Nairobi Kenya

Nairobi Kenya is the largest city and the capital of the country. It is, in fact, the largest city north of South Africa and south of Cairo. It is the center of East Africa’s thriving safari and tourism industry, which is the number one source of foreign income in Kenya, having supplanted agriculture during the last couple decades of the 20th century. (The tourism sector in neighboring Tanzania is tied with agriculture as an income sector.) Other than its rich and colorful history and its position as the economic and political center of the country, it is known for Nairobi National Park—the largest wildlife reserve in a predominantly urban environment in the world.

The modern history of Kenya is intricately linked to the origins of this city, which was only swampland when the Uganda Railway reached it in 1899. The railway line was begun in 1896 to link the coastal port of Mombasa with the Kenya Highlands in the center of the country, Lake Victoria on the far west, and Uganda. The name Nairobi Kenya comes from the Maasai phrase, "Enkare Nyirobi," which means "the place of cool waters" for the river that flows through the area. The British shortened this to Nairobi, built a major terminus on the site, and moved the railway’s administrative offices here.

The vast majority of the railway construction workers were Indians brought from Britain’s other “jewel in the crown,” India, and housing for them as well as the administrative officials was also built. Nairobi travel soon became important as numerous Indian merchants arrived and set up shops and businesses to provide the goods and services required by the administrators and workers. This is why today there is such a large population of Indians in Kenya and why many of your dining experiences will be heavily influenced by Indian cuisine.

The railway line and the beginnings of the settlement around Nairobi opened up the Kenya Highland to colonists, and many (primarily English) began to make their Nairobi travel plans to stake out farms and ranches in the richest agricultural area in the country. These were the lands to the north around Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains that became known as the White Highlands. Even more businesses and stores were established in Nairobi to serve the needs of these immigrants, who had come by ship to Mombasa and brought all their worldly goods to Nairobi on the train. Big game hunters from Europe had been operating throughout East Africa throughout a good portion of the nineteenth century, but the establishment of the railroad opened up revenue possibilities other than marketing ivory, rhino horns, and skins. It was now possible to make money by guiding others of the wealthy and privileged from Europe and the United States on big game hunts. Suitable hotel accommodations needed to be built for these tourists. In 1904, the legendary Norfolk Hotel opened and became the hub of colonial social structure in the country. Today, it is the oldest of the Nairobi hotels, and ranks among the best five star properties in the world. One of the most famous of these tourists was Theodore Roosevelt, who used the Norfolk Hotel to stage his ambitious 1909 hunting safari, during which his party bagged 512 specimens of big game, most of which were sent to Washington DC to be mounted and displayed in the Smithsonian Institution.

At the time the railhead was established, Nairobi Kenya boasted plentiful wildlife, including great herds of wildebeest, zebra, and other plains ungulates, as well as their attendant predators. The area was actually part of the great migration that today is confined largely to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. All these animals were the enemy of the new farmers and ranchers and posed dangers for Nairobi residents, who carried guns on the streets for protection into the 1930s, by which time a good portion of the game had disappeared. Kenya-born Mervyn Cowie was shocked by this when he returned to Kenya in 1932 after his schooling in England, and began lobbying for a reserve to be set aside to protect the remaining wildlife. His efforts paid off when Nairobi National Park established in 1946.

Few people take a Nairobi vacation on its own. Those who do are almost always government or business travelers who are in the city only for a few days. Even these people usually find time to embark on the wildlife safaris for which East Africa is famous, and where they go during their limited time is most often to Nairobi National Park located only four miles south of the city center. Here you will find a 117-acre pocket of wilderness with the skyscrapers of the city visible and jumbo jets coming in for a landing at nearby Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

While the city is in the south central part of the country, it is almost dead center in the portion that is viable for settlement and agriculture; the northern part of the country is a vast semi-arid desert with sparse population and virtually no agriculture. All the major national parks in the country encircle the city, as this area contains the ecosystems that support the largest numbers of wildlife. Nairobi travel is necessary for virtually anyone who comes to the country for a safari, and most of these visitors will spend only a couple days in the city before heading out into more remote areas. The city is well worth these couple days, as there are a number of things to do in addition to visiting Nairobi National Park. In the town of Karen (named for the author of the novel Out of Africa) at the foot of the Ngong Hills, is the Karen Blixen Museum. This is the manor house on the coffee plantation where she lived and loved the big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in the Oscar-winning 1985 film). Nearby is the Giraffe Center where endangered Rothschild giraffes are protected. Several are very habituated, and it is possible to hand feed them from the observation deck. These two Kenya tours are usually done in the same afternoon. A walking and driving tour of the city proper can also be fascinating, and will include the Kenya Parliament buildings, Nairobi City Hall, and the Holy Family Cathedral, and perhaps the Railway Musuem. Virtually all Nairobi hotels that cater to tourists will have one or more good dining options. There are a number of five-star hotels that have excellent gourmet restaurants, and there are several excellent restaurants should you wish to dine out on fresh seafood from Mombasa, traditional Indian cuisine, Chinese, Italian, and many others. One restaurant that has been a fixture since 1980 in the famous Carnivore that serves a variety of meats like beef, lamb, chicken, and pork cooked Maasai style on skewers over huge open pit barbecues. Often, more exotic fare such as ostrich, crocodile, or zebra is also served.

Airlines to Kenya include virtually every major carrier from around the world, so getting here can be quite convenient. Nairobi Kenya has had a reputation as a dangerous city for some years. It is true that this is a large city with a large population of extremely poor and unemployed people. There is street crime here, and there can be dangers for visitors. But these dangers are exaggerated and rarely apply to places that are frequented by tourists. Follow a few commonsense guidelines. It is not advised that you walk the streets or parks of Nairobi except in certain areas and in the company of a guide/escort, especially at night. When you are in public places, keep your eyes open for purse snatchers and pickpockets. Use your hotel room safe or deposit valuables at hotel reception, and carry only what you need with you in a secure place. Leave your flashy and expensive jewelry at home.

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