The mere mention of Kenya probably conjures up images of safaris, where one can roam about in open-top vans and get up close and personal with lions, cheetahs, wildebeests or elephants.
Aside from safaris, I discovered that this Eastern African country is rich in culture, with beautiful seaside towns and sleepy fishing villages.
Most visitors to Kenya fly into capital city Nairobi. But as I was coming from the northern neighbouring country of Ethiopia, I took the less travelled route of crossing by land.
The trip from the border town of Moyale to Nairobi definitely tops my list of memorable road trips in my years of travel.
The northern deserts of Kenya are essentially lawless and undeveloped regions; hence, there is no proper public transport. To get to the big cities or towns, you have to hop onto one of the few huge cargo trucks, carrying beans or other goods, which sometimes travel via an armed convoy.
17 hours atop a truck
Taking the cue from the locals, I sat atop the canvas rooftop of the back of the truck. I was getting baked under the tormenting sun and covered from head to toe by the red sand of the deserts, but I did get a great view of the glorious landscape and a glimpse of local village life.
What really made the 17-hour journey unforgettable was seeing giraffes and hyenas strutting by as night fell. Nothing can beat a free and truly "wild" safari.
The only other tourist, Naeem, from England, and I were told to get off the truck at 3am and transfer to a mini-bus, where it was another four-hour journey before we finally reached Nairobi, bleary-eyed and dead beat.
Up close with wildlife
After a good day rest, I met up with Naeem, who has relatives living in Nairobi. That's when I had my first taste of safari at the Nairobi National Park.
This national park is the first of its kind in Kenya and is relatively small compared to the other African national parks. Here, I got to see a good variety of wildlife - the African buffalo, hippopotamus, zebras, giraffes and many more.
I signed up for a three-day safari to the Maasai Mara National Game Reserve with the hostel that I was staying with. I joined a group of two Danish girls, making it cheaper for me and cost me US$90 (S$112) a day.
It was a far more interesting safari, as we got to go around the game reserve in an open-top van with an experienced guide-cum-driver.
We spotted four of the "Big Five"- the lion, African elephant, African buffalo and the leopard - missing out only on the rhinoceros. We got within 50m of the animals.
On the last day, we even managed to see some leopards trying to make a meal out of wildebeests.
Meeting the locals
We paid extra to visit the Maasai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area, for which the game reserve is named after.
Though touristy - with the Maasai people dancing and singing for tourists - I got a glimpse of how they lived in their mud huts, chopping firewood or making beaded jewellery.
Next, I took a matatu (privately operated mini-buses) and headed for the coastal city of Mombasa.
This historical trading centre - strategically located on the Eastern coastline bordering the Indian Ocean - originated in the 16th century and was ruled by many, including the Portuguese, Arabs and British.
Today, Mombasa's culture and architecture still reflect its rich history. The Forte Jesus de Mombaca, Hindu Temple and the many old buildings dotting the Old Town are just some examples of Mombasa's cultural diversity.
One can easily spend a day or two roaming the many alleys of the Old Town - stopping by the hidden cafes or bookshops to while away an afternoon, or check out the local market located at one end of the Old Town.
Alternatively, head over to the Diani Beach or the Tiwi beach by matatu. You can also explore the surrounding waters by dhow (traditional Arab boat).
Island with donkeys
I was captivated by the island of Lamu. Though it took me a six-hour bus ride and a ferry ride to get there, it was well worth the effort.
I loved this laidback island so much I ended up staying there for two weeks instead of the three days as originally planned.
On this island, there are no modern comforts, no cars or motorbikes, only donkeys.
The main town is bisected by many tiny winding streets, and it does not take one much time to walk from one end of the town to the other.
Life moves slowly here and you will be forgiven for doing nothing for the whole day except sitting by one of the beachside restaurants and watching the world go by.
I went on a dhow trip to explore the Lamu archipelago. The waters were crystal clear, and my fellow travellers and I got to feast on fresh seafood prepared by our friendly boatmen on one of the pristine islands.
As the sun set, we got to try our hands at fishing for our dinner but none of us were successful. Nonetheless, we were served with yet another delicious barbecued seafood dinner while sitting around a campfire.
If the braying of the donkeys or the smell of their poop gets to you, you can escape to the Shela Beach, a beautiful and quiet stretch of white sand on the northern end of the island, about 2.4km walk away.
On the way there, I saw quite a bit of the local life. The sights on this tiny island may be remote from the wildlife in safaris, but is no less interesting.
- There are no direct flights to Nairobi from Singapore. Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airlines are the cheapest options, but include stopovers in Dubai and Doha respectively.
- Singapore and Malaysia passport holders can enter Kenya visa-free for up to 30 days.
- You can fly from Nairobi to Mombasa or Lamu. But if you prefer the cheaper option of road travel, Kenya has a network of long-distance bus lines, though most of the roads are bumpy and dusty and can make an uncomfortable ride.
- Within the cities or towns, you can hop onto a matatu for a cheap fee.
- The staple food in Kenya is Ugali, which is made from maize flour and can be eaten with many dishes. Aside from the porridgelike staple, there is a plethora of cuisine to choose from, including the chicken pilau.
- Visit from July to October to witness the great migration of zebras, Thomson's gazelles and wildebeests to and from the Serengeti (located in North Tanzania).
- When walking around Nairobi, stay alert and always be aware of your surroundings, even during the day. Avoid dodgy places and walking after dark. Spend extra to take a taxi instead.
- There have been kidnappings and attacks recently associated with terrorists or of political nature. Find out more before you visit.
- Some areas in Kenya have major Muslim influences, especially in the coastal regions. Women are advised to dress conservatively.
This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.
This article was first published on July 8, 2014.
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