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As a holiday destination Kenya is unrivalled. An ancient land born of ice and fire, such are the extremes of the Kenyan climate, which ranges from tropical heat to glacial ice, that it has formed a diversity of habitats found nowhere else on Earth.
A vast mosaic of lion-gold savanna, rolling grasslands, ancient rainforests and volcanic plains, Kenya rises from the idyllic shores of the Indian Ocean to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya which, at 5,199 metres above sea level, is an extinct volcano some three and a half million years old. A natural paradise, Kenya is also a cultural microcosm and the age-old ‘cradle of mankind’. Kenya’s people, united under the green, black and red of the national flag, comprise more than 50 ethnic groups and their warmth and hospitality is best expressed in the national motto; ‘Harambee’; meaning ‘let’s all pull together’.
Official name: The Republic of Kenya. Kenya is named after Mount Kenya or ‘Kirinyaga’, the ‘Mountain of Whiteness’.
Capital city: Nairobi (Nyrobi meaning ‘the place of cool waters’ in Maa). The highest city in East Africa (1,700 m), modern and fast growing, Nairobi has over 4 million inhabitants (estimated).
Main cities: Mombasa is the coastal capital and the largest port on the East African coast.
Other major cities include: Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru.
Area: Kenya covers an area of 583,000 sq km, 13,400km of which is inland water, including part of Lake Victoria. The coastline is 536 km long.
Borders: Kenya is bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Tanzania.
Climate: The coast is hot with an average daytime temperature of 27-31 degrees centigrade whilst the average daytime temperature in Nairobi is 21-26 degrees centigrade. Nairobi can become cold enough for coats and fleeces; July and August mark the Kenyan winter. Temperatures elsewhere depend on altitude. Typically, January-February is dry, March-May is wet, June-September is dry, October-December is wet.
Population: 33.9 million (2005 est.), 42.5% of whom are under 14 years old, with a growth rate of 2.56%, one of the highest in the world. It is estimated that 50% of the population live below the poverty line.
Ethnic makeup: There are over 40 tribal groups distinguished by two major language groups: Bantu and Nilotic. The largest tribes of the Bantu are the Kikuyu, Meru, Gusii, Embu, Akamba, Luyha and Mijikenda. The largest tribes of the Nilotic are the Maasai, Turkana, Samburu, Pokot, Luo and Kalenjin. A third group made up of Cushitic-speaking peoples includes the El-Molo, Somali, Rendille and Galla. The coastal region is the home of the Swahili people.
Religion: Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and traditional beliefs.
Language: English (official), Kiswahili (national), multiple ethnic languages (Bantu, Cushitic and Nilotic language groups). Literacy: 85% of population over age 15 can read and write.
Currency exchange: Most hotels offer forex facilities, though sometimes at disadvantageous rates. Forex facilities remain open at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport daily from 7am to midnight.
Currency: Kenya shilling (Ksh); slang ‘bob’.
Banking: Foreign currency can be changed at banks, foreign currency bureaux or hotels. Banks in major centres are open from 09.00 to 15.00 Mon-Fri. 09.00 to11.00 on the first and last Saturday of each month. Banks in coastal towns open and close half an hour earlier.
ATMs: ATMs are available country wide with 24-hour access. Most accept international VISA cards.
Credit cards: All major international cards are accepted. Credit card fraud occurs in Kenya, as in most other parts of the world, and the usual precautions should be taken.
Travellers’ cheques: Travellers' Cheques are accepted at most banks, bureaux and hotels.
Tipping: Tipping is appreciated. Most hotels and restaurants include a 10% service charge.
Shopping and business hours: 08.30 to 12.30 and 14.00 to 17.30 Mon-Sat. Many businesses work Saturday mornings.
Time: GMT +3 all year-round. Kenya maintains an almost constant 12 hours of daylight. Sunrise is typically 06.30 and sunset at 18.45.
Electricity: 220-240 volts AC, with standard 13-amp three square-pin plugs.
Water: Kenyan tap water is not safe to drink. Bottled water is readily available.
Post offices: Opening hours are 08.00 to 17.00 weekdays and 09.00 to 12.00 on Saturdays. Stamps can be purchased at post offices, stationery and souvenir shops and hotels.
International telephone code: +254. Dial 000 followed by the required country code to dial out of the country.
National Parks and Reserves: Kenya’s total wildlife conservation area is 44,359 sq km or 7.6 % of the total area. The main parks are: Aberdare National Park, Amboseli National Park, Hell’s Gate National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park, Meru National Park, Mount Elgon National Park, Mount Kenya National Park, Nairobi National Park, Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Park. One of the most popular tourist destinations, the Maasai Mara, is designated a National Reserve. There are two major marine parks: Mombasa Marine National Park and Malindi/Watamu National Park.
World Heritage sites: Fort Jesus, the Gedi Ruins, Koobi Fora, Mount Kenya, Hell’s Gate National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Historical sites: Kenya has over 400 historical sites ranging from paleolithic remains, 14th century slave trading settlements, Islamic ruins and the 16th century Portuguese Fort Jesus.
Landscape: The landscape of Kenya is distinctly divided into two halves - the eastern half which slopes gently to the coral-backed seashore, and the western portion, which rises abruptly through a series of hills and plateaus to the Eastern Rift Valley. West of the Rift is a westward-sloping plateau, and the lowest part is covered by Lake Victoria. The highest point in the country is the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya (5,199 m), the second highest mountain in Africa. The coastline extends some 536 km from the Tanzanian border in the southeast, to the Somali border in the northeast. The main rivers are the Athi/Galana and the Tana. The major lakes are: Lake Victoria, Turkana, Baringo, Naivasha, Magadi, Jipe, Bogoria, Nakuru and Elementeita.
Flora: Kenya’s flora is diverse. Coastal forests contain palm, mangrove, teak, copal and sandalwood trees. Forests of baobab, euphorbia and acacia trees cover the lowlands to an elevation of approximately 915 m. Extensive areas of savannah are interspersed with groves of acacia and papyrus, which characterize the terrain from 915 to 2,745 m above sea level. Bamboo and camphor are common in the dense rainforest of the eastern and southeastern mountain slopes. The alpine zone (above 3,550 m) contains many Senecio and Lobelia plants.
Fauna: There are 80 major animal species ranging from the ‘Big Five’ (elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard) to tiny antelopes such as the dik-dik, which is slightly larger than a rabbit. At least 32 endemic species are endangered.
Avifauna: Kenya boasts around 1,137 species of birds. Spotting over 100 bird species in a day is not uncommon.
Visa and Health Certification: A valid passport, not expiring for at least six months, is required for entry into Kenya. A valid entry visa is also required and may be obtained in advance from the Kenyan Embassy or High Commission in your country of origin, or upon arrival in Kenya.
Health certification: A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required ONLY if you are arriving in Kenya from an infected area.
Vaccinations: A number of vaccinations are recommended for visitors to Kenya (check with your doctor in advance).
Malaria: Malaria is endemic in tropical Africa and protection against it is necessary.
HIV/AIDS: HIV/AIDS is a serious problem throughout Africa, and an estimated 7- 9 % of the Kenyan population is HIV positive.
Medical insurance: Travellers to Kenya are recommended to obtain medical insurance prior to arrival.
Personal Safety: Because Kenyan society is less affluent than that of many countries in the developed world, ostentatious or careless displays of wealth or valuables may attract unwelcome attention. Valuable items such as large amounts of cash, and irreplaceable documents should be locked in the your hotel safe. Visitors are advised against walking at night, or in areas other than those recommended by their tourism representatives. Visitors are also advised to ignore the attentions of street children, or of any other persons who may approach them with unsolicited requests.
Hospitals and doctors: A broad selection of highly qualified doctors, surgeons, and dentists exist in both Nairobi and Mombasa. Most lodges and hotels offer resident medical staff and maintain radio or telephone contact with the Flying Doctor Service, which specializes in air evacuations and emergency treatment in East Africa. Temporary membership is available.
Travelling to Kenya: Numerous international carriers serve Kenya, and Nairobi is the hub of the East African region. Kenya has two international airports: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is half an hour’s drive from Nairobi’s city centre, and Mombasa’s Moi International Airport is even closer to the town centre. Most tourist hotels have minibuses to transport guests, and public buses serves both the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi airports. Taxis are readily available at both airports (officially regulated tariffs should be displayed).
Internal air travel: Frequent flights (both scheduled and charter) operate from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and from Mombasa and Malindi to the main towns and national parks.
Do’s and don’ts: It is an offence to: smoke in a public place; deface a Kenyan banknote; urinate in public; sunbath topless; hire a prostitute; buy or take drugs; remove wildlife products from Kenya, export products made from elephant, rhino or sea turtle derivatives, or to remove coral. Swearing and blasphemy are inadvisable. Visitors are requested to stand when the Kenyan anthem is played, or the national flag raised or lowered. They are also advised that photographing the president without prior permission or any military installation is not permitted. Bond or bail can be granted at the police or magistrate’s discretion and all cases must be brought before a court.
Photography: It is considered courteous to ask people if you may take their picture before doing so, particularly in the more far-flung rural areas. A small (token) payment for the photograph may be expected, rather more as a form of polite appreciation than anything else.