Don’t skip Nairobi on your Kenya safari adventure.
It’s tempting to bypass Africa’s big cities when you can’t wait to hit the safari trail. But even if Africa’s cities aren’t its most famous destinations, each moves with its own rhythm, offering a culture and energy all its own.
Nairobi is one of the more tourist-ready capitals on the African map, and features some standout attractions that visitors on a Kenya safari adventure shouldn’t miss in their hurry to get to the national parks. It’s also the only city in Africa to offer a fully safari-ready national park within its boundaries, with four of the Big 5 in residence. You won’t need to go far to find the fifth, either.
I have several days in Nairobi following our safari excursions in Amboseli and Tsavo West, and it takes some adjustment to get used to the urban capital that almost 3.5 million Kenyans call home. The first adjustment is to traffic! Determined vendors wander up and down between gridlocked cars and buses, selling everything from neckties to kitchen implements, to board games (you never know when a round of Monopoly will help pass the time between game drives). It’s a little unnerving to see one would-be entrepreneur approaching our bus carrying a range of machetes and combat knives, and while it’s just another day’s trade for him, I don’t quite get up the nerve to ask for a photo.
Nairobi isn’t so much a walking city, so the locals typically get around either by car or matatu. My only knowledge of these colourfully painted buses comes from the Netflix series Sense8, but they’ve been the backbone of Nairobi public transport – with varying degrees of regulation – for some time. My private transfer instead takes me to the newly renovating Serena Hotel. Now, I’d seen the Serena at Amboseli, and spent a night at their property in Tsavo West, both of which were exceptional. But I’m left a little speechless by the Serena Nairobi, which is the brand gone big city. It offers a fully equipped (and busy!) gym, spa, lounge, and 24-hour restaurant offering both buffet and a la carte options that are every bit as delicious as they look.
The following morning, there’s time for a quick driving tour of Nairobi before heading out to one of its most famous attractions, the David Sheldrick Elephant & Rhino Orphanage. We stop at a lookout overlooking Uhuru Park, which is a favourite spot for students taking graduation photos, and drive through Nairobi’s largest university, as well as the Somali district. I recognize the small colonial building that holds the Nairobi Gallery, an art museum I’d spent a couple of hours exploring the previous day. But most of Nairobi’s star attractions can be found on the outskirts of the city, and they’re a reminder that while a trip to Kenya doesn’t lack for cultural attractions and experiences, its wildlife is still the star.
The road to the orphanage circles Nairobi National Park itself. With half an hour up our sleeves, my guide makes a detour to the Giraffe Centre, where visitors can learn about and feed Rothschild giraffes, perhaps by putting a pellet in their mouth to receive a photogenic kiss they’ll never forget. As much as I love giraffes, I forego the smooch, instead hand feeding my new friend before getting back on the road in time for our date with Sheldrick’s elephants.
It’d be lying to say that seeing the elephants here can compete with our Kenya safari adventures in Amboseli and Tsavo West – where many of the juveniles at the Sheldrick orphanage were rescued. But the crowd, assembled at the same time each day for a short demonstration, feeding, and talk, enjoy themselves, hearing each individual elephant’s story, watching the orphans brought out in two groups for a nutritious lunch of human baby formula milk. Guests who fall in love can opt to sponsor an elephant, returning late in the day for a more personalized meet-and-greet with their adoptee.
My guide hands me over to a driver from the Ololo Safari Lodge, where I’ll spend my last night on my trip to Kenya. Separated from Nairobi National Park by a small gorge, Ololo offers a secluded lodge experience close to the big city. After a delicious lunch (a small number of guests means menu options are limited, but always delicious and customizable) I spend the afternoon sorting photos until it’s time for my last afternoon game drive.
The pressure is on with this one, since even after the highlights of Amboseli and Tsavo West, I’ve yet to see a single big cat. I also haven’t seen any rhinos (one in an enclosure at the orphanage doesn’t really count), leaving my “Big 5” checklist three animals short. Even so, I’m trying not to let expectations run away from me in this small park where the skyscrapers of Nairobi loom in the background.
I’m sharing the drive with a couple who were lucky enough to spot a giraffe birthing her calf on the way in. Checklist item number one? Track down mother and baby to see how they’re doing! One big advantage of Nairobi National Park’s small size is that while the animals still have space, it’s also comparatively easy to follow their movements. Out first big sighting is a herd of Cape buffalo, often the most easily spotted, and dangerous of the Big 5. These ones are more interested in grazing than the intruding humans however, checking us out just long enough for some great photos before we drive on.
Finally, we spy a family of white rhino – three adults and a juvenile. The name derives from the rhino’s head being a little larger and wider than its black counterpart, hence “wide rhino.” Whether it’s a result of mishearing or an attempt not to be rude, the name white rhino has stuck around, and these ones aren’t in any hurry to move on either.
While mother giraffe has gone into hiding, there are murmurs on the radio of a lion sighting a short drive through the park. After a short drive and a little maneuvering between other vehicles, we finally spot her – a single, grouchy lioness wandering up the road. Growling about the parade of a dozen vehicles tailing her, she’s determined not to hurry for anyone. It’s an underwhelming and sorry sighting that perfectly illustrates the biggest downside of this most convenient of Kenyan parks. Anyone in Nairobi with a car can reach it, and so vehicles come in droves for a quick “urban” safari. Mother giraffe still hasn’t made an appearance either.
Still, we have one more chance on this Kenya safari. Up early for one last game drive the following day, it isn’t long before we see a solitary black rhino. Working up its nerve, this usually timid animal comes close enough to the vehicle to give us its best profile before it’s time to move on. We don’t have to drive far to find a proud family of three ostriches with their chicks. It’s hard to tell if the second male ostrich – easily identified by bolder, more distinct colours than the female – is an unwanted rival or a doting uncle.
Early morning is a much better time to game drive Nairobi National Park since day tripping tourists tend to show up in greater numbers for sunset. It also helps that by departing from Ololo, we spend most of the drive on the opposite side of the park from most visitors, giving us a distinct edge of solitude. Of course, any rumour of lions will send that familiar word simba crackling across the radio. But this time, no more than three vehicles are on the scene, giving mother and cub plenty of space to relax in the long grass. It’s a much more satisfying lion encounter than last night’s harried huntress. But the lions aren’t done with their show yet.
To see a wild kill in Africa is one of those double-edged safari experiences. It’s gory and confronting, yet at the same time, it’s the way of nature here, which is what people come to see. A short drive later, we stumble on not one, but four lions – two males and two females – dividing the spoils of a freshly killed zebra. It’s a raw reminder that the cute kitties we saw playing in the long grass just a few minutes prior are natural born predators, and watching the carnage is a stark reminder of our own fascination with nature’s more ruthless side.
A guest in one of the other vehicles asks if there’s any danger of the cats attacking the vehicles (spoiler: there isn’t), only to have their guide cheerfully ask them, “You wanted to see the lion, but now you’re scared of the lion?” But the two males chase off the females (who’ve typically done most of the hunting work) before finishing their meal. It’s a challenge getting photos that don’t look like a feline episode of CSI, but the encounter offers a magnificent glimpse of these animals away from the stage-managed gloss of a tourism brochure.
After breakfast, I’m taking it easy the rest of the day, getting a Kenyan politics 101 from one of the Ololo’s staff while I wait for my drive back to the airport. While I don’t have much to contribute, it’s a reminder in my last couple of hours in Kenya that the country is more than its incredible national parks and reserves, even if they’ve offered up Globetrotting memories unlike any I’ve gathered before.
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