Safaris are old-hat. Morris Kiruga takes a different kind of tour, and wonders if it isn’t more relevant to Kenyans today.
A few months ago, a startup called Turnup Travel organised an unusual urban experience. A full 24 hours divided between a city tour and nightlife. Photographers, writers and travel enthusiasts alike were up and about by 5.30 am, exploring Nairobi from her tallest rooftops.
You would be surprised how much the business of city life obscures from you, how much of the city changes when you are looking but not really seeing. Urban centres are living, breathing spaces. So why don’t we explore them more?
It’s interesting how few people know of Kenya’s first richest man, AM Jeevanjee, whose only remaining legacy is a small park hemmed in by four streets. Or that the park with the Moi Monument is not Uhuru Park, but Central Park. Uhuru is the one on your left as you head up Kenyatta Avenue away from town. The park on your right – the smaller and more serene one behind Serena Hotel – is Central Park. It’s a small detail, but an important one.
It’s easy to miss the fact that cities have a pulse. If you listen closely as you walk through, you can feel it breathe. You can also see its scars. You see the beggar on the street and the book vendor separated by only a few feet. You can hear the clatter of footsteps as streams men and women walk to pay their dues for living in the 21st century. You can hear their laughter, as two grab each other in excitement and then move to the side to catch up, but only for a few minutes.
If you sit at the GPO stage in Nairobi on a good day, you will notice a vintage building across the road. That little building is called Kipande House; when it was built in 1913, its clock tower and curved dome were the marvel of the city. It is now dwarfed by everything around it, but until 1935, it was the tallest building in Nairobi. It was originally a railway depot, then the place where the government issued identification documents, or kipandes, that paper in a small brown metal can that could mean life or death.
Because this city is now a century old, the changes are less obvious. When I was a kid, I would be in awe of how my father knew all the streets and buildings in the city. He was the ultimate tour guide, mainly because when he went to campus, Nairobi was still a city learning to crawl. There was no KICC, no Times Towers, most of the monuments were still colonial relics, and most roads and streets still had their old names. But that changed on steroids between 1970 and 2002, as two different presidents struggled to build a Kenyan identity. His generation saw a city build a new identity, and become what it is today.
The daytime tour ended at another small park in the city, this time downtown. The site of the August 1998 bombing [on the US Embassy by Al Qaeda] is now a tiny green space with an exhibition, a monument, and a screening room. It’s built to commemorate a painful four minutes in Kenyan history when all hell broke loose and hundreds died.
When darkness fell, we took an Uber to Four Points by Sheraton to begin a whirlwind of a bar crawl. We moved to Brew Bistro on Ngong Road to see the brewery, then to its other branch across town to make cocktails and have a chicken wing competition. It was then on to Tav, a new space at The Mirage, then down to Utalii House in the city centre to one of the few surviving legends of Nairobi nightlife, Mwenda’s.
The deal, at the end of the night, was that at least one of us had to make it to the most famous fast-food joint in this city, Sonford Fish and Chips, which, ironically, does not sell fish. By this time, waking up early to catch sunrise shots and walking one quadrant of the city had taken its toll. Of 55 people who had begun the trip that morning, there were only two of us left standing, and the other was dozing off in the car.
The travel experience of the future can’t work with the idea that safari is enough. If Nairobi is the only capital city in the world with a game park within its limits (it isn’t), then clearly younger travellers can go for a game drive and still be at work before the boss even notices. The experience of even watching the wildebeest migration isn’t enough by itself anymore, because those experiences have always been packaged for rich, older tourists. Imagine a travel experience that makes you stop and actually notice the quirky things that happen in a city through which you walk or drive every day. It’s just one example, and there are many others.
Travellers want unique experiences designed for them. We want to explore and learn, we want to feel the rush and have beer on a small cruise ship as we listen to the latest hits and watch the sunset. We want to do it with our friends, or a random collection of equally adventurous travellers. We want to do it with our lovers, and at times our pets. In short, we want to collect experiences, and these are still few and far between. Something needs to change.