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Kenya sits at the centre of the African safari experience, with an outstanding variety of wild animals and Big Five viewing opportunities. Although safaris are its greatest attraction, it's a country of great diversity with much more to offer.
Essentially, it's a place for adventure - the coast offering beaches and water-based activities; the mountains presenting a challenge to hikers and climbers; and the rolling savannahs are a game-viewer's paradise.
The country sits astride the equator, offering fabulous scenery and a variety of tribal cultures. From its central location, the sacred peaks of Mt Kenya reign over a landscape primarily covered by grasslands and thorn trees, much of it enclosed within its many national parks and reserves.
To the west, the spectacular Great Rift Valley is sprinkled with lakes teeming with a variety of birdlife, whose shores and surrounds are encircled by agricultural farmlands. To the east lies the promise of an idyllic beach holiday with the requisite white palm-fringed beaches and pristine coral reefs.
Inhabiting the highlands and Rift Valley are two of the most well-known of the numerous African tribal cultures, the Kikuyu farmers and the tall, red-clad Maasai cattle herders. The coast is home to ancient Swahili civilisations and old port towns that are rich in a history of exotic spice trading and fighting.
Kenya has a sophisticated tourism infrastructure, with two major cities controlling the majority of the tourism trade. Nairobi, the capital, is the safari and hiking hub, situated in the cool Central Highlands, while on the east coast the hot and humid trading port of Mombasa functions as the gateway to the resorts and pristine beaches of the area. Sadly, the heavy influence of tourism has meant excessive prices for safaris, souvenirs and most activities of interest to foreigners, as well as the constant hassle by touts, guides and sellers.
There is an abundance of things to see and do in Kenya, a country which boasts some of Africa's most famous and sought-after tourist attractions. Kenya is essentially a dream destination for African wildlife safaris and most of its attractions revolve around the incredible game reserves and the famous naturalists and wildlife professionals who have worked in the country.
Game viewing is a must, with quintessential destinations near Nairobi, such as the Masai Mara National Reserve, while Hell's Gate National Park is located in the Great Rift Valley. Visit Elsamere Conservation Centre or take in the natural splendour of Lake Naivasha. Visit the Karen Blixen Museum and enjoy the Giraffe Centre and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.
Another draw card for Kenyan tourism is the wonderful coastline and idyllic beaches. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean are ideal for swimming and watersports, and there are some well-preserved coral reefs to explore beneath the surface. There are a number of popular resorts along the Kenyan coast and Mombasa is an interesting port city. Kenya has pleasant weather throughout the year, making this a great beach holiday destination.
Nairobi National Park is a compact and beautiful area of plains and wild bush, containing a large number of Africa's best-known animals. Large herds of zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and giraffe roam the plains, alongside black rhino, ostrich, baboons, cheetah, leopard and lions. In the park is the Animal Orphanage where sick, wounded and abandoned animals are cared for and rehabilitated into the park, as well as an Educational Centre featuring a Safari Walk. Close by is the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where infant elephants and rhino orphaned because of poaching activities are looked after and eventually returned to the wild in Tsavo National Park. The centre is open every morning and visitors can watch the calves bathing in the mud hole and being bottle fed by human surrogate mothers.
Lake Naivasha is a shimmering waterscape of floating hyacinth surrounded by mountains, the skies pierced by the distinctive cries of fish eagles. Kingfishers dart into the waters from their papyrus perches and ugly Marabou storks plod along the shoreline. The trees are home to Colobus monkeys and at night the earth shudders with the movement of grazing hippos. The southern shore of the lake is lined with hotels, campsites and guesthouses, prettily situated either on the shore or higher up on the slopes of the mountain with fantastic views. Boat trips are a popular way to explore the lake and also the private Crescent Island Game Sanctuary. Along the southern shore is the former home of naturalist and painter Joy Adamson, which is now the Elsamere Conservation Centre, incorporating a guesthouse and a small museum. Visitors are invited to join the guests daily at 4pm for a sumptuous tea on the lawns of the beautifully peaceful lakeside setting.
Named for the pair of massive red cliffs of the Njorowa Gorge that encloses a geothermic area of hot springs and steam vents, Hell's Gate is one of the two parks in Kenya that allows visitors to explore on foot, making it ideal for hiking, cycling, camping and rock climbing. It's famous for its natural steaming geysers, and the towering cliffs provide an eagle and vulture breeding ground. The wide plains are home to numerous animals, such as zebra, buffalo, eland, gazelle, giraffes, warthog and baboon. It's best to hire a guide when reaching the gorge to help you along the hike route: the guides help you traverse the route through the canyon and explain the interesting geological origins and features of the landscape, as well as explaining the local mythology and Masai names given to the features.
Although tiny, this park has a high concentration of game with everything wildlife enthusiasts could wish for, except elephants. Lake Nakuru is one of Kenya's most important rhino sanctuaries, there are also several prides of lions and it's the best place to spot leopards. The surface of the shallow alkaline lake covers about a third of the park and the saline concentration supports a blue-green algae that attracts thousands of flamingos. Waterbuck and large flocks of pelicans are also attracted to the rich food source in the lake, as are the rare Rothschild Giraffes. The park has several high points with good lookouts and waterfalls, with monkeys and baboons frequenting the rocky cliffs.
The vast Tsavo National Park is only an hour's drive from Mombasa. The park is home to giraffes, buffalo and antelope, as well as monkeys, many exotic birds and Kenya's largest herds of elephants. Visitors are also likely to see rhinos - after being virtually wiped out by poachers, their population now numbers almost 200. Another exciting attraction is an observation tank in one of the park's pools from which visitors can get a close-up view of hippos, crocodiles and tropical fish in their natural habitat. Some of the roads in the park are in bad condition and it can be difficult driving but if organised game drives ensure no problems.
At the Giraffe Centre, visitors can experience the rare pleasure of hand-feeding these graceful and gentle creatures from a platform at eye-level. You can also enjoy its nature walks, with 160 species of bird among incredible trees while warthogs and giant tortoises live down below. This is the single best attraction for children in Nairobi and there are often groups of school kids that come for tours. Guides at the centre give educational talks and answer any questions you may have.
The Nairobi National Museum is home to the great prehistoric finds from the Leakey family, including relics from mankind's earliest ancestors. The most famous fossil is the 1,5 million-years-old Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found. There are also fascinating sections on art, wildlife and local history. In many ways, it's a bit old-fashioned but a great place to learn about Kenya's culture and history. Local guides are available at the museum, with their knowledge enriching the exhibits. Apart from the wealth of artefacts and information in the museum, there are some wonderful sculptures and a herb garden, and also an attached snake park containing large venomous snakes, tortoises and crocodiles.
Karen Blixen was a notable Kenyan personality who lived and farmed on the outskirts of Nairobi from 1917 to 1931 when she returned to Denmark bankrupt and heartbroken at being forced to leave Africa. She authored acclaimed books including Out of Africa, which inspired an Oscar winning film of the same name. The main building of the original farmhouse, M'Bogani House, now houses the Karen Blixen Museum and retains much of its original furniture and items of interest. The museum is situated in the suburb of Karen, a short drive from the city centre. The stunning landscapes of the area, however, will be instantly recognisable. Those who have seen the much-loved movie may also be curious about the Muthaiga Country Club: tourists can visit the original clubhouse, which is still active, but women won't be allowed in the members' bar.
One of Africa's greatest natural spectacles is the annual wildebeest migration between Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti national parks happening sometime between June to October each year. Up to two million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson's gazelles make this journey, seeking greener grasses. Predators stalk the enormous, ever-moving herds, from lions in the grasslands to crocodiles during the dramatic, frenetic river crossings. The river crossings at the Grumeti River and Mara River are the most popular part of the migration to witness and there are many great camps set up near the rivers in the Mara. A thrilling way to experience the migration is on a riding safari, when your horses can actually wander among the animals, or in a hot air balloon, which gives you breathtaking views.
A gentle and relaxed holiday destination, Lamu is Kenya's oldest inhabited town and the unhurried way of life has changed little over the centuries. Part of the Lamu Archipelago, it's reached by boat from the mainland. The narrow, winding streets are crowded with pedestrians, markets, vendors and donkeys. Lamu's lovely old Arab houses feature intricately carved doors and lintels, and mosques decorate the streets of one of the last remaining Swahili towns from a civilisation that used to be the cultural force along the coast. A dhow trip is a mandatory holiday outing and sailing around the little islands or to the beautiful beaches is a memorable experience. The Takwa ruins on Manda Island and ancient settlements on Pate are great attractions too, while the beautiful whites sands of Shela Beach are popular for sunbathing and watersports. For a sense of local history and Swahili culture, visitors can explore the Lamu Museum, the Swahili House Museum or Lamu Fort.
Situated on the beach 60 miles (40km) north of Mombasa is the lazy and unashamedly hedonistic holiday resort of Malindi, its dazzling white beaches lining the shore. But for the more adventurous, excellent fishing trips in Malindi leave early before the heat of the day sets in, in search of barracuda, tuna and marlin. One of the few authentic Portuguese relics left on the coast can be found on the cliffs near Malindi Harbour, with the cross of Vasco da Gama commemorating his arrival here in 1498. South of Malindi are the Watamu and Malindi Marine National Parks, protected areas of white coral beaches and stunning, crystal-clear blue lagoons attracting many snorkelers and scuba divers. Between the two marine parks is the abandoned 15th century Swahili town of Gedi, where visitors can wander the ruins of the palace, market place, houses, mosques and pillared tombs.
The hot and humid holiday destination of Mombasa is the biggest port on the east coast of Africa. Situated on an island linked to the mainland by bridges, it's surrounded by a natural harbour where commercial shipping mixes with traditional sailing dhows. The main Mombasa holiday attraction is the commanding 16th-century fort protecting the entrance of the harbour, Fort Jesus, whose remnants relay the story of a historic struggle for control of the coast between the Portuguese and Arabs. The Government Game Department's Ivory Room exhibits elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns and hippopotamus teeth, along with other animal trophies confiscated from poachers or taken from dead animals on the reserve. Mombasa's Old Town retains a strong Arab flavour, its winding streets and crammed faded houses alive with the colours of the traditional wrap-around clothing and street sellers.
The climate of Kenya ranges from tropical on the coast, where the weather is hot and humid, to the temperate nature of the inland regions. It is cool and wet in the highlands, and dry in the northern areas.
The capital, Nairobi, experiences cool winters and mild, pleasant summer temperatures. The best time to visit Kenya is probably during the dry season from January to March, and July to October. The rainy seasons in Kenya are April to June and October to early December.
The dry season is the best time for safaris in Kenya as it is easier to see the animals when the grass is shorter and they congregate around the water holes. The annual migration in the Masai Mara is best seen from July to October although the precise timing of this natural phenomenon varies each year.
The weather on the coast is pleasant year round but generally hot and humid conditions prevail, tempered by strong onshore breezes. The best time to holiday on the coast is from December to March, while April to May are the wettest months; there is also a short rainy season from October to November. The lowlands are hot and dry and the highlands (including Nairobi) are more temperate and cool at night.
The unit of currency is the Kenyan shilling (KES), which is divided into 100 cents. It is not advisable to take Kenyan Shillings out of the country, as they are difficult to exchange elsewhere. Foreign currency can be changed at banks, bureaux de change and hotels. It's easiest to exchange US Dollars, Pounds Sterling or Euros. International credit cards are accepted in the larger hotels and stores, and some camps and lodges. ATMs are widely available in Nairobi and other major towns.
English is the official language but Swahili is the national language, with 42 ethnic languages spoken.
Electrical current is 240 volts, 50Hz. UK-style square three-pin plugs are used.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months, which in turn can be extended by three months.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa can be obtained for a maximum stay of 3 months. Passports must contain at least one unused visa page.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum stay of three months. Extensions of an additional three months are possible.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months. Extensions of an additional three months are possible.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is not required for stays of up to 30 days.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and obtainable on arrival for up to a maximum of three months. Extentions up to an additional three months are possible.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months. Extensions of up to three months are possible.
All foreign passengers to Kenya must hold proof of sufficient funds (at least USD 500) to cover their stay in the country, return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Most foreign nationals require a visa, and some foreign nationals can obtain visas on arrival in Kenya, provided that (i) their passport is in good condition, and (ii) they have at least one blank page in their passport for the visa endorsement. The visa fee is payable in USD, GBP or EUR, cash only. On-arrival visas are valid for three months. It is also possible to obtain an e-visa prior to departure for Kenya. A valid, 90 day, multiple entry/re-entry "East African Tourist Visa" issued by Rwanda or Uganda will suffice, provided the passanger in posession of the document has previously entered the country that first issued the visa. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Kenya, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers should get the latest medical advice on vaccinations and malaria prevention at least three weeks prior to departure. A malaria risk exists all year round in Kenya, but more so around Mombasa and the lower coastal areas than in Nairobi and on the high central plateau. Immunisation against yellow fever, polio and typhoid are usually recommended. A yellow fever certificate is required by anyone arriving from an infected area. Other risks include diarrheal diseases. Protection against bites from sandflies, mosquitoes, and tsetse flies is the best prevention against malaria and dengue fever, as well as other insect-borne diseases, including Rift Valley fever, sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chikungunya fever. Water is of variable quality and visitors are advised to drink bottled water. There are good medical facilities in Nairobi and Mombasa but travel insurance is always advised.
Tipping is not customary in Kenya. However, a 10 percent service charge may be added to the bill in more upmarket restaurants. Otherwise, small change in local currency may be offered to taxi drivers, porters and waiters. Note that on safari the drivers, guides and cooks often rely heavily on tips to get by, but these are discretionary.
There is a threat from Somali terrorist groups in Kenya and visitors should be vigilant in public places and tourist sites. Several bombings have targeted Mombasa, Nairobi and other cities in recent years, most blamed on the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab group. Several governments have instituted travel warnings and alerts for parts of Kenya and travellers are advised to read up on the situation and which areas should be avoided before visiting the country.
Nairobi is notorious for robberies and muggings, and visitors should be alert at all times, but particularly at night. Visitors should also be vigilant in Mombasa, especially in the main south coast tourist areas of Diani and Ukunda.
There is a serious threat of banditry in the northern areas and travel is only advisable with an armed escort. Recent armed attacks in resort areas of northern Kenya near the border of Somalia (especially Lamu Island) have occurred, including the kidnapping of foreign tourists. Several governments have advised against all but essential travel to coastal areas within 150km of the Somalian border, and inland areas within 60km of the border.
Piracy has also been a concern off the coast of Kenya. There have previously been incidents of attacks and hijackings of private vessels, though there have been no recent reports. Visitors should also take sensible precautions when driving. In particular, landmines have been used in attacks around Moyale, close to the main A2 road south. Vehicles crossing the border at this point should stay on the A2.
The taking of photographs of official buildings and embassies is not advised and could lead to detention. The coastal towns are predominantly Muslim and religious customs and sensitivities should be respected, particularly during Ramadan. Dress should be conservative away from the beaches and resorts, particularly for women. Homosexuality is against the law. Smoking in public places is illegal, other than in designated smoking areas, and violators will be fined or imprisoned.
Business in Kenya tends to be conducted formally and conservatively, with the appropriate attire of a jacket and tie. Patience, cultural sensitivity, tolerance for uncertainty and the ability to build personal relationships with business associates are all central to successfully doing business in Kenya.
Ethnic division and corruption undermine the Kenyan economy, but they are realities in the business world of Kenya. Despite red tape and numerous pitfalls, Kenya is a land of business opportunity and the IT and telecoms sectors are rapidly expanding.
The concept of harambee is important in business culture in Kenya: it involves a sense of community, responsibility and mutual assistance. Deference to seniority is important, as is social standing, while using official titles is key during introductions and greetings.
Terse statements should be avoided and controlling one's emotions is vitally important. While punctuality is key and meetings should begin on time, they often don't end on time. When introducing a new deal, it's important to illustrate respect for tradition and history. Deals generally only close when it is clear that all the possible information has been considered and deliberated upon.
Interpersonal relationships add to business success, and understanding Kenyan culture and history is a great way of building business contacts. Building a solid business relationship is prioritised over meeting deadlines and closing deals.
English is the language of business. Business hours run from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and dress style should be formal with suits or smart-casual wear. Gifts are important and generally expected. Taking time to greet everyone and enquire about the health of their family will ensure a smooth business meeting.
Respect for elders is important too, and if you are invited to dinner, never begin eating until the eldest member has started. Also, refrain from leaving food on your plate. In introductions, clasping an elder or key business associate's wrist with your other hand while shaking hands conveys respect.
The international access code for Kenya is +254. Area codes are also in use. Purchasing a local SIM card is simple and most hotels, restaurants and cafes in tourist areas offer free wifi access.
Travellers to Kenya over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 250g tobacco products; 1 litre of spirits; and 500ml perfume. Prohibited items include fruit, imitation firearms, and children's toys pistols. No plants may be brought into the country without a Plant Import Permit (PIP).
Kenyan Tourist Board: +254 (0)20 271 1262 or www.magicalkenya.com
Kenyan Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 387 6101.
Kenyan High Commission, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7636 2371.
Kenyan High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 563 1773.
Kenyan High Commission, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 (0)2 6247 4788.
Kenyan High Commission, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 362 2249.
United States Embassy, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 712 3304.
British High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 284 4000.
Canadian High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 366 3000.
Australian High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 427 7100.
South African High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 282 7236.
Honorary Consul of Ireland, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 235 7242.
New Zealand Consulate, Nairobi: +254 0(20) 804 5100.
Amboseli is a park of giants, renowned for its herds of mighty tusked elephants presided over by the magnificent backdrop of Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. One of Africa's most unforgettable images is the picture of these large creatures standing in silent reverence before the gigantic snow-covered mountain just over the border in neighbouring Tanzania. It's a relatively small park with wide plains merging with the distant skyline, affording good visibility in all directions.
Observation Hill rises from the centre for breathtaking views over the park and towards Mt Kilimanjaro, especially in the pink light of dawn. Meaning 'Place of Water' in the Maasai language, it has a continuous supply from Kilimanjaro's snowmelt, forming underground springs that feed the marshy patches and swamps home to hippos and a great variety of bird life. Predators are relatively scarce, apart from jackal and hyena, but there are large numbers of grazers such as wildebeest, zebra and gazelles on the grassy plains and giraffe among the thorn trees.
A popular way to take in the scenery is by way of a noiseless microlight flight, either from Nairobi or the Amboseli airstrip. There is a wide range of accommodation in and around the outskirts of the park for those wanting to extend the experience.
This national park encompasses Africa's second highest mountain, Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano with a series of jagged snow-covered peaks. The local Kikuyu people revere the mountain they call Kirinvaga as the home of their Supreme Being, Ngai, and traditionally Kikuyu homes are built to face the sacred summit. Part of the attraction is the incredible variation in flora and fauna due to the changes in altitude and its position on the equator. A favourite with hikers, the slopes are covered in thick forest, home to a variety of animals such as the black leopard. Bamboo, moorland and alpine vegetation give way to rock, ice and one of the world's rarest sights - equatorial snow. For those not wishing to climb, the park offers a pristine wilderness, lakes and glaciers, and is good for game viewing and hiking.
Kenya's most visited park, commonly known as the Mara, is a wildly beautiful place with rolling savannah grasslands. It's an extension of the Serengeti Plains in neighbouring Tanzania. It offers wonderful views and an extraordinary concentration of wildlife, including the Big Five, its large grazing herds attracting many other predators such as cheetah, leopard and hyena. The annual highlight is the Great Wildebeest Migration, when an estimated two million animals leave the dry plains of Tanzania to seek greener pastures in the north, arriving in the Mara from late June. Their entrance into the Mara makes a breathtaking spectacle, as they cross the crocodile infested waters of the Mara River. Also within the reserve is a Masai village holding demonstrations of traditional dance and music. The proud warriors have become a symbol of tribal Kenya with their beadwork, spears and red blankets.
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