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Kenya: City in the Wilds

I first penned A&OC in 2015, following my time in the Congo and general penchant for Africa’s riches and discomfort. Having spent varying lengths in Malawi, Morocco, the DRC, Egypt, Tanzania, South Africa & Zambia, I’d yet to visit one of Africa’s more obvious, accessible and inspiring nations: Kenya.

Having studied International Development together at university, my close friend Mark's been working unassumingly overseas ever since – first Haiti, then East Africa, settling conveniently in Nairobi. Having kept in touch, I couldn’t resist his invitation to cross the Kenyan threshold.

My Kenya Airways flight touched down pre-dawn, a comfortable journey of eight or so hours into the southern hemisphere. Mother Africa hits you as you step from the plane, that recognisable smell of baked earth and charred fiery air – so difficult to describe yet irrefutably comforting, a reminder that trips to this continent offer textures and trials far beyond London’s stand on the right and hybrid buses.

Passport stamped, I ventured into the city with Mark’s two-line address screenshotted from WhatsApp. Nairobi stirs to life through the darkness, my first glimpses of unfamiliar billboards and silhouetted women dressed for church captured in the car headlight, singular.

Turning up an unpaved road in the well-heeled Kilimani district, Stunning Homes stand sentry over the shadowy street. The idling taxi arousing the guard and the gate rumbles ajar. Mark of course had overslept, but what’s a few more minutes after five years apart? Mark’s apartment is spacious, with generous balcony and palatial uplit ceilings. This was a far cry from my Malawian long-drop and candle-lit showers, a fond memory from my very first visit to sub-Saharan Africa.

Nairobi is an inconceivably recent addition to the world map, established in 1899 as a staging post for the East African Railway, spanning from Mombasa to Kampala. Then, only a few tented camps sat along the trickling Uaso Nyirobi, 'the place of sweet waters’ – now three million people jostle for opportunity in this African metropolis.

The capital is the gateway for those branching out to the luxurious lodges of the Mara or turquoise resorts that hug the Indian Ocean, a logistical stop-off to picture book Africa. Few spend more than a night or two in Nairobi itself, notorious for belching bad traffic and unenviable home to the world's second largest slum, Kibera. It’s also the target of fairly frequent forays by Somali-based terror group, al-Shabaab, most recently attacking the DusitD2 hotel in January, killing 21. And this is where we headed for breakfast, just around the corner at the sunbathed le Grenier à Pain bakery, for avocado on toast topped with poached egg and silky latté.

Having only been here a few hours, my lowly preconceptions were evaporating quickly under 30 degree skies. Suburban streets arch around gentle hills and jacaranda trees; verges serve garden centres offering bursts of colour. This is no better enjoyed than a wander through the expansive Karura Forest, a shady city oasis of burnt red walking trails through established, peaceful woodland. We strolled to the waterfall, a meek trickle as the country awaits overdue rains. Nairobi sits at 1,795 meters above sea level (London 11m; Mt Snowdon 1,085m), and gentle exercise quickens the heart rate – ice cold White Cap lagers beckoned at the lodge-style River Café with parkland views. No giraffes sighted.

For a further contrast, Mark took me to a high-end shopping mall serving international brands and cuisines. Village Market caters almost exclusively for wealthy Kenyans, expats, and visitors seeking the familiarity of home. The French supermarket sells apples and pears alongside sugarcane and pawpaws. Delicious milkshake is served in trendy overpriced bottles. Driving back and snarled in traffic, our driver jumped out and practiced yoga in the middle of the motorway. That evening, an earthquake rumbled through the Rift Valley, a decent test for Mark’s Chinese built apartment block.

On Nairobi’s outskirts lies the renowned Giraffe Manor, where giraffes peer elegantly through colonial windows to share guests’ breakfasts. Built in the 1930s and modelled on a Scottish hunting lodge, this now boutique hotel has a long history of giraffe conservation. With widespread habitat loss in their native western Kenya, Rothschild giraffes verged on the brink of extinction with only 120 roaming the wilds. Now there are around 300, thanks in part to the property’s reintegration programme. Visitors like us with a more modest budget can share the giraffe experience from the bottom of the garden, where Rothschilds wander the grounds for brunch, lunch and dinner. The Giraffe Centre allows casual interactions with the herd – a memorable chance to gaze into the black glossy eyes of such unique, graceful creatures (from an elevated platform).

On a similar theme we continued to the nearby David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, home to 21 orphaned elephants. The mischievous ellies romp down the hill for their daily milk, several bumbling under the rope to join us – Africa’s nonchalant approach to health and safety another frill to be savoured. Beautiful views extend out over Nairobi National Park, whilst armed guards keep a low profile against the bush, casting a watchful eye over the visitors rather than the wildlife – this popular tourist draw an undoubted feast for the aforementioned al-Shabaab.

Security is a visible and vaguely reassuring theme across Nairobi. The city has faced a number of security events in recent years, notably the 1998 attack on the US embassy, and 2013’s marauding assault on the Westgate Shopping Mall. Since, there’s been a noticeable tightening of security, with shopping centres, hotels and restaurants enforcing cursory vehicle searches and walk-through metal detectors. What actual protection these beeping magnetic wands offer against a well-armed militant is debatable, but if it allows me to enjoy my delicious French-toast-fruit-medley in relative safety then I’m all for it. Armed support is rarely far away, just don’t be alarmed if you’re at the urinal and get bumped in the butt by your neighbour’s ageing AK, slung casually over their shoulder.

Other than an interim spell in Dar Es Salaam, Mark’s been living in the Kenyan capital for about two years, working on the city’s outskirts for a company manufacturing cooking stoves. Traditional stoves pose an environmental and health disaster across the developing world, requiring a daily supply of deforesting wood or charcoal, which when burnt can lead to respiratory ailments. Travelling the breadth of Africa, Mark researches new markets and potential distributors, encouraging them to invest in these cleaner burners which in the long-run offer a more economical cooking method. I had an insightful tour of the factory, a hive of activity and corrosive smells. Whether it’s necessary to have young white westerners converging on this industrial backwater, overseeing operations whilst Kenyans man the factory floor is an ethical question I’ll leave you to ponder.

One place I’d highly recommend visiting, if you can find the entrance, is the Kenyatta International Convention Centre. Located downtown, the KICC is tiered like a concrete wedding cake, and sits amidst Parliament and other key government offices. Having negotiated several security checks, flirtatious advances and a complex lift system, you can actually access the helipad on the 29th floor, offering unrivalled views of the city and its jostling matatus below. The relative hurdles of reaching the rooftop means you have the panorama to yourself, and on a clear day you can even see Mount Kenya, over 150km to the north.

Mount Kenya was where we were heading next, waking at 4am to escape the city before gridlock ensues, though in hindsight a chocking traffic jam would have been a welcome reprieve from the alarming high-speed driving standards. Unlit cars glide down the motorway in pure darkness, whilst others dip between lanes with piercing full-beam. Having passed rice paddies and wound our way up into verdant hills, we paused in Chogoria for sweet-sweet tea and chapattis.

Here we picked up the endless dirt road to the Chogoria gate, juddering through mist-clad rainforest and bamboo thicket. At this point our unpreparedness had all the hallmarks of a ‘two Brits missing’ headline, an anxiety reinforced by the fading newspaper clippings of missing '90s hikers adorning the park ranger’s hut. Park fees are only payable by card or Mpesa, despite there being no phone signal or data connection at the station. So, in comedic style, Mark, driver Dennis, the camouflaged ranger and I piled back into the car I’d been so keen to get out of, back down the dirt road in search of reception. Shortly thereafter, Dennis negotiated a ‘no receipt’ cash deal instead, and we reversed back towards the hut as unofficial visitors with no permit. “This is Africa” the Africans laughed, and with my own long and successful history of bribery throughout the continent, I embraced the win-win, adorned my African hat and commenced the trek.

The landscape was initially stunning, a plateau of breeze tickled meadows and shady leopard glens. Relatively significant wildlife, such as waterbuck and zebra watched us from a distance as we stepped over colourful chameleons and fresh elephant dung. As the incline sharpened we entered a more menacing geography of charred vegetation – parts of Mount Kenya had be ravaged by bush fires in the preceding weeks, the smoky aroma still lingering in the air whilst scorched branches ripped at our clothing. Dry dusty earth and 28 degree heat was an ominous combination considering we’d forgotten all but one bottle of water, which we rationed for the entirety. By midday we’d reached Lake Ellis (3,470m), pausing to refresh before hiking into a ravine to peer over the splendid Nithi Waterfall, plunging 100ft into verdant greenery below. With our legs giving way and Mark deliriously leaping at a hissing water pipe, we were relieved to reach the ranger’s hut. Overall we’d trekked a hot and undulating 20km, and not seen a soul.

I spent the following day touring the local coffee shops and reading on the balcony; sipping mango IPAs and watching birds circle the thermals.

Kenya is of course renowned for its wildlife, and this concrete jungle offers surprisingly easy access to some of Africa’s most sought-after animals. We crossed into Nairobi National Park just after dawn, with modest expectations considering its proximity to urban bustle. You’re soon consumed by grassy plains, eyes attuning to natural hues and perceptible movements. Giraffe, buffalo, monkey, jackal and vulture were easy spots out in the open, whilst lionesses dissolved into riverine forest and crocs basked on dusty banks. Kifaru Ark is the park’s Swahili nickname (kifaru: rhino), and we were treated to an iconic composition of two hulking black rhinos set incongruously against the city skyline. Lion, croc and hippo lounged side-by-side through the open window.

This was my first self-drive safari, and what you undoubtedly sacrifice in wildlife knowledge, you gain in the freedom to roam the wilds unguided. A family car shouldn’t really face up dirt tracks to mingle amidst herds of zebra, yet this ill-equipped quality adds to the adventure as a lion strolls passed. You are of course regularly reminded of the proximity to modernity - airplanes hum overhead, and a rather offensive railway scythes the park in two, built recently by the Chinese to Mombasa as an upgrade to the original 1899 version.

Near the main gate is the pit where former presidents Moi and Uhuru Kenyatta torched 11 and 100 tonnes of seized ivory (1989 and 2016 respectfully), equivalent to that of 6000 elephant tusks – promoting Kenya as a forerunner in the anti-poaching narrative. Wildlife is now an invaluable asset and worldwide draw.

Within minutes of leaving the park we had re-entered the metropolis, brunching on salmon on toast in a bohemian garden café. Truly a city of contrasts, Nairobi is a worthy destination in itself, and certainly a compelling stopping-off point to bookend any trip to east Africa’s ultimate draws. Thanks to Mark and Darlene for hosting, planning, chaperoning and cooking, but most importantly encouraging me to slow down and embrace a city which I would have otherwise overflown.

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