Travelling in Kenya by public transport

Getting into Kenya from Tanzania by bus

I took a minibus from Arusha to Nairobi. It cost about 20 euros, paid cash in Tanzanian Shilling. The land crossing was straightforward, just make sure you have your e visa for Kenya in advance, they do not issue visas on arrival anymore. You can read some more about my border crossing here. I was unfortunate enough to arrive on a day of riots happening all over Nairobi, so my journey was rather eventful, but in the end I did arrive in the city centre of Nairobi from where I could take an Uber to my accommodation.

Public transport in Nairobi

Personally, I used Uber quite a lot because it was cheap and easier than trying to understand the matatu (minibus) network in the short time I stayed in the city. After accepting the ride, the Uber driver will usually call you before they actually arrive, asking where you are and where you are going. They do not necessarily know how to read a map and you might need to guide them a little if you are going to a place they do not know. Overall it works really well though, so I would recommend taking an Uber.

There are also matatus (minibuses) and boda bodas (motorbikes) pretty much going everywhere in the city. You can flag them down on the side of the road. Fun fact: the name boda boda comes from the initial use of bikes and motorbikes to help people get from one border to the other between Uganda and Kenya – you just hop on behind the driver. Usually there won’t be a helmet for you.

Public transport in Kenya

The converted vans/minibuses are called matatus in Kenya, but otherwise they are just more organised and oftentimes more comfortable versions of the Tanzanian daladalas. For example, the music will mostly not break your ears, almost everyone will have a seat and they even organise several matatus for you when there is the need to change cars to arrive at a specific destination.

The concept is pretty much the same as in all the countries I have described before: You can flag them down from beside the road and they will stop if they still have space, or you go to a matatu rank from where it will leave as soon as it is full. When flagging down a matatu, the driver may make a hand sign like holding an apple but upside down while driving past you. This means there is no more space. At a matatu rank you can ask around for the matatu going to your destination and people will point you towards the right one. In Kenya, they also put signs with the matatu’s destinations on the roof of the car, which is very helpful.

Usually prices are set and the drivers do not inflate the price for foreigners. To give some examples, I paid 600 Shillling (~4€) to go from Naro Moru to Nyahururu on an express matatu, and 500 Shilling (~3,3€) going from Naivasha to Thika. They do, however, try to charge you for your bag sometimes (if you have a big one). In my experience, you can just refuse to pay an additional fee and they will still take you. Your big bag goes either on the roof, behind/under the seats in the back or on your lap. You can also choose to buy an additional seat for your luggage. For longer journeys you usually pay before you get on the matatu at some kind of ticket office and they will hand you some kind of ticket. For shorter journeys and especially if you are flagging down a matatu by the side of the road, you pay when you get on. Just hand the requested amount towards the front and they will hand you back your change. Payment is usually made in cash, but can often also be made through m-pesa. To get m-pesa money, you need to buy a Kenyan sim card and have them enable m-pesa as well. Then you can go to an m-pesa agent (you can find them pretty much everywhere, especially around matatu stations), hand them the amount you want in cash and they then transfer it to your m-pesa account. Then you just need the mobile phone number of the person you want to pay and you can make cashless transactions. Just keep in mind that you have to pay a transaction fee for every payment. It is not much, but I felt like it does add up.

To get off a matatu, you can either address the conductor (aka ‘conda’) and/or knock on the window or roof. For some routes there are express matatus and normal matatus. The difference is that express matatus will only stop to let passengers get off and not stop to collect more passengers, while the normal ones will. The express matatus are more expensive but faster.

Being rather tall myself, I found that the best seats in a matatu are rather in the front, but not the first row or next to the door because if a lot of people get on, they will stand and lean on you. If you are tall, try not to sit in the back because the roof is likely not going to be high enough for you to sit straight, which can get quite uncomfortable on longer journeys. The worst seats, however, are the wooden planks that the conductor will squeeze between seats in the aisle to create extra seating.

Overall, the matatus stroke me as very well organised after having travelled for seven months throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. For the trip between Nyahururu and Naivasha, for example, I paid once for the whole trip (400 Shilling i.e. ~2,7€) even though there was no direct matatu and they just arranged the connections for me, without asking for additional fees.

Taking the train from Nairobi to Nanyuki

From what I have heard Kenya has a great and fast train connection between Nairobi and Mombasa. You can check out more information about train connections in Kenya on the Kenya Railways website (under ‘Services’). The train connection going up north is less fast but very cheap, so I wanted to give it a try and it turned out to be a very nice, but indeed slow journey. The trip from Nairobi to Nanyuki cost 1000 Kenyan shilling (~6,7€) in first class. The first class wagons have compartments and I and my fellow traveller had one to ourselves. The second class carriages looked more like a New York city metro with plastic seats lined up along the carriage, so I would not recommend that for long journeys.

I arrived at the station a little earlier, bought my ticket at the ticket booth in cash and then waited for the train. The station was quite empty, so I think I could have arrived just a few minutes before departure as well. It is not allowed to take pictures of the train station, a rule of which the security personnel will inform you immediately if you do. The train departed around 9.00 in the morning and we arrived in Nanyuki around 17.30 in the afternoon. For the first bit of the journey there was an armed soldier in our carriage – maybe because the train goes through the Eastern parts of Nairobi that do not exactly have the reputation to be the safest. There were only very few vendors selling fruit through the train windows, so better get enough food and water for the whole journey. I bought a huge bunch of bananas and oranges through the window at one stop for about 1€. There is no A/C in the carriages, but you can open the window, so it was completely fine.