Lapped by the Indian Ocean, straddling the equator, and with Mount Kenya rising above a magnificent landscape of forested hills, patchwork farms and wooded savanna, Kenya is a richly rewarding place to travel. The country’s dramatic geography has resulted in a great range of natural habitats, harbouring a huge variety of wildlife, while its history of migration and conquest has brought about a fascinating social panorama, which includes the Swahili city-states of the coast and the Maasai of the Rift Valley.
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Kenya’s world-famous national parks, tribal peoples and superb beaches lend the country an exotic image with magnetic appeal. Treating it as a succession of tourist sights, however, is not the most stimulating way to experience Kenya. If you get off the beaten track, you can enter the world inhabited by most Kenyans: a ceaselessly active scene of muddy farm tracks, corrugated-iron huts, tea shops and lodging houses, crammed buses and streets wandered by goats and children. Both on and off the tourist routes, you’ll find warmth and openness, and an abundance of superb scenery – rolling savanna dotted with Maasai herds and wild animals, high Kikuyu moorlands grazed by cattle and sheep, and dense forests full of monkeys and birdsong. Of course the country is not all postcard-perfect: Kenya’s role in fighting Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia has resulted in reprisal attacks, while if you start a conversation with any local you’ll soon find out about the country’s deep economic and social tensions.
The coast and major game parks are the most obvious targets. If you come to Kenya on an organized tour, you’re likely to have your time divided between these two attractions. Despite the impact of human population pressures, Kenya’s wildlife spectacle remains a compelling experience. The million-odd annual visitors are easily absorbed in such a large country, and there’s nothing to prevent you escaping the predictable tourist bottlenecks: even on an organized trip, you should not feel tied down.
The major national parks and reserves, watered by seasonal streams, are mostly located in savanna on the fringes of the highlands that take up much of the southwest quarter of the country. The vast majority of Kenyans live in these rugged hills, where the ridges are a mix of smallholdings and plantations. Through the heart of the highlands sprawls the Great Rift Valley, an archetypal East African scene of dry, thorn-tree savanna, splashed with lakes and studded by volcanoes.
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The hills and grasslands on either side of the valley – Laikipia and the Mara conservancies, for example – are great walking country, as are the high forests and moors of the Central Highlands and Mount Kenya itself – a major target and a feasible climb if you’re reasonably fit and take your time.
Nairobi, at the southern edge of the highlands, is most often used just as a gateway, but the capital has plenty of diversions to occupy your time while arranging your travels and some very worthwhile natural and cultural attractions in its own right.
In the far west, towards Lake Victoria, lies gentler countryside, where you can travel for days without seeing another foreign visitor and immerse yourself in Kenyan life and culture. Beyond the rolling tea plantations of Kericho and the hot plains around the port of Kisumu lies the steep volcanic massif of Mount Elgon, astride the Ugandan border. The Kakamega Forest, with its unique wildlife, is nearby, and more than enough reason to strike out west.
In the north, the land is desert or semi-desert, broken only by the highlight of gigantic Lake Turkana in the northwest, almost unnaturally blue in the brown wilderness and one of the most spectacular and memorable of all African regions.
Kenya’s “upcountry” interior is separated from the Indian Ocean by the arid plains around Tsavo East National Park. Historically, these have formed a barrier that accounts in part for the distinctive culture around Mombasa and the coastal region. Here, the historical record, preserved in mosques, tombs and the ruins of ancient towns cut from the jungle, marks out the area’s Swahili civilization. An almost continuous coral reef runs along the length of the coast, beyond the white-sand beaches, protecting a shallow, safe lagoon from the Indian Ocean.