It was with some trepidation that I flew into Nairobi, with Kenya having been in the news for all the wrong reasons prior to my arrival. From colonisation to rebellions, independence and autocracy, this economic hub of East Africa has grown at a staggering rate with wide-ranging consequences – the forthcoming elections in March another historic milestone.
Whilst there is plenty of talk about the future of the country, it was interesting to find out that 70% of Kenya’s population is under the age of 30 and it is this new population who are offering a refreshing optimism in a country whose government can be overshadowed by tribal divisions. Today’s Kenya is keen to respect the traditions of the past but is ready to embrace change with a very modern sensibility.
I began my own adventure along one of the country’s most spectacular – and popular – coastal regions – Diani beach, where the warm Indian Ocean laps the powder white, palm-fringed shores. Local, wooden dhows bobbed on the horizon, bringing home the freshest catch for dinner at the relaxed, low key lodges tucked away in this seemingly endless stretch of paradise – far removed from the development further south. The Swahili culture adds a touch of style to the luxurious properties found here, but venture out from the lodge in the other direction and within minutes you are walking amongst traditional fishing villages, where colourfully robed women sell dried fish and gossip in the shade of trees and children run out from small gardens thick with mangoes.
I then flew north-west to Amboseli, the park taking its name from the Swahili word for the fine volcanic dust that covers the park where over 1,000 resident elephants roam the endless plains, huge herds shimmering in the distance. The lush springs, (home to great birdlife) and the imposing presence of snow-capped Kili as constant backdrop, adds a beautiful contrast to the region and is quite rightly, a photographers dream destination.
Continuing further north, I flew over the landscape of the Great Rift Valley, primeval in its rawness and scarred by ravines and gorges, before landing in Samburu, a dramatic landscape of semi-arid desert and volcanic plains, softened by lush springs and doum palms. Here we enjoyed game drives in the shadow of sacred mountains, worshipped by the colourful Samburu tribes, whose decorative beadwork puts their southern cousins to shame. It is also here you also find the nomadic and lesser-known Boran, translated as “friend” with camels replacing the Maasai cattle and their culture captured in haunting songs passed down through generations as way of educating children. The nomadic nature of the Boran and their semi-permanent settlements made of branches and grass makes village visits and cultural interaction virtually impossible, giving any chance encounter with these communities all the more engaging.
Leaving this rich cultural heartland behind, I then flew in to the best wildlife region in Africa – the Maasai Mara. Somewhat unfairly derided by many for being too busy, too commercial, and not the real Africa, those who put such prejudice aside are richly rewarded. Is the Mara busy? Yes, but no more so than other iconic destinations people are lucky enough to visit but by choosing lodges carefully, staying in the privately managed and award-winning wildlife concessions surrounding the park I enjoyed world-class game viewing away from the crowds. Lion kill, leopard and cheetah in a morning’s drive was pretty special…
Kenya is certainly Africa’s most well-known country, but should not be judged on that alone. The classic combination of rich cultural heritage, spectacular beaches and world-class game viewing proves that is constantly looking for the next big thing, it is easy to overlook the familiar and miss what makes Kenya so hugely appealing the first place.