An impromptu business trip in middle January had me arranging an entire trip to Kenya for three people in a week. From Visa requirements and vaccinations, all the way up to car rentals and accommodation bookings – it was a bit crazy, but you need a bit of crazy to visit this exquisite East African country. I put together all the need-to-knows and recommendations for a trip up North – enjoy!
The very first thing to do is just to Google exactly where Kenya is; believe me, this is very important to orientate yourself. This East African country borders on Somalia and Ethiopia to the North, Uganda and South Sudan to the West and Tanzania to the South. The capital, Nairobi, is more to the South and this is where we spent most of our time. We also visited Nakuru which is an agricultural town, situated North West of Nairobi in the Great Rift Valley.
Initially, we tried to get a direct flight from Cape Town to Nairobi, which turned out to be more expensive than anticipated. Kenya Airways departs daily from Cape Town and (at the time of publication) a ticket would cost you around R8 000. Opting to rather depart from OR Tambo, you have the choice of either SAA or Kenya Airways which would cost you around R6 000. It is a four hour flight (nonstop) and since Kenya is an hour ahead of us, this places them at GMT+3.
Spending The Night
When I travel to a new city, I always try to book accommodation somewhere where I can get a feel for the city, the people and the culture. We were advised by locals to go for the Four Points by Sheraton Hurlingham in Nairobi, which is a Marriott Hotel. Situated close to the heart of Nairobi, this hotel is a short drive or brisk walk from the CBD – a mere 4km drive which can easily take up to an hour in peak traffic.
The hotel really has all the luxuries you need, without losing sight of a true Kenyan feel. It also a very corporate space, so if you are visiting on business, you wouldn’t feel bad about whipping out your laptop, as everyone seems to be in a meeting of a kind. For us clueless South Africans who did not bring the correct adapters for our electronic equipment, they were more than happy to go above and beyond to find us adapters.
We also spent one night in Nakuru at the Midlands Hotel. This hotel is famous for its Midlands chicken which is a roast chicken that they do on the rotisserie. Unfortunately, they were all out by the time we arrived, but I’d definitely go back to try this. Their rooms are comfortable and extremely clean, and although Nakuru is much more rural than Nairobi, they did not skimp on any of the luxuries.
From the get-go, we decided to experience the Kenyan culture through their cuisine. This meant taking the streets and finding some traditional eateries. Our first stop was about four blocks from the Four Points, called Mama Oliech. At first, the area seemed quite dodgy, but we persisted and headed into the courtyard. The dining areas are sorted by price and it will, for example, be more expensive to dine in the lounge area than the bar area.
We ordered some beers while our waiter explained the menu. Kenya’s most famous beer is the Tusker Lager which is a lighter lager similar to our Tafel Lager while their Tusker Lite is almost identical to our South African Castle Lite. Our waiter recommended the Zuckerberg which is a whole fried tilapia topped with a tomato and onion mix, served with collard greens or ugali (similar to South African ‘pap’). It is aptly named as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg himself stopped by their little restaurant and had that exact meal in 2017.
Continuing on our taste journey, we headed to Tripadvisor for further recommendations. We ended up at The Tamarind which is known as Nairobi’s leading seafood restaurant. This restaurant is located on Karen Road which is in the forest part of Nairobi and is a beautifully decorated space with large mirrors and a comfortable fireplace, but it’s really the staff that makes this place extra special with their excellent service.
We opted for trying the crab and the lobster thermidor. They served the crab as both crumbed crab claws, as well as a dish called champagne crab which is roasted crab meat served with a champagne foam. But what really stole the show for me is the palm heart, snow peas and pickled green paw paw salad. The palm hearts were soft with a buttery flavour and the waiter explained to us how they harvest the hearts – which was awesome!
Another food highlight was a traditional side of cooked banana that we were served during an office visit in Nairobi. They prepare the banana by cooking it in its peel for around 20 minutes , and while it is cooking they reduce a tomato and onion mix. After the bananas has been cooked, they peel it and add it to the tomato mix and cook for another 10 minutes. The whole process gives the banana a potato-like consistency and therefore it went perfectly with the stew.
On our last night in Nairobi, we headed out to find the cosmopolitan set. This meant switching traditional Kenyan food for more global cuisine. Located on the periphery of Nairobi CBD, we found CJ’s Restaurant. The space is exquisitely decorated with a very European feel. You could see that Nairobi’s trendiest favours this two storey restaurant serving everything from pizza to Mexican food.
Things To Do
Seeing that this was primarily a work trip, we didn’t really have loads of time to explore, but visiting the Nairobi National Park was definitely a highlight. The park is situated right next to the city, so even as you spot a giraffe or an ostrich you have the Nairobi skyline in the background, making it very special. For non-residents entry fees are around $60 which can be steep for us Saffers, but seeing lions, and even a rhino, made it totally worth it!
My favourite stop was, without a doubt, The Giraffe Centre which is part of a non-profit organisation whose main objective is to provide conservation education to school children and other Kenyan youths. At the centre, you can feed the giraffes and I was especially taken with a beauty called Stacey. It was such an amazing experience meeting these creatures up close.
My absolute favourite part of Kenya was the people. I’ve visited all of our neighbouring African countries, with the exception of Swaziland, and have never met such consistently friendly, nice and accommodating people. They were always willing to help and willing to engage even though there were oftentimes a language barrier. With all of the people and companies we engaged with in Kenya, we found the people to be extremely hardworking and hospitable, and always ready with an engaging story or joke.
Tips & Tricks
Finally, I’ve compiled a list of the few tips and tricks we picked up along the way which will hopefully help you better plan your own Kenyan adventure.
Kenya is known for its cheap data and telecommunication infrastructure. The entire country is also more or less fully mobile, which means that most vendors in Kenya do not even accept cash; they only make use of mobile payment systems.
At first, we relied on Vodacom roaming which meant that we were paying nearly R5 per MB of data. We eventually bought ourselves a temporary Kenyan sim card and loaded about 5 Gig (which cost around 1 000 Kenyan Shilling – more or less R140) and made a hotspot so that everyone could connect. It worked like a charm and we had a 4G connection nearly everywhere we went.
Initially, we were very confident and even attempted to book a car with Avis. We quickly realised that it was much more expensive than in South Africa and when we enquired about it at our hotel beforehand, we realised that we would not really be able to drive in Kenya. I believe it is only a true Kenyan that will be able to navigate the heavy traffic, the sometimes daunting roads and the seemingly disregard of traffic rules. Most hotels, or even locals, will be able to point you in the direction of a driver.
Go with locals
At about 4pm one afternoon, we decided to head to the CBD to find the local Maasai Market. We enquired at reception and checked with some locals who said that it was a must-visit. So we headed out in search for the market. The first issue that we ran into was that we were trying to Uber to the CBD at 5pm in the afternoon – traffic was horrible. The second mistake we made was not taking a local with us. We got lost, scammed and afraid, and we never even got to see the real market!
Beware of chai
Travelling anywhere in Africa, you are very aware of the fact that they are still developing countries. This means that, as mentioned above, you will most likely be scammed or asked for money or, in our case, nearly arrested in an attempt to force us to pay a bribe (or chai as its known in Swahili). Therefore, be on the lookout and keep your nose clean.