Traditionally Maasai land, Nairobi was originally called this highland swamp Ewaso Nai’beri – the place of cold water. The areas to the immediate south and north were originally inhabited by the Kikuyu. The town was born when railway construction workers reached this area in 1899 and set up a basic camp and supply depot, simply called ‘Mile 327’.
The history of the region in it’s colonial days is fascinating. In Karen , a suburb of Nairobi you can catch a glimpse of some of the houses and churches of the time. There you can also visit the Karen Blixen Museum featured in the Out of Africa film Visit the slightly fading Railway Museum in Nairobi to understand its pivotal role in the regions development. Or the Nairobi National Museum near the city centre.
See the historic buildings such as the Norfolk Hotel, built in 1904 to house new arrivals to the colony.
Welcome to Mombasa!
Kenya’s second largest city at approximately 1.5 million people has about half the population of Nairobi. A walk through the streets of this island city’s old town is like a walk through time — to an era when control of what is now Kenya came first under Arab rule, then Portuguese and later Arabs again. Through it all, Mombasa was a key port in Africa’s slave trade. Mombasa old town is a fine example of Arab architecture, the winding streets surrounded by attractive mashrabia houses. The old dhow harbor is still a busy trading hub.
Fort Jesus was the site of battles between Portuguese and Arab colonizers, and today holds an archaeological trove, including objects from a 1697 shipwreck.
Flora and Fauna
Kenya’s flora is considered exotic and unique to the traveler from Europe or America. Kenya’s indigenous forests have no less than 50 species, fully double that of any North American forests. The vast plains of the south are dotted with flat-topped acacia trees, thorn bushes and the “roots up” appearance of the baobab tree. On the slopes of Mount Elgon and Mount Kenya, bamboo forests sprout and even higher up is the unique groundsel tree with huge cabbage-like flowers and giant lobelias with long spikes.
At sea level, the coast is a tropical paradise. Three hundred miles of white sand beach meet stunning turquoise blue waters and lush tropical trees and brilliant floral gardens. Reef- lined beaches are lined with coastal rainforest, broad river deltas, estuaries and broad fertile floodplains. High coastal hinterlands such as the Shimba, Taita and Chyulu Hills offer cool forested retreats rich with game, including elephant.
Kenya is considered the greatest country in Africa for birdwatching with 1,054 recorded feathered species. Birdwatchers in Kenya stand a good chance of seeing nearly 60 percent of all African birds. Within the Nairobi area lies 50 percent of all Kenya’s bird species. Kenya holds the world record for the greatest number of bird species spotted in one day. It is not unreasonable to see more than 100 species of birds in a day in certain areas of Kenya.
The alkaline Great Rift Valley lakes support an immense number of water birds and many other species are found in grasslands and acacia woodlands surrounding them. Lake Nakuru is world-famous for its concentration of lesser and greater flamingos at about 6½ million. Vultures, ostrich, secretary bird, paradise flycatcher and hornbill are also well known exotic birds found in abundance.
Hyrax Hill Prehistoric Site outside Nakuru was unearthed by Louis Leakey in the 1920s and ever since has been a rich source of Neolithic fossils, tools, and Iron Age artifacts. On the fossil-rich north shores of Lake Turkana, there is a prehistoric site at Koobi Fora. Ongoing excavation here has produced such significant human fossil finds that it has been designated a World Heritage Site. Olorgasalie, located near Lake Magadi, is an area where a significant population of Homo erectus lived around 500,000 years ago. The digs here have uncovered plenty of fossils, tools and early artifacts.
Throughout Nairobi and its suburbs, there are a range of supermarkets, shopping centers, large open markets and city stores. The largest shopping centers are the Sarit Centre, a very modern mall in Westlands, the YaYa Center near Hurlingham and the Village Market in Gigiri. In the center of the town is the large City Market, selling a great selection of produce, meats and handicrafts. Kariakor Market is another excellent market for handicrafts and is renowned all over town as the best place to sample real traditional Kenyan food.
Mombasa old town and Lamu are ideal places to shop for well-priced coastal handicrafts. In Mombasa, there is a large central fish market, and several produce market including the large Maembe Tayari (Fresh Mango) market. Mombasa and Lamu are home to excellent woodcarvers from all over Kenya, producing many traditional designs. But the coast’s specialty is fine woodwork, including furniture, and Swahili boxes, intricately carved and inlaid with brass, copper or marble work.
This is Mount Kenya’s main attraction, and anybody of reasonable fitness can attempt Point Lenana at 3.1 mi./4,985 m. The high isolated passes and moorlands of Mount Elgon also make for excellent trekking. The series of craggy peaks around the caldera reaching 2.7 mi./4,321 m. are an enjoyable climb, but equally rewarding is exploring its forests, geothermal springs and caves. Wild and isolated yet easily accessible, the Cherangani Hills are a series of rolling hills, gently rising to a peak of 2.2 mi./3,529 m. at Kamalagon. There are extensive series of tracks and paths that wind through semi-arid scrub, farmland, open fields, and higher into dense forest. Mount Longonot at 1.3 mi/2,100 m. is an enjoyable way to spend a day. The views from the top across to Naivasha and the Aberdares are sensational, and the views of the crater within the mountain even more breathtaking.