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The infamous first lines of The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” – the ones hardly anyone gets right when signing along – played in my head throughout our time in Kenya and Tanzania. When thinking of visiting Africa, the first things to come to mind are typically safaris, wildlife, and (if you are like me) The Lion King. The safaris and wildlife are certainly the biggest draw to the area.
Visiting friends in Nairobi after two weeks on safari meant we thought we had seen the best Kenya had to offer in the diverse parks we visited and wildlife we spotted. It turns out that Nairobi had some surprises in store for us. Many people visit Nairobi as a place to start and/or end a safari. It is a city worth exploring on its own if you can spare a few days (or longer).
In addition to many shopping malls and local markets with handmade goods (don’t be afraid to negotiate down 50 – 80%) and wonderful restaurants with food from all over the world as well as local favorites, Nairobi has a few unique attractions that set it apart from other African cities. Many people know about Giraffe Manor or Nairobi National Park, but there are two other sites that should be on your list of places to check out in Nairobi that are not as well known.
HELL’S GATE GORGE
The Lion King came up often on our safari as our guide pointed out which animals were the real-life version of each character and pointed out things that Disney got wrong in the movie. I never expected to visit the place that inspired the movie, which was also used as a filming location in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Hell’s Gate Gorge is located within Hell’s Gate National Park. As you drive through the park, which also offers camping, lodging, watersports, rock climbing, and more, spotting wildlife is common. On our drive to the gorge, we spotted giraffes, zebras, warthogs, and several species of birds. The website advertises also having African buffalo, eland, Thomson’s gazelles, baboons, and more.
If you plan to hike the gorge, make sure to wear hiking boots or some sort of footwear with good traction. You will have to do some climbing, and you may walk through some water depending on the time of year you visit. Make sure to take water and snacks if you may be in the gorge for a while as there are no facilities down in the gorge. We parked near the ranger station and began our hike from there to the Grand Canyon Viewpoint exit. This hike doesn’t take more than a couple of hours if you take your time and could take much less time if needed.
There are multiple entry and exit points into the gorge and a variety of landscapes within the gorge. Because of the number of people who have been killed by flash flooding, there are more emergency exits in the cliff walls than there once were to allow more frequent exits in case of emergency. You will see the effects of these floods in the gorge, with huge chunks of rock missing from the walls and later found miles away after the floods.
Prepare for a fairly tough hike to see the best the gorge has to offer. There are local men and boys in the gorge who will give you a tour for a small fee. We chose to see the gorge on our own, but we were also with friends who live there and had been before. There were a few points where the guides others had hired came in handy with figuring out how to climb over huge rocks blocking your path (some 8 – 10 feet tall).
One of the highlights of the gorge is the Devil’s Bedroom. You have to take a detour from the main part of the gorge, but it is one of the main sites to see in the gorge. This is an area with a sand floor and cliff walls rising high over your head in a semicircle. This is also one of the main filming locations of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Some of the local guides will climb high above you on the rock walls with no gear and in sandals or barefoot to show off another way to exit the gorge if needed.
We chose to exit the gorge after it changed from narrow pathways similar to a slot canyon to a wide open canyon. Along the way, depending on the time of year, your feet may get wet after leaving the Devil’s Bedroom. Parts of the gorge will be under a few inches of water. If you are tall enough, you can use the rock walls to get around these parts as they are slanted. I was not tall enough, so I took off my shoes and socks and walked barefoot for this section.
Because we waited until we were out of the towering cliff walls, we had an easier climb out of the gorge and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the gorge from the Grand Canyon Viewpoint. This is where you can see the inspiration for The Lion King, especially since you are overlooking the gorge used in the stampede scene. As you walk back to the parking lot near the Ranger Station, you will also see what is referred to as “Pride Rock”, although the real name is Central Tower. It does not have much resemblance to Pride Rock in my opinion, but you can decide that for yourself.
The first surprise for us in Nairobi was a place called Anselm Kitengela Glass. This unique location’s goal is to transform recycled materials, especially things that many others would consider trash, into objects and designs with a future that can fulfill a function or address a need.
To get there, you can take the easy route or the fun route. The easy route is to drive right up to it. The harder but more fun route is to park at Rolf’s Place and walk the rest of the way. This route takes you across a swinging bridge over a gorge, through pastures, and past some of Kitengela’s art that you would only see through a car window if you took the first option. You can tell already that this is not your typical art museum or art studio.
I will go ahead and admit that I did not expect much from this place since all I knew going in was that it was a glassblowing studio. However, seeing the creative ways that trash was repurposed to create something new and beautiful truly impressed me. The artwork was made from everything from beer cans to beads that were made with recycled glass and plastic. It ranged in shapes and sizes from a large stained-glass billboard and the exterior of their buildings to small decorative objects and bowls.
At Kitengela Glass, you watch the glassblowers and other artists work, turning things that have been thrown out into beautiful art and functional objects. You can also wander through several buildings and outdoor areas filled with art and everyday objects made from these recycled materials. There is even a swing that takes you out over the edge of the building along the wall of the gorge. If you get hungry or thirsty, there is an outdoor cafe fully decorated and furnished with recycled materials. You can also stop at Rolf’s Place before or after your visit for a meal overlooking the gorge, which is the option we chose when we visited.
At this location and several other stores throughout Nairobi and Kenya, you can purchase goods made at this studio. Larger items can be shipped throughout the world. While bargaining here is different than bargaining in the local markets, you can still usually get the price to drop a little, especially if you are buying multiple items or larger items. The goods are worth the price after you see the work that goes into making them though.
Walking through this studio, you will forget you are in Kenya as it is so different from everything else we saw in the country. Without a doubt, this is one of the most unique places I have ever visited. With the bright colors, distinct architecture, and diversity of the property, Kitengela Glass has no shortage of great spots for photos for those looking for a unique location to shoot.
Whether you are in Nairobi to start or end a safari or to explore the city itself, take time to visit these two locations for something different than what you will see on the rest of your trip. The different animal sanctuaries, parks, and famous hotels are wonderful, but don’t miss out on these two lesser known locations in Nairobi.
Have you ever visited Kenya? Please share any tips or advice with our readers in the comments below! Read Next > African Adventure Safaris for Adrenaline Junkies