Take a dhow cruise in Mombasa harbour or tour the old city on a tuk-tuk
There’s sightseeing with a difference at the coast’s main town, the island city of Mombasa. Several large vessels –big trading dhows known as jahazi – have been converted for use as comfortable excursion boats, with cushions, carpets and on-board kitchens. Embarking just before sunset, you watch the sun drop behind the palm trees and kick the evening off with a dawa cocktail (a Kenyan blend of vodka and honey; it means “medicine”). Then, entertained by a Swahili taarab band, you chug around Tudor Creek and Mombasa Harbour as you set to work on red snapper, lobster, lamb and crunchy vegetables. Some cruises include a son-et-lumière show at Fort Jesus, the city’s standout historical site (cruises can be booked through any hotel reception). If you’d rather do your sightseeing by day, and on a budget, rent a tuk-tuk or motorized rickshaw, and ask for an hour’s tour of Old Town. Most drivers will be happy to oblige, though you’ll need your Rough Guide to Kenya to navigate the small area (less than half a square kilometre).
Get off the Mombasa Highway in the Kibwezi Forest or the Taita Hills
Most visitors treat the notoriously dangerous and traffic-jammed Mombasa Highway with a degree of fear and loathing. But it has some truly worthwhile sidetracks that you’d be mad to pass up. Most impressive of these is the outstandingly beautiful Umani Springs, a designer lodge in the almost unvisited Kibwezi forest, nearly half way to the coast. Shaded by huge acacia and fig trees, three temple-like cottages, built of local lava stone, accommodate up to ten people each. There’s even a good team of staff to cook the food you bring, leaving you to watch the local wildlife or laze in the huge, spring-fed swimming pool. However, it’s tricky to manage if you’re travelling by public transport, so pause your trip to the coast at Voi and take a matatu (minibus) into the cool, fir-clad Taita Hills, with their fascinating ancestral skull caves and dramatic executions (murderers were once hurled from a cliff to their meet their death). You can stay cheaply in the friendly little town of Wundanyi.
Head south into the Rift Valley
From Nairobi, everyone thinks of the Rift Valley as north of the city, focused around tourist hotspots like Lake Naivasha with its gardens and boat trips, or Lake Nakuru with its busy national park. But, if you head south – driving yourself or in a limited selection of beaten-up buses or taxi vans – you can explore an equally fascinating but almost unvisited stretch of the Great Rift. First possible stop is Whistling Thorns – much like an English Lake District youth hostel, but with ostriches and gazelles instead of sheep. Then, as you plunge down the dramatic face of the escarpment, you head out onto arid plains where there’s a great prehistoric stone-tool site, Olorgasailie, with cheap camping and cottages. Finally, you reach the bizarre soda pans of Lake Magadi, where a factory town supports a major chemical industry. There’s a beautiful public swimming pool and excellent bird life near the hot springs, and a few options for staying if you don’t have a tent.
Explore the north in a 4×4
If you have a week, you can rent a Land Rover or Land Cruiser and head north. The fast and empty new road from Isiolo to Merille (half way from Isiolo to Marsabit) is a dream to drive, with a magnificent landscape of rocky buttes breaking the horizon. Three hours past tarmac’s end, Mount Marsabit, an old “shield volcano” emerging out of the desert, is swathed in thick forest surrounding hidden crater lakes. You can camp here, or there’s a basic lodge. The town of Marsabit itself is a cultural melting pot, as is the whole eastern flank of Lake Turkana. The drive to the lake, through the remote mission station and trading post of North Horr, is a great adventure, across stony wastes and through nomadic pastoral communities where camels tend to have right of way. If you have only a day or two with a 4×4, you could travel between Thika and Naivasha, just north of Nairobi, along a rarely used forest track where elephants push trees across the road (take a winch and an axe).
Swim with whale sharks or become acquainted with baboons
If your safari has given you a taste for close encounters of the furred (or finned) kind, you might consider swimming with whale sharks, just south of Mombasa. Wildlife immersion doesn’t get much more immersive than slipping underwater to snorkel alongside these gentle giants. In a controversial tourism / conservation project, twice a year two young sharks (a mere five to seven metres in length) are towed into a marine pen twice the size of a football pitch, just off the beach at Waa. You pay around $150 (£105) to snorkel with them for an hour, with 30% of the proceeds going to whale shark conservation. Back on dry land, at Il Polei Group Ranch in Laikipia, north of Mount Kenya, you can visit a troop of baboons in the wild, where a long-term social study of the animals has meant humans and primates can walk together during a 2-hour dawn or dusk excursion ($80 for groups of up to four).
Go clubbing in Nairobi or grab your blankets and wine
For clubbing of the musical kind, Nairobi is your best bet. The steadily reviving Central Business District has a small grid of streets that stream with revellers every weekend, encouraged by a bit of street lighting and the security that numbers bring. For city centre DJs, booze and choma (roast meat), Zanzebar, on the 5th floor of Kenya Cinema Plaza on Moi Avenue, has a very local flavour. More stylish and youthful is the pumping Tribeka, on the corner of Banda and Kimathi streets, and Tree House at Museum Hill roundabout has been a solid address for live music for the last couple of years. For something a little different, the monthly music festival of no fixed abode Blankets and Wine has become a diary anchor point for lots of affluent young Nairobians.
Train with warriors – rigorous or lite
On most safaris in Kenya you’re likely to meet Maasai warriors, and soon realise this is no dressing-up club but a part of every Maasai man’s life. Your guide may wear shirt and trousers in town, but in the bush he’ll wear a robe and carry a spear and sword. The training for this age grade is long and arduous, but you can now sample the lifestyle at a number of camps. For the most engaging warrior training experience, sign up for a 3-to-7-day programme with Laikipiak Maasai warriors at Bush Adventures Camp. On the Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, in northern Kenya, you’ll learn to shoot with a bow, throw clubs and engage in Maasai repartee. For a quicker, low budget taste of the action, closer to Nairobi, the low-key Maji Moto Eco-Camp, in the greater Mara ecosystem, includes warrior-training – stick throwing, dancing, singing, tracking – with every stay in its tidy dome tents.
Find a festival – at Lake Turkana, the Rift Valley or Lamu
Talking of festivals, Kenya has fewer major events than you’d perhaps imagine, or hope for, but the handful of reliable annual fixtures is worth pinning a safari round. Pre-eminent is the Lake Turkana Festival in May, a colourful cultural jamboree in one of the country’s most remote towns. Much easier to reach is the Rift Valley Festival in August, a more European-style music festival on the shores of Lake Naivasha. On the far-flung shores of the Indian Ocean, the Lamu Festival, held every November, sees the whole of this old Swahili town taking part in donkey and dhow races, traditional stick fights, processions, beach barbecues and crafts displays.
The 10th edition of the Rough Guide to Kenya was published in May 2013.