If you are a frequent traveller to Africa, little-loved Nairobi is difficult to avoid. The East African city is a subtle mistress, however, with many of its best attractions found well off the tourist trail. Sherelle Jacobs spent a couple of days exploring the city for some of its lesser-known treasures.
Locals have scathingly nicknamed Nairobi as “Nairobbery”, due to the high crime rate, although the situation has improved remarkably over the last few years. Catch Nairobi in the right light and it is an electrifying place. First, an unglamorous but crucial note. Nairobi, sprawling in size and constantly choked by traffic jams, is a tricky city to navigate. You really need wheels and a driver who knows their way around. Taxis are a hassle so I hired a driver through Hemingways Expeditions, which charges from $160 for a driver and vehicle for the whole day. The service was excellent.
Nairobi has a vivacious contemporary arts scene and it is possible to meet artists and see them at work in their studios. Heading first to Kuona Trust, a contemporary arts centre with subsidised studios for artists, I arrived mid-morning to find painters and sculptors immersed in their work.
Among those I met was Meshak Oiro, who specialises in fusion art and is particularly adept at turning bits of old bike and dead wood into impressive animal and human sculptures. There was a smattering of artists from abroad too, including Maral Blouri from Iran, who showed me some sketches that she was putting together for an upcoming exhibition.
A short drive away was the GoDown Arts Centre, which also houses creatives. I was able to chat with artists like Nur Jeffah, who mixes fashion and art to make sensationally coloured fabric-based art pieces. I also got acquainted with visual artist Miriam Makela, who had a daring and layered exhibition at the centre at the time, based on the theme of vulnerability.
Ketebul Music recording studio is also inside the GoDown complex. Music wafts out when local bands come and record their latest tunes and the receptionist gladly gives mini tours if the studios are unoccupied.
I lunched at Tamambo Karen Blixen Coffee House, located on the Karen Road near the Karen Blixen Museum.
One of this establishment’s biggest trump cards is undoubtedly its garden, among the oldest of its kind in the country with grand jacarandas, bottle brush trees and candelabra cactus. I chose a plate of oysters cooked in a wonderful mixture of coconut, soy sauce, lime, ginger and breadcrumbs, followed by a Bouillabaisse (traditionally, a fish soup from the South of France) inspired by flavours from the Indian Ocean version.
Next on the art circuit was Marula Studios, where the NGO UniquEco has a workshop for turning discarded flipflop sandals collected from Kenya’s beaches into rainbow-coloured art pieces. An onsite guide talked me through all the stages of the process – from the washing and sorting of the flipflops to their transformation into toys and sculptures.
Nairobi is a cosmopolitan city and its culinary scene reflects that. But most flying visitors can’t resist paying a visit to one of the city’s traditional African bush meat, all-you-can-eat establishments. Determined to get the best of both worlds, I ate my evening meal at one Fogo Gaucho, which does bush meat with a Brazilian twist and is loved by savvy locals.
Waiters come to your table with a gut-busting range of meat and fish – including the very popular marinated crocodile. There was also a colourful buffet with twenty Brazilian-inspired salads to balance out the meal.
After-dinner entertainment had to include experiencing something of Kenya’s hidden music scene. It is vibrant, involving a heady fermentation of influences from across the continent, from jaunty West African rhythms to smoother, velvety East African jazz. Most nights in Nairobi there is someone to see. One weekday act is live jazz at Klub House.
I went on a Tuesday night when a local jazz pop fusion band called The Truth was playing. The furious saxophone and walloping vocals had even those who had just come for a couple of the local Tusker beers tapping and swaying.
The next day was off the beaten track in Nairobi, and involved birds. You need not travel to the bush to see Kenyan wildlife. Nairobi is more blessed with birds than any other capital city in the world, with more than six hundred species.
Every Wednesday morning, a group called Nature Kenya meets at Nairobi’s National Museum before moving on for a bird walk at one of various locations across the city.
Although the bird walk group is a mixture of expats and eager young locals, it is welcoming to tourists. I joined them for a stroll around Uhuru Park near the Central Business District with my binoculars. We spotted around 50 different types of birds, including a regal-looking white-crested eagle, a pair of playful love birds in flight and even a couple of grim-faced vultures, scanning the ground below for food.
I followed my bird walk up with a stirring overnight stay at African Heritage House – a 10-acre UNESCO heritage site erected overlooking the National Park. Most visitors to Kenya stay at one of the established hotels, but African Heritage House is a spine-tingling alternative.
The house, with its exterior inspired by the great mud houses of Timbuktu and an overwhelming collection of pieces from all over the continent inside, is a sublime tribute to African art.
Among the treasures that owner Alan Donovan introduced me to on a tour of the property were sumptuously carved Moroccan shutters and doors, a 200-year-old bed hand-carved in Lamu, Senegalese paintings, silks from Madagascar and regalia worn by Nigeria’s Ndigbo.
Guests are also free to use the property’s pool, with wonderful views of the National Park, and to join Alan for a sundowner before a scrumptious three-course dinner, prepared by his talented chef. The crackling open fire and music,
from Alan’s African Heritage
Band, which drifts soulfully through the rooms, only adds to
The following day I ventured off to the National Park that I had enjoyed views of from Heritage House. The park is no secret but the Tented Camp that lies in a riverine forested area deep in the park’s bush is an under-celebrated treasure. Few visitors to the park know it exists and even fewer opt to spend a night there. They should. My driver dropped me at the gates of the park where I was picked up by a gamekeeper for the 20-minute drive into the camp. The journeys into and out of the camp are mini game drives in themselves.
On mine I spotted lions, impala and even a few hares. The tents are luxurious as well as environmentally sound.
Mine had a double bed, writing desk, flushing toilet and bucket shower that could be filled with hot water on request. The complex is solar-powered so if you want to charge your phone or laptop you can ask the manager to do it from the office.
Apart from my hair-raising evening game drive, the food at the camp was exceptional. I ate my three-course lunch while watching a warthog, apparently called Simon and a frequent visitor, roam innocently around the camp. The gin and tonic in front of a crackling camp-fire before the evening meal was a rousing aperitif before dinner.
Although board games and books are on hand for the moments in between game drives, I was content to sit out on the small veranda attached to my tent and listen to the silvery cacophony of animal wails and bird calls from the bush, mug of Kenyan tea in hand, and reflect on my adventures in Nairobi.
I concluded that the city is misunderstood. If you know where to look it is one of the most rewarding cities in Africa.