Easily the largest city in East Africa, Nairobi is also the youngest, the most modern, the fastest growing and, at nearly 1700m altitude, the highest. The superlatives could go on forever. “Green City in the Sun”, runs one tour-brochure sobriquet, “City of Flowers” another. Less enchanted visitors growl “Nairobbery”. The city catches your attention, at least: this is no tropical backwater. Most roads in Kenya, particularly paved ones, lead to Nairobi and, like it or not, you’re almost bound to spend some time here. Strolling around the malls in Westlands or negotiating Kenyatta Avenue at rush hour, it’s also perhaps easy to forget how quickly you can leave the city and be in the bush.
Apart from being the safari capital of the world, Nairobi is an excellent base for Kenyan travel in general. To the coast, it’s as little as six hours by road, an overnight train journey, or an hour if you fly. It takes about the same time to get to the far west and barely two hours to get to the great trough of the Rift Valley or the slopes of Mount Kenya.
Nairobi County, an area of some 690 square kilometres, ranging from agricultural and ranching land to savanna and mountain forest, used to stretch way beyond the city suburbs, but the city is increasingly filling the whole county. For visitors, most of the interest around Nairobi lies to the south and southwest, in the predominantly Maasai land that begins with Nairobi National Park, literally on the city’s doorstep – a wild attraction where you’d expect to find suburbs, it makes an excellent day-trip – and includes the watershed ridge of the Ngong Hills just outside the city in neighbouring Kajiado County. It’s a striking landscape, vividly described in Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Southeast, beyond the shanty suburb of Dandora, are the wide Athi plains, which are traditionally mostly ranching country but nowadays increasingly invaded by the spread of Nairobi’s industrial and residential satellites. In the southwest, meanwhile, a much overlooked trip to Lake Magadi takes you into a ravishingly beautiful and austere part of the Rift Valley.
Nairobi came into being in May 1899, an artificial settlement created by Europeans at Mile 327 of the Uganda Railway, then being systematically forged from Mombasa on the coast to Port Florence – now Kisumu – on Lake Victoria. Although called the “Uganda Railway” there was no connection to Kampala until 1931; before that, Lake Victoria ships provided the link.
Nairobi was initially a supply depot, switching yard and camp ground for the thousands of Indian labourers employed by the British. The bleak, partly swampy site was simply the spot where operations came to a halt while the engineers figured out their next move – getting the line up the steep slopes that lay ahead. The name came from the local Maasai word for the area, enkare nyarobi, “the place of cold water”, though the spot itself was originally called Nakusontelon, “Beginning of all Beauty”.
Surprisingly, the unplanned settlement took root. A few years later it was totally rebuilt after the burning of the original town compound following an outbreak of plague. By 1907, it was so firmly established that the colonists took it as the capital of the newly formed “British East Africa” (BEA). Europeans, encouraged by the authorities, started settling in some numbers, while Africans were forced into employment by tax demands (without representation) or onto specially created reserves – the Maasai to the Southern Reserve and the Kikuyu to their own reserve in the highlands.
Nairobi’s districts and suburbs
The capital, lacking development from any established community, was somewhat characterless in its early years – and remains so. The original centre retains an Asian influence in its older buildings, but today it’s shot through with glassy, high-rise blocks. Surrounding the core of the old Central Business District is a vast area of suburbs: wealthiest in the west and north, increasingly poor to the south and east.
The names of these suburbs – Karen, Parklands, Eastleigh, Spring Valley, Kibera, among many others – reflect the jumble of African, Asian and European elements in Nairobi’s original inhabitants, none of whom were local. The term “Nairobian” is a relatively new one that still applies mostly to the younger generation. Although it has a predominance of Kikuyu, the city is not the preserve of a single ethnic group, standing as it does at the meeting point of Maasai, Kikuyu and Kamba territories. Its choice as capital, accidental though it may have been (the Kikuyu town of Limuru and the Kamba capital, Machakos, were also considered), was a fortunate one for the future of the country.
Since the 1990s, the Central Business District has seen the steady flight of businesses into the suburbs, particularly to Upper Hill and the surrounding districts to the west of the CBD; to the booming satellite city of Westlands, just a couple of kilometres to the northwest; and for kilometre after kilometre out along the Mombasa road to the south. Just in the last few years, however, regeneration efforts in the CBD have begun to pay off. It’s not quite like the rebirth of central Johannesburg, but businesses and nightlife are returning to a district that feels safer and more habitable than at any time in the last two decades.
It isn’t difficult to find accommodation in Nairobi, but it can be very expensive. The main question is which area fits your needs. The Central Business District is useful for accessing shops and some offices on foot (though many businesses, embassies and other offices are not located here), while if you base yourself further afield, you’re likely to need transport or have to rely on the nearest mall. Travellers congregate at a number of different spots around the city and many visitors never set foot in the downtown CBD. If you’re arriving in town in the small hours or early in the day, it’s worth knowing that most places won’t be able to offer you a room before 10am. Bear in mind, too, that a/c is not considered essential in Nairobi’s climate and you’ll only find it at top-end addresses, which also uniformly offer free room safes.
All the top-of-the-range places and most backpacker haunts have guarded or enclosed parking – only cheap, city-centre lodgings are a problem in this respect. Naturally, leave nothing of value in the vehicle, or attached to it – such as spare wheels, jerricans or roof boxes. Wi-fi is increasingly widespread in Nairobi, and all but the cheapest hotels should have it.
Arts and entertainment
After years of stagnation, the Nairobi arts scene seems to be finally finding a rhythm of its own, independent of the tourist market, which had previously driven much of it. Although still modest by international standards, it is well worth discovering. Besides checking out the theatres and arts centres listed below, your first base should be the excellent arts-scene blog wnairobinow.wordpress.com, which posts news of up-and-coming performers, shows and events. Also worth having a look at are the theatre pages in the Thursday edition of the Standard and the Nation on Friday and Saturday.
Bars, clubs and music venues
Promoting bands in Nairobi is as precarious a business as anywhere and, given the volatile nature of the music business, venues and bands change at a moment’s notice. Check out wnairobinow.wordpress.com, upnairobi.com and wfacebook.com (most clubs and bands have a Facebook account even if they have no website) and look at the Nation newspaper on a Friday and Saturday for one-off gigs. Most clubs are open nightly and often on weekend afternoons – and in some cases never close at all. Starting times vary considerably for live music: on weekdays, 8pm wouldn’t be too early to turn up, while at weekends even the warm-up act may not begin before 10pm, and some shows may not get rolling until midnight. Earthy, local clubs have free entry or very cheap entrance fees, while in the glitzier places, men still sometimes pay more than women; around Ksh200–400 as against Ksh100–200. There are some interesting bars in the city’s fancier hotels, where there may be a minimum bill.
Birdwatching in Nairobi
Birdwatching need not be exclusively a bush pursuit. For any visitor staying in central Nairobi, an impressive sight during the early morning and late evening is groups of black kites circling as they move between feeding and roosting sites, and among these are readily identified black-and-white pied crows. Marabou storks, sacred ibises and silvery-cheeked hornbills can sometimes be seen flying over the city (dramatically large marabous may also be seen in the thorn trees on Uhuru Highway, near Nyayo Stadium), while flocks of superb starlings call noisily from office buildings. The leafier areas of the city are likely to produce even more birds.
The gardens in the grounds of the Nairobi National Museum are an interesting and relatively safe area to start birding. Here, keen birdwatchers may encounter sunbirds (variable and Hunter’s) and the cinnamon-chested bee-eater. Another bird of the gardens is the African paradise monarch, a species of flycatcher. In breeding plumage, the rufous males have long tail streamers, which trail behind them like ribbons as they flit from tree to tree.
Nature Kenya organizes bird walks from the National Museum every Wednesday morning at 8.45am for a temporary membership fee of Ksh200. They usually proceed to another part of Nairobi. Longer trips are also offered at least once a month. For more information, contact Nature Kenya at the museum (t020 3537568 or t0771 343138).
The “old” heart of downtown Nairobi may only date back a little over a century, but there is still enough here to while away a morning or afternoon while you decide what you think of modern Kenya. The Central Business District is not the most cosmopolitan part of the city – that dubious honour would have to be shared between several suburban malls – but after the dark, anti-democracy period in the 1980s and the collapse of security in the 1990s, twenty-first-century central Nairobi is beginning to feel like a world-class city again. One advantage of strolling around here in the daytime is that if you choose to check out the CBD’s nightlife, you’ll have some idea of where you are.
Kibera is a sprawling mass of shacks, just a few kilometres southwest of Nairobi’s city centre. It was long thought to be the largest shanty town in sub-Saharan Africa, home to around one million people; although recent mapping exercises have dramatically reduced the estimated number of residents down to as few as 250,000, the scale of the place can still be difficult for most Westerners to imagine. The slums were a flashpoint during the post-election violence in January 2008, when protestors torched buildings and uprooted the Nairobi–Nakuru railway line that runs right through Kibera, and the area is still the scene of occasional politically motivated riots. There have been no major incidents since, however, and although it’s perhaps best not to just wander down there, it’s safe to visit if you’re accompanied by local residents or NGO workers – a number of local operators even offer morning excursions to the area.
Kibera started at the end of World War I as a village housing Sudanese Nubian soldiers of the demobilized armies of British East Africa. Subsequently, as rural-to-urban migration increased, people moved into the area and began putting up mud-and-wattle structures. Today most residents live in makeshift huts, typically measuring 3m by 3m, with an average of five people per dwelling. Access to electricity, running water and sanitation ranges from zero to very minimal – the occasional makeshift pit latrines are shared between anything from ten to one hundred homes, though foreign donors have constructed some new toilet blocks. The streets are a mass of seemingly endless trenches, alleyways and open gutters clogged with waste and sewage. As well as lacking even the most basic services, Kibera has an HIV infection rate of between fourteen and twenty percent, and the number of orphans rises daily. However, the slum somehow works and is full of small businesses, from video cinemas to bakeries. Few residents buy newspapers or own TVs; the community radio station Pamoja FM (99.9 FM) provides a vital “glue” that helped prevent Kibera from ripping apart.
When booking an escorted visit to Kibera, make sure before you sign up that you know exactly where your money is going: some businesses are not above running “pro-poor” tourism as part of their activities while pocketing much of the cash supposed to be supporting slum projects. As you visit various premises and community projects, you should find the experience deeply affecting, if not enjoyable, and not without its lighter moments. Good options for a tour include: Kibera Tours or Explore Kibera Tours.
Security in Nairobi
Nairobi isn’t nearly as bad as its “Nairobbery” reputation would suggest. The city has cleaned up considerably over the past few years: the city centre is less threatening, there are fewer street children, beggars and touts, and a dedicated tourist police force patrols the streets. That said, it pays to take some precautions against crime. It helps to memorize any route you’re walking, as lost-looking tourists are easier targets. Keep your hands out of reach, as a handshake can sometimes throw you off guard, and be – rationally – suspicious of everyone until you’ve caught your breath. It doesn’t take long to get a little streetwise. Every rural Kenyan coming to the city for the first time goes through exactly the same process.
At night, be extra vigilant if you’re walking in the city centre and don’t wander outside the CBD unless you’re really clued-up. Be especially wary in the River Road district, which in practical terms means anything east of Moi Avenue, and indeed sometimes including the avenue. Even some locals avoid walking there and taxi drivers are quite often reluctant to venture into certain parts of the district. Obviously don’t walk through the parks at night.
All the main bus and matatu stations are somewhat chaotic and ideal for pickpockets and snatch-and-run robberies. If you’re driving or being driven, avoid displaying phones and cameras and laptops, and keep your windows rolled up, especially at traffic lights.
Nairobi has no shortage of eating places. Their diversity is one of the city’s best points, and eating out is an evening pastime that never dulls. Admittedly, anything like authentic Kenyan food is generally not highlighted in most restaurants, which concentrate on offering a range of Asian and European cuisines, and spectacular quantities of meat. Included below are one or two of the city’s fancier hotels, where the food has a good reputation. For further eating listings, check out the bars and nightlife section, which includes a number of venues that double as restaurants. When assessing prices (or checking your bill) remember there’s a two percent training levy and sixteen percent value-added tax (VAT) on food and drink in all but the smallest establishments. Some include or add a variable service charge as well, which could raise the actual food and drink price by a further eight to ten percent. Most places include these taxes and charges in their menu prices, but some don’t. At the more upmarket restaurants in the following listings, it’s often a good idea to reserve a table or, as an alternative to calling yourself, try the free services of Eat Out Kenya, a Nairobi-based online startup that makes restaurant bookings for you via your mobile.
Nairobi National Park
Notwithstanding the hype, it really is remarkable that the plains and woodland making up
Nairobi National Park
should exist almost uncorrupted within earshot of Nairobi’s downtown traffic, complete with more than eighty species of large mammals, including all the giant savanna species with the exception of the elephant. It boasts the greatest density of
of any city park in the world. There is, in fact, no comparable park anywhere. In contrast to the pitted streets of the city, gridlocked with traffic, the park is a haven of tranquil wilderness where humans have only temporary landing rights.
The park is a good place to spend time during a flight layover, or before an afternoon or evening flight, and you have a high chance of seeing certain species, especially black rhino, which might well elude you in the bigger Kenyan parks. Although it is fenced along its northern perimeter, the park is open to the south, in theory allowing migrating herds, and the predators that follow them, to come and go more or less freely. For all the low-flying planes and minibuses, you have a greater chance of witnessing a kill here than in any other park in Kenya.
The Nairobi migration
Until the end of the twentieth century, the Nairobi National Park witnessed the second-largest herbivore migration after that of the Mara and Serengeti, with thousands of wildebeest and zebra streaming in from the south in July and August for the good grazing. Before 1946, when the park was created, only the physical barrier of Nairobi itself diverted what was a general northward migration on towards the Aberdare range and the foothills of Mount Kenya. The erection of fences along the park’s northern perimeter closed that migration route, while the steady encroachment of housing, industry, farms and livestock grazing along the southern boundary is also tightening the wildlife corridor there. The wildebeest you see nowadays are mostly sedentary individuals that stay in the park all year, and the migration has been reduced, in most years, to a trickle. Conservationists are, however, determined to keep the southern corridor open, claiming that to fence the park (partly a response to fears about lion and rhino poaching) would effectively suffocate its ecosystem, which depends on free-ranging wildlife to be sustainable. The “Friends of Nairobi National Park” (t0723 690686) have the full story on this and much more about the park.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant and rhino orphanage, inside the western end of the park, offers a chance to see staff caring for baby elephants, and sometimes baby rhino, which have been orphaned by poachers, or have been lost or abandoned for natural reasons. The trust is run by Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband, the founding warden of Tsavo National Park, and, during the hour-long open house, the elephant keepers bring their juvenile charges up to an informal rope barrier where you can easily touch them and take photos.
After many years of trial and error, Sheldrick and her staff have become the world’s experts on hand-rearing baby African elephants, sometimes from birth, using a special milk formula for the youngest infants and assigning keepers to individual 24-hour guardianship of their charges, a responsibility that includes sleeping in their stables. Without the love of a surrogate family and plenty of stimulation, orphaned baby elephants fail to thrive: they can succumb to fatal infections when teething, and, even if they survive, can grow up disturbed and unhappy and badly prepared for reintroduction to the wild.
Rehabilitation is one of the Sheldrick Trust’s major preoccupations. For rhinos, which mature at twice the speed of elephants, this involves a year or more of walks with their keeper, introducing the orphan’s scent, via habitual dung middens and “urinal” bushes, to the wild population. Many of Nairobi National Park’s rhinos grew up in the Sheldrick nursery; the last surviving member of Amboseli’s famous long-horned rhino herd was rescued by the Trust in 1987 and is now a successful breeding female, having been released in Tsavo East. In the case of elephants, which mature at about the same rate as humans, the process of reintroduction is more attuned to the individual: outgoing animals are encouraged while young to meet wild friends and potential adoptive mothers, again through walks with their keepers, most often in Tsavo National Park. More traumatized elephants take longer to find their feet. Matriarchs who were Sheldrick orphans themselves, such as Eleanor at Tsavo East, have been responsible for adopting many returnees.
The National Museum
In 2008, the
Nairobi National Museum
reopened its doors after a three-year, Ksh800 million facelift. The refurbished result is a still partly sparkling, showpiece attraction and a good prelude to any tour around the country. It’s easy to reach from the centre of town and provides a solid overview of Kenya’s culture, history and wildlife.
Hall of Kenya
This expansive entry hall into the museum is sparsely appointed with some of Kenya’s most impressive and unusual artefacts and artworks. In one display case is a Swahili siwa from the 1680s. The siwa, a ceremonial horn intricately carved from an elephant tusk, was traditionally blown on celebratory occasions as a symbol of unity and was considered to possess magical powers. There is also a sambu, a Kalenjin elder’s cloak made from the skins of Sykes’ monkeys. Beautiful photos of some of Kenya’s animals adorn the wall of this hall, and prepare you for the next gallery.
The Great Hall of Mammals
Dedicated to Africa’s charismatic, endangered megafauna, and the plains animals that are still found in some abundance in Kenya, this hall features some impressive dioramas. In the centre of the room are examples of a giraffe, an elephant, a buffalo, a zebra and an okapi, the strange forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe found only in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Along the walls are displays of most of Kenya’s mammals, including the big cats, primates and antelopes, with explanations of their habitats, diets and life cycles. Also displayed in this gallery is the skeleton of Ahmed, the most famous of the giant-tusked bull elephants of Marsabit, in the north of the country. In the 1970s, when poaching was rampant in northern Kenya, conservationists feared that Ahmed would be targeted because of his enormous tusks. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, assigned two rangers to track Ahmed day and night until he died of natural causes at the age of 55. His tusks weighed in at 68kg (150lb) each. There’s a life-size replica of Ahmed in the courtyard between the entrance and the shop.
Just off the Hall of Kenya gallery is a room devoted to ornithology, featuring 1600 specimens in glass cases. Kenya’s birdlife usually makes a strong impression, even on non-birdwatchers. Look out for the various species of hornbill, turaco and roller, and for the extraordinary standard-wing nightjar, which is frequently seen fluttering low over a swimming pool at dusk, hunting for insects.
The Cradle of Human Kind
The unique interest of the Nairobi museum lies in the human origins exhibit, where paleontology displays are housed. Along the walls, skeletons and skull casts of ancient hominins trace primate diversity and the evolution of the human species back millions of years. Of particular importance is the almost complete skeleton of “Turkana Boy”, the 1.6-million-year-old remains of an immature male hominin found near Lake Turkana. Hardcore paleontology fans will want to visit the Hominin Skull Room, which contains the skulls of some of our ancient ancestors and non-ancestral cousins, such as Homo erectus. The understanding of human evolution is itself a rapidly evolving field, with new theories about human origins and ancestry appearing almost yearly, but East Africa is invariably its field-research location.
Cycles of Life
Upstairs, next to the temporary galleries of local art, the Cycles of Life exhibit covers Kenya’s tribes and cultures, in neatly laid out displays of artefacts telling the story of each ethnic group from childhood through adulthood to ancestor status. If you’re planning on travelling through any of the areas inhabited by pastoral peoples (especially Pokot, Samburu, Maasai or Turkana), then seeing some old and authentic handicrafts beforehand is a good idea.
The room begins with a display of traditional birthing methods and child-rearing techniques, including a traditional Pokot child carrier made from monkey skin and children’s toys made from discarded scraps of metal. The exhibit moves on to explain initiation and circumcision rituals. On display here is a Maasai warrior outfit, complete with spear and shield. The adulthood display contains various clothing and beauty products including beaded necklaces and earplugs used by some of the semi-nomadic tribes to stretch the earlobes. A display of grave markers and artefacts used to send someone into the afterlife marks the end of the exhibit.
The town of NGONG, the jumping-off point for the Ngong Hills, is 8km beyond Karen shopping centre; turn right after the police station in Ngong. If you have the chance, stop on the way at Bulbul, 4km from Karen, and take a look at the pretty mosque of this largely Muslim village. As often happened in Kenya, Islam spread here through the settlement of discharged troops from other British-ruled territories, in this case from Nubia in Sudan. Ngong itself is basically just a small junction town with limited shops and services and the rough D523 road trailing out to the west towards the Maasai Mara.
The Ngong Hills are revered by the Maasai, who have several traditional explanations of how they were formed. The best-known says that a giant, stumbling north with his head in the clouds, tripped on Kilimanjaro. Thundering to the ground, his hand squeezed the earth into the Ngongs’ familiar, knuckled outline. An even more momentous story explains the Ngongs as the bits of dirt left under God’s fingernails after he’d finished creating the earth.
The walk along the sharp spine of the Ngong Hills was once a popular weekend hike and picnic outing, easily feasible in a day, although, unfortunately, the hills got a reputation for muggings in the 1980s, curtailing independent expeditions, and KWS rangers usually now provide an escort. The views, of Nairobi on one side and the Rift Valley on the other, are magnificent, and despite the wind farm at the northern end of the hills, the forested slopes are still inhabited by buffalo and various species of antelope. With a car – and it has to be 4WD if it’s been raining – you can get to the summit, Point Lamwia (2459m), which offers a 360-degree view. If you want to walk, and are reasonably fit, allow a minimum of three hours to get to the top and back to your car. Alternatively, you could organize transport to meet you west of Kiserian, on the C58 Magadi road, and spend four to five hours traversing the length of the peaks, a walk of about 15km.
On the ridges below the summit, on privately owned land, almost due east of the highest point, is the Finch Memorial, Karen Blixen’s tribute to the man who took her flying.
It doesn’t take long to realize that commerce is Nairobi’s raison d’être. Nairobi is the best place in East Africa to buy handicrafts, with the widest, if not the cheapest, selection, and the city also has some lavish produce markets, enjoyable even if you only want to browse. The upper part of Moi Avenue is Nairobi’s busiest ordinary shopping street, with some colonnaded shop-fronts still remaining. A certain amount of bargaining is expected at all Nairobi’s markets and many independent shops.
The southern Rift Valley
The journey south from Nairobi down into the hot, sparsely inhabited southern districts of the Rift Valley takes you first to the prehistoric site at Olorgasailie, then on to the dramatic salt lake of Magadi, and finally to the Nguruman Escarpment and the remote nature conservancy at Shompole. The scenery opens out dramatically as you skirt the southern flank of the Ngong Hills and descend steeply down the escarpment; if you’re travelling by public transport, try to get a front seat, as giraffe and other animals are often seen.
Lake Magadi and around
Lying in a Rift Valley depression 1000m below Nairobi, Lake Magadi is a vast shallow pool of soda (sodium carbonate), a sludge of alkaline water and crystal trona deposits, and one of the hottest places in the country. Magadi is also the second-largest source of soda in the world, after the Salton Sea in the USA. At Magadi, the Magadi Soda Company – formerly an ICI business, now owned by the Indian company Tata – operates the very model of a company town, on a barren spit of land jutting out across the multicoloured soda. The company’s investment here is guaranteed – hot springs gush out of the earth’s crust to provide an inexhaustible supply of briney water for evaporation. Everything you see, apart from the homes of a few Maasai on the shore, is owned and run by the corporation. You pass a company police barrier where you sign in and enter over a causeway, past surreal pink salt ponds, often flocked by flamingos. Now on company territory, a sign advises visitors that “it is dangerous to walk across the lake surface”, just in case you were contemplating a stroll across the soda. Note that some of the company police are touchy about you taking photos of the factory installations. Despite this, the atmosphere here, somewhat surprisingly because of the nature of the work and harshness of the environment, is relaxed and welcoming. By comparison with the rest of Kenya, the company pays its 700 staff high wages, starting at around Ksh40,000 per month; people tend to get drunk a lot, and staff accommodation and many services are free.
Many visitors come to Magadi specifically for its birdlife. There’s a wealth of avifauna here, including, usually, large numbers of flamingos at the southern end of the lake. At this end, there are also freshwater swamps, which attract many species.
Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site
Between 400,000 and 500,000 years ago, the wide, shallow lake east of what is now
Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site
was inhabited by a species of hominin, probably
of the Acheulian culture (after St Acheul in France, where it was first discovered). The site is endowed with numerous pathways, boardwalks and informative signs, and is a peaceful place to stay, though most people just stop here for an hour or two. The guided tour around the excavations (included in the entrance charge, tip welcomed) is not to be missed. The museum and accommodation are just above the excavations, on a ridge overlooking the former lake.
The early people who lived at Olorgasailie made a range of identifiable stone tools: cleavers for skinning animals; round balls for crushing bones, perhaps for hurling or possibly tied to vines to be used, like gauchos, as bolas; and heavy hand axes, for which the culture is best known, but for which, as Richard Leakey writes, “embarrassingly, no one can think of a good use”. The guides tell you they were used for chopping meat and digging. This seems reasonable, but some are very large, while hundreds of others (particularly at the so-called “factory site”) seem far too small, the theory being that they were made by youngsters, practising their toolmaking.
Mary and Louis Leakey’s team did most of the unearthing here in the 1940s. Thousands of the stone tools they found have been left undisturbed, in situ, under protective roofs. Perhaps the most impressive find, however, is the fossilized leg bone of an extinct giant elephant, dwarfing a similar bone from a modern elephant placed next to it. It was long hoped that human remains would also be uncovered at Olorgasailie, but despite extensive digging none has been found – providing more scope for speculation.
Today, sitting with a pair of binoculars and looking out over what used to be the lake can yield some rewarding animal-watching, especially in the brief dusk. Go for a walk out past the excavations towards the gorge and you may see baboons, duiker, giraffe, eland and even gerenuk if you’re lucky – Olorgasailie is the westernmost extent of their range in southern Kenya.