15 February 2022

Snapshots from Ten Days in East Africa: Kenya

After two years in which I travelled abroad only twice and only to short-haul destinations — Malta and Porto — I had the opportunity to travel to East Africa for some meetings at the end of January. Planning a trip that required visas and non-COVID medications on top of all of the COVID requirements was a little overwhelming at short notice, but it was all worth it. I've never been to East Africa before and although I didn't have a lot of free time, I got a real taste of both Kenya and Uganda and can't wait to go back to both countries for a longer holiday.

I spent the first six days of my trip in Kenya, spending two nights and one full day in Nairobi, before travelling to Mombasa, where I spent three days and then returned for a final night in Nairobi. This blog post is all about the Kenya part of my trip; I wrote about my adventures in Uganda in this post.

I flew direct from London with BA to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a nine-hour daytime flight — with some impressive views over Europe and Africa — that landed at 10 pm local time. It took well over an hour to get through immigration (scroll to the end of this post for some more details on the visa and COVID requirements), another 20 minutes to buy a sim card from the arrivals hall and another 30 minutes or so to drive the eight miles to my hotel. It was well after midnight by the time I got to my room, and I was pretty shattered.

My colleagues had recommended I stay at the Tamarind Tree Hotel, south of the city centre and close to Wilson airport, Nairobi National Park and the Karen neighbourhood. If you're short on time in Nairobi, you'll want to spend as little time as possible stuck in the city centre's constant, heavy traffic, so staying out of the CBD helps with that. The Tamarind Tree is a modern hotel, and my room was clean, quiet and well-appointed. There was a good breakfast buffet, a gym and an outdoor swimming pool.

With only one free day in the city, I arranged a driver through the hotel, who took me on a six-hour drive through Nairobi National Park. We left at 6:30 am, to try to spot the elusive big cats, but alas, we didn't see any. I didn't mind too much, however, when I saw dozens and dozens of animals and birds, many at very close range, from zebras and giraffes, to wildebeest, ostriches, buffalo, hippos, countless species of antelope, vultures, marabou storks, baboons, vervets and a lone rhino. I was a very happy bunny. 

The park itself is attractive, especially on such a sunny Sunday morning. It's about 45 square miles and is located just a few miles from central Nairobi, meaning there are cityscape backdrops to some of the animal shots you take. The entrance fee for non-residents is US $50 (about £38), payable only by credit card.

Next, my driver took me to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife's Giraffe Centre. It costs $10 to get in and the entrance fee includes a small bowl of pellets to feed the ten Rothschild's giraffes (a different species from those in the national park) who reside at the centre. The giraffes are very gentle, if rather slobbery — much hand-washing was required afterwards! — but the experience was very enjoyable. If you can make out the country manor house in the background of one of my photos, that's Giraffe Manor. It's not the cheapest of hotels but you do get to share your breakfast with the giraffes!

The final stop of my mini-tour was the Karen Blixen Museum, located at the Danish author's former home. I had a short guided tour of the house and farm and was especially interested to hear about Blixen's small coffee farming activities, and I got to see some of the historical coffee farming and processing equipment, as well as my first sighting of Kenyan coffee trees.

Tired and hot, but happy, I returned to my hotel to relax by the pool for a couple of hours with a book and a cold drink. For dinner, I went next door to the hotel's sister restaurant, Carnivore. As its name suggests, it's not a great place for vegetarians, but if you're keen to try as many different meats as possible, their set menu is worth checking out. They keep bringing you different meats until you put your flag on the table in surrender — my favourites were the crocodile, ostrich meatballs and the beautifully crispy pork belly. Oh, and if you're still hungry, pudding is also included.

The following morning, I was up even earlier as I was meeting some of my colleagues at the Standard Gauge Railway station at 6:30 am. We were catching the 8:00 am train to Mombasa but had been told to allow a lot of extra time, just in case. After going through two sets of security screenings — where my Aeropress was almost confiscated! — I made it through to the first-class waiting room, where the coffee was, sadly, only OK (and not free). A one-way, first-class ticket costs $30, and it was a comfortable, if low-on-frills, journey. Drinks, sandwiches and slightly more substantial meals were on sale throughout. I enjoyed watching the ever-changing Kenyan landscapes, from rolling green hills dotted with farms, to the drier, red-brown soils as we passed through Tsavo National Park, and I even spotted several elephants and zebras. I already knew how many smallholder coffee farmers there were in Kenya, but I hadn't quite appreciated how small 'small' was; in some cases, it's a fine line between a kitchen garden and a farm. The train journey really put this into perspctive.

After six hours, we arrived at the shiny new terminal in Mombasa, where a minibus was waiting to take us to our hotel. We were staying at the Sarova Whitesands resort a few miles north of Mombasa. The afternoon traffic meant it took almost an hour to get there, but before long we were sipping a refreshing juice drink in the hotel's cool reception. I was surprised that a beach hotel needed five swimming pools, but although the sand itself was indeed white and the Indian Ocean beautifully warm, there was so much seaweed that swimming in the sea wasn't very pleasant. Running on the beach early one morning was very pleasant, however. At the bar, I also discovered a new favourite cocktail: the dawa ('medicine'), vodka, brown sugar, lime and honey, shaken over ice. A note of caution: there's also a more medicinal dawa tea, brewed with ginger, lemon and honey, so you may need to specify which you want.

We were supposed to go on a snorkelling trip to the Mombasa Marine Park as a social activity one evening, but the tides and visibility weren't on our side. Instead, we visited the UNESCO-listed Fort Jesus, built in the old port by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and then took a walking tour around the old town, which houses many Kenyan 'firsts' (first hotel, first post office, and so on), as well as a monument commemorating the Kenyan coffee ceremony. Our guide gave us a great overview of the history of Mombasa and the area. Another fun thing to do near Mombasa is to visit Haller Park, a disused quarry turned nature park, with walking trails and some wild animals.

After our meetings were over, we flew back to Nairobi, as we were short on time. You don't need to take a PCR test before domestic flights in Kenya, but those of us who were flying on to Uganda the following day took the required COVID PCR tests before leaving the hotel. The flight took one hour and went smoothly. Mombasa airport was very quiet but there was a lot of the usual security screening and repeated presentation of various COVID and other documents.

That afternoon, we visited a few coffee farms north of Nairobi, including one in Ruiru (which gives its name to the Ruiru 11 coffee variety) and a larger estate near Kiambu called Fairview Estate. As well as growing coffee, Fairview run tours for US $30, where you can learn more about the farm and about coffee growing and processing. Coffee tourism can be a good way for farmers to diversify and naturally, I was in my element! You can sample their coffee in the roasting room, and if you like what you taste, they also sell retail bags of their coffee beans ($10 — plus an additional $10 if you'd like one of the gorgeous fabric outer bags courtesy of Water Is Life Kenya). I've been enjoying the beans brewed through my Kono Meimon dripper since I got home, as pictured in the fourth photo.

After our visits, we drove to our hotel for the night, the Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club, a grand, if rather old school, hotel set around a golf course north of central Nairobi. A few of us went for a pre-dinner run around the adjacent nature trail; sadly, the pool was closed as they were preparing for a huge wedding the following day. The food was great — I had Swahili-style chicken in a rich, tomato sauce, with mashed potato — even if the dining room setting did feel reminiscent of certain London establishments at a very different time. 

In the morning, it was time to pack up once again and we stopped off at a coffee mill in Thika, before heading back to Jomo Kenyatta airport. The traffic was so bad that we almost missed our flight, arriving less than an hour before the flight, but fortunately, we all made it to Uganda. Of which, more to come in the next installment.


Entry and medical requirements

  • You can apply for a Kenya visa via this online portal. If you're travelling between Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda as a tourist, you can apply for an East African Tourist Visa ($100), which allows you to travel as many times as you like between the three countries during a three-month period. You'll need to apply for the visa through whichever country you'll be entering first. I was told to allow at least a week for my visa to be approved, but it took less than a day. When you first enter, make sure you get both the visa sticker and a stamp in your passport — a colleague didn't get the sticker, which made things rather difficult when we were flying to Uganda.
  • At the time I travelled (early 2022), Kenya required: proof of a negative COVID PCR test taken 72 hours before travel; proof of full COVID vaccination; and completion of a health surveillance form prior to travel. The guidance was that the COVID test certificate and vaccination certificates should be uploaded to the Global Haven website, which would generate a QR code for each. I'd read that all document verification would be digital only, but in fact, paper documents were preferred. My UK NHS COVID vaccine certificates seemed to be just as accepted as the Global Haven QR code. As these requirements are subject to constant change, check the Kenya government's and your own country's guidance before your travel.
  • Check your country's health advice websites (like TravelHealthPro in the UK) for any other vaccinations or medications you might need. A yellow fever shot wasn't essential for Kenya, but I needed it for Uganda, along with a couple of booster shots.
  • Even if you have digital copies, it's worth printing out copies of all of your travel, visa and health documentation.
  • Mask-wearing requirements and adherence were mixed, in my experience. Mask-wearing was required in public and private transportation and in any public indoor spaces. It was also required at many outdoor tourist attractions, like the Giraffe Centre and Fort Jesus. As in London, I wore my mask whenever required, erring on the side of keeping it on wherever possible inside.

Getting there
Most international flights arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, while many (but not all) domestic flights go from the smaller Wilson Airport. At the time of writing, there is a lot of construction going on around Jomo Kenyatta, which makes the traffic even worse than usual. You should allow lots of extra time to avoid similar stressful encounters like ours: note that on arriving at the airport, you'll need to get out of your vehicle and go through a scanner, before getting back in and driving to the terminal. I passed through Jomo Kenyatta terminal 1A a few times: there are a handful of shops and eateries, including a branch of Java House. The airport does have free wifi.

Getting around
I quickly discovered that, for safety reasons, it's not recommended to walk around as a lone woman in many parts of Nairobi. Even on the three-minute walk from the Tamarind Tree Hotel to the adjacent restaurant, I was accompanied by a member of the hotel security staff. For most of my trip, I was travelling with colleagues, with transport arranged, but for the rest of the time, I travelled with a private driver or used Uber.

If you're a fan of long train journeys, I'd definitely recommend the trip between Nairobi and Mombasa, which is a great way to see the country. There are two trains a day in each direction, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with first-class tickets costing $30 (standard-class fare is $10). You'll need to book your tickets in advance — luckily, my booking was taken care of, but The Man in Seat 61 has some helpful guidance.

Mask-wearing was expected at most indoor venues, including public and private transport, as well as at tourist attractions — even outdoor ones.

Swahili and English are both official languages, and everyone working within tourism and hospitality speaks excellent English. Learning a few words of Swahili — jambo means 'hi' and asante (sana) means 'thanks (very much)' — is very much appreciated.

Kenya uses the shilling (KES), sometimes, to my pleasure, referred to colloquially as 'bob'. 1,000 KES is about US $8.80 or £6.50. Some places, especially tourist destinations, quote prices in US dollars. Credit cards were accepted at the hotels I stayed at, at the Nairobi tourist attractions I visited and at the airport, but elsewhere, most places were cash-only.

Power and connectivity
Kenya uses the 'type G' British standard plug and socket system. Some hotels may also have sockets for 'type C' European plugs, but it's worth checking first or bringing a multi-adapter. 

I bought a Kenyan sim card at the airport, paying about £10 for 30Gb of data with the Telkom network. I'd read that Safaricom had much better coverage but their shop was closed by the time I arrived. I found that coverage — a mix of 3G and 4G — was good in and around Nairobi, but a little flakier elsewhere. I was told that I could use my data when I went to Uganda, which was why I got a 30Gb card, but unfortunately, it didn't work. All of the hotels I stayed in had decent wifi — the speed and stability were a bit mixed, but for the most part, it was sufficient for me to do what I needed. 

For packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.

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  1. Hi Bex,

    Excellent write-up! Looking forward to reading more when you go back for your longer trip :-). Also very envious: Kenya sounds awesome.


    1. Thanks, Brian. Yes, it was great to return to coffee farms for the first time since I was in Costa Rica almost a decade ago. I would absolutely advocate for a visit to Kenya, and I know there's so much more to see of the country than the snapshots I got during my relatively short trip.