There’s a wide range of travel options in Kenya. If you want to be looked after throughout your trip, you can travel on a shared or exclusive road safari where you sign up to an off-the-shelf or tailor-made itinerary; alternatively you can take an air safari, via scheduled domestic airlines (often in small planes with great visibility), or chartering a light plane for your own use. If you want more independence, you can easily rent a vehicle for self-drive or with a driver. If you’re on a budget, you’ll find a wide range of public transport – though, to be clear, it is all privately operated – from air-conditioned buses run by large operators to smaller companies and “saccos” (cooperatives) with a single battered minibus. In towns of any size, crowds of Nissan minibuses, operating as shared taxis and referred to as matatus, hustle for business constantly. Kenya’s railway “network” appears to be in terminal decline, but the Nairobi–Mombasa line still runs several services a week.
Domestic flights in Kenya – normally by turbo-prop plane – are thoroughly enjoyable, especially to the national parks, with animals clearly visible below as you approach each airstrip.
The main operators are SafariLink (wsafarilink-kenya.com), Kenya Airways (wkenya-airways.com), Airkenya (wairkenya.com), Mombasa Air Safari (wmombasaairsafari.com), 540 Aviation (wfly540.com) and Jetlink (wjetlink.co.ke). The destinations served include the main towns and cities (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Kitale and Nanyuki), coastal resorts (Diani Beach, Malindi, Lamu and Kiwayu) and airfields serving safari clients in the main parks and reserves of Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Meru, Tsavo West and Samburu-Shaba, and at Lewa Downs and Loisaba north of Mount Kenya. Most services are daily and in some cases there are several flights a day, though frequencies on certain routes are reduced in low season. Same-day connections can be a problem, however. For some ballpark return fares, reckon on Nairobi–Maasai Mara costing $330, Nairobi–Lamu $390 and Nairobi–Diani Beach (Ukunda) $300. Baggage allowances on some internal flights are 15kg – though excess baggage charges are nominal.
Chartering a small plane for trips to safari parks and remote airstrips is worth considering if money is less important to you than time. Costs for a two-seater are typically around $3/km, or $7/km for a 5-seater. Remember that the plane has to make a round trip, even if you don’t. Two of the best charter companies are Tropic Air (wtropicairkenya.com), based at Nanyuki airfield, and Boskovic Air Charters (wboskovicaircharters.com), based at Wilson Airport in Nairobi.
Car rental and driving
All the parks and reserves are open to private vehicles, and there’s a lot to be said for the freedom of choice that renting a car gives you. Unless there are more than two of you, though, it won’t save you money over one of the cheaper camping safaris. If you’re going to be in Kenya for some time, buying a secondhand vehicle in Nairobi is a realistic possibility, though prices are high. Check the poster boards at any big mall or shopping centre such as Village Market or the Sarit Centre.
Before renting, shop around for the best deals and try to negotiate as you might with any purchase, bearing in mind how long you need and the season. July, August and Christmas are busy, so you might want to book ahead. Rates vary greatly: some are quoted in Kenyan shillings and some in dollars or euros; some include unlimited mileage while others don’t. The minimum age to rent a car is usually 23, sometimes 25.
You can often rent a vehicle with a driver or driver-guide supplied by the rental company, which can be more relaxing and a great introduction to the country. This should add around Ksh1000/day to your bill for the driver’s salary, and up to another Ksh1000/day for his daily living expenses. Obviously fuel is still extra. Be clear precisely what the arrangements are before you set off: it’s best to have things in writing.
Check the insurance details and always pay the daily collision damage waiver (CDW) premium, sometimes included in the price; even a small bump could be very costly otherwise. Theft protection waiver (TPW) should also be taken. Even with these, however, you’ll still be liable for an excess, usually $500–1000, for which you are liable if there is any claim. You’re also required to leave a hefty deposit, roughly equivalent to the anticipated bill, normally on a credit card. Assuming you return the vehicle, this should not be debited from your account.
If stopped at a police checkpoint, you may be asked to produce evidence that the rental car has a PSV (passenger service vehicle) licence. You should have a windscreen sticker for this as well as the letters “PSV” written somewhere on the body; if in doubt, check this out with the rental company before you leave. All PSV vehicles are, in theory, fitted with speed governors, physically limiting your top speed to the speed limit of 80km/h. In practice, few companies leave them operational.
Being stopped by the police is a common occurrence. Checkpoints are generally marked by low strips of spikes across the road, with just enough room to slalom through. Always stop, greet the officer and wait to be waved through. If they accuse you of breaking any law, then politely accept what you are told, including the possibility of a court appearance (highly unlikely). Being set up for a bribe still happens, but more often you’ll be asked “What did you bring for me?” or something similar. Unless you’re happy to participate in Kenya’s ongoing institutionalized petty corruption, you should always respond with bemused propriety, and pay nothing.
If you have a breakdown, before seeking assistance, you should pile bundles of sticks or foliage 50m or so behind and in front of the car. These are the universally recognized “red warning triangles” of Africa, and their placing is always scrupulously observed, as is the wedging of a stone behind at least one wheel to stop it rolling away.
You might consider joining AA Kenya (waakenya.co.ke), which offers temporary membership for up to six months for Ksh2000, which includes the usual breakdown and rescue services, where available.
Choosing and running a vehicle
A high-clearance four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle is always useful, and often essential, thanks to the dire state of many roads. Even when you’re not planning any off-road driving, and expect to stick to tarmac, entrance roads and access tracks are often not surfaced and can become impassable quagmires after rain. Most car rental companies will not rent out non-4WD vehicles for use in the parks, and park rangers will often turn away such cars at the gates, especially in wet weather. Maasai Mara and the mountain parks (Mount Elgon, Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range) are the most safety-minded.
Four-wheel drive Suzuki jeeps are the most widely available vehicles, but ensure you get a long wheelbase model with rear seats, room for four people (or five at a pinch) and luggage space at the back. These are more stable than the stumpy short-wheelbase versions. Suzukis are light and dependable, capable of great feats in negotiating rough terrain, and can nearly always be fixed by a local repair workshop. Beware, however, of their notorious tendency to tip over on bends or on the dangerously sloping gravel hard shoulders that line so many roads.
You shouldn’t assume that the vehicle is roadworthy before you set off. Have a good look at the engine and tyres, and don’t set off without checking the spare wheel (preferably two spare wheels) and making sure that you have a few essential tools. Always carry a tow rope and spare water and ideally spare fuel in a jerrican (it’s not uncommon for petrol stations to run out). You might also take a spare fan belt and brake fluid. You are responsible for any repair and maintenance work that needs doing while you’re renting the vehicle, but good car rental companies will reimburse you for spare parts and labour, and expect you to call them if you have a breakdown, in which case they will often send out a mechanic to help.
When you get a flat tyre, as you will, get it mended straight away: it costs very little (Ksh100–200) and can be done almost anywhere. Local mechanics are usually very good and can apply ingenuity to the most disastrous situations. But spare parts, tools and proper equipment are rare off the main routes. Always settle on a price before work begins.
At the time of writing, the price of petrol (gasoline, always unleaded) ranges from roughly Ksh110–130/litre (£0.85–£1.00/litre or $5–6/US gallon), depending on the retailer, the remoteness of the town and Kenya’s latest oil imports. The vast majority of petrol stations charge similar prices at the lower end of the range. There is occasionally a choice of regular or premium, but the latter is the norm. Diesel is five to ten percent cheaper. When filling, which is always done by an attendant, check the pump is set to zero. In city petrol stations you can sometimes pay by credit card, but don’t count on it as their card reader may be out of action.
Driving on the roads
You can drive in Kenya with either a valid driving licence from your home country, or an international one. A GPS SatNav device or smart phone is very useful as there are very few road signs and no detailed, accurate road maps.
Be cautious of abrupt changes in road surface. On busy tarmac roads, “tramlines” often develop, parallel with the direction of travel. Caused by heavy trucks ploughing over hot blacktop, these can be deep and treacherous, making steering difficult. Slow down.
Beware of animals, people, rocks, branches, ditches and potholes – any combination of which may appear at any time. It is accepted practice to honk your horn stridently to warn pedestrians and cyclists. Other vehicles are probably the biggest menace, especially in busy areas close to towns where matatus are constantly pulling over to drop and pick up passengers. It’s common practice to flash oncoming vehicles, especially if they’re leaving you little room to pass. Try to avoid driving at night, and be extra careful when passing heavy vehicles – the diesel fumes can cut off your visibility without warning.
Officially Kenya drives on the left, though in reality vehicles keep to the best part of the road until they have to pass each other.
You should recognize the supplementary meanings of left and right signals particularly common among truck drivers. A right signal by the driver ahead of you means “Don’t try to pass me”, while the left signal which usually follows means “Feel free to pass me now”. Do not, however, automatically assume the driver can really see that it is safe for you to pass. In fact, never assume anything about other drivers.
Beware of speed bumps, found wherever a busy road has been built through a village, and on the roads in and out of nearly every town. Try to look out for small bollards or painted rocks at the roadside, but usually the first you’ll know of speed bumps is when your head hits the roof.
Driving in towns, you may need to adopt a more robust approach than you would use at home, or risk waiting indefinitely at the first busy junction you come to. There is no concept of yielding or giving way in Kenya: most drivers occupy the road forcefully and only concede when physically blocked by another vehicle or someone in uniform with a weapon. Although it sounds highly confrontational, incidents of “road rage” seem few and far between.
Finding somewhere to park is rarely a problem, even in Nairobi or Mombasa. There are council traffic wardens in most large towns from Monday to Saturday, from whom you can buy a 24-hour ticket (the only option) for Ksh50–150. If you don’t, your car may be clamped or towed away. Be careful not to inadvertently park on yellow lines, which are often faded to near-invisibility.
Although there are few parts of Kenya where 4WD vehicles are mandatory, you would be well advised not to go far off tarmac in a two-wheel-drive vehicle, if only because a short cloudburst can transform an otherwise good dirt road into a soft-mud vehicle trap. Take local advice if attempting unsurfaced roads in the rainy season, when mud pits with a smooth and apparently firm surface can disguise deep traps. A covering of vegetation usually means a relatively solid surface.
If you have to go through a large muddy puddle, first kick off your shoes and wade the entire length to check it out (better to get muddy than bogged down). If it’s less than 30cm deep, and the base is relatively firm (ie your feet don’t sink far), you should be able to drive through. Engage 4WD, get into first gear, and drive slowly straight across, or, if there’s a sufficiently firm area to one side, drive across at speed with one wheel in the water and one out (beware of toppling over in a Suzuki). For smaller puddles, gathering up speed on the approach and then charging across in second gear usually works.
It’s harder to offer advice about approaching deep mud. Drive as fast as you dare, never over-steer when skidding, and pray.
On a mushy surface of “black cotton soil”, especially during or after rain, you’ll need all your wits about you, as even the sturdiest 4WDs have little or no grip on this, and some – Land Cruisers for example – are notoriously useless. It’s best to keep your speed down and stay in second gear as much as possible. Try to keep at least one wheel on vegetation-covered ground or in a well-defined rut.
If you do get stuck, stop immediately, as spinning the wheels will only make it worse. Try reversing, just once, by revving the engine as far as you can before engaging reverse gear. If it doesn’t work, you’ll just have to wait for another vehicle to pull you out.
Buses, matatus and taxis
Safety should be your first concern when travelling by public transport: matatus, and to a lesser extent buses, have a bad safety record. The most dangerous matatus are those billed as “express” (they mean it). Don’t hesitate to ask to get out of the vehicle if you feel unsafe, and to demand a partial refund, which will usually be forthcoming.
Whatever you’re travelling on, it’s worth considering your general direction through the trip and which side of the vehicle will be shadier. This is especially important on dirt roads when the combination of dust, a slow, bumpy ride and fierce sun through closed windows can be unbearable.
Note that in more remote areas, where a service has no clear schedule, if a driver tells you he’s going somewhere “today”, it doesn’t necessarily mean he expects to arrive today.
Inter-city bus and matatu fares are typically around Ksh2–5/km (or if the vehicle is “deluxe” in some way, up to Ksh7/km). Even the longest journey by matatu, the 300km, six-hour journey from Nairobi to Kisumu, should cost no more than Ksh1000 (or Ksh1500 by “deluxe” vehicle). Rarely does anyone attempt to charge more than the approved rate. Baggage charges should not normally be levied unless you’re transporting a huge load. If you think you’re being overcharged, check with other passengers.
Buses cover almost the whole country. Some, on the main runs between Nairobi and Mombasa, and to a lesser extent the centre and west, are fast, comfortable and keep to schedules; you generally need to reserve seats in advance. The large companies have ticket offices near the bus stations in most towns, where they list their routes and prices. Their parking bays are rarely marked, however, and there are no published timetables except on the occasional website. The easiest procedure is to mention your destination to a few people at the bus park, and then check out the torrent of offers. Keep asking – it’s virtually impossible to get on the wrong bus. Once you’ve acquired a seat, the wait can be almost a pleasure if you’re in no hurry, as you watch the throng outside and field a continuous stream of vendors proffering wares through the window.
Along most routes the matatus these days are Nissan minibuses (in rural areas one or two old-style pick-up vans, fitted with wooden benches and a canvas roof, still ply their trade). The Nissans can be fast and are sometimes dangerous: try to sit at the back, to avoid too graphic a view of blind overtaking. And, at the risk of being repetitious, always ask to get out if you’re scared of the driving.
After new regulations were introduced by the Kibaki government in 2003, all seats were supposed to be fitted with seat belts (they are often broken); loud music was banned (it is often still played, and is the one saving grace for some passengers); and electronic speed governors are supposed to prevent speeds above 80km/h (they are often broken or deliberately disabled). Passenger numbers are, in theory, strictly limited, but on many routes, especially off the main roads, the old maxim of “room for one more” still applies. Kitu kidogo, a “little something” for police officers at roadblocks, ensures blind eyes are turned towards many infringements. There’s more on bribery elsewhere, but it’s worth pointing out that passengers are never expected to contribute directly (though sudden fare increases on a particular route may sometimes amount to the same thing).
Matatus can be an enjoyable way of getting about, giving you close contact, literally, with local people, and some hilarious encounters. They are also often the most convenient and sometimes the only means of transport to smaller places off the main roads.
When it comes to making a choice of matatu, always choose one that is close to full or you’ll have to wait inside until they’re ready to go, sometimes for hours. Beware of being used as bait by the driver to encourage passengers to choose his vehicle, and equally of a driver filling his car with young touts pretending to be passengers (spot them by the newspapers and lack of luggage). Competition is intense and people will tell brazen lies to persuade you the vehicle is going “just now”. Try not to hand over any money before you’ve left town. This isn’t a question of being ripped off, but too often the first departure is just a soft launch, cruising around town rounding up more passengers – and buying petrol with the fare you’ve just paid – and then going back to square one.
If your destination isn’t on a main matatu route, or if you don’t want to wait for a vehicle to fill up (or, indeed, if you just want to travel in style), drivers will happily negotiate a price for the charter or rental of the whole car. The sum will normally be equivalent to the amount they would receive from all the passengers in a full vehicle over the same distance.
Taxis and other vehicles
Transport in towns often comes down to private taxis. You’ll need to discuss the fare in advance: most drivers will want to be earning something like Ksh500/hour and at least Ksh100/km, but would baulk at driving anywhere for less than Ksh200–300. In some towns, there’s also the option of using a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled vehicles imported from Asia, on which fares are around half the price of an ordinary taxi). Alternatively, many areas have the two-wheel taxis consisting of a motorcycle which can carry one or two people without luggage (known as a piki-piki), or a bicycle with a padded passenger seat for one (known as a boda-boda). Most drivers/cyclists will be straight with you (if surprised to be taking a fare from a foreigner), but if you’re in doubt about the correct fare, which is generally around Ksh25/km, asking passers-by will invariably get you a quick sense of the proper price to pay.
Rift Valley Railways runs Kenya’s few passenger train services. The overnight Nairobi–Mombasa train leaves three times a week in each direction, taking around 14–17 hours to complete the journey. There’s also a thrice-weekly Nairobi–Kisumu service, which takes a similar time. On both routes, the train can pull in anything up to eight hours late. Frustrating though the almost routine delays are, they at least mean you are likely to have a few hours of daylight to watch the passing scene: approaching Nairobi from Mombasa, the animals on the Athi Plains; approaching the capital from Kisumu, the Rift Valley; approaching Mombasa, the sultry crawl down to the ocean.
The Rift Valley Railways website (wriftvalleyrail.com), includes schedules and fares, but is not always entirely accurate. The Man in Seat 61 (wseat61.com) is a much more reliable and up-to-date source of information.
If you want to book tickets before you arrive in Kenya, the agents Let’s Go Travel (wuniglobeletsgotravel.com) do a reliable job, but you pay a little extra. You can always book at the local station, ideally the day before.
Trains have three seat classes, but only first and second offer any kind of comfort. In first class, you get a private, two-berth compartment; second class has four-berth compartments, which are usually single-sex, though this may be disregarded if, for example, all four people are travelling as a party; third class has hard seats only and is packed with local passengers because it’s half the price of the cheapest bus.
The carriages and compartments aren’t luxurious, and the toilets are not all European-style, but the train usually starts its journey clean, and in a reasonably good state of repair. Meals and bedding, available in first and second class only, cost a little extra, and must be paid for when you buy your ticket, though it’s normally assumed you will take them (Mombasa service dinner Ksh700, breakfast Ksh470; Kisumu service dinner Ksh350, breakfast Ksh250). The linen (Ksh320) is always clean, washing water usually flows from the compartment basins, meals are freshly prepared and service is good. On the Mombasa train, dinner is served in two sittings (7.15pm & 8.45pm). You should go for the first sitting for the best food and service, and the second if you’d rather take your time. Breakfast is served from 6am. Singles and couples will usually have to share their tables with other diners.
You can usually rely on getting drinks – bottled water, cold beers and sodas, and sometimes wine, all at fairly standard prices. It’s a good idea to take some snacks with you – you’ll be glad of them if the train rolls in eight hours late, as it occasionally does.
In recent years, the Nairobi–Kisumu service has often been suspended for weeks or months at a time, while the Nairobi–Mombasa service has generally kept going – the Wednesday/Thursday service seeming to be the first to go when there are problems.
There are disused railway tracks in several parts of Kenya and occasionally sections are refurbished. There are also one or two suburban commuter services in Nairobi, and a new service is expected to start to the international airport in the near future.
Boats and ferries
Kenya has no rivers navigable for any distance by anything bigger than a canoe, and there’s no passenger shipping along the Kenya coast apart from the small vessels connecting the islands of the Lamu archipelago. Informally, you can sometimes get lifts with dhow captains, though there are few working dhows left. On Lake Victoria, the network of steamer routes was suspended when the lake became clogged up with water hyacinth, and although there are occasional services, there’s nothing you can rely on.
Hitchhiking is how the majority of rural people get around, in the sense that they wait by the roadside for whatever comes, and will pay for a ride in a passing lorry or a private vehicle, the cost being close to what it would be in a matatu. Private vehicles with spare seats are comparatively rare, but Kenyans are happy enough to give lifts, if often bemused by the idea of a tourist without a vehicle. Hitching rides with other tourists at the gates of national parks and reserves is also sometimes possible, but only if you have lots of time on your hands – and a plan for where you’ll spend the night if you get a lift. Highway hitching techniques need to be fairly exuberant: beckon the driver to stop with a palm-down action, then quickly establish how much the ride will cost. And be sure to choose a safe spot with room to pull over. Alternatively, use a busy petrol station and ask every driver. That’s the most likely way to get a ride. In terms of safety, it’s highly unlikely you would run into any unsavoury characters, but do not get in if you think the vehicle is unroadworthy, or the driver unfit to drive.
Kenya’s climate and varied terrain make it challenging and interesting cycling country, and you can rent bikes or go on organized tours, or sign up for one of the charity-fundraising rides that regularly take place.
With a bike, given time and some determination, you can get to parts of the country that might otherwise be hard to reach. Several of the smaller game parks allow bikes, including Hell’s Gate at Naivasha, Kakamega Forest and Saiwa Swamp. You need to consider the seasons, however, as you won’t make much progress on dirt roads during the rains. On main roads, a mirror is essential, and, if the road surface is broken at the edge, give yourself plenty of space and be ready to leave the road if necessary.
As well as renting, you can take a bike with you to Kenya, or buy one locally. Most towns have bicycle shops selling basic mountain bikes and trusty Indian three-speed roadsters, starting from around Ksh7000. We’ve mentioned some outlets in Mombasa and Nairobi. Whatever you take, and a mountain bike is certainly best, it will need low gears and strongly built wheels, and you should have some essential spare parts.
If you’re taking a bike with you, then you’ll probably want to carry your gear in panniers. These are inconvenient, however, when not on the bike, and you might instead consider strapping your luggage onto the rear carrier. It’s possible to adapt your carrier locally with furniture cane and lashings of inner-tube strips (any market will fix you up for pennies), thus creating your own highly un-aerodynamic touring carrier, with room for a box of food and a gallon of water underneath.
If you’re taking a bike from home, take a battery lighting system: with darkness falling at around 6.30pm all year round it’s surprising how often you’ll need it. The front light will double as a torch, and getting batteries is no problem. Also take a U-bolt cycle lock. In situations where you have to lock the bike, you’ll always find something to lock it to (out in the bush, locking is less important). Local bikes can be locked with a padlock and chain passed through a length of hosepipe, which you can buy and fix up in any market.
Buses and matatus with roof racks will always carry bicycles for about half the regular fare, even if flagged down at the roadside. Trucks will often give you a lift, too. The trains also take bikes at a low fixed fare.Read More
The following terms are worth knowing: a stage or stand is the matatu yard; a manamba or turn boy is the tout who takes the fares and hangs on dramatically; and dropping is what you do when you disembark, as in “I’m dropping here”.