Times are changing in Kenya. Blixen’s “Flame Trees of Thika” have grown into a thriving agricultural heartland, Silicon Savannah (a district on the outskirts of Nairobi) is attracting the likes of Google and Microsoft and the incredible rise of mobile banking M-Pesa (Pesa being Swahili for cash) means it is easier to pay for a taxi on your mobile in Nairobi than it is in New York City.
The trade winds along Kenya’s tropical coast that draw kite surfers from across the world, continue inland across the wind farms covering Hemmingway’s “Green hills of Africa”, Michelin starred chefs from London are coming to Nairobi and green beans and coffee grown here fly back home in the same plane as our suitcases, destined for Waitrose.
Kenya’s government are equally ambitious – local politics still hold the country back from reaching its full potential – yet the governments ambitious “Vision 2030” initiative is designed to revolutionise security, education and Wi-Fi across the country within the next 15 years (3 of the most important things to many Kenyans, if asked.)
The Safari industry is also changing, with a rise in pioneering eco-lodges, where modern art galleries and sculpture gardens look out over plains where wild dog roam, the lodges attitude and design changing perceptions of what luxury safaris can offer. Alongside this progressive, forward-looking Kenya there sits a more traditional country, rich in history where safari lodges full of personality, offer a welcome that only comes from the fact that many of these incredible properties have been family homes to generations of Kenyans.
Herein lies the issue with Kenya. It is very much embracing the future, but remains proud of its heritage and whilst it is one of Africa’s most well-known countries, it should not be judged on that alone. People only seen one side or the other – rampant development or a colonial past, but look closer and there is an unforced blend of the modern and traditional that for me makes Kenya so appealing. On the one hand it is arguably Africa’s most developed countries, but also one of the most visibly traditional. It is a land famous for its pastoral nomads, where the Masaai and other tribes have adapted naturally to modern sensibilities, whilst still living a very traditional lifestyle.
Nowhere else in Africa are local communities also such an integral part of the success of the conservancies and the Kenyan people are some of the warmest, most open people you could meet. Many of these conservation initiatives are using cutting edge technology, to track and protect the wildlife that has been here for millennia – and what incredible wildlife it is.
The daily struggle for survival played out on endless plains under big skies, Kenya does wildlife drama like no-where else but the migration is only one player in an all-star cast. Leave the crowds behind and follow wild dog on foot in the highlands of Laikipia, join elephant researchers in rugged Samburu or fly across the deserts of Turkana and hidden valleys of Mt Kenya. For those who think Kenya too busy or too commercial, pick any number of boutique safari camps and you can sit watching lions hunt across the mara plains under a fiery sunset or follow herds of elephants across Amboseli as the moon rises behind Kilimanjaro with no-one around to spoil the view. It’s all about knowing where and when to go – watching a rhino courtship against a backdrop of wildflowers and lakes ablaze with pink flamingos remains my own favourite memory.
Despite the development taking place, the country is vast and there is much to explore and with all this space, comes a huge amount of adventure to be had. Yes, ballooning is great, but enjoy some fantastic fly camping, quad biking, dune-buggies, paragliding, superb horse-riding, mountain biking, or just sit around the fire at night with a beer in your hand, listening to lions in the distance.
After all this excitement, then head to the coast and shake the dust off your boots – cool, Swahili retreats look out across powdery white sand with dhows bobbing on the warm Indian ocean in the distance – a view best enjoyed with fresh lobster and a glass of something chilled. Kitesurfing, deep-sea fishing and stunning coral reefs add another dimension to a country known more for its terrestrial wildlife.
Yes there is progress in Kenya and many Kenyans embrace these changing times with enthusiasm, but Kenya’s identity remains as strong as ever. It is the tourists who find this change harder to accept. I’m not saying Kenya is without challenges, but the biggest threats facing Kenya today are false assumptions and bad PR. Issac Asimov once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.” Kenya offers a thrilling and very personal wildlife experience in both familiar and surprising ways for those who take the time to look. I urge people to rethink Kenya and travel with an open mind.