“Are you ready for an African Massage?” asked our driver, Julius, as he turned the van off the highway. We all smiled at his joke. My group was six hours into a long ride from Kenya’s capital of Nairobi to the Masai Mara National Reserve, and any sort of massage right now after being cooped up sounded like a great idea. We spent the next three hours bumping our way down unpaved dirt roads, bodies rattling like salt shakers as we journeyed through the plains of Narok. There was an audible sigh of relief from the entire van when we finally arrived at our campsite for the night, more shaken than stirred, and in dire need of an actual massage.
Of course, we still haven’t forgotten about the massage. But all aches were forgotten on safari the next day, trundling across the grassy savannah in a hardy off-road vehicle, wonders around every corner as we stumbled across lions napping by a waterhole, or cheetahs casually crossing the road throughout the day. The most magical moment was witnessing a slice of the annual Great Migration, where zebra and wildebeest make the annual trek across the Serengeti in search of fresh grazing pastures and water. Our vehicle stopped by the bank of the Mara River, while hundreds of wildebeest and a handful of zebras stamped their feet impatiently a short distance away. On some invisible signal, the wildebeest thundered down the inclined bank in a cloud of dust and stampeded through the shallow brown waters in a sinuous S curve to get to the opposite bank. This scene was a source of motivation that made the arduous journey back to Nairobi the next day worthwhile.
Back in the busy capital city of Nairobi, we climbed to the roof of the 28-storey tall Kenyatta International Convention Centre, once the highest building in Kenya though it has been overtaken by an increasing number of skyscrapers springing up in recent years. An unblocked 360º view of the city spread out below us, sprawling far wider than I had imagined.
Being back in Nairobi doesn’t necessarily mean being imprisoned by the ordinary hustle and bustle of urban life because nature is never far away in Kenya. Barely an hour’s drive away from the city center is the Nairobi National Park where we spent a precious hour at the David Sheldrick Elephant Centre on the edge of the park, watching rescued baby elephants gambol around in red dirt and fight over the biggest milk bottles I have ever seen. Next we headed to the nearby Giraffe Centre and spent the afternoon handfeeding hungry endangered Rothschild giraffes that did not hesitate to butt you with their heads if you were too slow to feed them.
Kenya is more than savannah and animal encounters – we spent the next day perusing the iconic Nairobi City Market, a plethora of stalls overflowing with hand-carved curios, brightly dyed clothing, and all sorts of beaded accessories. For more unusual wares, we took a car over to the Karen district where we popped into Marula Studios, home to the social enterprise Ocean Sole that turns discarded flip-flops into colorful works of art that you will be proud to put on display. Another notable stop that day was Kazuri Beads, a social enterprise that supports disadvantaged women who create the most beautiful ceramic bead accessories – I could not resist adding a few new bracelets to my collection of souvenirs as we wrapped up a week in Nairobi.
From Nairobi it was time to move on to Mombasa, the oldest city in Kenya located on its eastern coast. An overland journey that once took the better part of a day to complete now takes less than five hours on the new high speed Madaraka Express train. Keep your eyes peeled as this journey takes you through the Tsavo National Park, and you might spot an elephant or two as you zip across the country.
We marked our arrival to Mombasa by passing through the iconic archway framed by giant elephant tusks along Moi Avenue. Further exploration of Mombasa was derailed by the food and spice market that beckoned with its bright colors and intriguing smells, where friendly stall owners waved their wares at us and called for us to stop by their stall. We stopped here for lunch, feasting on a local favorite called nyama choma – roasted goat meat served with sides of cornmeal ugali and vegetables, and eaten traditionally and messily with just our hands.
The next day we headed up north to Kilifi where a local captain took us out in his traditional hand-carved dhow and cooked us a meal of grilled fish on his wooden boat as he showed us the coastal views. In the afternoon, he took us snorkeling and we caught a magnificent sunset on the way back. Later that night we returned to the beach where we had docked, marveling as the dark waters around us lit up with blue bioluminescence while we kicked around in the surf.
Our final stop of the trip was down south in Diani Beach, ranked as one of Africa’s top beach towns and certainly one of the most beautiful beaches ever seen, with silvery fine white sand that slipped through my fingers and clear turquoise waters that seem like a postcard come to life. In the distance, a local man tugged his caravan of three decorated camels along behind him as they strolled up and down the beach, looking for tourist customers willing to pay for an unusual ride. But I prefer a bird's-eye view of the Kenyan coast instead of a camelback ride.
I took to the skies with Skydive Diani, strapped to my intrepid skydive instructor. As the plane climbed into the sky, we launched ourselves into thin air and tumbled into the sky 12,000 ft high, landing on the gleaming white sand in a matter of minutes - a breathtaking conclusion to my two weeks in Kenya.
A pretty happy ending. I have traveled on bumpy roads, had exhilarating freefalls off planes, and seen the wildlife of the savannah. My travels in Kenya were not always easy but they were definitely never boring. I left Kenya with a wealth of stories and experiences that will inspire me to remember to always pick the road less traveled.