Must-Do Nairobi

Must-Do Nairobi

A safari without Nairobi misses a lot. But don’t arrive during the day on a weekday!

I know that a lot of people come to East Africa just to see the animals. There are many safaris that do little else. But never mine.

My 60th birthday safari began with three days in Nairobi. And we didn’t have enough time. There are attractions that personally I could do without, but which I realize are so famous that someone investing in seeing Nairobi probably expects to see.

Giraffe Manor is where the endangered Rothschild Giraffe is protected, in the nearby suburb of Karen. Beverly Settle-Flores was the first to hold an animal food pellet in her mouth which the oldest giraffe there, Daisy, dutifully plucks out with her elongated tongue. Sandy and Ken Winge both saddled up behind Daisy and got their photographs taken as if rocking Daisy’s enormous head.

I use the fun and games to explain the miracles of a giraffe’s anatomy: the remarkable tongue which has evolved through millennia to not just strip tiny acacia leaves from their branches, but to tolerate the impressive acacia thorns; the “second heart”, or two-chamber stop valve that exists halfway up their neck so that the blood pumped up doesn’t sink down; and the unusual gate, unique to camels and giraffe.

Nearby is the Kazuri Beads Womens Cooperative. Kazuri is one of the most successful Kenyan “Harambee” or self-help projects, and its remarkable success has truly freed more than 100 single moms from the constraints of slum poverty. My wife, Kathleen, doesn’t only proudly wear a variety of Kazuri jewelry, but one of dinner sets is Kazuri. It’s great fun to see the process, including the long tables in the main workroom filled with women working and chatting, dressed as colorfully as the beads they’re making.

East African curios and other art work is definitely spectacular, and no wonder given that the earning margin is so high and opportunities for more traditional employment so limited. A typical Kazuri beads necklace sells for $20-30. As much as half of that gets back in total to the women who produced it. (The other half is for direct administrative and material costs.) That’s far higher, for example, than what an artisan selling in the bush gets for his work, where usually 80-90% of what the tourists pays never gets past the middle men. (The chain of sale includes the original collector who scours the countryside, then the shop owner who inventories the items, and finally the actually person who sells it.)

Nearby is the single attraction in Karen that I would make mandatory: the Karen Blixen homestead and museum. But I concede that it really depends upon getting a good guide, or alternatively, having done your own homework well before.

This is Karen Blixen’s original (second) home in Kenya. It is the setting for her famous book Out of Africa. It isn’t just the wonder of stepping back almost a century into old kitchens and steel bathtubs; it’s the much broader history and anecdotes of the time that bring to life colonial Kenya.

We ended our time in Kenya at a welcome cocktail party at the Exchange Bar of the Stanley Hotel. Two out of every five pieces of furniture in this beautifully restored colonial bar are original. This is where the colonists played during the weekend, and it was a pretty rough crowd! (Read White Mischief.)

And my favorite attraction of all is the newly renovated National Museum. I always used the museum — even in its most decrepit days — as a foundation for numerous topics including elephant poaching, cultural diversity and especially, early man. The new early man exhibit is stellar.

I don’t think there is another museum in the world that would put on display 6 actual hominid fossils, including its star attraction, Turkana Boy, which is one of only three nearly complete hominid skeleton fossils in existence. The room gives me goose bumps every time I enter it. Steve and Maren Coates both remarked that they could spend an entire day in the museum.

And there is much more. I wish we could have scheduled the 11 a.m. feeding of the orphaned elephants at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage near the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters. Just walking down Nairobi’s streets is a feast for the eyes. From grand Kenyatta Avenue with its skyscrapers to Biashara Lane at the old city market where the early traders shouted out commodity prices before there was a Nairobi stock exchange, the recognition that Nairobi is a mixture of the very old and very new is ever present.

Get a shoe shine for $5 opposite the beautiful city mosque. Get any book you’ve ever wanted about Africa at the Stanley Bookshop. Have the finest seafood dinner at the extraordinary Tamarind restaurant. And if you’ve forgotten anything essential, like toothpaste or writing paper or a cell phone, walk through the 24-7 super Nakumat, Nairobi’s unbelievably giant superstore. Yes, they take credit cards!

But as I’ve written before, don’t arrive during the day of a weekday. Nairobi traffic is also unbelievable. A normal 20-minute journey from the airport to the city center could take you two hours! Make sure you arrive at night or during the weekend. Fortunately, everyone on my safari except Judd and Blair Devermont did so. They arrived at Saturday noon. That wasn’t as bad as during a weekday, but it still took us nearly an hour!