When I signed on for a humanitarian mission to Kenya earlier this year, supporting an organization called LifeStraw that provides water filters to rural schools, it wasn’t my first rodeo to the continent. In college, I spent six months partying and quasi-studying in Zimbabwe.
I floated through the surrounding countries, from diamond-rich Botswana with its Mercedes-clogged roads to low-key Malawi for my first foray into kite-surfing. A few years later, I took on Kenya. I lived it up in bustling Nairobi, checked out a world heritage site or two, dined on zebra and impala, and even considered a marriage proposal from a Maasai warrior. And, like most Westerners, I went on safari to see those majestic, untamed beasts up close.
Sure, a safari is spectacular. But that alone is not enough. When you make a beeline from the airport to the remote game reserves, you miss out on so much of what makes Kenya Kenya. You don’t have the pleasure of experiencing how many of the locals stare—a perceived confrontation that quickly dissipates into warm and welcoming smiles, accompanied by incredible hospitality. (Along with a bit of confusion: As an African-American who happens to resemble people from the region, folks insist on speaking to me in Swahili; they just know I am a fellow Kikuyu.) You miss out on eating fried fish and ugali, akin to boiled dough, in a place where utensil usage is frowned upon and napkins are rationed to one flimsy sheet per person. And you certainly don’t see that Kenyans are a conservative yet lively bunch who love to party and will dance all night to their homeland rhythms.
That’s why on this repeat visit—after spending the better part of two weeks helping set up portable purifiers in remote Kakamega, where locals source their water from the river—I returned to Nairobi for a final few days, determined to interact with nature in ways that sidestepped the safari track. I understand the need for fresh-air excursions in this beautiful, temperate city, where public parks abound and a burgeoning wellness scene includes classes like “jungle yoga.” But this time, with a trio of outdoor fitness activities, I would make my own adventure—no all-terrain vehicle necessary.
Natural Movement Class at Muthaiga Green Space
Climbing on trees and walls, crawling on the ground, and jumping over raised vegetation might seem like youthful fun, but it can be an aggressive workout, and a daring one, too. Natural movement, a fitness trend that uses the architecture of nature as your gym, is a growing trend in Nairobi; the city is full of lush green spaces, where bamboo and acacia trees share space with a type of prickly bush known as agave sisalana. My hour-long class was held in a park in the well-to-do neighborhood of Muthaiga, and the teacher, Anne-Laure Pelletier, was a lively rubber band who seemed to accomplish every impossible movement with a smile on her face. After stretching, the group lowered to an animalistic stance on all fours. A protruding tree root became the designated tightrope, and we were instructed to traverse the plank as low as humanly possible—a feat that called for a surprising amount of control and balance. I felt, fittingly enough, like a lion stalking a prey. A tree with low, slouching branches became the next piece of equipment. I jumped up, wrapped my arms around a bough, and then swung my legs over the top, crossing at the ankles. Letting go of my grip, I dangled upside-down—this time like a hanging monkey—surprised at the waves of aerobic exertion even in apparent stillness. Intu-Fit.com
Horseback Riding at Malo Stables
Nestled in the Nairobi suburb of Karen, this horse farm and its winding trail rides offer a window into a land removed both geographically and historically from the city center. While the rolling hillside is now used for farming, it was once home to the Maasai, the warrior clan known for their brightly patterned dress and innumerable beaded necklaces. The cowboy image is always of a westerner riding a horse, but to see several young Kenyans commandeering these spirited creatures was a pleasant surprise—even more so when I learned they, along with Malo owner Anja Du Toit, would be accompanying us on the two-hour journey to the edge of the valley and back (one of several itineraries). After assigning horses according to each rider’s experience and temperament, the attentive staff helped me onto the gentle, mahogany-color Ray Bunny before we hit the trail. The occasional rock cluster momentarily dislodged me from my seat, reminding me of the complex network of core muscles that keep one upright on a horse. But mostly Ray Bunny glided along, chauffeuring me to the edge of the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind. A massive, intra-continental trench, the designated UNESCO World Heritage Site contains human remains from millions of years ago, as well as some of the planet’s deepest lakes, craters, and volcanoes, some of which are still active. High atop the cliff, along the valley perimeter, we sat in silence and awe. MaloStables.com
Biking and Hiking in Karura Forest
Overflowing with bamboo and obscure wildlife, this urban oasis was established by environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai. She fought hard to preserve the 2,600-acre forest from development so that all people, especially Kenyans, could experience the beauty of this tranquil respite. And she succeeded. Bike rentals provided on-site are probably the best way to navigate such a large area; as a New Yorker who pedals through traffic-congested streets in a dress and heels, I naturally signed up. The trails are self-guided, but expect to work the bike over rock piles, down uncleared paths, and under low-lying branches. (Adventure, indeed!) From there, the itinerary is up to you. My first stop was the Karura River waterfalls, a 49-foot liquid free fall worth the dismount and steep descent. Far below the canopy, the sun struggled through the treetops, and clusters of tree ropes hung low, ready for climbing—or a natural movement class. The caves were next….
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