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The other Africa Add to ...

One day in late January, I returned to the Exchange, my favourite bar in Nairobi, after a few fairly harrowing days reporting on the violence convulsing Kenya after disputed elections.

Ernest Hemingway used to drink here, when he came back to town from shooting up the country's wildlife, and it's a popular gathering place for both Kenyan movers and shakers and tourists, who gaze wide-eyed at the decor, a perfectly preserved evocation of the colonial era.

I was hoping I would score a leather wingback chair, or maybe the corner of the couch, but was prepared to end up on a stiff bar stool, as I have so many times before. The Exchange is usually jammed at 5 o'clock. I walked up the steps and - there was nobody.

Not only could I have a wingback chair, I could have had a whole sofa and a footstool. The one young man working behind the bar stared at me in disbelief before leaping to get me a gin and tonic. "Peanuts? Chips?" he asked as he put heaping bowls in front of me. "More ice? A double?"

This frenzy of hospitality, and the echoing halls the next day at the airport, where there was no sign of the sunburned hordes carrying bubble-wrapped wooden giraffes who usually jam the departures lounge, made me realize how hard the country's tourism industry has been hit by the political crisis.

Bookings in Kenya are down more than 80 per cent over last year. The tourism industry - normally worth $1-billion a year, the top earner of critical foreign exchange and the source of 17 per cent of the country's gross domestic product - is in ruins after governments (including Canada) issued travel warnings.

And the Exchange isn't the only place with seats to spare. When most Canadians think "holiday in Africa," they think Kenya. The very word "safari" comes from the Kiswahili for a journey. For many tourists, the country and the continent are indistinguishable; the Kenyan crisis has had an impact on the whole African travel industry.

So what does this mean for people hankering to see the elephants or keen to support African tourism?

For a start, don't necessarily rule out Kenya. There's new peace in the country - and bargain-basement prices. But if you're still skittish, take heart: There's a wealth of other vacation options on this vast continent. You can take both wildly opulent and budget safaris in South Africa. You can trek in the ancient cliff villages of Mali. Or sail a dhow in Zanzibar.

There is much more to Africa than Kenya, despite what Papa Hemingway may have led you to believe.


Let's start with the wildlife. The most intimate and enjoyable way to see the animals gets you out of the Land Rover and into that Canadian icon, the canoe.

In Zambia, you can take a four- or five-day canoe safari down the Zambezi River, paddling to within a metre of elephants chomping grass in the shallows. You will also learn to knock on the edge of the canoe so that hippos surface - you can thus paddle well clear, since the crabby and territorial river dwellers are responsible for more tourist deaths than any other species.

There is no feeling to compare with being on glassy waters in an amber dawn, gliding soundlessly up to a herd of buffalo, or past a solitary leopard lapping quickly at the water's edge.

You might also consider combining a river trip with a few days at one of the elegant but little-visited lodges in Zambia's Luangwa National Park. Zambia is incredibly safe, affordable and welcoming. And it's much less travelled than its East African counterparts.


Tanzania has suffered a knock-on effect from the crisis next door in Kenya - bookings are down about 30 per cent compared with last year. But although tour operators say people spooked by the fighting tar all of East Africa with the same brush, all is calm and quiet here.

And gentle Tanzania boasts dozens of excellent tour companies offering traditional safaris: days in the Land Rover and nights in the luxurious lodge, sipping gin and tonic by the water hole. In fact, Kenya's famed Masai Mara reserve straddles the border with Tanzania, where it's called Serengeti National Park.

That means you can watch the legendary wildebeest migrations here. And trips departing from Arusha take in the astounding Ngororo Crater, the basin of an extinct volcano that teems with so much game it's like being in a cageless zoo - before plunging into the Serengeti. The Serena hotel chain, which operates many of Kenya's most alluring properties, also has lodges dotted across Tanzania.

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