Nairobi in Kenya offers a unique blend of wilderness experiences and colonial legacy. Read this to find out what to do in Nairobi.
The ice in my gin and tonic is melting fast. The ceiling fans of the Lord Delamere Terrace at The Norfolk are blasting overhead, yet I’m dripping with perspiration.
The Norfolk, now owned by Canadian chain Fairmont Hotels, is a famous historic meeting place in Kenya’s capital. And judging by the well-dressed Kenyans walking along Harry Thuku Road in smart western suits, it’s apparent that this is a classy part of town.
Things were very different when the hotel first opened in 1904. Back then, there was not even much of a town.
In the novel White Man’s Country, Elspeth Huxley wrote of Nairobi: “The town consisted of one cart-track, recently labelled Government Road, flanked by Indian dukas (shops).”
The Norfolk Hotel
Kenya, or British East Africa, as it was known, was a hunting ground for big-game hunters. And The Norfolk Hotel was their favourite watering hole before and after expeditions.
Also clinking glasses with the hunters were younger sons of the British gentry who were seeking their fortunes in a new land and wealthy visitors from Europe, there to escape from freezing northern winters.
In the Flame Trees of Thika, Huxley wrote of how her father bought land at Thika in the bar of the Norfolk “from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie.”
The colonial past that moulded Nairobi’s character still has a strong influence.
In the leafy upmarket suburb of Karen, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, rambling colonial mansions have been lovingly converted into luxury boutique hotels, upmarket restaurants and museums.
Karen was named after Danish writer Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.
In 1954, Blixen was a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature but lost to Ernest Hemingway.
Karen Blixen’s old home is now a museum. The farmhouse has been restored almost to its original condition in 1931, when Blixen left.
Much of her furniture is displayed along with a few props used in the movie Out of Africa (starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford).
When Blixen left Kenya, the land which she owned was divided into smaller parcels that became the suburb of Karen.
I find myself sipping Kenyan wine and nibbling coriander samosas in fashionable hotspot Talisman.
Talisman is located in a 1920s bungalow that has been converted into a clubby restaurant and bar decorated with stylish original paintings of cheetahs and leopards.
This African fusion approach permeates the decor and cuisine of several restaurants in Karen.
The most popular restaurant is Carnivore, where nyama choma (barbequed meat) is the main game.
At the entrance is a huge barbeque pit stacked with long skewers and swords of beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
Bartender, Dr Dawaman, arrives at my table carrying a wooden tray of vodka, sugar, lime and honey. “Mama, let me make you a dawa,” he says.
The Kenyan cocktail is perfect tonic after a tiring day of travelling. A waiter dressed in a snazzy zebra-print uniform appears with a sword and carves a chunk of beef onto my plate.
The waiters keep coming back, sometimes with more exotic offerings such as camel and ostrich, until I can eat no more and raise the surrender flag in the centre of the table. Current laws have taken zebra, hartebeest, kudu and other wildlife off the menu.
The road joining Karen with the Nairobi CBD cuts through a section of the Nairobi National Park, which is 117sqkm of wilderness at the city’s edge. “Nairobi is the only city in the world with a safari park knocking on the door of the city centre,” says one resident. “Where else would you be able to work in a city office and drive through a safari park on your way home each day?” says another.
“Nairobi is the only city in the world with a safari park knocking on the door of the city centre,” says one resident. “Where else would you be able to work in a city office and drive through a safari park on your way home each day?” says another.
Being so close to the wilderness is one of Nairobi’s endearing features. The national park is only a few kilometres from the centre of Nairobi and it is framed by a backdrop of modern multi-storey office buildings.
Gazelles, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, lions, cheetahs and leopards roam freely. Only a few days before I arrive, a group of visitors spotted a pair of black rhino here.
The wildlife sanctuaries located in and around Nairobi National Park are definitely worth visiting.
Our first stop is the Giraffe Centre where I stand at the edge of a timber veranda with a dry food pellet wedged between my puckered lips as Betty the Rothschild giraffe cranes her long neck over the top of the railing and waves her enormous purple tongue over my face.
The centre was founded in 1979 by Jock Leslie-Melville, the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish earl, and his wife Betty.
The couple first became intrigued by giraffes that poked their heads through the first-floor bedroom of their English-style mansion. Their home is now a manor hotel where guests can have the delightful experience of giraffes sticking their heads through the windows.
Their home is now a manor hotel where guests can have the delightful experience of giraffes sticking their heads through the windows.
The Leslie-Melvilles also started a breeding programme that successfully introduced several breeding pairs of Rothschild giraffes (the most endangered subspecies of African giraffes) into various Kenyan national parks.
Not far from Giraffe Centre is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a not-for-profit conservation trust that operates as a wildlife orphanage and rehabilitation centre for elephants.
The trust was established in 1987 in memory of David Sheldrick who was a naturalist and warden at Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.
Over the last 33 years, David’s wife, Daphne has continued his work by caring for orphaned baby elephants and black rhinos. Her persistence led to the discovery of a milk formula that has saved the lives of 85 orphaned elephants.
We gather around a clearing where waist-high baby elephants roll around playing in the dirt. Green-uniformed keepers keep watchful eyes on their charges and there’s an informative talk.
The talk reveals interesting facts about elephants. They share many traits with humans including emotions such as sorrow and joy; some are prone to fits of jealously and throw tantrums; others are intensely competitive; they grieve for lost loved ones and can suffer from depression.
One adventurous elephant approaches the crowd, touching some young girls with its trunk. The girls squeal in delight as the baby elephant makes their acquaintance.
Half an hour later, a second group of elephants are led into the clearing. There are oohs and aahs as we watch the keepers bottle-feed the two-year-old pachyderms with plastic cartons of milk. Feeding time is followed by a game of soccer between the elephants and their keepers.
My visit to Nairobi has given me the opportunity to soak up history, culture and colonial atmosphere. And by visiting these wildlife sanctuaries, I’ve come to realise how important caring for wildlife is in Kenya.
The writer was a guest of Kenya Tourist Board
Fairmont The Norfolk is a historic hotel in the city centre, phone +800 0441 1414.
Former colonial mansion House of Waine is now a luxury lodge in Karen, full board from US$300 a night.
Giraffe Manor offers cosy English country manor accommodation with giraffes peering through the bedroom windows.
Where to eat
Carnivore bills itself as Africa’s greatest eating experience, phone +254 20 600 5933.
Karen Blixen Cottages and Coffee Gardens offer cottage-style accommodation and five different indoor and outdoor dining areas, phone +254 20 88 2138.
Talisman Restaurant is a popular expat hangout in Karen, phone +254 20 388 3213.
What to do
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is open to the public from 11am to 12noon each day.
Giraffe Centre offers informational talks on the Rothschild giraffe.
The National Museum has galleries with displays of Kenyan culture and stuffed wildlife. The gardens are dotted with sculptures, including a life-size model of Ahmed, the elephant that became an icon at the height of the 1980’s poaching crisis.