Is Nairobi really that scary?
We can also offer a few tips and cautions that will help you prepare for your trip and try to ensure you have an enjoyable, safe and hassle-free stay.
Contrary to what you may have heard or read, Nairobi is relatively safe and does not live up to its 'Nairobbery' reputation.
Generally speaking, you can go about your business without concern, however common sense and reasonable caution are always advised. Nairobi a large, modern African city which is developing quickly, and Kenyans generally are very friendly, helpful and welcoming.
If you wish to visit the city it is safe to walk around, however do not take obvious valuables with you. This includes expensive jewellery, large cameras, lots of money, passports etc. Use a money belt if you have one, otherwise leave excess money and your passport in a safe or locker at your hotel. If you need to withdraw money from an ATM in town, do it just before you leave town and then take a taxi home. Extra caution should be used around certain areas like River Road and watch your pockets and bags on all public transport - particularly matatus. At night always take a taxi – even for short distances.
Please also beware of conmen who operate in town. There are a variety of scams, many of which can sound very convincing. The most popular involve people who will tell you they are staff from your hotel and have run out of money for fuel, food, etc and will ask to borrow some until they return to the hotel. No staff from any hotel where you stay should ever ask you for money (especially in town). Also there are many people posing as ‘students’, who will tell you they are about to start studying, and usually coincidently, in your own town. Amazingly they may even know the name of a University local to you.
So basically if you behave as you would in your own city - do not go anywhere or do anything with anyone you don’t know. Not even a harmless cup of tea.
If you do not give money to anybody on the street, then you can be sure that your hard earned money is not going to a conman. If you would like to donate money or belongings, we can help recommend organisations far more worthy of your hard earned cash.
What is the best way to pay for things?
This is a difficult one to give a straight answer. East African countries use a combination of their local currency and US Dollars. The local currency will be used for pretty much all transactions at local shops, local services, taxis etc. US Dollars are often the main currency within the tourism sector and are used to pay for visas, park fees, safaris and some accommodation. Usually even if accommodation is priced in US Dollars, the food and beverage will often be in local currency, or they will accept local currency.
ATMs (cash machines) are widely available and only dispense local currency. This will be the easiest way to get local currency, however the amount of money that you can withdraw per day is set by your bank, and is normally around $400 equivalent. So if you need to pay for something like a safari in cash, remember that it could take several days (or several accounts) to withdraw enough money.
If you are travelling out of major cities, remember to take at least some local currency with you, as only major towns will have ATMs (and sometimes these are not working or could be out of cash). Also try to have notes in smaller denominations because if you want to buy things like snacks or souvenirs enroute, roadside operators will not be able to change large notes.
Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, but never count on a particular place accepting credit card payments unless you have checked in advance. Most credit card transactions will attract a fee of between 3-5% on top of the purchase total. For both ATM and credit card transactions, Visa is most widely accepted and it is best to have more than one card. Remember to tell your bank you will be travelling.
If you think you will need US Dollars, best to bring these from home, or to prepay for as much as you can in advance. If you bring US$ in cash, ensure that the series date printed on the notes is 2001 or newer (old notes are not even accepted by the banks). It is advisable to ensure that you also have some smaller note denominations.
Transferring money electronically in advance to pay for large items like safaris makes a lot of sense. It will inevitably be cheaper to pay for the bank transaction fees than the credit card fees. Of course make sure you are booking with a reputable company.
If you need to exchange money locally, you will receive better rates at a foreign exchange, not a bank. Again these are available in most cities and large towns. Be aware if you are looking to change from your home currency to US Dollars, this will involve two transactions (your currency to local currency, then local currency to US Dollars), and you can be hit hard by the rate.
So the simple answer is, bring a combination of payment options.
Do I need a Visa?
To travel into East African countries, most visitors will need a visa (there are a few exemptions). These will cost US$50 per person per single-entry country visa and are each valid for three months. Visas purchased on arrival and at borders can only be purchased in US$ cash. Some are single entry and others are multiple entry, and some have unique conditions being able to travel in East Africa and return on a single entry. Once you have a visa for each East African country, you can travel freely within and between each one for as long as the visa is valid. For most passport holders, these single entry visas can be obtained at the point of entry to the country.
Recently, there the East Africa Tourist Visa was introduced. This multiple entry visa is valid for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda and is valid for 3 months. It is also available at the point of entry, however you need a passport photo and a pre-printed form completed (again different rules per country).
If you are travelling north to Ethiopia, you need to obtain a visa from your home country. It has become increasingly difficult to get an Ethiopia while in East Africa, and it is impossible at the border.
Please note that this advice is very general and you need to consult individual countries embassies/websites for advice regarding your unique travel circumstances.
I want to bring items to donate!
Although it might seem like a nice idea, we do not advise handing out pens, sweets, balloons, money or other gifts to children on the street or while on safari. This encourages children to skip school to beg and shows parents that children are a useful source of income, so will keep them out of school.
We help support a number of organisations, schools and a children’s home which always need items donated. We are registered with ‘Pack for a Purpose’, and we have a list of items that you could bring from home or buy locally. Anything at all will be accepted for example clothes and shoes (particularly for children), sleeping bags and blankets, first aid items, books and school supplies. Sanitary pads are also much in need. Providing these necessities for girls means that they don’t miss a week of school every month (which is often the case because of embarrassment).
Should I book a safari before I come or when I arrive?
This depends on multiple factors. If you have a custom programme in mind, then definitely book in advance so that you get your dream trip. Do you want a camping or lodge safari? If it is camping then last minute plans are much easier to achieve. In the high season, it can be difficult to get into particular lodges. Also if you wish to get a ‘group safari price’, or if you have a limited range of dates, then booking in advance is the best way to achieve this.
So essentially, if you are wanting to stay somewhere or do something particular, or have particular dates, book ahead. Also if you are pressed for time and cannot spend days researching and preparing locally, book ahead. During the high season (July-September and December-February) it can be easier to join a pre-booked group and save some money.
Where is the best place to get information?
Certainly the internet has overtaken printed travel guides as the go-to place for information. This is possibly a good thing as you can more unbiased information and research from multiple sources. In general it also means that information is more up-to-date and hopefully more reliable.
Being based in Nairobi we can offer you ‘on-the-ground’ information. We are happy to offer advice on your travel plans and can make bookings across East Africa including:
- day trips & excursions
- accommodation bookings
- bus, shuttle and train tickets
- car hire
- taxis and private transfers
- domestic and East Africa airfares
- trekking and mountain climbing
When is the best time to come?
East Africa is a year round destination. There are times of the year that are better for particular activities (like climbing Mt Kenya or Kilimanjaro, is better in the Summer, but it is possible all year). Although the Equator runs through Kenya, it follows the weather pattern of the southern-hemisphere – so it is Summer at Christmas, and Winter in the middle of the year.
Visitors are often concerned about the rainy season, but over the years the timing of the rains has become more unpredictable. Typically April-June and November are wetter months, although when it does rain, it usually rains in the late afternoon, or overnight, so it should not interrupt any plans you might have throughout the day. Unless it is a very wet season then roads can be effected, but otherwise, it is the same as other months, just greener.
The dry season does coincide with the Summer holidays and then Christmas holidays in Europe and North America, which makes July-September, and over Christmas and New Years the busiest times of the year in East Africa. If you want to avoid the crowds and take advantage of cheaper prices, then April-June and November are the best months. If you are limited to travelling during the peak holiday periods, then be prepared to pay a premium for airfares, lodges and beach accommodation, and some of the most popular destinations can be more crowded.
Game viewing is easier in most parks during the dry season as this draws the animals to fewer water sources (so it is easier to predict where they will be), and the grass is shorter so there are less places to hide. In saying this, some parks like the Masai Mara are so abundant with wildlife, that you will definitely spot animals year round.
The temperatures vary greatly at various destinations and at different times of the year. Because of the altitude, places like Nairobi and areas of the Rift Valley and Uganda can be unexpectedly chilly – particularly at night. While the coastal regions are hotter and more humid for much of the year, and then there are semi-arid and desert areas which are also much warmer.
When and where should I come if I want to see the migration?
The annual wildebeest migration varies slightly in timing each year. Generally speaking, the wildebeest migrate (along with a number of zebra, gazelle and other animals) to the Masai Mara in Kenya at the end of June/beginning of July, and then return to the Serengeti in October. The movement is regulated by habit, but influenced mostly by the rains and new grass, which makes no two years the same.
The annual cycle roughly starts when the calves are born on the southern-most plains of the Serengeti ecosystem in January-February. Around March, the short-grass plains begin to dry out and the wildebeest continue their journey, heading towards the western woodlands.
As the rains set in, the herds head north-west, west of Seronera towards Lake Victoria. This is the time of the annual rut, with half a million cows mated in less than a month as the herds consolidate in the woodlands and on the plains of the Serengeti’s western corridor. From the western Serengeti the herds head north, following the rains and new grass into Kenya and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Their path is cut several times by rivers both in the Serengeti and the Masai Mara and present quite an obstacle for the migrating beasts. Wildebeest can arrive at the Mara River in their tens of thousands, which is often swollen from the rains, and gather waiting to cross. For days their numbers can be building up and anticipation grows but many times, for no apparent reason, they turn and wander away from the water’s edge.
Eventually the wildebeest will choose a crossing point, something that can vary from year to year and cannot be predicted with any accuracy.
Once on the savannah of the Maasai Mara, the wildebeest spend several months feeding and fattening (as most are pregnant), taking advantage of the green pastures and isolated rainstorms. By late October, the first of the short rains are falling on the Serengeti’s southern plains, and the wildebeest start heading south again. So the important thing to remember is that the ‘migration’ is the million plus animals who roam following the new pastures, not the ‘river crossings’. If you particularly want to try to see a river crossing, then you would need to book a safari for around a week in the Masai Mara alone, and be prepared to spend a lot of time sitting waiting at the rivers. The spectacle of such a large volume of beasts and carnivores in one place is often spectacle enough.
What should I pack?
Firstly, don’t stress about packing, because anything you forget, you can probably also get locally. When packing, bear in mind that if you do not have one direct flight to your destination, there is potential for your bags to be delayed. Ensure that you have everything in your carry-on that you could not live without for at least the first two days.
- Vaccination certificate
- Airline e-ticket
- Cash (US Dollars – series 2001 or newer)
- Credit Cards (2 x Visa preferable)
- Insurance documents
- Copies of all the above (advisable to also have these in electronic form which can be accessed from anywhere). Also leave a set with someone not coming with you.
It is not essential to wear ‘natural colours’ on safari, however does tend to be the norm. It is illegal to wear camouflage-patterned or military looking clothes.
- Waterproof jacket
- Warm fleece/sweater
- Trousers (quick drying)
- Short sleeve shirts
- Long sleeve shirt (ideal for sun and mosquito protection)
- Walking shoes
- Flip flops
- Hiking boots (for Mt Kenya/Kilimanjaro)
Depending on your accommodation, some places require smart casual attire for dinner, which will include trousers for men. African's tend to dress modestly, particularly in cities and towns. Ladies wearing short skirts/shorts and revealing tops outside of beaches or tourist areas will stand out.
Toiletries & Medicine
Here are a list of essentials other than what you would normally pack. It is not advisable to bring electronic equipment like hairdryer/straighteners, electric toothbrush, razor as many safari accommodation either have solar or generator electricity. The electricity supply cannot cope with some of these items and at other times electricity may not be available when required.
- Malaria medication (also readily available locally)
- Insect repellent (containing DEET)
- Sun Screen (SPF 15 or higher)
- Feminine hygiene products (available locally, but quality varies)
- Prescription drugs (also have in your carry-on luggage, and know the generic drug names)
- Smartphone (unlocked)
- Electronic device for accessing internet and backing up photos
- Good quality camera (extra batteries/memory cards)
- Prescription glasses (and a spare pair)
- Torch (headtorch ideal)
- Batteries (for electronic equipment)
- Converter plug (the electricity is 240v and sockets in most places will be UK three-pin)
- Money belt/pouch
- Binoculars (optional for most, essential for birders)
- Day bag/pack
- Tube of travel wash (for small items of laundry/culturally locals will not wash ladies underwear)
- Combination padlocks (for tents/lockers/bags)
Do I need to have travel insurance, vaccinations and take malaria medication?
Of course we cannot give you personal medical advice, but we can let you know that if you forget any medication, fall sick or need another vaccination; don’t panic as this is all possible locally.
Contrary to popular belief, all capital cities (and some provincial towns) have at least one good hospital where you can receive good care. Even in very rural areas, you can get basic first aid and some medication, (and they don’t wash out syringes and reuse them – if anything, they just won’t have any). It is always advisable to have excellent and comprehensive travel insurance, and if you are going to be participating in risky activities, climbing a mountain or in rural areas – take a flying doctors policy locally which provides excellent emergency coverage.
Anyone requiring specific medication, should carry enough for the entire trip, and if you are travelling with others, have a travel partner carry some spares. For diabetics, ensure that you have a good amount of necessary medication, and if you have an insulin pump, bring injectable insulin as a back-up. Insulin for the pumps is not available.
Whether you take malaria prophylaxis or not is a personal decision that you need to make with the advice of your doctor/travel clinic. There are locations within East Africa which are known to be malaria free, but it is commonly believed that if you are only coming for a short holiday, the risk is not worth it. If you are coming for a longer stay, take the advice of your doctor. If you are visiting Nairobi and other destinations at altitude, there may not be malaria-carrying mosquitos. It is also advisable to try and avoid mosquito bites by using repellent, wearing suitable cover-up clothes in the evening and sleeping under a mosquito net at night.
There are no compulsory vaccinations required for entry to Kenya unless you are arriving from an area known to have Yellow Fever, in which case a vaccination certificate is required. Visitors coming from other countries in Africa where Yellow Fever may occur, including Tanzania and Zanzibar, require a Yellow Fever certificate. Some countries, which you may be travelling to, require arriving visitors from East Africa to have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate.
Recommended vaccinations for East Africa are Tetanus, Diphtheria, Typhoid, Hepatitis and Polio. Rabies is optional and would only be advisable for someone working with animals.
Can I drink the water?
As many water sources cannot be verified as safe, drinking bottled water is recommended. It is affordable and readily available, and while you do not necessarily need to clean your teeth with it (depending on where you are), drinking bottled water will limit your potential exposure to illness and disease.
Is there internet access & SIM cards?
‘Pay as you go’ SIM cards are readily available throughout East Africa. If your phone is not locked to your network at home, this is a cheap and reliable way to keep in touch with loved ones, or access the internet. If your phone is locked, then buying a cheap phone locally might be a good option. You will need your passport to purchase and register a sim card.
Phone calls and data bundles, are now quite affordable.
Satellite and cable internet is available in the most improbable of places (and is not cheap), however is often provided free for its customers at various accommodation.
What kind of electric plugs are there?
Electricity is predominately 240v and British three-pin plugs. Adaptors are readily and cheaply available locally.
What is the norm with tipping?
Tipping has become the norm, and is somewhat expected within the tourism industry. Certainly if you are ending a safari, or engaging a tour guide a tip at the end of the safari/tour will be welcome. Staff on Kilimanjaro have a particular reputation for being quite insistent on being tipped. At hotels, it will really depend on the standard of the establishment as to what the norm is – many will have a tip box at the reception area. With taxis, restaurant bills, etc, it would be acceptable to just ‘round up’. Remember often these staff are earning a minimum wage, so any extra you give will assist greatly in them providing for their families.
Should I bring a mosquito net?
It is not essential to bring a mosquito net from home. Most accommodation places provide them where necessary. They are also available at the supermarkets and are usually cheaper than western countries.
Should I pre-arrange an airport transfer?
It is recommended to pre-arrange an airport transfer for your arrival. This minimises your stress on arrival at a new destination, and ensures you are not taken advantage of as soon as your feet touch the ground.
I am travelling with children, is this a problem?
East Africa is a very family friendly destination, and Africans are great with kids. We would suggest either researching or ask for some advice for family-friendly accommodation options. Some safari camps and lodges do have age restrictions and do not allow young children.
When planning a safari with a family, it is good to think about the pace of the safari and the amount of time in the vehicle versus doing other activities. The location of the accommodation while on safari is also important so that it is possible to have good access to game viewing and you can go on shorter game drives, but still maximise the potential to see the animals. It is also worth considering flying between destinations where the trip by road might be long and stressful.
Nairobi in particular has many activities that are child friendly and all kids love the beach. We can help you make plans which are suitable for your family.
Can the elderly or disabled visit East Africa?
East Africa is a perfect destination for the older traveller, but some destinations may be a challenge for disabled people, depending on mobility.
For any travellers who tires quickly, we would suggest flying between destinations, and staying in accommodation centrally located so that shorter yet maximised game drives are possible. A well-paced itinerary is necessary to ensure that everyone gets the most out of the safari. We are happy to advise further.
Where is the best place to get Souvenirs?
There are many shops, markets and local stalls where you can purchase locally-made goods which would make great mementos of your trip. Kenyan’s in particular are extremely talented and create amazing baskets, soapstone, jewellery, and fabric items.
In Nairobi there are 'Masai Markets' where there are an extensive range of goods, be wary that some of the items you see there are now produced in the far East and imported. We suggest you don't buy products which are made from by-products of protected wildlife (which is any wild animal as they are all protected) - as this only promotes illegal poaching. The most common are porcupine quills, elephant hair bracelets (real or fake), lion’s teeth (often just bone carved into shape). Whether these items are real or not, they can cause you trouble at the airport on departure. Also avoid buying products made from hardwood as these are illegally harvested from Kenya's indigenous forests, and again promote the illegal hunting and poaching of wildlife.
And don’t forget to think about your luggage allowance before you are tempted by a 6 foot high solid wood giraffe!
What is security like in the region?
In East Africa, you are not necessarily more likely to be the victim of crime than anywhere else in the world. There is always the risk of muggings, robbery, opportunistic and organised crime when you travel, and this can be increased when in places with increased poverty.
But saying that most African’s regardless of poverty, are extremely kind, good-hearted, helpful and would give you the shirt off their backs.
Along with many Western countries, Kenya has been threatened by terrorists and has been also been the target of a number of small-scale terrorists attacks. For a number of years, Kenyan and Uganda have had a military presence in Somalia, which has caused a number of retaliatory attacks within the region.
Many of these incidents have taken place in remote areas and often in the north-eastern province of Kenya bordering Somalia, There have been a number of grenade and IED (small homemade explosive) attacks in low-income areas of Nairobi and Mombasa – including churches, markets, restaurants and on public buses targeting average Kenyans. The worst of these attacks was on the Westgate Mall in September 2013 which received international attention.
Recently, a number of Western governments including the American, Australian, British, have amended their travel advisories for Kenya. This received a lot of media attention, however the changes to the advisories were very minimal.
It is worth noting that to date no tourism destinations have been targeted and no tourists have been injured in these attacks.
Some governments travel advisories suggest to avoid all non-essential travel to:
- areas within 60km of the Kenya-Somali border
- Kiwayu and coastal areas north of Pate Island
- Garissa District (near Somali border)
- The area of Eastleigh and other low income areas in Nairobi
- Mombasa island and within 5km of the coast from Mtwapa creek in the north down to and including Tiwi in the south
This does not include Moi International Airport, Mombasa or Diani Beach south of Mombasa. There are no restrictions on travel to Kenya's most popular tourist destinations such as Masai Mara, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo, Samburu, Mount Kenya, Laikipia and Mount Kenya, for safaris, or Lamu Island and Malindi at the coast.
Some of the incidents reported by the media as terrorism, are in fact tribal, political or land conflicts.
The directors of Wildebeest are Australian, and live in Nairobi with their two young children. They are constantly assessing the security situation of the area with current, local knowledge. Of course they value the safety of their own family, and would never risk putting their customers in known danger. The company is members of several tourism associations, and the directors attend industry meetings to ensure they have their finger on the pulse.
It is only once visitors actually arrive in Kenya, that they comment on how safe and normal things appear and how friendly and welcoming Kenyan’s are.
- Bring combination padlocks
- Scan your travel docs and leave them with friends/family or if you have a secure email account, send them to yourself.
- Bring a variety of payment options
- Ensure you back up your photos remotely