OnSafari: Nairobi

OnSafari: Nairobi

NairobiNightWhat strikes me about Nairobi – like the slashing ice pellets I just left at home – is that it’s safe here. The bitter reality is that Nairobi is a fortress.

Every shop of any size, every office building, even some petrol stations, are iron or steel fenced boxes. Guards with rather large weapons stand in control of massive gates. As for the hotels, there’s not a diplomat alive who could sneak his wallet or phone in without it being scanned.

Tourists are coming back to Kenya. New hotels planned for Nairobi include a Hilton Garden Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, Radisson Blu and several Best Westerns. These are all designed for the modest businessman or more importantly, the transiting tourist.

Nairobi’s problem is now not so much its security, as its new image.

Talking yesterday with several old friends who reside here I can’t help but share their optimism and excitement. High tech especially, but even a number of global service industry providers are swarming over themselves searching for the best talent to develop business in Nairobi.

The main obstacle? Believe it or not, traffic. Yes, there’s still a rare power outage, digital services are impeded by overuse (an opportunity of its own) and corruption remains serious. Yet as Lagos dwindles with the price of oil, many board rooms are shifting their plans for growth to Nairobi.

Except between 9-11 a.m. or on Sunday, though, it’s … well, hard to move. Yesterday at 7 a.m. it took me two hours to drive the 11½ miles from the airport to the Norfolk Hotel in the city. With a grand chuckle I just referenced Google Maps: the journey is pegged at 24 minutes (“without traffic”) and with traffic? 37, says the very far away Google.

I’m forced to radically rearrange my scheduled guiding of Nairobi attractions. Although the national museum (by Google Maps) is only 1¼ miles by road from The Norfolk, yesterday at 2:15p it took me 40 minutes by cab.

Hardly a decade ago I squeezed in 4 or 5 Nairobi attractions plus a leisurely lunch into a nice day. Now, it’s one attraction …at most.

All the planned new tourist hotels will be near the airport, but even the closest will seem like an arduous journey when there’s nothing else in the area except highways.

This is definitely a problem for tourists. Here are the current workarounds:

1) Arrive Nairobi Saturday night. Suffer a bit of congestion getting into the city or stay out by the airport, and then tour the city on Sunday. Leave your hotel Monday morning by 7:30a for a road journey or transfer to Wilson airport for a local flight somewhere.

2) Arrive any night and go to the suburb of Karen. Decent hotels here are limited and expensive, but you’ll then be able to enjoy a number of famous “Nairobi” attractions in the area virtually on any day of the week. Nairobi city itself would still be restricted to a Sunday schedule.

3) You can still enjoy Kenya’s unique wildlife attractions without starting in Nairobi. You can connect immediately out of Nairobi on one-hour flights to three other cities well positioned for safari travel: Mombasa, Kisumu or Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania).

Mombasa is the most efficient. The city is only 2-3 hours by road south of several excellent wildlife destinations including Tsavo. You can hit the road running after exiting your plane from Nairobi.

Thousands and thousands of mostly European tourists travel to Mombasa for its beaches and never intend to look for wild animals. But unlike my positive feelings about Nairobi’s security, I’d remain cautious about actually staying in Mombasa.

Kisumu might be too novel an idea, yet, because its hotels are just emerging and it’s at least 4 hours by road from the first good wildlife destination. But it has some alluring positives: it’s on Lake Victoria and the hotels are cheap.

Finally, everyone knows about Kilimanjaro, a quick and easy 50-minute flight from Nairobi’s international airport. This is, in fact, the way most East African tourism has run recently so what’s the drawback?

Simple. Once you get to Tanzania, why go to Kenya? There are many good answers to that, but for a first-timer, especially, they’re hard to put forward. Adding a whole new country to your itinerary in Africa, anywhere, is added expense and time, costs and vacation often better used just staying in that one country.

I’d disagree. But then, too, it’s going to be hard for me to realize that my clients won’t enjoy the Norfolk Hotel in downtown Nairobi as much as I do. Nostalgia is a powerful force!

(By the way, the beautiful photo above and below is part of a photo project by Nairobi’s innovative Jambi Forums. Click here to view a stunning range of photos from a great variety of new promising Kenyan artists!)