Off to Kenya in Search of Lions and Giraffes
“So you are off to the Kenya Game Parks to see some lions and elephants before the poachers bag the last of them,” writes Roving Correspondent Paul Lewis. “You will have to spend a few nights in the capital on your way in and out. Where to stay? Not downtown. They call it Nairobbery.
“Every day the vast shantytown slums that hem in Kenya’s capital to the east and north send their desperate tide of unemployed job hunters, beggars, and Nairobbers into the town center flooding its traffic-filled streets with poor, hopeless people who make movement by car or foot almost impossible.
“Downtown hotels have become luxurious tourist prisons, safe enough for those comfortably locked inside. But venture out, and you’re in…well…Nairobbery, where the idea of a leisurely window-shopping stroll around the city center has suffered the fate awaiting Kenya’s elephants: extinction.
“The answer is to ignore Nairobbery’s choked downtown district and head out for the leafy, flower-bedecked suburbs of Karen and Langata, where long ago British settlers built themselves big, comfortable country houses with deep verandas and large gardens, situated on wide streets that are safe to walk along. Here are Nairobi’s boutique hotels.
“Gradually, the Nairobi hotel business is moving out here, as many of these mansions are converted into what are not so much guesthouses as luxurious hideaways, where lucky visitors secrete themselves away in a relaxed English world of chintzy sofas, soft-footed African servants in long white gowns and perfectly mowed lawns, far from the bursting, sweltering heart of the country’s capital.
“What is more, the places you will want to visit when in Nairobi are mostly in these same residential suburban areas, close to where you are staying, not in the city center. These include: the Giraffe Center (on Koitobus Road, Langata), where visitors literally stand eye-ball-to-eye-ball with Kenya’s rare three-horned Rothschild giraffes; the Karen Blixen Museum (Karen Road), where Isak Dinesen, the Danish author of “Out of Africa,” lived from 1914 to 1932 and much of the film was shot; Nairobi National Park, more than 100 square kilometers of wild savannah grasslands with lions, cheetahs, rhino, but no elephants; the Butterfly Visiting Center (256 Dagoretti Road); Ostrich Park (Langata Road) where children can feed the birds; Bomas of Kenya (Forest Road), where traditional African dancers and musicians perform; and lots more.
“As for getting around: If you don’t have a rented car, there are plenty of radio taxis that come swiftly and that will stay with you as long as you want. But don’t be afraid to try the traditional African mini-buses known as “matatus” (from the Swahili for three when that was the standard fare in Kenya shillings). These rickety, overstuffed vehicles careen along most streets every few minutes and will stop if you wave from a corner.
“You probably won’t get a seat. But if it’s the right one for you (everyone speaks English in Kenya) climb aboard and find something to hold onto. It’s a rough, exhilarating ride.
“My own favorite hideaway is the enchantingly named Makushla House (it means “My Beloved” in Gaelic) five minutes drive off the Langata Road on Nguruwe Road in Langata. It is a real hideaway, barely visible from the approaching dirt track behind its big iron gates, which the watchman drags open as you approach.
“The low-built house has room for only 10 guests in its the two wings, each with a couple of double bedrooms (with en-suite bathrooms), a single, and a sitting room with fireplace where a wood fire burns snuggly during the coolish evenings. (Nairobi is 5,000 feet above sea level.) Whatever meals guests want are provided by the skilled African lady cooks and served in a dining room with views across a terrace to the pool. The garden is full of bright flowers and even brighter birds. Furnishings are comfortable, and among the interesting artifacts on display is a Yemeni wedding dress decorated with silver and brass buttons.
“Another attraction is that the Giraffe Center (Koitobus Road, Langata) is only a pleasant five-minute walk away. Here live some of Kenya’s rarest animals, so-called Rothschild giraffes with three horns on their heads, unlike the Maasai and reticulated giraffes, which have two. Visitors climb up to a big room on stilts overlooking the giraffe compound from which they can look the animals straight in the eye while feeding them nuts.
“Right next door is Giraffe Manor, another recommended hideaway with just six rooms (one has original furniture from Karen Blixen’s guest room and paintings by her cook), a baronial staircase, and a paneled dining room also overlooking the compound where guests, and Rothschild giraffes, can watch each other eating.
“The House of Waine (Masai Lane off Bogoni Road), a couple of miles away, closer to the Karen Golf Club, is definitely no hideaway. It is a proud, elegant house, standing in 2 ½ acres of grounds with a large swimming pool. The public rooms and airy and cheerful. But with only 11 bed rooms, visitors feel they’re staying in a private home. The decor is international House and Gardens chic, created by the Kenyan family owners.
“Nearby is the Matbronze gallery selling bronze sculptures of big game. And the Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Sanctuary, where orphaned baby elephants and rhinos can be visited and adopted (with donations; you don’t get to take the animal home with you).
“When the moment comes to head off for a safari in the real game park (where elephants thrive in their hundreds), your little plane is waiting at Wilson Airport only minutes away.”
P.S. Paul sends contact details for each of the guesthouses he recommends: