Kenya - At a glance
Kenya is the home of the safari. Hemmed in by the swooning Indian Ocean beaches of the Swahili Coast, overlooked by the sensational snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, and scarred by the mile-deep continental schism that is the Great Rift Valley, this is a land of exceptional scenic variety and beauty, one whose geographic diversity embraces vast inland seas and intimate palm-lined rivers, dense tropical forests and parched rocky deserts, rolling mountain meadows and tortured volcanic plugs… but, above all, those hypnotic tracts of acacia-studded African savannah, protected within some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife reserves.
Kenya is the home of the Masai Mara, world renowned for its annual wildebeest migration © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
And what reserves they are. There is dust-blown Amboseli, where peaceable herds of tuskers march majestically below the iconic outline of Kilimanjaro. There is beautiful Lake Nakuru, shores grazed by prehistoric-looking rhinos, shallows tinged pink by more than one million flamingos. And of course there is the Masai Mara, arguably the finest safari destination in Africa, home to incredible concentrations of lions and other predators, and host to the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, which unfolds annually as millions of wildebeest hurtle across the Mara River from the neighbouring Serengeti plains.
Further north, we have the scorched rocky plains of Samburu-Buffalo Springs, where typical African plains mammals are replaced with dry-country specials such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, and the impala-meets-giraffe anomaly that is the gerenuk. We also have the haunted volcanic landscapes of Tsavo West, the incomprehensible vastness of Tsavo East, the untrammelled expanses of Meru, along with more intimate and low-key gems such as Shimba Hills, Kakamega Forest and Hell’s Gate… The list goes on, but for those swayed by statistics rather than superlatives, there is perhaps no better index of Kenya’s biodiversity than a national bird checklist comprising 1,136 species – this is the second highest for any African country, a figure made all the more remarkable when you realise that Kenya doesn’t even make the top 20 in terms of surface area.
Kenya's bird list is a delight for twitchers © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
The ideal complement to the wildlife reserves of the interior is Kenya’s sultry coastline, which consists of more than 500km of idyllic beach frontage lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Studded with mysterious medieval ruins and dense tropical jungles, the coast is hemmed in by offshore reefs whose kaleidoscopic array of colourful fish are as delightful to snorkellers and divers as the country’s more familiar terrestrial wildlife. The rich Swahili cultural legacy, meanwhile, reaches its apotheosis is the small island town of Lamu, a richly atmospheric and remarkably laidback settlement that’s barely changed its shape in centuries.
It would be something of a stretch to tag the Kenyan coast as some sort of ‘best-kept secret’. Nevertheless, even the relatively developed beaches around Mombasa seem refreshingly uncrowded by comparison to their Mediterranean counterparts. And elsewhere, there are many exclusive beach resorts sufficiently isolated and low-key to sustain fantasies of being stranded on an uninhabited tropical island – albeit an island equipped with sumptuous accommodation, a bank of amply stocked refrigerators, a world-class chef, and an entire legion of Men Friday to provide service with a smile.
Socially and economically, Kenya can come across as a mass of contradictions. By African standards, it is a notably developed country, boasting an unusually high level of education, a genuinely substantial middle class, world-class tourist facilities, and the semblance of an industrial belt sprawling out from its bustling capital. Yet for all the modernity of the cities and towns, Kenya is also perhaps the most visibly traditional of African nations. Indeed, there remain vast tracts of the north where one can drive all day without seeing another vehicle, without passing a single person dressed in contemporary clothing, and – perhaps the benchmark of obscurity – without seeing a solitary Coca Cola sign.