Many times when travelers think of a wildlife safari in Africa they imagine rugged, remote destinations like Tarangire National Park in Tanzania or Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya. However, other wildlife parks are closer to major cities and can offer just as outstanding an experience without the long hours of additional travel. Nairobi National Park in Kenya is a prime example of a pristine wildlife park surrounded by urban architecture and sprawl.
On the one hand, visiting Nairobi National Park isn’t exactly a quick trip – from my home of Chicago, it’s still two flights of about 8.5-9 hours each. On the other hand, for those who are visiting Nairobi for other purposes or who are transiting through, it’s a very easy spot to hit. The park is about 7km (4 miles) from the central business area of Nairobi. The park is bordered by Magadi Road to the east, Langata Road and the Southern Bypass to the north, and Highway 104 to the east. The southern border of the park is defined by the Mbagathi River. The park’s main entrance is off Langata Road. It’s also just about 2km (1 mile) from Wilson Airport (WIL), the small commuter airport used to fly tourists to the Maasai Mara and other parks in Kenya and Tanzania. If you’re transiting through Wilson and have a few spare hours, I highly recommend a tour through the park.
Our tour was arranged by our dear friend Ms. Susan Oloo-Oruya of Real Useful Travel & Marketing Company in Nairobi. We rented a Toyota LandCruiser plus a driver for a half-day trip, and the rate was quite reasonable. Even if you rent your own vehicle, I’d recommend having a driver in the park. First, the roads can be tricky at times and you need a driver with experience. Second, our guide was able to point out several birds and land animals we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, and gave us detailed info on their names, habits and habitats. That type of information is invaluable for a great experience.
First Impressions of the Park
We arrived at the park at around 6:20AM – perfect for a 6:39AM sunrise. The entrance to the park contains extensive parking areas, a restaurant and cafe, and a visitors’ centre. Just a little further inside the park is the Nairobi Conservation Centre, where wounded or sick animals are cared for and nursed back to health and self-sufficiency. There’s also a feature of the park called Safari Walk, where visitors can walk on wooden planks and get close impressions of the animals. Animals and people are separated in the Safari Walk by fencing so it’s very safe while also allowing an intimate view of the animals.
After checking in and paying our park access fee of $45 US or approximately 4500 Kenyan shillings, we were on our way into the heart of the park. The roads in the first kilometer or so of the park are paved, but these quickly give way to natural dirt roads. The park is not small by any means, measuring about 117 sq km (approx 45 sq mi). The park’s longer dimension is roughly laid out east to west. While there are certain parts of the park from which you can see the buildings of the city, most of the park appears pristine and wild…making it easy to forget that you are in the middle of Kenya’s largest city.
Flora and Fauna
The park is primarily an open grass plain, dotted (and in some areas covered) with various species of Acacia bushes. The various areas of the park contain at least eight different species of Acacia bushes. The park is also home to several different species of flowering bushes, some found only in the Nairobi area.
The big attraction to the park, though, is its diverse and very large collection of wildlife. The park is mostly surrounded by fencing (except along its southern border) which provides a safe environment for the animals in which to breed and thrive. The park is well known for an abundance of cape buffalo, Maasai giraffe, East African lions, ostriches and waterbucks. Although we were told that a rhino sighting wasn’t likely during our trip, we were fortunate enough to see both the black and white rhino species. The park is also populated by many different species of birds, which vary depending on the season and migratory patterns. The day we visited we saw an abundance of cattle egrets, plovers, spoonbills, Egyptian ducks, secretary birds, and various types of raptors.
Driving Through the Park
If you’ve toured a national park anywhere in east Africa, the interior of Nairobi National Park will look very familiar. The roads are not paved and are often rutted and covered in water during the rainy season. Every few kilometers, piles of stones with wooden signs point out various points of interest in the park along with the distance to each. The park also has a rest stop where visitors can take lunch or snacks they’ve brought in with them while looking down over a vast plains area.
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A full tour through the park normally takes three to four hours, depending on how curious your group is and on how many photos you take. We ran closer to four hours, because we had some very close encounters (15 feet or less) with lions, and some great views of rhinos.
If You Are Photographing In the Park…
I found that about 90% of the images I shot in the park were with my long zoom lens. I was using a 100-300mm lens on a Panasonic LUMIX GX-8 body (a Micro 4/3rds camera), which gave me an effective range of 600mm for the zoom. I think if I were to visit the park again I’d consider taking a full-frame camera and renting either a 500mm or 600mm lens, as the image quality would likely be higher. That said, I was very pleased with my photos (you can see more examples from my gallery page).
Don’t forget to use a shorter lens as well. I found that having a 14-45mm lens allowed me to capture the wildlife with the city in the background, thus showing the juxtaposition of nature and man-made urban sprawl.
Wrapping It Up…
I had been looking forward to this tour as part of a larger trip for several months, and it definitely did not disappoint! If you’re anywhere in the Nairobi area or are transiting through on a longer trip, definitely plan for a trip at the park. You’ll love it.
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