Sub-Saharan Africa is often viewed by backpackers as too expensive, too poor and too dangerous for independent travel. A place better left to wealthy tourists with a colonial streak.
Let’s be real, this impression doesn’t come from a vacuum. Across this huge and diverse continent are countries that remain difficult to traverse in anything other than a private 4WD, and some are so engulfed in conflict that any visit would be seriously ill advised (even by my standards).
But in others, stability and growth have taken root. This has resulted in investment in infrastructure; paved roads, public transport, a mushrooming of budget hotels; all used by the emerging middle class and available to you, a brave independent traveller looking for adventure.
A crowded matatu stand: the gateway to adventure!
The trick is to choose your African destination carefully.
And today I’m here to tell you why Kenya, known as a luxury safari Mecca, is also a hidden paradise of indie travel, with more opportunities for self-guided exploration than any other East African nation.
Below are my top eight independent travel sights in Kenya. You don’t need a vehicle or a guide to visit any of them, and all can be reached using public transport. To complete the whole list would require an epic three week trip from Mombassa to Lodwar. So, hop into a Matatu and let’s get started!
1. Mount Kenya
With jagged peaks, sub-zero temperatures and lofty, lonely slopes, Africa’s second tallest mountain is as formidable as it is spectacular. Unlike its big brother in Tanzania – Mount Kilimanjaro – the only regulation to climb Mount Kenya is that you hike with at least one other person. A word of caution: as this 4-6 day trek is an epic challenge you should only embark on it independently if you have at least some experience of high altitude multi-day trekking. My top tip? Pick a route that allows you to stay in mountain huts the whole way up and leave that heavy tent at home. To maximise your chances of success I’ve written an extensive guide on how to tackle this mountain independently, which you can read here.
Cost: $52 per day for the adult foreigner, plus $20 for each night spent in the huts.
Getting there: There are three entrances to the park (each with a different route to the summit) close to the towns of Nanyuki, Naro Moru and Chogoria. Take a matatu from Nairobi to your starting town and then hire a motorbike taxi to take you to the park gate – the final kilometres will be along a dirt road. Some car taxis will also be game to take on the dirt road, if you don’t fancy the motorbike ride.
2. Lake Turkana
Nope, the pink dots aren’t flowers, they’re flamingoes.
Few tourists venture into the dusty badlands of Northern Kenya. But this may well be Africa as you stereotypically imagined it: desert, camels and tribes. But in the middle of this inhospitable land is something you probably didn’t imagine: a desert lake stretching over 290km in length and 32km in width. And if you hire a boat from the local fishing village of Kalokol, you can reach the volcanic Central Island national park situated in the middle. You’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time to the Cretaceous period as you explore the eco-systems of the remote island crater lakes – lakes within a lake within a desert. Turkana is barely visited and very special.
Cost: $20 for the park entrance fee, but you can expect to pay $150 dollars, even with solid bargaining, to hire the boat to take you to and from the island. Be sure to get a boat with a motor or you’ll never make it!
Getting there: Getting to Lake Turkana is an adventure in itself. It’s “easiest” to visit the Western bank using Lodwar as your base. You can take a domestic flight from Nairobi to Lodwar, but it’s more fun to slowly make your way to the town of Kitale and then from there take a public jeep taxi for a 10 hour journey across the mountainous desert landscape to Lodwar. From Lodwar, take a two hour, shared taxi to Kalokol on the shores of Turkana. Finally, approach the village fisherman to negotiate a boat to the island and pay for your park permit at the KWS hut on the shore.
3. Hells gate national park
A triumphant tourist having climbed Fisher’s Tower.
Leave that 4WD in the rental depot, and instead walk or cycle with herbivores through the plains of Hells gate national park. And where does the hell part come in? The park features some fantastic red rock formations – cliffs, canyons and towers – that caused the first explorers to let their imaginations run a bit wild. Actually scrambling through the gorge and rock climbing up the towers is very enjoyable and only hellish if you look down!
Cost: $30 park entry, $5 to hire a bike at the park entrance, $5 for the equipment and belayer to climb Fischer’s Tower.
Getting there: Use the campsites/guest houses around Lake Naivasha as your base. It takes a couple of hours by Matatu to get to Naivasha from Nairobi. You can then take one of the local matatus that ply the road around the lake to reach the various campsites. These same matatus pass by the entrance to Hells Gate national park.
4. Museums of Nairobi
Clambering about on trains is totally cultural and educational!
Nairobi has a reputation that suggests you’ll be mugged if you step out of your hotel for five minutes. The standard advice is to fly in and then get out as fast as you can, missing out on the culture the capital has to offer. But with a couple of days and some common sense it’s easier than you think to explore Nairobi’s highlights without it ending in a crime scene.
My top pick is the Nairobi gallery, displaying an excellent collection of African art and artefacts. These were given to the museum by Joseph Murumbi, a former Kenyan Vice-President and a great supporter of art across the continent. I’d also recommend the expansive Nairobi national museum and, if you like clambering about on old trains, the Nairobi railway museum. In short, there’s plenty to do in Nairobi before you head out into the bush!
Cost: If I remember correctly, Nairobi gallery and the Nairobi national museum both had a $10 entrance fee.
Getting there: Be in Nairobi. Take a taxi or just walk.
5. Mount Elgon
That moment you realise the ceiling is covered in bats…
The funny thing about Kenya is that all the tourists tend to congregate in the five or so most famous national parks, leaving many others barely touched. Mount Elgon, spanning the Kenya-Uganda border, is one of those beautiful but seldom visited parks, firmly off the radar of most tourists. If you have camping equipment, you can hike for 3-4 days to reach the summit at 4,321m. However, if like us, you are newly battle scarred by your experiences on Mount Kenya, you may prefer to instead embark on a day hike to the four caves in the park. The two we visited were great caverns at least 100m deep – at which point we became too creeped out by the hundreds of squeaking bats above our heads (unseen in the dark but definitely there!) and headed back to the surface. My advice: bring a torch!
Cost: $20 per day.
Getting there: Use Kitale as your base. A matatu direct from Nairobi to Kitale takes approximately 8 hours, but you’ll probably break this up over several days taking in the many sights of the Rift Valley. From Kitale, take a taxi to the park gate.
6. Saiwa swamp
Time to show off my David Attenborough impression…
It only takes a few hours to complete Saiwa’s clearly marked and mostly flat park trail. But as you quietly prowl through this swampy forest, you’ll come across its many inhabitants from tropical birds to toads. Without a doubt the star of the show is the Colobus monkey. About half way round the trail, we came across an entire family of Colobus hanging out in the leafy canopy above our heads. It’s truly magical to watch the young and adorable Colobus fooling around from branch to branch much to the disapproval of the elders of the troop!
Cost: $20 park entrance.
Getting there: Kitale is the closest town to the park – see “Mount Elgon” for how to get there. From Kitale, take a taxi to the park turn off and either walk the final 5km along a dirt road or take a motorbike taxi.
7. Mount Longonot
A narrow, twisting, scrambly path to the summit!
Do you want to circumnavigate the rim of an extinct volcano? Of course you do! After a steep, but manageable 400m ascent up to the rim, you then scramble round the narrow path to the summit at 2,776m. The views across the Rift Valley are spectacular, not to mention the view into the crater itself which has grown into its own eco-system. A perfect mountainous day trip!
Cost: $20 park entrance.
Getting there: Use Naivasha as your base – see “Hells Gate national park” for how to get there. From Naivasha take a matatu to the small town of Longonot and then take a motorbike taxi up the track to the park gate.
8. Beaches of Mombasa
I spent three weeks in Kenya and unbelievably never made it to Mombasa! It’s one of the reasons I need to go back. Kenya’s second biggest city, Mombasa is thought to have been founded over 1000 years ago by the Swahili, and occupied at various points in its history by the Portugeuse, Brits and Arabs. With beaches and history, Mombasa potentially offers the perfect end to all of your indie traveller days spent roughing it in the wild.