also happen to love David Attenborough’s Africa, and am wildly addicted to caffeine in both teas and coffees. So naturally, it doesn’t surprise many when I confess my love of Kenya, and all things Kenyan. The truth is, however, that my time in Kenya went beyond the coffee, beaches, and safaris.
When to visit
Weather in Kenya is fantastic year-round, since it is gifted with Equatorial climate. However, for anyone visiting Mombasa, please be aware that the months of December and January are fairly warm, nights are sometimes ‘stuffy’, on account of the high humidity (although I hear Santa rides in on a camel!) Similarly, one can expect substantial rainfall in the April – May season, and the coolest time of year is from June – August, which is when I visited.
Safaris, too in my opinion, are most enjoyable during the ‘Kenyan winter’. Partly because the Great Migration starts in July, and the spread of animals you see are a real ‘bang for your buck’ within that time frame. But mostly because of my partiality towards coffee on cold mornings, and night time drinks by a fireplace. Oh, and also because I detest mosquitos (but more on that later).
Day 1 – Mombasa
A coastal city, with the ultimate beach lifestyle vibe to it, Mombasa has a lot to offer. I spent a good deal of my time in Diani, Ukunda, where there is a high density of beach resorts, eateries, and tourists. It is also within driving distance of the quaint and charming Shimba Hills National Reserve, which makes for a fantastic day trip or overnight camp / stay.
My first day, however, consisted of a handful of typical tourist activities at the resort I was staying at – lying by the pool, working on my tan and catching up on some tripe reads accompanied by tropical, sugar-loaded drinks topped with umbrellas courtesy of Andrew, the bartender whom we later referred to as ‘the gentle giant’.
In my opinion, there is little else that compares to the feeling you get after repeating a dose of vitamin D after enjoying an all-you-can-eat lunch, dosing off, and waking up borderline sunburnt.
And like all good tourists, I followed up my mid-day hangover with more drinks, dinner, and a ‘cultural show’ before calling it an early night.
Tip: Depending on which provider you’re with, you may or may not be fortunate enough to lose reception altogether for brief stretches of time. I rather enjoyed the disconnect from the outside world, but if you so choose, there are several, cheap pre-paid SIM packages available at the Nairobi Airport; Nakumatt (a department store chain); or perhaps via your hotel.
Day 2 – Sights in and around Mombasa
The main city of Mombasa is actually an island, reached from Diani by road and a short ferry ride. Like most big cities, traffic is impossible to manoeuvre through, and I’d suggest avoiding it at all costs, unless you’re planning on ‘stocking up’ for your upcoming safari like I was. In which case, the place to go to is a Nakumatt in the main town. Alternatively, I found everything I needed at Diani Shopping Centre, which is equally well stocked in my opinion.
A popular attraction in Mombasa is Fort Jesus in the Old Port, which was built when Kenya was under the Portuguese. The fort now has a light and sound show, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. – also visit old town; curios; old quaint houses
As much as I love historical military fortifications made of heaps plaster and rock coral, I spent much of the day, feeding giraffes at Haller Park. The ‘park’ was originally called the ‘Bamburi Nature Trail’ but changed it’s name to honour environmentalist René Haller, who played a key role in the establishment of the park. There are a wild number of attractions to see within the park, including but not restricted to a 100+ year old giant (Aldabra) tortoise, and a handful of hippos.
The end to my day was a highlight to say the least. As the aroma of roasted sweet potato wafted through the air, and the buzzing of children buzzed on candy floss filled the space, I caught my breath at the Lighthouse by the coast near Mama Ngina Drive. Along the length of the large open space that is Mama Ngina Drive, are baobab trees, which, in my opinion, are the ‘friendliest’ of trees, the sort you can have a heart-to-heart with.
Giraffes, as cute as they look with their long eyelashes, have tongues like sandpaper, and saliva like craft glue. If you’re at all a germophobe, I’d suggest carrying some disinfecting wet wipes!
Kenya has pretty standardized rates as far as entry tickets to tourist attractions go – there is a rate for Kenyan residents and non-residents but no student discounts available. Be sure to ask about discounted tickets for children though, since those are nearly half of adult tickets.
Although people (my mother) warn against trying street food, I’ve always been somewhat adventurous (rebellious), and have to say, I rather enjoyed the cassava crisps. That said, it is advisable to avoid any street meat, and fresh food – anything fried is fair game though.
For those traveling with children, the Mamangina Park near the Lighthouse has a vast number of activities for the young’uns including (mini) battery powered cars. In case anyone’s wondering, they’re not too keen on adults racing said cars!
Souvenirs; trinkets and curios can also be purchased around the Fort Jesus vicinity, and for those with more time on their hands, the ‘Old Town’ is well worth exploring!
Days 3 – 4 Tsavo East
Early the next morning, pre-coffee, (and therefore pre-smiles, joy, and sunshine), for a long, 4 hour drive through the Kenyan countryside to reach Tsavo National Park. Not that I ought to complain, mind you, the drive was amongst the most picturesque I’d had the pleasure of experiencing, and the weather was outstanding – no rain, no clouds, and just the right amount of crispness in the air.
The guide driving the safari van, who was apparently fluent in German, Italian and a bouquet of other languages pulled over for the most magical of sunrises I’d seen. So, naturally, following up such perfection can only be achieved when one sees the Big Five in the open savannah – which was exactly what followed. Granted this was over the space of two days, and I only saw four of the five (the rhinos were MIA), but seeing cheetah cubs running around their mother playfully doesn’t happen everyday.
The ‘Big Five’ refers to the five game (a term used by early hunters to describe the most sought after animals) – the African elephant, the Masai lion, the cape buffalo, the black rhino, and the leopard. The Tsavo East National Park has a high density of everything from game to birds and monkeys. The only thing it lacked, however, in my opinion was rhinos, which are apparently more common in Tsavo West (or so said the guide), where there is also a black rhino sanctuary.
I could probably spend the next 500 odd words talking through the wilderness and wildlife, but that would probably bore you, or start to sound too much like a NatGeo documentary, (depending on what you favour); so I’m just going to refer you to the photographs which follow.
Tsavo East has a number of safari lodges and accommodation really is fairly easy to come by. Lodges, like beach resorts, offer a handful of amenities and activities, so if you miss a ‘cultural evening’ at your resort, chances are you will catch one at your lodge. There are also a handful of ‘camps’ present to choose from, most of which are luxury camps (fitted with showers; running water; and beds).
Masai Mara is equally beautiful compared to Tsavo, if not more so. People blessed with more time (and moolah) could definitely take a plane to ‘Mara and enjoy a couple of nights there. Masai Mara National Park is known for it’s romantic hot air balloon rides and champagne breakfasts overlooking the Park before daybreak. In addition, the Great Migration is best viewed there from mid-July to August.
Day 5 – Mombasa
I returned to Diani for a day after my ‘Lion King’ inspired excursion, where I spent much of my time in the water scuba diving. The marine diversity in Diani is something quite unique on account of a sand bar, which keeps a majority of the larger fish at bay. The result is scads of smaller fish in every colour of the rainbow, and me wishing I had a waterproof camera on my person.
Other than diving, I spent a small amount of timing on a jet ski and behind a jet ski, banana boating.
-For more keen divers, there are also wreck dives, dolphin and shark filled waters, and an exquisite dive by a coral reef. Equipment rentals are fairly cheap; and most dive companies also offer ‘fun dives’ for those without permits. Snorkelling is an equally great option, since visibility is amazing!
-Also available for adventurous souls is deep sea fishing (Kenya was the first (and only) place at which I’d been able to sample swordfish!)
Colobus Conservation – For anyone looking to do a (or some) good deed(s) on their vacation, the Colobus Conservation (Colobus Trust) is a non-profit based in Diani, with accommodation facilities for volunteers (you can check out their website here: http://www.colobusconservation.org). I spent a few days with them on another trip to Kenya, and made some great friends while I gathered some karma-points.
Day 6 – Malindi
Very few people are aware of the steep population of Italians in Kenya (they run, in my opinion, the best eateries in Diani, and a few gelato shops here and there). But everyone who’s anyone, from what I understand, has a place in either Malindi, or Lamu Island. And while I was more than aware that everyone from Bill Gates to Sienna Miller and on Lamu, I’ve always had a penchant for all things Italian and decided to spend a day in Malindi instead, and I don’t regret my decision in the slightest.
Malindi is an enchanting town, also blessed with cloudless skies, and clear waters seen in Diani. The main difference here, however, are some ruins, and how ‘Italian’ the town feels at times! There is also a rather large casino scene in Malindi (Mombasa has quite a few too), but Casino Malindi hosts several events year round including fashion shows, concerts, fishing competitions, and lest I forget Italians!
Lamu – for those interested in Lamu as well, it is accessible from Mombasa, Malindi and Nairobi via road or air, and is quite literally the Monaco of Kenya. Additionally, the ‘Old Town’ in Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with well-preserved traditional housing built with rock coral and wood. Moreover, given that a majority of the large villas owned on the island are owned by the creme de la creme of Hollywood, maybe you’ll bump into Sting whilst you’re there.
To sum it all up…
I’ve often heard it said that it is people who ‘make’ a place what it is. Despite misfortune and circumstance, Kenyan people have a zest for life. Something that is tragically lacking in our societies today, and something that served as a major wakeup call for me.
As cheesy as it sounds, my sojourn in Kenya was one of those life-altering trips. The type that I’d talk about so often after returning to civilization, it’d drive friends and family mad. Even though this might not be the last time I say it, my last trip to Kenya was amazing.
There’s no denying that Kenyans love a good party. And they should – they throw amazing parties! Just be sure to check and double check with your hotel or campground coordinator as to which establishments are safe, and be sure to go there with a group.
‘Matatus’ are minibuses running (often illegal) transports services. Apart from being crazily over capacity, they are known for maniacal drivers, and subsequently unfortunate fatal accidents. Please avoid these at all costs in the interest of safety.
Taxis are fairly cheap (there are even some London cabs available for hire), so be sure to arrange one from a reputable company if you’re planning a night out.
Recently Kenya has been in the news for a lot of reasons, completely unrelated to luxury holidays. However, as far as safety goes, within hotel compounds, established campgrounds, and in the presence of local guides there is little to worry about as long as one remains sensible.
That said, if you are an independent traveler, venturing out into cities on your own is ill-advised, especially outside daylight hours. Although the curfew on Nairobi has been lifted, street crime is high. Furthermore, it is in poor taste to wander streets, or beaches flaunting jewelry, watches etc.
The ‘beach boy’ culture in Mombasa, is for the most part, harmless to tourists. You may encounter beach boys (not so surprisingly) on the beach, and majority of the time, they either want you to trade your plastic wristwatch for a bag of shells or just make conversation.
Askaris, or security guards from hotels and campgrounds take particular care to ensure there is no trouble, so as long as you’re friendly and not flashing a Rolex in anyone’s face, you should be fine.
Despite whatever you may have heard about mosquitoes in East Africa, even if you don’t see too many, they are everywhere. If you’re a first-time traveler to Africa, I highly recommend getting your hands on anti-malarial pills upto 1 month / 2 weeks prior to travel, as well as some quality mosquito and insect repellent. Also, be warned that anti-malarial medication makes you more susceptible to sunburn, so maybe double stock on the sunblock too!
Booking safaris and guided tours
Booking certain activities can be done prior to your arrival or at your hotel. I found the latter to be an extremely convenient option, since pick up to and from my hotel was organised and all I needed to do was show up with luggage in hand. Booking in advance is substantially cheaper as are off-season rates. The Christmas and New Year’s Eve season is usually the most expensive. Lastly, some tour companies offer discounts for foregoing a safari van (and using a Land Cruiser, for example), so be sure to ask for discounts or discount options wherever possible.
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi
While Jomo Kenyatta Airport is not the most comfortable (cold in the winter and warm in the summer), it does have all the basic amenities one would need or expect. Be warned, the airport is dead during the red-eye shift, when very few cafes and restaurants are open. Avoid duty-free shopping for most food or at least make sure you check the expiry dates, and reserve all or most souvenir shopping for cultural stalls and handicraft warehouses organised by your hotel or tour company.
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