Welcome to the very heart of East Africa, Jambo (hello) from Kenya! If you’re reading this post about Nairobi, you’re probably thinking about a trip to East Africa pretty intently. Safari and Nairobi go hand in hand. If you’re looking to complete that thirst for adventure, then travelling to Kenya is a brilliant choice. I travelled to Kenya in September 2016 and the experience changed my life.
Nairobi is a city that will surprise thoseI people who know nothing about Africa. Most people tend to have the impression that Africa is all slums and isn’t developed. That is simply not the case in Nairobi. Yes, slums do exist on the outskirts of the city, however, Nairobi is a metropolitan city, not too far behind the what we all know in the western world – just with an African twist.
There’s one surprising difference to this metropolis. Amongst the skyscrapers and billboards, you’ll see your first wildlife spotting. Stalks. If you ever forget you’re in Africa, these will remind you, you’re not in Kansas anymore.
If there’s one thing about Africa in general, is that it’s a bit more challenging to get there. Flying from Australia, there isn’t an overwhelming amount of choice with who you can fly with to Nairobi. Most routes will direct you through the Middle East via Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha. If you’re lucky enough to be flying from Europe, there are direct flights to Nairobi from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Zurich. Some fellow travellers flew with Kenyan Airways, and had good things to say, so don’t discount them from your search!
I flew with Emirates from Melbourne, and had a 5 hour layover in Dubai. 5 hours is definitely enough time to go outside the airport, however my unfortunate luck meant I landed in at 4.50am, and there would simply be nothing open. The only option if this is the case is to stay at the airport. Quick tip, grab a coffee from a Cafe with a big seating area, ideally sofa style. 5hours goes by quickly when you have somewhere to lie down. Just make sure to set an alarm so you don’t miss your connecting flight. From Dubai the flight is 4.5hours.
Arriving into Nairobi was definitely one of those moments that you never quite forget. A few years ago there was a fire in the main airport terminal at Nairobi, and the building burnt down. Currently, there is a temporary building, similar to a warehouse that’s being used until 2025. So once we disembarked, we took all of 10 steps on the air bridge before making our way down the stairs and onto the tarmac to catch a bus.
Entering the temporary terminal, we looked at the massive queues for immigration. Kenya now has an electronic visa system. When you do the application online, make sure you print it out! They aren’t quite as prepared for this electronic visa as one would think. Queuing up, we then hear an announcement that the passport readers were having a technical glitch and that no one could pass through immigration. Welcome to Africa. After 27hours in transit, not much phases you anymore. So we waited patiently, and 45 minutes later the first person at the front of the queue finally got though.
Nearly 2 hours later, I finally exited the airport. Luckily I had transport to my hotel already booked. I strongly recommended to have an airport transfer booked and not rely on a taxi from the airport. You’ll find that no matter how long it takes you to get through, your airport transport will wait for you. These people are there to look after you. A taxi here can be sometimes uncertain, and may want to take advantage of you. So, it’s strongly advised to organise this prior through an official transport company. As it was peak hour, it took almost 1 hour to get from the airport to my hotel in the city.
Nairobi is a big city. With big cities come dense traffic. Nairobi’s traffic is arguably one of the worst I’ve ever seen (yes, that tops Bangkok in my books!). Public transport doesn’t really exist here. There is a public bus system, however tales of countless pickpocketing of tourists will influence you otherwise.
Taking a taxi around is the best way, and coming to an agreed upon price first is the best way. The traffic movement here is slow. The streets are absolutely filled with cars. On appearance, the streets look relatively normal, there are traffic lights and roundabouts everywhere. But, they don’t use them! The traffic is so bad here that there are traffic police on almost every corner. This is what makes moving through the CBD so slow. You’ll find you move about 1km every 15 minutes, so allocate plenty of time to get out of the city.
THINGS TO DO IN NAIROBI
Situated on the outskirts of Nairobi, the Karen Blixen Giraffe Centre is a must when in Nairobi. It’s best to head here first thing in the morning as there aren’t many people around, and you can really enjoy a peaceful moment or two with the giraffes. You’ll learn all about giraffes, like how many species there are, what they eat as well as their history in Kenya. My guide Millicent was excellent.
The Giraffe Centre is located on the same property as Giraffe Manor, a boutique hotel. This is one of those hotels that you just cannot believe exist, the Giraffes eat breakfast with you. It’s truly something special, and if you can afford to do it, would be a truly spectacular experience.
DAVID SHELDRICK WILDLIFE TRUST: ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE
An absolute must see, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is there to look after baby elephants that have been separated from their mother. The care that is given to these elephants is the best I’ve ever seen. The orphanages main aim is to protect and grow the baby elephants until they are old enough to be released back into the wild. The entry fee is treated as a donation, and is a minimum of $7USD. This money goes directly to the maintenance and food for the elephants.
The visiting times are strictly 11am to 12pm, which allow the elephants to get fed and take a mud bath. They absolutely love it. Your interaction with the elephants is minimal, there is a rope that separates you and the elephants. You won’t find tourists sitting on elephants here. You are allowed to touch the elephant if it comes close to you, but it’s all with a rope in between you and them. Their skin is amazingly prickly and hairy. Elephants actually have remarkably sensitive skin, and can feel even the tiny movements of a fly landing on its back.
DSWT also make sure the elephants know what the wild is like, and take the elephants into the neighbouring Nairobi National Park for visits regularly. This is to acclimatise the elephant to the surroundings for its eventual release.
You can also choose to foster an elephant for a minimum donation of $50USD. Doing so is quite the empowering experience and allows you to revisit the orphanage at 5pm when the elephants are returned to the stockades for the night.
When visiting, make sure you take a taxi and have it wait for you while you visit. There is absolutely nothing surrounding the orphanage, and it gets quite hot at 12pm. Waiting in the sunshine for a taxi would be rather uncomfortable as it’s also very dusty. Take note, prepare to leave a shade of orange!
I recommend combining the DSWT with the Giraffe centre. If you choose to do so too, make sure you visit the giraffe centre first. We left from Hotel Boulevard at 9am, and managed with a perfect amount of time to see the giraffes and elephants. Many people go from the elephants to the giraffe centre afterwards, and the experience is incomparable. If you go before, there is almost no one there and the experience will be truly yours to remember forever. We were back at the hotel just in time for lunch and a swim in the pool. Perfect first day in Kenya.
The main language spoken is Swahili. You won’t need to know much Swahili to get around, English is well spoken throughout Nairobi. That said, thank you “Asante Sana” always makes the locals smile.
Kenyan Shillings and US dollars will get you around here. In East Africa, you need to carry more than one currency. You’ll find yourself with huge bundles of Shillings as the currency is low value, so carrying USD is necessary to keep your wallet slim. Make sure your USD are no older than 2006, as they will simply not accept old notes.
You’ll find as a tourist, you’ll be given the price in USD first. Roughly, divide things by 100 (1 USD approximately equals 100 Kenyan Shillings) and then adjust for your local currency. The price given will always be better in Kenyan currency, so make sure you have some. You can use your credit card in Nairobi, but many places have 4-5% surcharge on every transaction.
When withdrawing money from ATM’S, Barclay’s and Standard Chartered are the most reliable banks. You’ll find it difficult to get your hands on any Kenyan currency before you arrive unless you specifically order it in advance. There are a few ATM’S, including a Standard Chartered at Nairobi airport that you can withdraw Kenyan Shillings from when you exit. The ATM’S only dispense Kenyan Shillings.
You’ll find the climate in Nairobi quite temperate. Whilst it does warm up during the day, expect the nights to cool down.
Dry Season is from June to October, and are typically the colder months. Temperatures during the day average between 20 to 28 degrees. Temperature at night can drop as low as 10 degrees.
Wet season occurs in two seasons. “Long Rain” occurs from March to June and “Short Rain” from November to December. Daytime temperatures tend to stay a humid 30 degrees, and the nights around 14 degrees.
As I visited in September, the weather was perfect. It never got too hot, wasn’t humid, and the nights were a comfortable cool. The best part of visiting in September was that there were minimal bugs and insects flying around, which really helped enjoy the experience even more so.
There are a few things to be aware of medically before going to Kenya. Firstly, it is mandatory for all visitors to have received Yellow Fever vaccinations before entering Kenya. This can be arranged at a specialist travel clinic back home, where they can then provide you with the yellow fever booklet as proof of immunization. The vaccine is considered for life, so it’s a one off. The yellow fever immunization will set you back approx $100USD. Alternatively, you can wait until you arrive in Kenya and have a airport doctor do so. Hepatitis A and Tetanus are also recommended vaccines.
Nairobi is not considered part of the designated Malaria zone, and therefore you don’t need to worry about taking medication here. If you are planning on entering a malaria zone immediately afterwards – heading south into Tanzania, you’ll need to start taking Malaria medication in Nairobi. Of course, my advice should never replace that of a health professional.
WHAT TO WEAR
As Kenya is a Muslim country, you should observe the correct etiquette whilst visiting. However, as Nairobi is a metropolitan city, you don’t need to be too concerned. They’ve seen it all here. Regardless, I recommend light pants for the day and a t-shirt. For the night, make sure you have a cardigan or something warmer to put on. As the temperature drops, you really do start to feel the cold.
This section I write with a heavy heart. It’s difficult to write because if not known to travellers, I would hate to think what would happen. The potential for an incredible experience of East Africa could be ruined without this simple rule. Don’t go out at night alone. This was the number one thing that I was continuously warned about. The streets are simply not safe after dark in Nairobi. Hotels have restaurants. Eat at your hotel. Don’t go wandering around on foot for different options. It simply isn’t safe. If you need to go beyond your hotel, you must take a taxi, even if you are in a group. Should you go elsewhere for dinner, please have the restaurant call you a taxi back to your hotel. There are countless stories of tourists being mugged or worse, held at gunpoint when roaming the streets at night. This is by no means a reflection of the streets during the day. I felt perfectly safe during the day. However, you must take care at night.
Nairobi is the gateway to East Africa, and I absolutely loved passing through this city. I can really recommend arriving here a day or two before you need to head off on tour. Despite the safety concerns, remaining vigilant and aware is the key to a wonderful time in this African metropolis. I won’t hesitate to visit again. Asante sana Nairobi.