Sometime back, Mark Wiens of migrationology.com wrote a very comprehensive post on 101 things to do in Nairobi. It was a great post, and I thought I could write something similar, focusing on the less known yet interesting destinations to visit and things to do in Kenya. I hope you’ll find this post useful and informative.
Here goes…categorized into (with some unavoidable overlaps):
- Historical Sites
- Pre-Historical Sites
- The Bizarre/Mythical/Mystical
- Wildlife and Birding
- Scenic Sites
- Adventure Travel
- Cultural Places/Events
If you know of any other great place that deserves to be in this list, please share with us in the comments.
1. Thimlich Ohinga
You have probably heard about the Great Zimbabwe ruins. (If you haven’t, please read my previous post on 5 historical places you must visit in Africa). Thimlich Ohinga is Kenya’s near-equivalent of the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Located in Sori, near Migori in Western Kenya, the site is the remnant of what was once a great Bantu settlement, whose massive walls were constructed using loose stones without any mortar. The structures were built more than 500 years ago.
See more information about Thimlich Ohinga at the Kenya National Museum’s website.
2. The Skull Caves of Taita
Before the arrival of the Christian missionaries in the early 20th century, the Taita people (of which I am one) had a rather creepy way of honoring their dead. After having buried them for about one year, they would exhume their bodies, chop off their skulls, and take the skulls to the caves, which were considered the proper respectful final abode for the dead. Even though this practice stopped over 100 years ago, such skull-filled caves are still present in many parts of Taita. I know one just about one kilometer from my rural home.
See more information (with actual photos) about the skull caves of Taita at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website.
3. Takwa Ruins – Lamu
Relatively well-preserved remains of what was once a busy and important Swahili coastal town built in the 15th century. The ruins are located in Manda Island, only a few minutes boat ride from Lamu.
4. Gede Ruins – Kilifi
(Sometimes also referred to as Gedi Ruins)
Remains of yet another Swahili town, estimated to have been built around the 12th century. The Gede Ruins are arguably well known and more visited than the Takwa ruins, probably because they were recognized as important historical monuments much earlier – 1927.
5. All Pre-Historic Sites in Kenya
Africa is recognized as the original home of all modern humankind, with evidence of early human life found in many places in East and South Africa. Kenya has many of these pre-historic sites, including Koobi Fora, Olorgesailie, Kariandusi, and Hyrax hill. Most of these sites have interesting museums where you can see the actual discoveries made there, including stone-age tools, skulls of such ancient ancestors like Australopithecus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, among others.
6. Kituluni Hill – Machakos
Have you heard about gravity hills? Where switched-off vehicles on free gear, water, bottles, and just about anything else, roll uphill instead of downhill, unaided, defying gravity? Kituluni hill near Machakos is one such place. Science may try to explain it as a case of optical illusion, but that does not stop the many myths associated with Kituluni. An interesting place to visit if you love paranormal phenomena.
7. Menengai Crater – Nakuru
The Menengai crater is a large caldera of an extinct volcanic mountain, just a few kilometres from Nakuru town. Its scenic beauty is often overshadowed by its reputation as a haunted place. The locals call it “Kirima Kia Ngoma” (the devils’ mountain) because of the belief that thousands of ghosts and demons reside here. These spirits are said to take people captive and transfer them to the spirit world.
8. Devil’s Kitchen – Malindi
(aka Marafa Depression, Hell’s Kitchen)
This is yet another beautiful scenic site shrouded in mystery and lots of myths from the local community. Located just outside Malindi, the depression consists of a rugged sandstone landscape whose ridges and gullies have multi-colored walls (pink, crimson, white, orange). The place is especially fascinating in the evening during sunset as the different colors reflect the sun rays. Local legends aside, this is a place you must visit if you are ever in Malindi.
Wildlife and Birding
9. Marsabit National Park
Northern Kenya is best known for its dry, desert-like climate. Yet, in the middle of this harsh environment lies Marsabit national park, a hilly, green, and densely forested park that is home to scores of elephants with some of the biggest tusks in Kenya. The most famous of these was the legendary Ahmed, who in the 1970’s was given 24-hour armed protection, thanks to a presidential decree, because he was a living monument.
Apart from gigantic-tusked elephants, Marsabit national park is home to plenty of other animals including buffalos, leopard, lions, and reticulated giraffes. Not many people visit the park due to its general inaccessibility. The positive side to this is that it is less crowed than its more famous counterparts, and has just as good game watching opportunities.
10. Meru National Park
If you ever watched the 1965 movie Born Free, or read the book My Pride and Joy: An Autobiography, you may remember Meru National Park as the place where Joy and George Adamson devoted a big part of their lives with lions, including the famous Elsa. The park became a very popular destination in the 1970s, owing partly to the movie Born Free, and partly to its wildlife abundance. Unfortunately, it suffered one of the worst cases of poaching, losing virtually its entire elephant and rhino population, and hence its allure.
Today however, conservation and restoration measures have helped restore the park’s lost glory. Plenty of elephants are now present, alongside other animals like leopards, lions, buffaloes, and the unique animals of northern Kenya (reticulated giraffe, grevy’s zebra, oryx, lesser kudu, and gerenuk). The park also has a rhino sanctuary, which hosts both the indigenous black rhino and the white rhino. Now, visiting Meru offers a rewarding game experience, in addition to its amazing wilderness atmosphere.
11. Taita Hills
I come from the Taita hills, so I may be a bit biased, but I honestly think they are Kenya’s most beautiful place. My personal opinion aside, birdwatching experts, like this one, agree that the Taita hills is one of the best birding areas in the whole world. To start with, three out of the ten endemic bird species in Kenya are only found in Taita hills. These are the Taita Thrush, Taita Apalis, and Taita White-eye. This is in addition to 21 other red data bird species that reside in Taita Hills, plus hundreds of other more common species.
Besides birds, Taita hills has a rich abundance of unique plants, butterflies, snakes, and amphibians, especially in the forested areas. The hills are also an ideal trekking and mountain biking destination. In short, there are a million and one reasons to travel to Taita hills.
12. Saiwa Swamp National Park
Meet Kenya’s smallest national park – the Saiwa Swamp National Park. The park was specifically established to protect the Sitatunga, a semi-aquatic antelope species that is common in Central Africa, but very rare in Kenya. But Sitatunga is not the only animal you’ll see here. Others include serval cat, genet, and otter. The camp is also a great birding destination, with 372 bird species found here.
13. Arabuko Sokoke Forest
Reputedly the largest and most-intact coastal forest in Eastern Africa, Arabuko Sokoke is yet another birdwatchers’ haven in Kenya. The forest has one endemic bird species – the Clarke’s Weaver – plus many more globally threatened species. It is also home to many snakes and other animals, making it a great off-the-beaten-track destination.
14. Kakamega Forest – Western Kenya
This is Kenya’s only true tropical rain forest (of the same type as the Congo forest). It’s biodiversity is unique [NB: pdf file] in that it combines Central and West African species, as well as some East African species. The forest is therefore home to many unique animal species that you’ll not see anywhere else in Kenya. These include the giant otter shrew, and the brush-tailed porcupine, as well as such snake species as the Kaimosi blind snake, and the Gold’s tree cobra. Some of the primates common in this forest, e.g. the potto and the De Brazza’s monkey (pictured), are very rare in other parts of Kenya. The forest is however most renowned for its rich bird-life, making it yet another birdwatching paradise. It is also a great destination for camping and forest trekking adventures.
15. Mida Creek
The Mida Creek is a narrow bay of the Indian Ocean that extends considerably deeply inland near Watamu, close to Arabuko Sokoke forest. The resultant mangrove forest ecosystem is home to over 60 aquatic bird species, making the creek one of the best birdwatching destination in Kenya. Apart from the many resident species found here, several migratory birds from Europe and Asia make Mida Creek their home during the European winter, thus adding to the allure of the creek as a birding haven.
16. Kyulu Hills
(Also known as Chyulu hills)
These are, in my opinion, Kenya’s best kept secret, rivaling my beloved Taita hills in beauty. In fact, it would be an understatement to say that the Chyulu hills are “beautiful”. I have been there three times, and each time I couldn’t help falling in love with the place. Rolling ridges with a perfect green-carpet-like appearance, inspiring such peace and serenity of soul as I have never experienced elsewhere. A perfect place for relaxation.
17. Lake Challa
A stunningly charming crater lake with turquoise (blue-green) waters, straddling the Kenya-Tanzania border near Taveta. No surface river flows into the lake. Instead, the lake is fed by underground streams from Mount Kilimanjaro. If you are a dare-devil, you can swim in the lake, though some reports believe that some dwarf crocodiles reside in the lake.
18. Lake Jipe
Another little-visited beautiful lake on the Kenya-Tanzania border. Like her neighbour Lake Chala, Lake Jipe gets its waters from underground streams from Mt. Kilimanjaro, although a few other surface rivers do also flow into it. The lake is infested with hippos, and several other wild animals from the neighboring Tsavo West national park visit its shores to quench their thirst. It is a great place for nature safaris as these two visitors attest.
19. Mathews Range – Samburu
A beautiful range of hills situated just north of Wamba in Northern Kenya. The green forested mountains stand in great contrast to the drier plains all around them. The highest peak in the Mathews range has an altitude of just above 2600m, from where you can get stunning views of the Laikipia plains below. The most amusing peak is called Sweet Sixteen, perhaps because of its shape – like a human breast with a sharp nipple. Besides their beauty, the mountains are also ideal for trekking expeditions.
20. Lake Turkana and its Environs
This is a huge permanent alkaline lake located in the harsh extremely arid climatic conditions in the northern-most part of the Kenyan Rift Valley. There’s a lot to see and to do in and around Lake Turkana, including boat rides to its several scenic islands, fishing expeditions, camping in Loiyangalani, climbing the tricky and very challenging Mount Kulal, visit to a traditional Turkana manyatta, photographic safaris in the spectacular landscape, wildlife safari in the Sibiloi national park, and so much more. Getting to Lake Turkana by road from Nairobi is an adventure to die for. However, if you opt to fly, you still get to enjoy the great scenes from the sky.
21. Kitum Cave – Mount Elgon
The entire Mount Elgon region is in itself a nice off-the-beaten-track destination, particularly great for trekking expeditions. The mountain boasts of several giant caves that go deep into its sides. The Kitum cave on the Kenyan side of the mountain is the most renowned because of its “underground elephants“. The elephants enter the dark cave at night, going as deep as 200 meters inside, to lick the salt and other minerals occurring naturally in the cave. Several other animals visit the caves for the same reason, including buffaloes, leopards and hyenas. You too can visit the cave – at night – to observe this interesting animal congregation, but it is advisable you go with a local guide. The cave is not without its dangers however; In the past, some tourists were reported to have contracted the deadly Marburg virus, related to Ebola, after visiting the cave.
22. Kerio Valley
A magnificent deep valley inside the Rift Valley bordered on one side by the Keiyo escarpment, and on the other side by the Tugen hills. You can get incredibly amazing views of Kerio valley from the Iten view point, situated on the first sharp corner on the road from Iten town towards the valley. Driving from Iten down the steep escarpment is an adventure in itself, with sharp bend after sharp bend, and several “Beware of Falling Rocks” signposts, before you get to the floor 1000 meters below. On the floor, you can visit the Chebloch Gorge to see crocodiles, or the Rimoi national reserve to see elephants, among other things.
23. Kit Mikayi
A strange-looking 40 meters high rock formation found on the Kisumu to Bondo road. The rocks are the subject of many local myths and legend, one of which claims that they were placed there by a very strong man as a mark of his territory. Even today, the rocks are considered sacred by several people, including the Legio Maria religious sect. From atop Kit Mikayi, you can enjoy some stunning views of the scenic neighborhood.
24. Chalbi Desert
A harsh sandy desert located in Northern Kenya, just a few kilometers east of Lake Turkana. The terrain is completely flat, meaning that you can cross it with a good 4×4 vehicle. Day temperatures are extremely high, with the scorching sun rays creating deceptive mirages. On the rare occasions when it rains however, it is inadvisable to attempt to cross the desert.
25. Mount Ololokwe
(Also known as Sabachi mountain)
A striking landmark in the midst of the rather flat Samburu plains, a few kilometers north of Archers Post as you head towards Wamba and Maralal. The mountain top consists of a naked rock with steep, almost vertical, walls and a relatively flat top. The mountain stands so tall above the surrounding plains, that it is noticeable from great distances away. You can trek to the top in one day, and enjoy a breathtaking scenery, including splendid views of Mount Kenya, the not-so-distant Mathews Range, and the Samburu plains.
26. The Marakwet Escarpment
The Marakwet escarpment lies on the eastern slopes of the spectacular Cherangany hills, which I should probably have included in this list. From an altitude of about 3000 meters, the escarpment falls sharply about 1500 meters to the floor of the Kerio valley. The green lush vegetation adds to the already impressive views of the escarpment and the valley floor below. Perhaps the most outstanding feature in the escarpment is the creative agricultural land use by the Marakwet people who inhabit it. The Marakwet use a complex traditional irrigation system that ensures sustainable agricultural production. This has earned it a nomination into the UNESCO World Heritage sites tentative list.
27. Thomson Falls
A picturesque waterfall located near Nyahururu town. At just over 70 meters high, the waterfall is nowhere near the highest in Kenya (the highest being the 270 meters high Karura waterfall in the Aberdares) but it is one of the most accessible and most scenic. You can descend to the bottom of the fall’s ravine via an established trail that gives you several amazing views and photo opportunities of the waterfall
28. Kericho Tea Plantations
Kenya is one of the world’s top tea producing countries. Most of this tea is grown in and around Kericho in the Rift Valley. The thousands of acres of tea plantations give the rolling hills of Kericho a lime-green carpet like appearance that is both pleasant to the eyes, and soothing to the soul.
29. Coffee Plantations of Central Kenya
Kenyan coffee, especially Kenya AA, is regarded as one of the finest coffees in the world. Most of this coffee comes from the coffee plantations in the central Kenya highlands around Mt. Kenya and Aberdares. A visit to these plantations offers you a chance to enjoy scenic drives in them, interact with the farmers, and see the whole process coffee undergoes till it gets to your cup as a delicious beverage.
30. Nabuyole Falls on Nzoia River
An awe-inspiring powerful waterfall in the Nzoia River in Western Kenya, surrounded by unspoilt virgin vegetation. A story is told of how Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, so admired the falls that he ordered for the construction of a stair case to help him descend to the most vintage observation point in the hills overlooking the waterfalls. This stair case is still there for you to use today.
31. Other Waterfalls
There are several other little-known yet marvelous waterfalls you can visit in Kenya. The umbrella falls near Eldoret for example have a sweeping rock canopy that allows you to walk in behind the falls and observe the falling water from inside. The Mlango waterfalls, also near Eldoret are just as amazing.
32. Mfangano Island – Lake Victoria
A gorgeous hilly island on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria (Africa’s largest lake shared by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania). Covered mostly with lush green forest vegetation, and dotted with several fishing villages, the island is a great place to enjoy peace and tranquility away from the busy life in most other parts of Kenya. Life here is at the most basic, with no tourism infrastructure apart from the luxurious Mfangano Island Camp.
A few kilometers from the industrial Thika town, lies the Ol Donyo Sabuk national park, home to the dazzling Mt Kilimambogo (Akamba word meaning buffalo mountain). Standing at 2145 meters tall, the mountain is ideal for one day climbing expeditions, during which you get to enjoy radiant views of the expansive pineaple farms in the surrounding plains, and of the grand Fourteen Falls on the Athi river. Other attractions in this area include the castle of Lord Macmillan, which reputedly hosted Theodore Roosevelt – former American president – and Winston Churchil – former British Prime minister at different times in the past.
34. The Coastal Marine Parks
If you love the underwater world and all its delightful colors, the Kenyan coast has a lot to offer you. From the Kisite Mpunguti marine park, to the Malindi Marine park, and other protected areas around the Kenyan Indian ocean islands, there are plenty of sites where you can go snorkeling and enjoy incredible underwater scenes. Sadly, this is one of the few places in this list that I haven’t been to, so I leave it to those who’ve been there to tell you how amazing it is in their own words.
35. Lake Magadi
The southern-most lake in Kenya, located in the hot dusty Magadi region. It is a very shallow soda lake rich in such minerals as siliceous chert, sodium carbonates, calcium and magnesium silicates, and many many others. These minerals attract thousands of birds to the lake, including flamingos. During the dry season, upto 80% of the lake surface dries up, leaving behind a weird landscape covered with a thick layer of minerals. The largest soda ash manufacturer in Africa, Tata Chemicals Magadi, is located at this lake.
36. Turkwell Gorge
Although initially considered as a white elephant project, the Turkwell Gorge hydro-electric dam is still an imposing site to see. The dam was built in the late 1980’s on the Kerio river, to generate electricity for the country, supplementing the already existing seven-forks hydro stations. A huge lake was formed as a result of the damming, surrounded by steep hills all around, adding to the startling beauty of the Turkwell Gorge.
37. Tana Delta
The Tana Delta may have been recently in the news for all the wrong reasons – tribal clashes that left over one hundred people dead – but that does not negate the fact that it is one of the loveliest places to behold in Kenya. River Tana is Kenya’s longest river in Kenya, with its source at the central Kenya highlands around Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares. When the river reaches the coastal plains near the Indian ocean where it drains its waters, it spreads out into a maze of marshes, riverine forests, swamps, and tidal creeks, creating an interesting ecosystem that hosts hundreds of wild animals and bird species. You can explore most this area by boat, to enjoy the abundant natural scenery as well as see elephants, hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes, antelopes, primates, aquatic birds, and resplendent coastal beaches.
38. Lake Bogoria
Most famous for its numerous hot springs and geysers, Lake Bogoria is an adorable beauty in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Millions of birds, including lesser flamingos, often find a home in the lake, adding to its charm. Several plains animals like gazelles, babboons, zebras often visit the shores of the lake, and it is one of the best places in the world to see the rare greater kudu.
39. Trekking in Suguta Valley
Just south of Lake Turkana lies arguably the harshest terrain in Kenya – the Suguta valley. The floor of the valley is dusty, rocky, and relatively flat, though the side walls rise as high as 700 meters both in the east and in the west. Average day temperatures are at around 50°C, and oxygen is highly depleted. Water is scarce inside the valley, and even the little that is available is toxic. Venomous snakes abound in the valley. Armed cattle rustlers from the Turkana and Pokot communities, with extremely good knowledge of the terrain and adaptation to its harsh conditions, often use the valley as a hideout after a successful raid. Government security officers rarely pursue them beyond a certain point. You may have heard how more than 40 police officers were killed in Suguta valley last year, as they were pursuing cattle raiders (see this link). In short, it is a very inhospitable place. You have to be an extreme-adventure enthusiast to even imagine trekking inside the Suguta valley. A few people do it, and if you are a dare-devil, so can you.
40. Hell’s Gate National Park
This national park is located only 90 kilometers from the city of Nairobi, on the road towards Nakuru. Its main attraction is the fact that you are allowed to go on a walking or biking safari unaccompanied by a guide. Most people who visit the park prefer to do so on mountain bikes. This has led to its growing popularity as a bush-biking destination, in addition to its fabulous nature walks and rock climbing opportunities. There are wild animals in the park, though not is such high numbers as found in the Masai Mara and other similar destinations. The animals include buffaloes, zebras, serval cats, and several antelope species. The big predators (lion, leopard, and cheetahs) are not very common here.
41. Diani Skydiving Boogie
The boogie is held every year, in October or November, in Diani at the Kenyan coast. The main highlight of this event is that the atmospheric conditions at the coast allow for up to one full minute of free fall, before launching the parachute. The event is also open to inexperienced aspiring sky-divers, who have to be physically attached to an instructor in what is called a tandem jump. The last event was held in November 2012.
42. Sagana River Adventures
The Sagana river is the main tributary of river Tana. It is quickly establishing itself as the inland water sports adventure capital of Kenya, offering plenty of opportunities for kayaking, whitewater rafting, and bungee jumping. I am yet to participate in any of them, but the bungee jump is in my to do list this year. Here’s an entertaining report by a lady who did it and loved it.
43. Climbing Mount Longonot
The challenge of climbing Mt. Longonot may not compare with climbing Mt Kilimanjaro (read my experience here) or Mt Kenya, but it is still a sensational experience. One of the most striking features of Mt. Longonot is its wide crater, around whose rims you can trek to enjoy different views. If your strength allows, you can even descend to the crater floor and cross from one end to the other. I have scoured the www for a story of anyone who has done accomplished that, and this old story is the best I could find.
44. The Small Scale Gold Mines of Kakamega and Migori
Until very recently, Kenya was not thought to have substantial enough gold deposits to warrant commercial mining. Yet in parts of Migori, Kakamega, and other counties in Western Kenya, small scale gold mining has been going on for years, mostly in mines abandoned by colonial era mining companies. The miners use the most basic of equipment to dig deep underground tunnels to prospect for the precious metal. A visit to one of the mines will give you insight into the hardworking culture that has been passed down several generations, despite the lack of adequate education and appropriate tools to enhance their productivity and ensure their safety.
45. Abaluhya Circumcission Ceremonies
In the Luhya community, especially among the Isukha, Tachoni and Bukusu sub-tribes, circumcission is still an important rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. Every August and December therefore, sections of these communities organize elaborate and very colorful circumcission ceremonies [NB: pdf file] during which a group of qualifed boys undergo the ritual. The celebrations entail a lot of singing and dancing, and other pompous displays. It is very captivating to witness these ceremonies.
46. Lamu Maulid Festivities
Maulid is the commemoration of Prophet Mohammed’s birth, and is celebrated widely in most Kenyan towns that have a substantial muslim population. But the most colorful celebrations take place in the island town of Lamu. In Lamu, the week-long festivities are accompanied by several lively activities including dhow-racing competitions, donkey races, singing, and lots of dancing. And to crown it all, plenty of gourmet dining of delicious swahili cuisine. It is a delightful ceremony to be part of.
47. Bull Fighting in Western Kenya
An age-old sporting event held almost every month in several parts of Western Kenya. The bulls involved are reared specifically for fighting, and are exempted from ploughing and other farm duties. Animal welfare activists oppose the activity citing animal cruelty, but it still remains popular in most of Luhya land. Depending on your ethical values, it may be a captivating event to participate in.
48. Olepolos on the Slopes of Ngong Hills
Nyama choma (roast meat, mostly goat) is arguably the most defining truly national culture of Kenya. Mark Wiens mentioned several nyama choma joints in his post, but one outstanding one he forgot is the Olepolos country club. Located on the majestic slopes of Ngong hills, Olepolos is by many standards the de facto Nyama Choma capital.
49. The Maralal Camel Derby
This is a sporting event that was started to foster peace between the Samburu, Rendile, Turkana, and other northern Kenya communities. The aim was to reduce the frequent inter-community cattle raids and other similar conflicts. Members of the communities compete in several friendly camel races during the event, held every August in Maralal. This helps in breaking old stereotypes and communication barriers between them. Participation is also open to members of other communities, including foreigners visiting the region.
50. Kenyatta University Cultural Week
An annual four-day event showcasing the best of Kenyan cultural music, dances, fashion, poetry, acrobatics, foods, and fine arts. The event takes place at the Kenyatta University main campus along the Thika superhighway. Although participation is restricted to Kenyatta University students, anyone can visit as a spectator and enjoy a truly rich and enlightening experience.