Situated just seven miles from the center of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi National Park is a pretty special phenomenon. Where else can you view critically endangered rhinos against a backdrop of downtown skyscrapers, or spot giraffes from your window seat as you come in to land at the city’s international airport? For those about to embark on a tour of Kenya’s more famous safari destinations (think Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu, and the mighty Maasai Mara), Nairobi National Park offers a worthwhile introduction to the country’s animal and birdlife. For those on a business visit to the capital, the park offers the opportunity to get a taste of the wild without ever leaving the city limits.
History of the Park
In 1946, the reserve made history when it was established as Kenya’s first national park. Its story began even earlier and pre-dates Nairobi itself, which was founded at the end of the 19th century. Before then, wild animals roamed the plains south of the city in relative harmony with the nomadic Maasai tribespeople who grazed their herds there. However, as Nairobi grew, conflict began to arise between the game and the colonialists who sought to replace the wilderness with farms and urban gardens. In an effort to establish boundaries between the two, the government set up the Southern Game Reserve.
Hunting was banned in the reserve but farming and grazing continued within its borders and wildlife began to decline as a result. In 1932, conservationist Mervyn Cowie sought to address the problem by campaigning for the creation of a national park system in Kenya. He was successful, and the Southern Game Reserve became the flagship Nairobi National Park. Cowie was elected as the park's director, a position that he held for over 30 years. All human activities (except safaris) were banned within the reserve, Maasai pastoralists were controversially removed, and its animal populations soon flourished again.
With a total area of just over 45 square miles, Nairobi National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Africa; and yet it supports an astonishing variety and abundance of game. It is home to four of the Big Five (with elephant being the notable exception), including black and white rhino. In fact, it is one of the most successful rhino sanctuaries in Kenya and one of only a few places left in the world where visitors are virtually guaranteed a sighting of the critically endangered eastern black rhino. In addition to lion and leopard, the park’s predators include cheetah and hyena; while herbivores range from the Maasai giraffe to Coke’s hartebeest, eland, waterbuck, and impala.
Like many of Kenya’s game reserves, Nairobi National Park also hosts the annual Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra, who move in and out of the park via the Kitengela migration corridor. During the wet season, they move south to the Athi-Kapiti plains to graze; and in the dry season, they return to the park to take advantage of permanent water sources built into the banks of the Mbagathi River. The river is also home to hippos and Nile crocodiles and attracts many different birds. In total, over 400 resident and migratory bird species have been recorded in the park, including East African specials like the Fischer’s lovebird and the Hartlaub’s bustard.
What to Do
Whether you choose to self-drive or join an organized tour, game drives are the main attraction of a visit to Nairobi National Park. Although the park is by no means the most authentic safari experience in Kenya, the juxtaposition of seeing wild animals in such an incongruously urban setting is a major draw for many visitors. Another highlight is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, whose orphanage for rescued elephants and rhinos is located inside the park. Founded by Dame Daphne Sheldrick in 1977, the charity welcomes members of the public for one hour every day. Between 11 a.m. and noon, you can watch the babies being bathed and fed for a minimum donation of $7/500 KSh per person (payable in cash only).
Other attractions include a network of safe walking trails, viewpoints, and picnic sites, where you can get out of your vehicle and soak up the sounds and smells of the bush while enjoying an al fresco lunch. One of the best walking trails takes you to the hippo pools, where the largest concentration of these aquatic herbivores can be found; while the most scenic picnic area is arguably Impala Observation Point with its panoramic hilltop views. In 1989, former president Daniel arap Moi ordered the burning of 12 tons of confiscated elephant ivory inside the park as a symbol of Kenya’s zero tolerance policy on ivory trafficking. This event is commemorated by the Ivory Burning Site Monument.
How to Visit
If you have access to a car or plan on hiring one, you can self-drive around Nairobi National Park. Otherwise, it’s possible to hire a six-seater Land Cruiser (complete with a driver and guide) from the main gate. Many tour companies in Nairobi offer half-day safaris to the park, which include pickup and drop-off at your hotel and last for around six hours. If you want to visit the elephant and rhino orphanage, make sure to book a morning safari; prices vary depending on how many people there are in your group and the operator you choose.
The cheapest way to experience the park is on the Kenya Wildlife Service shuttle safari. This passenger coach runs on weekends and public holidays and departs from Development House in the city center (between 10 a.m. and noon) or from the main gate (at around 1 p.m.). For non-residents, it costs $60 per adult and $40 per child. It is also possible to get to the park using public transport: just hop on Matatu 125 or 126 from Nairobi Railway Station, both of which drop you at the main gate. The journey from the station takes around 35 minutes and costs KSh 50 per person.
Park fees for non-residents cost $43 per adult and $22 per child, with an additional fee of KSh 300 per private vehicle. Discounted fees are available for Kenyan residents and citizens.
Where to Stay
There are three public campsites within the park, all of which offer electricity, hot water showers, and communal kitchens. If you don’t have your own tent, you can hire one from the main gate. The only formal accommodation option inside the park is Nairobi Tented Camp. Located in the west of the reserve, it includes nine luxurious permanent tents, all with en-suite bathrooms and solar lighting. Gourmet meals are served in the bush, under the stars, or in the dining tent, and water is heated over log fires. It’s the closest you’ll come to the rustic luxury of Kenya’s famous conservancies in the capital city.
Nairobi National Park is also conveniently close to the affluent suburbs of Langata and Karen, both of which offer a wide range of accommodation options ranging from comfortable guesthouses to five-star hotels. For nature lovers, we recommend Giraffe Manor, located on the grounds of the Giraffe Centre in Langata. In addition to 12 double rooms outfitted in grand colonial style, this boutique option is made special by the Rothschild’s giraffes that roam freely around its grounds. Staying here also puts you within easy reach of other top Nairobi attractions, including the Karen Blixen Museum and the Kazuri Bead Factory.