Kenya’s best kept secrets make her more attractive

Wednesday November 20 2013

Tourists alight from their vehicles to enjoy a view of the Chalbi Desert in Marsabit County on November 2, 2013. The desert is Kenya's only terrain that is classified as a true desert. The name Chalbi means 'bare and salty' the Gabbra language. PHOTO/JOSEPH KANYI.


Kenya’s claim to global fame has always been its tourism industry.

The numerous destinations that one has to choose from make decision-making hard, and during the hot seasons, thousands of visitors throng to the most popular destinations.

Yet they do not have to, there is so much to see and do in Kenya that one can never have enough. Affordable getaways, adventures, hikes, attractions, serenity and adrenaline, Kenya has it and more to offer.

Hell’s Kitchen, Marafa, Malindi

This odd sandstone mini-canyon is one of Kenya’s best kept secrets. It is also known as the Marafa Depression.

Temperatures at the deepest points of the scenic gorge can get as high as 50 degrees at midday, hence the tradition that tours can only be conducted after 4 pm.


There is one main winding path to the bottom where one can view the canyon’s high walls from many angles. You are bound to spot a few baboons that roam the neighbouring forests.

Most of the visitors today are the Italian tourists who throng Malindi’s tourist destinations, as very many local tourists do not even know of its existence.

The gate and tour charges are affordable, and any properly maintained car will get you to Marafa since the rough road is not so bad.

Chalbi Desert

The journey from Sibiloi to Marsabit will take you through an 800 kilometre rough terrain that is the Chalbi Desert.

The 14-hour non-stop journey is a motorsports adventure waiting to happen.

Any fan of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge which features motorbike, quad-bike, four-wheel and truck competitions over a five-day competition, should see the vast potential of Chalbi.

Think Rhino Charge, only this time the modified Range Rovers and Land Rovers would be tackling miles upon miles of flat deceiving desert with a single layer of sand soil.

The harsh unforgiving desert would raise the stakes for such challenges, but would require proper planning since any car trouble in the middle of Chalbi is as bad as being marooned on a small island far from the coastline.

Chalbi translates to ‘‘bare and salty’’ in Gabbra language. The expanse of the desert was once a large lake, as evidenced by the discovery of snail shells and fossilized marine vertebrae.

Today, during times of unusual precipitation, the lake temporarily forms as shallow and broad puddles of standing water that dries up as soon as the temperatures go up again.

That is Chalbi pretending to be a simmering lake but it is actually only a thin line of water over an ocean of hot and dry volcanic sand as far as the eye can see.

The variation between the parched soils and sandy vastness means that driving across the desert during sunset or sunrise feels like a drive straight to the sun.

Ondiri Swamp, Kikuyu

The source of Nyongara River, one of the tributaries of Nairobi River, is a serene place called Ondiri Swamp.

The wetland is the second deepest of its kind in Africa, and the only quacking bog in Kenya. It is one of Kikuyu’s best kept secrets and is only a short drive away from the town’s CBD.

Walking on the swamp is a delicate balancing act. Like the famous Mida Creek boardwalk, you have to balance on a make shift bridge made of logs.

Take care not to be swallowed by the swamp because local legends have it that if you do, you will emerge in Lake Naivasha.

Ondiri is perfect for the nature lover despite its underdevelopment as a tourism destination. In 2011, the Tana and Athi River Development Authority (Tarda) set aside Sh2.5 million as a critical first step towards reforestation of the riparian land.

The Kikuyu Country Club offers accommodation for tourists who want to access the scenic riparian land. While in Kikuyu, explore the caves dug by Indian coolies during the building of the Uganda Railway.

North Rift Valley

The North Rift Valley is heaven to any nature lover. Gathoni Kinyanjui, a commercial photographer, recently described West Pokot as nothing but “…stunning!” after a tour for Safaricom’s Capture Kenya Challenge.

Most of the communities, especially on the Pokot side, still maintain their traditional culture complete with songs and dances. Watch a group of traditional Pokot dancers in the sunset with a background of countless hills and a landscape to die for.

The Ministry of Tourism describes the North Rift region as ‘...a world of contrasts’ because of its balance between salty and fresh, dry and fertile, traditional and modern.

While in the North Rift, visit the Kipsaraman Museum, Cherangani Hills, or the aforementioned Mount Elgon Caves. If you are a Kenyan history buff, Jomo Kenyatta’s holding cells in Kapenguria are a key attraction in the area.

Kericho’s Tea Plantations

A month ago, an event called Kiamburing TT was held in the Kawaida Area of Kiambu.

The controlled road race featured local amateur drivers in souped-up cars, and tens of motorbikes.

It was a pure petrol head event on the quiet hill retreats and beautiful tea plantations that the Kawaida/Cianda to Limuru road has to offer.

Kericho has the same potential, and is a distance away from Nairobi to encourage sightseeing and other events along the way.

Alternatively, a controlled road race for the Western/Nyanza car lovers who cannot access the Nairobi events would build local tourism.

Lake Turkana, the Jade Sea

Until the discovery of oil deposits in Turkana, the region had remained largely ignored as having a hostile, unbearable environment. Yet the years of under exploitation are the main attraction to the Jade Sea.

Lake Turkana is a large inland desert lake, the largest of its kind in the world.

According to the Magical Kenya website, Lake Turkana is actually longer than the entire Kenyan coast.

It also has the largest single largest crocodile population in the world, and the reptiles grow to an unimaginable length and weight.

If you don’t visit Turkana for the scenery and the ethereal experience, or its mammoth numbers of reptiles, then the semi-nomadic peoples such as the Turkana and the El Molo offer the ultimate cultural experience.

The destination is far and getting there is a hustle by itself, but once you get there, the Jade Sea will make your trip worthwhile.

To get to the West shore, the main route goes through Kitale and then Lodwar through chartered flights.

To access the East shore, the Maralal-Marsabit route through Loiyangalani, is recommended.

The Lake has for long been a fantasy safari for non-Kenyans, with the best example being its previous name, Lake Rudolf, gifted to it by a pair of European explorers.

It also features prominently the book, The Constant Gardener, and the subsequent movie by the same name.

The remoteness of the Jade Sea meant that some of the main scenes featuring the water body were actually shot in the more accessible Lake Magadi.

Boni National Reserve

Boni is a lowland groundwater forest sanctuary in the mainland Lamu Archipelago.

It gets its name from the local Boni community who lay claim to its vast riches and beauty.

The Boni, also known as the Aweer have been compared to the fictional Na’Vi tribe in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie, Avatar.

Like Na’Vi, the marginalized Boni community has a sacred and socioeconomic connection with the Boni Forest.

Boni’s forest is a biodiversity hotspot whose untouched beauty, remote wilderness, and high plant species density are just a scratch of its ecosystem.

The open canopy forest is also home to a rare species of African elephants, and is one of the numerous stopovers for migratory birds.

Birding enthusiasts are bound to see a high concentration of avian diversity in Boni forest.

Wundanyi Hills

Wundanyi is a small oasis town in the Taita Hills. The calm town has breathtaking mountain views from almost every point, and one can view the rolling hills from the few hotels available.

The serenity of the town would be perfect for corporate team-building events and the perfect getaways. One reviewer termed Wundanyi as the ‘Switzerland of Kenya.’

Chyulu Hills

The Chyulu Hills ‘‘coil like a sleeping dragon on the lion-gold plains of his treasure.’’

Situated 190 km south-east of Nairobi and 30km south-west of Kibwezi, Chyulu offers more than just the hill climbing adventure or the breathtaking view of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Chyulu has the world’s longest lava tube, the Leviathan.

Most sections of these long cave systems are accessible; all one has to carry is a good torch, correct safety gear to explore the maze.

Despite its claim as the home of the Leviathan, there is only one campsite in Chyulu. The gate charges to the KWS-managed reserve are only Sh300 Kenyan citizens and Sh1,000 for residents.

When not climbing the hill or exploring its caves, you can also go hiking, trekking, bird watching or guided game drives.

Other cave systems

Kenya’s is one of a few countries in the world with more volcanic caves than karst ones.

The variability of lava expanse and composition allowed for the formation of uniquely distinct caves at Chyulu. Mathaioni Cave is more than three metres high while the famous Shetani Lava Cave opens into a 200-m long pahoehoe flow.

From Chyulu’s caves, one can also visit the Caves of Mount Suswa and Mount Elgon.

The latter has several caves of archeological interest for the history buff. Chepnyalil cave, for example, has rock paintings that point to prehistoric settlement.

Explore the same caves that the cavemen did, but carry a torch and safety gear, and have a tour guide.

Makingen Cave has a spectacular 60 m wide mouth; Kitum Cave must be visited during the day so as not to disturb the herds of elephants which venture inside at night to find salts.

Despite this captivating combination of history and adventure, the caves of Mount Elgon remain largely unknown to local tourists.

Tana River Delta

The scenic Tana River Delta was declared a RAMSAR site in 2012.

A 3-hour drive from Malindi, Tana River Delta offers a chance for nature lovers to explore the river in the morning and take a swim in the Indian Ocean in the afternoon.

Boat rides on the scenic estuary provide one with a view of the hippos and the reptiles for which the Tana is famous.

The delta also has an impressive number of migratory bird species for the avian enthusiasts.

The river delta is also perfect for canoeing, but this potential too, has not been exploited. The only accommodation today is the Tana Delta Camp.

Thimlich Ohinga

If you are ever in South Nyanza, make sure you visit Kenya’s ‘‘equivalent of the Great Zimbabwe ruins’’…

The Thimlich Ohinga structures were declared as a national monument in 1983, over half a millennium since they were first built as forts.

The high walls were meant to protect the Bantu communities that preceded the Luo in Nyanza. When they moved out and the Luo occupied the area, they repaired some such as Thimlich Ohinga and did away with others.

The prehistoric site is situated 46 kilometers Northwest of Migori town.

Its stone wall enclosures are so elaborately done, pointing towards a previous civilization.

Thimlich means ‘‘frightening dense forest’’, it was named so by the archeology team that worked on the site in the 1980s.

Lamu Cultural Festival

Like many other things Lamu, the Lamu Cultural Festival is more popular among international tourists than Kenyan citizens.

The island has held the event since it was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001. The Festival is a celebration of Swahili heritage and features competitions on water and land.

Held in November every year, it features dhow races, donkey races, henna painting, Swahili bridal and cultural events.

While in Lamu for the festival, you can also visit the Old Town, explore Matondoni, Shela Beach, and Manda Island. Hyrax

Hill Historical Site and Museum

Located in Nakuru, Hyrax Hill is a treasure trove for anyone interested in Kenyan prehistory.

Like Chalbi, the area around Hyrax Hill was once covered by a lake. The fresh water lake dried up, leaving beach sands that are still prominent at the foot of the hill today.

Although Hyrax Hill has been a National Monument since 1943, it is one of the least known Museums in Kenya despite its archaeological significance.