Places To See
The most southerly of the Rift Valley lakes in Kenya, Lake Magadi is rarely visited by tourists because of its remoteness, although it actually makes an easy day trip if you have a vehicle. The most mineral-rich of the soda lakes, it is almost entirely covered by a thick encrustation of soda that supports many bird species and gives the landscape a weird lunar appearance.
A causeway leads across the most visually dramatic part of this strange landscape to a viewpoint on the western shore. It's worth a drive if you have a 4WD, otherwise you can head to the hot springs further south. The springs aren't particularly dramatic, but you can take a dip in the deeper pools, and there are large numbers of fish there that have adapted to survive in the hot water. You may run into local tribesmen, particularly Maasai, who will offer to show you the way and 'demonstrate' everything for you for a fee.
Hell's Gate National Park
Hell's Gate is an experience indeed. The park is truly unique, as it allows you to walk or cycle unguided across its breadth. Sure you can still drive, but why would you? Senses are heightened tenfold when you're face to face with grazing zebras, towering giraffes, galloping gazelles and massive eland antelopes.
There's a 22km (13mi) round trip that can be done by car, bike or foot in a day, or you can hike off the beaten track along the Buffalo Circuit. Camping is highly recommended.
Kakamega Forest Reserve
This superb small slab of virgin tropical rainforest is home to a huge variety of birds and animals and is becoming particularly popular with independent travellers. The wildlife is a major attraction, especially the birdlife, with more than 330 species recorded. Tribal practices in the forest, such as circumcision rituals, persist.
Official guides, trained by the Kakamega Biodiversity Conservation and Tour Operators Association, are well worth the money. Not only do they prevent you from getting lost (many of the trail signs are missing), but most are excellent naturalists who can recognise birds by call alone and provide information about numerous animals.
The Gede ruins are one of the principal historical monuments on the Kenyan coast. Hidden away in the forest, the ruins are a vast complex of houses, palaces and mosques, made all the more mysterious by the fact that there are no records of Gede's existence in any historical texts.
Excavations have uncovered Ming Chinese porcelain and glass, and glazed earthenware from Persia, indicating not only trade links, but a taste for luxury among Gede's Swahili elite. Within the compound are ruins of ornate tombs and mosques including the regal ruins of a Swahili palace.
Masai Mara National Reserve
This world-renowned reserve, which stretches over 1510 sq km (938 sq mi) of open rolling grasslands, is backed by the spectacular Esoit Oloololo (Siria) Escarpment, watered by the Mara River and littered with an astonishing amount of wildlife.
Of the big cats, lions are found in large prides everywhere, and it is not uncommon to see them hunting. Cheetahs and leopards are less visible, but still fairly common. Elephants, buffalos, zebras and hippos also exist in large numbers.
The ultimate attraction is undoubtedly the annual wildebeest migration in July and August, when millions of these ungainly beasts move north from the Serengeti. While you're more likely to see endless columns grazing or trudging along rather than dramatic TV-style river fordings, it is nonetheless a staggering experience.
Kenya's most spectacular annual event is organised by an unlikely group - wildebeests. Literally millions of these ungainly antelopes move en masse in July and August from the Serengeti in search of lush grass. They head south again around October. The best place to see this phenomenon is at the Masai Mara National Reserve. Kenya's more orthodox annual events include public holidays such as Kenyatta Day (20 October) and Independence Day (12 December).
When to go?
The main tourist season is in January and February, since the hot, dry weather at this time of year is generally considered to be the most pleasant. It's also when Kenya's birdlife flocks to the Rift Valley lakes in great numbers. June to September could be called the 'shoulder season' as the weather is still dry. The rains hit from March to May (and to a lesser extent from October to December). During these months things are much quieter - places tend to have rooms available and prices drop. The rains generally don't affect travellers' ability to get around.
If you're planning to visit Lamu, you might want to time your visit to coincide with the centuries-old Maulid Festival.
Travel Visa Overview
Visas are now required by almost all visitors to Kenya, including Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans and Canadians, although citizens from a few smaller Commonwealth countries are exempt. Visas are valid for three months from the date of entry and can be obtained upon arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.
It's also possible to get visas from Kenyan diplomatic missions overseas, but you should apply well in advance, especially if you're doing it by mail. Visas are usually valid for entry within three months of the date of issue. Applications for Kenyan visas are simple and straightforward in Tanzania and Uganda, and payment is accepted in local currency. Visas can also be issued on arrival at the land borders with Uganda and Tanzania.
British-style plug with two flat blades and one flat grounding blade
Not every headache is likely to be meningitis. There is an effective vaccine available which is often recommended for travel to epidemic areas. Generally, you're at pretty low risk of getting meningococcal meningitis, unless an epidemic is ongoing, but the disease is important because it can be very serious and rapidly fatal. You get infected by breathing in droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by sufferers or, more likely, by healthy carriers of the bacteria. You're more at risk in crowded, poorly ventilated places, including public transport and eating places. The symptoms of meningitis are fever, severe headache, neck stiffness that prevents you from bending your head forward, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, which makes you prefer the darkness. With meningococcal meningitis, you may get a widespread, blotchy purple rash before any other symptoms appear. Meningococcal meningitis is an extremely serious disease that can cause death within a few hours of you first feeling unwell. Seek medical help without delay if you have any of the symptoms listed earlier, especially if you are in a risk area. If you've been in close contact with a sufferer it's best to seek medical advice.
Also known as enteric fever, Typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease. The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhoea and stomach pains. You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity. Seek medical help for any fever (38C and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating. Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhoea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures.
This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure.
The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'ricewater' diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario - only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time.
This occurs throughout Kenya, even in Nairobi and other moderately high-altitude areas. It is always extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own, and impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects.
Also known as bilharzia, this disease is carried in freshwater by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure.
Yellow fever is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. There is an effective vaccine against yellow fever, so if you have been immunised, you can basically rule this disease out. Symptoms of yellow fever range from a mild fever which resolves over a few days to more serious forms with fever, headache, muscle pains, abdominal pain and vomiting. This can progress to bleeding, shock and liver and kidney failure. The liver failure causes jaundice, or yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes - hence the name. There's no specific treatment but you should seek medical help urgently if you think you have yellow fever.
HIV (Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) develops into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which is a fatal disease. Any exposure to blood, blood products or body fluids may put the individual at risk. The disease is often transmitted through sexual contact or dirty needles - body piercing, acupuncture, tattooing and vaccinations can be potentially as dangerous as intravenous drug use. HIV and AIDS can also be spread via infected blood transfusions, but blood supplies in most reputable hospitals are now screened, so the risk from transfusions is low. If you do need an injection, ask to see the syringe unwrapped in front of you, or take a needle and syringe pack with you. Fear of HIV infection should not preclude treatment for any serious medical conditions. Most countries have organisations and services for HIV-positive folk and people with AIDS. For a list of organizations divided by country, plus descriptions of their services, see www.aidsmap.com.
With pleasant overall conditions all year round, Kenya's southern highlands and coastal lowlands see little variation in conditions; each has a wet season between March and May and a second one in November and December. Temperatures are consistent throughout the year and cool for an equatorial region, ranging from high 20°Cs to low 30°Cs (80°Fs to low 90°Fs) on the coast, dropping slightly inland and then raising again closer to Lake Victoria.
History and Culture
There are more than 70 tribal groups among the Africans in Kenya. Distinctions between many of them are blurred - western cultural values are becoming more ingrained and traditional values are disintegrating. Yet, even though the average Kenyan may have outwardly drifted away from tribal traditions, the first question asked when two of them meet is 'What tribe are you from?'.
English and Swahili are the languages taught throughout the country, but there are many other tribal languages. These include Kikuyu, Luhia, Luo and Kikamba as well as a plethora of minor tribal tongues. It's useful for the traveller to have a working knowledge of Swahili, especially outside the urban areas and in remote parts of the country. Another language you'll come across is Sheng, spoken almost exclusively by the younger members of society. A fairly recent development, Sheng is a mixture of Swahili and English along with a fair sprinkling of other languages.
Most Kenyans outside the coastal and eastern provinces are Christians of one sort or another, while most of those on the coast and in the eastern part of the country are Muslim. Muslims make up some 30% of the population. In the more remote tribal areas you'll find a mixture of Muslims, Christians and those who follow their ancestral tribal beliefs.
Kenyans love to party, and the music style known as benga is the contemporary dance music that rules. It originated among the Luo people of western Kenya and became popular in the area in the 1950s. Some well-known exponents of benga include Shirati Jazz, Victoria Kings, Globestyle and the Ambira Boys. If you're not a jive bunny, your most likely experience of Kenya is the 1985 movie Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
Kenyan cuisine generally consists of stodge filler with beans or a meat sauce. It's really just survival fodder for the locals - maximum filling-up potential at minimum cost. If you had to name a national dish in Kenya, nyama choma (barbecued meat, usually goat), would probably be it. Kenyan food is not exactly designed for gourmets - or vegetarians. Beer drinkers, on the other hand, are well supplied. Kenyans love their beer almost as much as their dancing and there's a thriving local brewing industry.
Pre-20th Century History
The first of many human footprints to be stamped on Kenyan soil were left way back in 2000 BC by nomadic Cushitic tribes from Ethiopia. A second group followed around 1000 BC and occupied much of central Kenya. The rest of the ancestors of the country's medley of tribes arrived from all over the continent between 500 BC and AD 500. The Bantu-speaking people (such as the Gusii, Kikuyu, Akamba and Meru) arrived from West Africa while the Nilotic speakers (Maasai, Luo, Samburu and Turkana) came from the Nile Valley in southern Sudan. As tribes migrated throughout the interior, Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula and Shirazis from Persia (now Iran) settled along the East African coast from the 8th century AD onwards.
Drawn by the whiff of spices and money, the Portuguese started sniffing around in the 15th century. After venturing further and further down the western coast of Africa, Vasco da Gama finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope and headed up the continent's eastern coast in 1498. Seven years later, the Portuguese onslaught on the region began. By the 16th century, most of the indigenous Swahili trading towns, including Mombasa, had been either sacked or occupied by the Portuguese - marking the end of the Arab monopoly of the Indian Ocean trade. The Portuguese settled in for a long period of harsh colonial rule, playing one sultan off against another. But their grip on the coast was always tenuous because their outposts had to be supplied from Goa in India. Control of the coast was won back by the Arabs in 1720.
The remainder of the 18th century saw the Omani dynasties from the Persian Gulf dug in along the East African coast. The depredations of the Portuguese era and constant quarrels among the Arab governors caused a decline in trade and prosperity, which meant that economic powerhouses such as Britain and Germany weren't interested in grabbing a slice of East Africa until about the mid-19th century.
With Europeans suddenly tramping all over Africa in search of fame and fortune, even Kenya's intimidating interior was forced to give up its secrets to outsiders. Until the 1880s, the Rift Valley and the Aberdare highlands remained the heartland of the proud warrior tribe, the Maasai. By the late 19th century, years of civil war between the Maasai's two opposing factions had weakened the tribe. Disease and famine had also taken their toll. This opened the way for the English to negotiate a treaty with the Maasai laibon (chief, or spiritual leader) and begin work on the Mombasa-Uganda railway - which cut straight through the Maasai grazing lands. The halfway point of this railway is roughly where Nairobi stands today.
It was downhill from here for the Maasai. As white settlers demanded more fertile land, the Maasai were herded into smaller reserves. The Kikuyu, a Bantu agricultural tribe from the highlands west of Mt Kenya, also had vast tracts of land ripped from under their feet.
White settlement in the early 20th century was initially disastrous, but - once they bothered to learn a little about the land - the British succeeded in making their colony viable. Other European settlers soon established coffee plantations and by the 1950s the white-settler population had reached about 80,000. With little choice left but to hop on the economic hamster wheel created by the Europeans, tribes such as the Kikuyu nonetheless maintained their rage. Harry Thuku, an early leader of the Kikuyu political association, was duly jailed by the British in 1922. His successor, Johnstone Kamau (later Jomo Kenyatta) was to become independent Kenya's first president.
As opposition to colonial rule grew, the Kenya African Union (KAU) emerged and became strident in its demands. Other such societies soon added their voices to the cry for freedom, including the Mau Mau, whose members (mainly Kikuyu) vowed to drive white settlers out of Kenya. The ensuing Mau Mau Rebellion ended in 1956 with the defeat of the rebels. The death toll stood at over 13,500 Africans - Mau Mau guerrillas, civilians and troops - and just over 100 Europeans.
Kenyatta spent years in jail or under house arrest but was freed in 1961 and became leader of the reincarnated KAU, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). He ushered in independence on 12 December 1963, and under his presidency the country developed into one of Africa's most stable and prosperous nations. Kenyatta was succeeded after his death in 1978 by Daniel Arap Moi, a member of the Tugen tribe.
Moi's rule was characterised by nepotism, rifts and dissension. He took criticism badly and as a result oversaw the disbanding of tribal societies, disrupted universities and harassed opposition politicians. A coup attempt by the Kenyan Air Force in 1982 was put down by forces loyal to Moi. With the winds of democratic pluralism sweeping Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, international aid for Moi's Kenya was suspended.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and major aid donors demanded that repression cease and Moi's political stranglehold ease. He conceded ground, but much to his delight, the opposition in the 1993 election shot itself in the foot - The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) was unable to agree on a leader. By splitting into three parties, FORD's much-vaunted cause became hopeless. Moi, the beneficiary of his opposition's vanity, won with just one-third of the vote.
In 1995, a new party was launched in an attempt to unite the splintered opposition. The party was Safina, founded by Richard Leakey, famed anthropologist, elephant saviour and political activist. Elections were held in Kenya at the end of 1997. Despite widespread allegations of vote rigging and considerable intimidation of opposition candidates, Moi and KANU once again scraped home with a little over 40% of the vote. Although Moi promised to rid the government of corruption, this was met by an air of resignation in the country, with Kenyans sitting tight until the day when he retired. Then, in August 1998 terrorists bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing over 250 people and injuring more than 5000, illustrating Kenya's vulnerability to increased social and political turmoil.
In 2002 Moi retired, and at the December 2002 elections, KANU was routed by the National Rainbow Coalition, led by Mwai Kibaki.
In December 2007, presidential elections were marred by serious irregularities but the Electoral Commission declared Mwai Kibaki the winner, triggering a wave of violence across the country, stemming from discontent and frustration at perceived tribal precedence. Areas afflicted by years of political machination, previous election violence and large-scale displacement exploded in ugly ethnic confrontations that left more than 1000 people dead and over 600,000 people homeless.
After protracted negotiations a power-sharing agreement was signed in February 2008 between President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, the leader of the ODM opposition. The coalition provided for the establishment of a prime ministerial position (to be filled by Raila Odinga) and a sharing of responsibilities.
There are ongoing challenges for the coalition. Inflation is on the rise, fuel and food price rises are cutting deep, and the manufacturing sector has been forced to cut back due to insecurity. Can Kibaki and Odinga work together and maximise the huge potential of this vibrant and vital country?