Kenya: General Information
Kenya is the ‘Land of the Lion King’ and sits at the center of the African safari experience, with an outstanding variety of wild animals and Big Five viewing opportunities. Although safaris are its greatest attraction, it is a country of great diversity with much more to offer than splendid wildlife. Essentially it is a place for outdoor living – the coast offers beaches and water-based activities, the mountains present a challenge to hikers and climbers, and the rolling savannahs are a game-viewers paradise.
The country sits astride the equator and offers fabulous scenery and a variety of tribal cultures. From its central location, the sacred peaks of Mt Kenya reign over a landscape primarily covered by grasslands and thorn trees, much of it enclosed within its many parks and reserves. To the west the spectacular Great Rift Valley is sprinkled with lakes teeming with a variety of birdlife, whose shores and surrounds are traversed by agricultural farmlands. To the east lies the promise of an idyllic beach holiday with the requisite white palm-fringed beaches and pristine coral reefs. Inhabiting the highlands and Rift Valley are two of the most well known of the numerous tribal cultures, the Kikuyu farmers and the tall, red-clad Masai cattle herders. The coast is home to ancient Swahili civilizations and old port towns that are rich in a history of exotic spice trading and fighting.
Kenya has a sophisticated tourism infrastructure, with two major cities controlling the majority of the tourism trade. Nairobi, the capital, is the safari and hiking hub, situated in the cool Central Highlands, while on the east coast the hot and humid trading port of Mombasa functions as the gateway to the resorts and pristine beaches of the area. Sadly the heavy influence of tourism has meant excessive prices for safaris, souvenirs and most activities of interest to foreigners, as well as the constant hassle by touts, guides and sellers to part with as much money as they can dupe the guilty traveller into spending, despite this, the people are friendly and visitors can choose to do as little or as much as they like, and the combination of wildlife, together with its beaches and mountains, make Kenya a fantastic holiday destination.
The spirit of Kenya is exemplified by its tradition of hospitality. Few people in the world are welcoming. The peaceful stranger who visits an unknown village is greeted with an openness that many Westerners find overwelming and it often happens paradoxically, that the poorer the home, the poorer the person, the richer the welcome.
Language: English is the official language but Kiswahili is the national language, with 42 ethnic languages spoken.
Currency: The unit of currency is the Kenyan Shilling (KES), divided into 100 cents. It is not advisable to take Kenyan Shillings out of the country as they are difficult to exchange elsewhere. Travelers cheques in Sterling or US Dollars are recommended for your trip to Kenya. US Dollars in particular have become commonly used in many of the country’s main hotels and safari lodges. Foreign currency can be changed at banks, bureaux de change and hotels; easiest to exchange are US dollars, pounds sterling or Euros. Street exchange merchants should be avoided as they are operating illegally. Banks open Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm and on the first and last Saturday of the month. Banks and bureaux de change at the international airport stay open 24 hours. Credit Cards (American Express, Visa and MasterCard) are accepted in the larger hotels and stores, and some camps and lodges. ATMs are widely available in Nairobi and the major towns.
Gratuities are at the discretion of the client and in Africa there are no percentages. Generally we recommend a tip of 5 to 10 USD per person per day to driver / guide’s. Any taken of appreciation is gladly received by porter’s and waiter’s this can be 3 – 5%.
Time: GMT +3 countrywide.
Electricity: 220/240 volts, AC 50Hz. UK-style square three-pin plugs are used.
Communications: The international access code for Kenya is +254. The outgoing code is 000 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 00027 for South Africa), unless dialing Tanzania or Uganda when the outgoing codes are 007 or 006 respectively. City/area codes are in use, e.g. (0)41 for Mombasa and (0)20 for Nairobi. International Direct Dial is available throughout most of the country, but the service is expensive especially when calling from hotels. Hotels usually add a hefty surcharge to their telephone bills; it is less expensive to either call from one of the international phone services, which are available in larger towns or buy a pre-paid calling card for use in the public telephone booths. For international operator-assisted calls call 0196. All major urban areas are covered by the mobile network; the local mobile phone operators use GSM networks that have roaming agreements with most international mobile phone operators. Internet cafes are widely available in most towns and tourist areas.
Duty Free: Travellers to Kenya over 16 years do not have to pay duty on 227g tobacco or 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars; 1 bottle of alcohol; and 473ml perfume. Prohibited items include fruit, imitation firearms, and children’s toys pistols. No plants may be brought into the country without a Plant Import Permit (PIP).
Travellers to Kenya should get the latest medical advice on inoculations and malaria prevention from their country of origin prior to departure. . Immunization against yellow fever, hepatitis, tetanus, polio and paratyphoid are usually recommended and Is well worth taking this precaution. A malaria risk exists all year round, but more around Mombasa and the lower coastal and other humid areas than in Nairobi and on the high central plateau. Other risks include diarrhoeal diseases, hepatitis A, B and E and dengue fever. Protection against bites from sandflies, mosquitoes and tsetse flies is the best prevention against dengue fever and other insect-borne diseases. AIDS is a serious problem in the World of today and the necessary precautions should be taken. Water is of variable quality and visitors are advised to drink bottled mineral water wherever possible. There are excellent medical facilities in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa but health insurance is essential. A yellow fever certificate is required by anyone arriving from an infected area.
Kenyan society is less affluent than western society, so it is not wise to make an ostentatious show of wealth. The Kenyan security agents are usually vigilant but personal caution is always advised. Generaly, Nairobi is as safe as most capital cities of the world but being accompanied by professional guides is a valuable advantage.
The rainy seasons in Kenya are April to June and short rain October to early December. The coast is hot and humid all year round but tempered by strong onshore breezes, the lowlands are hot and dry and the highlands (including Nairobi) are more temperate and cool at night.
Nairobi is best characterized by the variety of locally-given descriptive names, representative of the city’s contrasting images – of wealthy spacious suburbs, charming flower-lined streets and a refreshing climate. Names like ‘Green City in the Sun’, ‘City of Flowers’ and the Masai name ‘Place of Cool Waters’.
Nairobi is one of Africa’s largest and most interesting cities. It is a place of enormous energy, a tireless and thriving bustle of people, and a city of differences. Assorted races, tribes and origins are all a part of its make-up. Rural immigrants and refugees are drawn by the hope of wealth and opportunity, international businessmen are attracted by profitable business prospects, and tourists are promised the makings of the perfect safari. The city center buzzes with the energy, aspirations and opportunism of moneychangers, safari touts, would-be thieves, food vendors and trinket sellers, prostitutes, shoppers, security guards, and sharp-eyed shoe shiners assessing the footwear of the hurried throngs. Among them are the disillusioned faces of the unemployed, the beggars and the destitute.
Kenyatta Avenue is the city’s favorite tourist image, a broad avenue fringed by trees and flowers that was originally designed to allow a twelve-oxen team to make a full turn. There are several museums and places of interest in the center, including the National Museum and Snake Park. There are numerous markets selling traditional crafts, especially the appealing Masai market. Just outside of the center is the Nairobi National Park, and the nearby Bomas of Kenya host performances of traditional dancing and singing. The Langata Giraffe Center offers visitors the chance to hand-feed the Rothschild giraffes who inhabit the area among others are the animal orphanage, the safari walk, Daphne Sheldrick, Karen Blixen museum, The Kitengela glass etc..
Nairobi is also the safari capital of Africa and a good base for travel in Kenya. From here excursions and safaris can be arranged to any of the national parks or reserves in the East and Central Africa.
Getting Around: The most popular form of public transport in Nairobi is the matatu, usually a Nissan minibus, which operate on set routes. collecting passengers en route, with people boarding and disembarking wherever and whenever they choose. Loud music goes along with the ride in these cheap but unregulated and usually overcrowded vehicles that have become part of Kenyan culture. No less risky, but not as colorful, are the local bus services which operate on set routes and schedules through the city streets, renowned for overcrowding and speeding. Taxis are widely available and convenient, usually congregated in the street around hotels and areas frequented by tourists. Taxis are not metered and the fare should be agreed upon before departure. Nairobi taxis are marked with a yellow line along the side of the vehicle, or they are, surprisingly, large black London taxis. The better taxi companies have more modern vehicles which can be booked by telephone through hotel receptionist or by your local tour representative.