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Nairobi has a population of three million plus. Situated on the Nairobi River, the city is not only the largest and fastest growing city in Kenya, but one of the largest in Africa.
The word Nairobi derives from a water hole known in Maasai (an Eastern Nilotic language) as Enkare Nairobi, which means “cool waters.” Nairobi, which was a swamp area, was founded in 1899 and was first a railway camp for the Uganda Railway. The city became Kenya’s capital, which was Mombasa initially, and it also became the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1905. With the spread of plagues in the early 1900s, the town was burnt down and had to be rebuilt. Having a railroad system in the system helped it to have drastic growth, becoming the second largest city in Kenya behind Mombasa.
The city of Nairobi also grew due to administration and tourism businesses (mostly big game hunting). The British, who were one of Kenya’s colonizers, set up shop in Nairobi, leading to the creation of big hotels primarily for the British hunters. Also, Nairobi has an East Indian community from those who are the descendents of original colonial railway laborers and merchants.
Area: 696 km²
Population: 3.138 million
Here are the best ways to spend time in Nairobi.
Millions go to Kenya for a safari, but you barely need to leave the capital to take one. Nairobi National Park, tel: (254-20) 602 121, is perhaps the only wildlife park in the world that you can visit by taxi or bus. Inside are lions, cheetahs, leopards, buffaloes, hippos, zebras, giraffes, gazelles and more. Don’t miss the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust inside the park, where between 11 a.m. and noon you can watch keepers take orphaned baby rhinos and elephants for their daily mud baths. On the western edge of town is the Langata Giraffe Center and adjoining Giraffe Manor hotel, tel: (254-20) 251 3166, where giraffes poke their heads through the windows.
Karen Blixen Museum
The farm that the Danish author of the famed memoir Out of Africa lived on from 1917 to 1931 is now a museum, tel: (254-20) 882 779. Much of the 1985 Oscar-winning movie adaptation was shot on the grounds. A tour of the house is an intimate experience — in one corner is a lantern that Blixen hung on her veranda to let her ill-fated lover, English hunter Denys Finch Hatton, know she was home, and his monogrammed books still line the shelves.
A visit to the world’s biggest slum might not sound like a good time, but a few hours in Kibera is always educational and its residents’ resilience can be inspiring. Unescorted visits are not advised, but several agencies run tours of this million-strong township, which might include a visit to an orphanage, a bead factory or even a solar-power project.
With a few exceptions, African cuisine is a euphemism for charred flesh. Nyama choma, meaning “barbecued meat” in Kiswahili, is Kenya’s unofficial national dish. The aptly named, open-air Carnivore, tel: (254-20) 605 933, is one of the better places in town and serves up such exotica as crocodile, ostrich and camel. A set meal costs about $20 and the waiters keep serving more until you tip over the little white flag on your table.
Muthaiga Country Club
The Muthaiga, tel: (254-20) 376 7754, is a colonial-era gem, from its pink and white colonnades, to the ancient animal heads hung from the walls of several beautifully maintained bars, to the 20,000-book library. Standards are rigidly maintained: jackets and ties are compulsory for men in several rooms after 7:30 p.m.; no women are allowed in the Member’s Bar; and no flip-flops, T-shirts, mobile phones or hats “other than those integral to national costume” are permitted inside. This is a members-only club but there are hundreds of members. Find one and get them to take you in as a guest.
Drivers of Africa’s ubiquitous minibuses (called matatus in Kenya) like to pimp their rides — fluorescent lighting and fat wheels are de rigueur from Cape Town to Cairo — but Nairobi’s drivers outdo any on the continent, with huge sound systems and blaring TV screens in the cabin, and exteriors painted with the likes of Michael Jackson, kung-fu heroes or even Osama bin Laden. Climb aboard and hold on as the driver races his rivals through the city traffic. It’s an African subculture all its own, with entry costing just a few cents.
The Rift Valley
Nowhere says Africa like the Rift Valley, with its savanna, geology, fauna and history as the cradle of human life. In Kenya, the Rift’s steep sides and wide plains are at their most dramatic and there are few better views than those found about an hour outside Nairobi, when the road to Nakuru suddenly crests the valley’s eastern edge and plunges thousands of feet to the floor. On a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles, right down to Tanzania.
The Jambo Kenya Deluxe
The Nairobi-Mombasa line is one of the world’s great rail journeys, particularly when made in the Jambo Kenya Deluxe. This leisurely less-than-express is beginning to show its age (not all the lights work, for instance), but a $50 first-class ticket will get you two bunks and a vanity sink in your own cabin, a three-course dinner and a hot breakfast, all at tables laid with white tablecloths and chipped 1950s china.