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Nairobi is one of Africa's most fast-paced cities and the safari capital of Africa. It's a place of enormous energy, with differencent races, tribes and origins all part of a thriving hustle and bustle.
The city centre buzzes with the aspirations and opportunism of moneychangers, safari touts and vendors. Kenyatta Avenue is the city's favourite tourist image, with the broad roadway fringed by trees and flowers originally designed to allow a twelve-oxen team to make a full turn. There are several museums and places of interest in the centre, including the National Museum and Snake Park.
There are numerous markets selling traditional crafts, especially the popular Masai Market. Just outside of the centre is the Nairobi National Park, and the nearby Bomas of Kenya host performances of traditional dancing and singing. The Langata Giraffe Centre offers visitors the chance to hand-feed the Rothschild's giraffes that inhabit the area.
Safety has been a concern for tourists, as the capital has in recent years been the target of terrorist attacks. With safety in mind, travellers are advised to be vigilant when visiting the capital and keep an eye on official government warnings as to the latest safety information pertaining to Kenya. Yet despite these unfortunate few incidents, a trip to Nairobi is usually trouble free and tourists can still safely enjoy the beautiful flavour and culture of the vibrant and friendly city.
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.
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.
Nairobi has a maritime climate, tempered by its high elevation and tends to be less hot than the rest of Kenya. As the city is near the equator there is little variation between the seasons and generally people talk about wet or dry seasons as opposed to summer, winter, spring, or autumn. However, summers, between November and February, are warm and pleasant, with temperatures ranging between 50°F (10°C) and 77°F (25°C).
Winter days, between June and August, are mild with slightly cooler evenings, but temperatures much like summer. The rainy season in Nairobi is during late summer and into autumn, when it is often cloudy and damp, but rainfall is seldom very heavy. The drizzliest months are March to May and October to December.
Generally visitors flock to Kenya in the country's dry seasons, between January and March, and July and October, because these are the best months to go on safari in the national parks. The best time to visit Nairobi is in summer, between November and February, but ultimately any time of year is okay in the city and it is recommended that visitors decide on the time of their visit to Kenya according to their desired activities rather than the city's climate.
Nairobi is possibly the best place in Africa to stock up on crafts and curios. The quality and prices of goods is unmatched so make the most of a stay here to stock up. Local vendors will test your bargaining skills so be prepared to haggle over typical souvenirs such as Kamba woodcarvings, African masks and Kisii soapstone carvings, as well as Maasai beadwork, colourful fabrics and the distinctive square cloth known as kanga and kikoi.
The best place to go on a shopping excursion is the fascinating and always lively City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street. For a more local experience, visit Kariokor Market where everything from vegetables to clothes is on sale. More local crafts can be found at the Maasai Markets. Biashara Street in central Nairobi is lined with interesting stores and boutiques, with plenty of cafes in which to recuperate from the rigors of shopping.
Note that taxi drivers and local touts will pressure new arrivals to go to certain stores. They earn large commissions for doing so and therefore the prices tourists are expected to pay will be much higher.
The most popular form of public transport in Nairobi are matatus, minibuses that operate on set routes. Cheap but unregulated, these overcrowded vehicles have become part of Kenyan culture. No less risky are the local bus services, renowned for speeding and dangerous driving.
Taxis are widely available and convenient, usually congregating around hotels and areas frequented by tourists. If they aren't metered, the fare should be agreed upon before departure. Nairobi taxis are marked with a yellow line along the side of the vehicle, or appear as large black London taxis.
The better taxi companies have more modern vehicles, which are booked by telephone. The best option if you are spending a day or two in the city is probably to hire a taxi and driver recommended for you by your hotel or tour operator. Three-wheel auto-rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, are also used as taxis in Nairobi. Walking in the city can be dangerous and is not a good idea after dark or outside of tourist areas.
Nairobi is the largest city between Johannesburg and Cairo, and a trip gives visitors insight into the many facets that make up urban Africa. The main reasons people travel to Nairobi are to either launch into one of Kenya's famous wildlife safaris or else travel to the coast. But the city itself offers buzzing markets, some interesting sightseeing and a lively nightlife.
Many visitors to Kenya don't spend too long in Nairobi, partially because of the city's reputation for danger and congestion. This is a shame because Nairobi is ultimately a welcoming and fascinating place with a range of worthwhile things to see and do. A day or two is all you will need to get the highlights package of Nairobi before setting off on your Kenyan adventures.
It's a good idea to hire a taxi driver, based on a recommendation at your hotel. Some of the top attractions are the National Museum, the delightful Giraffe Centre, the Karen Blixen Museum, and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, not to mention the national park on the city's doorstep. A holiday in Nairobi can be taken virtually any time of year, although the summer months (November to February) are most popular with sunny, warm days.
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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