Nairobi is a densely populated, bustling city. Visiting it for the first time I found it fascinating to be amidst so much activity, with so much going on around me. It has a bad reputation for crime, and although this is well deserved I encountered no problems during my time there. I did meet a guy who had been asked for his passport by a threatening man in a bar one evening, but he said he didn't have in on him, and fortunately the situation was defused after a bystander intervened. Nonetheless as long as the usual precautions are taken,there is no need to spoil your visit to Nairobi by being over paranoid and preoccupied by the idea of being mugged. Don't carry valuables in plain view (avoid wearing jewellery) and don't keep your day money in a wallet as it makes a more obvious target. Instead just keep a few notes in a selection of pockets. When people on the streets approach you (which they will, for a variety of reasons) just keep your wits about you, not everyone is a potential threat. Often they will just be touting their safari company, or enquiring about your need for transport. I was approached by two guys outside my hotel, who said they represented an agency where we could purchase our bus tickets to Arusha in Tanzania. They ended up escorting us around the city, and as we had a lot of things to do in a short time this was invaluable. They showed us to the bank, a place with a photocopier, the Kenya high commission and the place where we could get the bus tickets. We tipped them for their time, and everyone was happy! It is safe to walk the streets in Nairobi, but be aware of where you are. Guidebooks usually indicate any areas where you should be careful so just keep it in mind. I always thought it wise to get cabs after dark, especially if staying in one of the many cheap hotels around the Accra Rd/River Rd area.
The Nairobi police are often described as corrupt and to be avoided. While there we had to report a lost plane ticket, and the process was slow and frustrating, passed from one guy to another, only to have to cross the compound and pay a clerk 20 shillings to get a piece of paper stamped, before returning to see somebody else! Nonetheless, no problems really, so I suppose the best thing is just to keep you wits about you if approached by the police. As for the plane ticket, by chance later that day, we bumped into the taxi driver from the previous evening who came over and casually handed it to us. Apparently it had fallen out in his cab, and he'd found it in the footwell!
There are some interesting things to see in the city, as you'll see in the guidebooks. I visited the city market which had some excellent crafts and souvenirs at reasonable prices. It is predominantly a tourist market, so don't expect too much of the 'local' experience there. Practically next door to the city market is the Jama Mosque, a beautiful building from which emanates the romantic sound of the call to prayer.
Outside the city we visited the Langatta Giraffe Centre. This is a curious little place about half an hour out of town by taxi. It has a platform from which you can hand feed number of giraffes. They actually live in the surrounding area and come to the centre by choice every day. It's great fun, and you can even (although why anyone would want to is beyond me) put the food pellets in your lips and get the giraffes to lick them from your face!
Iqbal hotel (Latema Rd). Singles/doubles Ksh200/400. I met a guy who had stayed here a number of times and always found it to be friendly and secure. It's one of the cheapies, which is reflected in it's location in the noisy River Rd area, which has a reputation for theft, so be careful especially at night.
(The following hotels I have stayed in personally).
Embassy Hotel (Tubman Rd) . this is a little more expensive than the Iqbal with singles/doubles for about Ksh 1000/1200. However its in a slightly quieter location and all rooms have attached bathroom, soap, toilet paper, towels and hot water. Some overlook the City Market and Mosque for a really interesting view. It has a bar and restaurant , which serves reasonable food, although make sure they heat it up properly.
Fairview Hotel (Bishop's Rd) The next step up the price range with singles/doubles for Ksh 2800/4400 with private bath and a little less with shared. It's on a quiet street and has a lovely setting in its own extensive gardens. There's a bar inside and out and the price includes breakfast (in your room). There's also telephone and TV facilities in the rooms.
Lenana Mount Hotel (Ralph Bunche Rd) is another nice one, just a little cheaper than the Fairview. Breakfast is included and it has a bar, decent restaurant and room service as well as private bathrooms and hot water.
Mount Kenya Trekking
Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa. The trek to the walking summit (Point Lenana) takes a total of four days (2.5 up and 1.5 down) and is breathtaking in the extreme. I would thoroughly recommend climbing this mountain. It is an immensely fulfilling experience, and possibly the thing I remember most fondly and vividly from my trip. The trek can be quite gruelling in parts, especially in the final ascent to the summit, but as long as your reasonably fit it shouldn't be too much of a problem. There are numerous outfits who will offer to act as guides for the trek. This activity is largely concentrated around the towns of Nanyuki and Chogoria. I was staying near Nanyuki so arranged it from there. Do shop around as prices and quality of service vary radically.
My guide was a man called Jimmy, who runs a stall outside what was at the time (July 1999) Marinas Restaurant. This is at the edge-of-town end of a row of shops and cafes on the opposite side of the road from the main post office. He's a lovely bloke, and we did the trek with two of his associates, George and Joshua. All were very friendly and cooked excellent hearty food throughout the trek, as well as being fine walking companions. We chose to take the Sirimon route, although there are three or four others you can do. This is apparently one of the most scenic of the routes, and I can quite believe this - it was spectacular!
Day one involves a morning start to get to the Park Gates (by vehicle) and then a three/four hour walk up to Old Moses Hut. This walk passes through the Gorges Valley, with lush tropical forest at the start eventually thinning as you climb higher to become scrub and then moorland. Old Moses is where you spend the first night. It was a little chilly up here, so obviously make sure you have plenty of warm clothing (thermals advisable). I found a lot of thin layers to be better than a few thick ones, as during the course of the day it can get very hot, so it's easy to shed a few layers if need be.
An early start on day two leads you to the really impressive parts of the mountain. In this high zone grow the giant lobelias and horsetails. It's also the home of the very endearing and relatively tame rock hyrax. Virtually no predators in this landscape results in them fearing little, and it's possible to get very close to them. The hike crosses a number of steep ridges, and some people who were also trekking that day found parts of it quite tough. Still, with sufficient rest stops and a decent lunch things should be fine. Of course there's the possibility of Altitude sickness, but short of acclimatising before you do the trek, there's not a great deal you can do about that if it strikes, apart from descend. Tips though include avoiding milk (lactose metabolism is affected at high altitude) and sleeping at a point lower than the highest point reached during the day. After about eight hours you arrive at Shipton Hut (14,500ft), set under the stunning glaciers which surround the summits of the mountain. It was VERY cold here and I basically wore everything I had, including thermals, coat, gloves and woolly hat, and was still cold in my sleeping bag. It's an early night here, because unless you choose to take another day to acclimatise further, you must rise at about three am to begin the ascent to Point Lenana.
Day three - The final trek to the summit is a steep and gruelling one. It's easy to get out of breath as you climb the steep and loose slopes. Much of this section of the climb largely amounts to a 2000ft scree slope of loose gravel and rocks, so that every step forward involves half a step back too. I found taking small steps helped, rather than trying to take large strides. Depending on your fitness, you can complete this hike in anything from under two hours, to around five. However, the important thing is to get to Lenana before sunrise. Although it's very cold up there in the dark, with the wind biting at your face it's well worth it to see the sun come up. You are well above the cloud layer here at 16,350ft (4985m), and the scene is unforgettable. Following sun-up we began the descent. Our route now took us on the Chogoria trail, which meant that we descended the other side of the mountain from the one we had climbed. This trail was possibly the most beautiful section of the trek, passing huge valleys, chasms and jagged cliffs with dizzying waterfalls. After about an hour we stopped for breakfast and then walked for four or five hours to get to the Chogoria road head where we lunched. Another few hours from here gets you to Banda hut, a lovely place set amidst the forest. After Shipton's, this is blissfully warm, being at a much lower altitude.
Day four - Yet another early start, for the day that sees you off the mountain. The trek to Chogoria town is 32km. The first few hours take you through bamboo forest, wherein live elephants, buffalo and assorted other animals. We had a close encounter with three buffalo on the path ahead of us, but lots of shouting persuaded them to be off. Amusingly a sign on the path tells you that you must give way to the animals, but to be honest I can't see anyone arguing with an elephant! The bamboo eventually turns into jungle, which is thicker and denser than that seen during the ascent, as more rain falls on the Chogoria side of the mountain. This was beautiful, and helped to prevent me from dwelling on the length of the hike. The sound of birds fills the air, and we glimpsed Black and White Colobus monkeys in the trees! At 15km we stopped for lunch before making the big push for Chogoria. After leaving the National Park the walk passes through villages, plantations and agricultural areas, before you find yourself entering Chogoria town - tired, hot and desperately in need of a beer! By this time it was late afternoon, and after a bite to eat we got a matatu (cheap shared minibus) to Meru, followed by a share taxi back to Nanyuki. We arrived back just after dark. I can honestly say I've never been so exhausted, but it was worth every bit of effort, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Information supplied by Andy Coates