Bucket list destinations on a safari in Kenya include the Masai Mara, Amboseli and Mount Kilimanjaro. Kenya is a balanced destination with an enormous variety and abundance of wildlife. The southern parks and reserves like the Masai Mara and Amboseli National Park are well worth seeing. So are the northern parts of Kenya’s private concessions and Samburu reserves, where you can find the Special Five – reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk, Somali ostrich and beisa oryx. Kenya is a land full of romance, thrills, and adventure; nothing says “classic safari” like a Kenyan safari.
A Kenyan safari not only offers breathtaking natural beauty in one of the world’s most pristine environments, but it also allows you to get up close and personal with some of Africa’s most coveted animals. Combined with the sight of Mount Kilimanjaro, all this makes a Kenya safari experience unique. The annual great migration is best viewed from both sides of the Mara River, but you can experience the herds on the Kenyan side between August and October.
Kenya is the home of the safari, the ‘original safari’ destination.
For over a hundred years Kenya has fascinated adventurers and romantics from all over the world.
This is the home of Out of Africa and both Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway came here on safari.
In Kenya you can still find the romance of gin and tonic, evenings around a campfire and nights under canvas with the distant roar of a lion in the African night.
The magic of Kenya is in the sheer diversity of landscape, wildlife, human cultures and experience.
No other African country has such diversity within its borders.
Here you’ll find snow-capped peaks and rolling savannah, unspoiled beaches and tropical rain forest, herds of elephants and flocks of flamingo, nomadic tribesmen and dhow sailors.
Kenya also offers you a chance to see different species that can only be seen here, such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated and Rothschild’s giraffe, gerenuk and the critically endangered hirola or ‘four eyed antelope’.
Where to go in Kenya
Amboseli National Park
Elephants in Amboseli National Park | Credit: Blieusong
A long-standing highlight of Kenya’s safari circuit, 392 km2 Amboseli was set aside as a wildlife reserve in 1899 and made a national park in 1974. Renowned for its high density of elephants, the park forms the unfenced core of an 8,000 km2 ecosystem that includes large tracts of Maasai community land both in Kenya and across the border in Tanzania. Amboseli lies at the northern base of Kilimanjaro and, clouds permitting, it offers tremendous opportunity to photograph plains wildlife below the snow-capped peak of Africa’s tallest mountain.
The wonders of Amboseli National Park
The 5,891 m summit of Kilimanjaro – the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, and Africa’s highest peak – actually stands within Tanzania, but the finest views of it are to be had from Amboseli. For much of the day, the volcanically-formed mountain is rendered invisible by a shroud of clouds, but this usually lifts at dusk and dawn to reveal the iconic snow-capped peak rising a full 5 km above the dusty plains in all its breathtaking glory.
A dominating blue presence on maps of the park, the eponymous Lake Amboseli only holds water briefly in years of exceptional rainfall. The rest of the time, this flat dry dust bowl – formed by fine grey volcanic ash deposited by Kilimanjaro in its eruptive youth – supports large numbers of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, and open-country birds such as the secretary-bird, Yellow-necked spurfowl and the localised Pangani longclaw.
Scattered stands of umbrella thorn woodland, dominated by the distinctive flat-topped Acacia tortilis, are home to giraffe, impala and a host of striking dry-country birds, notably Von der Decken’s hornbill, red-and-yellow barbet, rosy-patched bush shrike and steel-blue whydah.
The permanent Enkongo Narok and Olokenya Swamps, fed by subterranean streams that rise on the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro, are home to plentiful hippo and a wide range of aquatic birds, among them long-toed lapwing, painted snipe, great white pelican and grey crowned-crane.
View from Observation Hill | Credit: Helen in Wanderlust
Another must-see landmark is Observation Hill, which offers panoramic views across a pretty lake towards Tanzania, with Kilimanjaro often visible at dusk and dawn.
Amboseli’s most famous and entertaining mammalian residents are the subjects of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, which was founded in 1975 by Dr Cynthia Moss and retains exhaustive records of most births, deaths and relationships within an extended community of around 50 families whose range centres on the national park. As a result of this close monitoring, the elephants of Amboseli are unusually well-habituated and contain a high proportion of old tuskers – excellent sightings are all but guaranteed!
The Maasai in Amboseli National Park private conservancy
The core national park is surrounded by a number of private conservancies that comprise Maasai community land and offer exclusive traversing rights to one or two small camps or lodges. The conservancies support several species seldom observed within the national park, for instance gerenuk and lesser kudu, and the ability to head off-road allows guests to make the most of cheetah and lion sightings.
Coming by road, Amboseli is 230 km from Nairobi via Namanga, a drive that includes some heavily corrugated sections and takes about five hours in either direction. Road safaris often combine Amboseli with Tsavo West National Park, which lies about 120 km away along a poor dirt road.
It is also possible to fly in to Amboseli from the likes of Nairobi, Mombasa and the Masai Mara.
Several lodges lie within the national park, and the surrounding conservancies are serviced by some excellent upmarket tented camps.
The Laikipia Plateau is a wonderful destination for camel-back safaris
Dominated by livestock ranches in the colonial era, the vast Laikipia Plateau has since been transformed into one of East Africa’s finest and most exclusive wildlife destinations. Indeed, this mosaic of several dozen private and community-owned sanctuaries, overseen by the non-profit Laikipia Wildlife Foundation, now operates as Kenya’s second-largest conservancy after Tsavo, comprising 9,500km2 in total.
The Beisa oryx is an East African native
Ecologically, the plateau is transitional to the central highlands and northern deserts. As such, it provides an important stronghold for rarities such as Grevy’s zebra, black rhino and African wild dog. It also supports substantial numbers of lion, leopard and cheetah, along with dry-country specials such as reticulated giraffe, greater and lesser kudu, gerenuk and Beisa oryx.
Although the plateau forms a cohesive and jointly-managed ecological entity, the individual ranches and conservancies lodges all operate as self-contained tourist destinations, and most offer an exclusive all-inclusive package similar to those associated to the famous private game reserves bordering South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Activities include expertly guided games drives and some conservancies also offer night drives, guided walks and horseback excursions.
Maasai in Ol Pejeta
The 365km2 Ol Pejeta is the most accessible of the Laikipia conservancies and the only one that welcomes day visitors. It flanks the upper reaches of the Ewaso Nyiro River at the southern end of the plateau, only 25 km from Nanyuki. One of the most important rhino sanctuaries in East Africa, it also supports elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, cheetah, reticulated giraffe, Jackson’s hartebeest, Beisa oryx, gerenuk and 500-plus bird species. In addition to guided drives and walks, activities include lion tracking with researchers and visits to traditional villages.
Chimpanzee in Sweetwater Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Situated within Ol Pejeta, Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary was established in 1993 to protect orphans formerly housed at the Jane Goodall Institute in Burundi. Since chimpanzees are not indigenous to Kenya, it is the only place in the country where these charismatic apes can be seen, ideally by taking a boat trip along the Ewaso Nyiro River, which runs through the riparian forest where they now live.
Grevy’s zebra is a highly endangered species of zebra
A former cattle ranch reconstituted as a non-profit-making wildlife sanctuary in 1983, the 263km2 Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is one of the oldest reserves in Laikipia, and relatively accessible by car. It is a crucial stronghold for the Endangered Grevy’s zebra, supporting around 400 individuals. It also provides sanctuary to significant numbers of black and white rhino, and an easily seen population of the localised sitatunga antelope. Other wildlife includes elephant, lion, leopard, spotted hyena and a semi-resident pack of African wild dogs.
A walking safari at Ol Pejeta Bush Camp
Remote and pristine, Northern Laikipia is carved up into a patchwork of community and private conservancies fronting the spectacular Ewaso Nyiro Gorge. The bush here is thicker and scrubbier than it is in the south, and while the Big Five are all present, densities are quite low. As a result, lodges tend to focus more on walking safaris than on motorised game viewing, making it an ideal bush retreat at the end of a longer safari, and offering an opportunity to concentrate on smaller mammals and the exceptional birdlife.
Maralal, the informal capital of the Samburu people and gateway town to remote Lake Turkana, is perched at an altitude of 1,965m on the northern edge of the Laikipia Plateau. Its annual Camel Derby, held over the second weekend in August, is popular both with residents and with foreign visitors.
Private lodges in Laikipia mostly cater to the top end of the safari market, and their standard package is an all-inclusive package that covers transportation, meals, activities and in some cases drinks. Coming from Nairobi, or elsewhere for that matter, the normal procedure would be to catch a scheduled flight from Wilson Airport to Nanyuki Airport, from where Ol Pejeta and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy are both relatively accessible by road, but more remote lodges are usually reached by light aircraft charter.
Extending northeast from a shared border with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the 1,510 km2 Masai Mara is the most famous and popular safari destination in K
enya, if not anywhere in Africa. The appeal of the Mara and adjacent private/community conservancies isn’t difficult to explain. Its mosaic of rolling hills, open grassland and acacia woodland supports a quite incredible profusion and variety of wildlife. Large predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah and Spotted hyena are easily seen at close quarters all year round, and the reserve truly blossoms between August and October, when the legendary wildebeest migration – perhaps the world’s most breathtaking wildlife spectacle – crosses into Kenya from Tanzania.
An excellent introduction to the reserve’s varied grassland, woodland and wetland habitats is provided by the dawn balloon safaris offered by almost all the lodges. Over August and October, balloon trips can also provide an astonishing vulture’s-eye view over the migrating wildebeest herds.
The Big Five are all present and seen with various degrees of ease. Elephants are very common, as are buffaloes, the latter being the favoured prey of the reserve’s unusually large lion prides, which often number 15 or more adults. Leopards are more elusive, but quite easy to locate if you know where to look, and while numbers of black rhino dropped alarmingly in the late 20th century, up to three dozen individuals still survive. The rhino population here is the only one in Kenya that can be regarded as fully indigenous, with a gene pool (as yet) undiluted by translocated individuals of southern African or mixed origin.
Even outside of the migration season, ungulates are well represented, too. There’s no better place for close-up views of the eland, the world’s largest antelope, which seems to be less skittish here than in most of its range. Also likely to be seen are giraffe, impala, gazelle, topi, Coke’s hartebeest, reedbuck, Defassa waterbuck, hippo and warthog.
The Mara provides a fine introduction to East Africa’s savanna birdlife, with more than 500 species recorded in and around its borders, including such perennial favourites as Lilac-breasted roller, Superb starling and Little bee-eater. Large ground birds such as ostrich, Southern ground hornbill, Kori bustard and the localised Denham’s bustard are also common. The riparian forest along the Mara and Talek Rivers is an important habitat for niche species such as Ross’s turaco, Schalow’s turaco and Grey kestrel.
The drama of the wildebeest migration is encapsulated by the multiple river crossings that punctuate the great herds’ three-month tenure in the Masai Mara. The river crossings usually start in August, when the wildebeest disperse into the plains surrounding the Mara River, and continue on a regular basis until the southward migration begins in October. The wildebeest tend to stick to a few favoured crossing points; the four used with greatest regularity lie along a 5 km stretch of river, meaning it is quite easy to keep tabs on any pending crossing.
Bounded by the Mara River to the east and Oloololo Escarpment to the northwest, the Mara Triangle is an untrammelled westerly wedge that forms part of the national reserve but has been managed by a non-profit management company called the Mara Conservancy since 2001. The Mara Triangle offers a similar standard of game-viewing to the rest of the national reserve, but it is easier to escape the congestions of safari vehicles that tend to congregate around wildlife sightings east of the river, especially during the migration season.
The national reserve is bordered by a cluster of private concessions and ranches, most of which are leased from or owned by local Maasai communities and serviced by a handful of small tented camps that share exclusive traversing rights. The big advantage of staying in one of these concessions is that, even more so than the Mara triangle, there is very little tourist traffic so you are more likely to have sightings to yourself. Many concessions also offer guided game walks and night drives, both of which are forbidden in the reserve proper.
The easiest and most comfortable option is a fly-in safari package out of Nairobi. This can be arranged through any reputable operator, either as a standalone safari or as part of a longer countrywide itinerary. Road safaris from Nairobi generally work out to be cheaper, but it is worth bearing in mind that a significant proportion of your time and energy will be consumed by the bumpy six-hour drive in either direction.
There is no shortage of lodges and camps scattered in and around the Masai Mara. Unfortunately, this means that the reserve has acquired a reputation for being touristy and overcrowded, especially at the busiest times of year. When you book a lodge, be aware that crowding tends to be most extreme in the sector southeast of the Talek River and its confluence with the Mara. The central sector, cupped between the Talek and Mara, tends to be quieter, but the best lodges for those seeking a real bush experience are those in the westerly Mara Triangle and private concessions and ranches outside the park.
Mombasa is steeped in history. Kenya’s largest port and second most populous city, it was first mentioned by name by the 12th century Arab geographer Al Idrisi, who described it as a prosperous trade emporium selling spices, gold and ivory to ships from Arabia and Asia. Today, the bustling island-bound city centre is overlooked by the imposing Portuguese-built Fort Jesus, and its languid older quarters possess an organic layout and historical feel rare in more modern cities.
For all its commercial and historic importance, Mombasa is not so much a tourist focus as a funnel through which most visitors pass en route to the suburban resort cluster of Nyali, Kenyatta, Bamburi and Shanzu, or to Diana Beach 30 km to the south. Inevitably, beach and marine activities dominate in this part of Kenya, but the underrated Shimba Hills National Reserve provides an excellent goal for those seeking a quick wildlife fix.
Fort Jesus is one of Mombasa’s most famous landmarks
With thick seaward walls and turrets rising a full 16m above the coral foundation, Fort Jesus has cut an imposing figure above Mombasa’s old town harbour since it was constructed by the Portuguese in the 1590s. For centuries afterwards, it was the most strategically important building on the East African Coast, changing hands more than a dozen times prior to its occupation by the British in 1895. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fort has more-or-less retained its original plan and incorporates a museum housing an impressive collection of artefacts unearthed during excavations, ranging from Chinese porcelain to Arabic pottery. A panel of wall paintings executed by an unknown Portuguese sailor sometime before 1639 can be seen in situ.
The beautiful architecture of Old Town
Overlooking the old harbour north of Fort Jesus, Mombasa Old Town is the city’s oldest continuously settled district and several of its mosques were founded in mediaeval times. It comprises narrow alleys lined by two- and three-storey Victorian buildings adorned with oriental-influenced fretwork balconies, carved window frames, and Zanzibar doors. It’s a lovely area to stroll around, infused with a striking sense of community, and a post-millennial facelift has seen many once-dilapidated buildings restored as galleries, boutiques or characterful juice and coffee shops.
The pristine beaches of Mombasa, Kenya
The most popular beach destination near Mombasa, Diani is a long and idyllic stretch of palm-fringed white sand, lapped by calm warm waters protected by an offshore reef. Despite being the focal point of Kenya’s all-inclusive beach package scene, Diani’s beach remains blissfully uncrowded by Mediterranean standards, and there’s some fine offshore diving and snorkelling, on offer. It holds plenty of interest for wildlife lovers too. Relict patches of coastal forest are home to Sykes, vervet and Angola colobus monkeys, along with striking forest birds such as Trumpeter hornbill and Schalow’s turaco.
Sheldrick Falls in the Shimba National Park | Credit: Galu Inn
Only 30 km inland of Diani, the underrated Shimba Hills National Reserve is an excellent goal for a day or overnight safari. The only Kenyan stronghold of the handsome sable antelope, it is also home to giraffe, zebra, warthog, elephant, buffalo and leopard, and protects a patch of coastal forest inhabited by the likes of Angola colobus monkey, Blue duiker, Red-bellied coast squirrel and Green-headed oriole. For a leg stretch, take the two-hour guided hike from Elephant Lookout to the 21m high Sheldrick Falls.
Diving around the Wasini Island
A popular day trip from Diani, Wasini Island is known for its so-called ‘Coral Garden’, a bleakly attractive landscape of partly exposed coral outcrops, sand flats and mangroves that can be explored from a boardwalk managed as a community project by a local women’s group. The spectacular coconut crab, the world’s largest terrestrial crustacean, might be seen here at dusk.
Immediately north of Mombasa, the 8km stretch coast running from Nyali to Kenyatta Beaches is less resort-like than Diani but still hosts some excellent beach hotels, and glass-bottomed boat excursions into Mombasa Marine National Reserve are on offer.
Bombolulu Workshops is an admirable non-profit craft centre that creates employment for more than 150 disabled people, and sells a wide variety of handcrafted items in its on-site shop.
Slotting in somewhere between a zoo and a safari park, family-friendly Haller Park comprises a reclaimed and reforested limestone quarry that can be explored along a 90-minute nature trail. Large enclosures contain introduced wildlife such as giraffe, hippo, buffalo and various antelope.
Central Mombasa stands on a 5.3 km2 island connected to the north coast by the 400 m Nyali Bridge, to the interior by the short Makupa Causeway, and to the south coast by the Likoni Ferry across Kilindini Harbour. Most visitors arrive by air at Moi International Airport (MBA), which is serviced by a steady stream of domestic flights to/from Nairobi and elsewhere, as well as by half-a-dozen international carriers. The airport is situated around 10 km from the city centre via Makupa Causeway and travellers heading to or from Diani need to allow sufficient time to pass through the city centre and wait for the Likoni Ferry.
Another popular way to travel between Nairobi and Mombasa is by train, following the so-called Lunatic Express constructed in the 1890s.
Dozens of tour operators in Mombasa and Diani offer day trips further afield to the likes of Shimba Hills and Wasani Island. Car rental services are also widely available.
There is no shortage of accommodation in and around Mombasa. The main clusters of beach resorts are at Diani and Nyali, while accommodation in Mombasa tends to be more low-key,with the most attractive options to be found in and around the Old Town.
Aberdares mountain range | Credit: 50 Treasures of Kenya
Very different in character to the rest of the country, the lushly vegetated and densely populated central highlands that stretch northward from Nairobi are capped by the hemisphere-straddling Mount Kenya and its permanent equatorial glaciers. Rising to 5,199m, Mount Kenya is the second-tallest in Africa, topped only by Kilimanjaro, and it is linked to the more westerly 3,999m Aberdare Range by an elevated grassy saddle.
Oddly, these two massifs represent extremes of geological antiquity. Where the contorted folds of the Aberdares rank among the most ancient in East Africa, dating to before the Age of Dinosaurs, Mount Kenya is an extinct volcano that erupted into existence several million years after our earliest bipedal ancestors first strode across the Rift Valley floor.
Giant forest hog can weight between 100 and 275 kgs
Mount Kenya and the Aberdares are both protected within a national park. They also share many ecological affinities, and collectively support most of the country’s surviving Afro-montane forest and Afro-alpine moorland, the latter an otherworldly landscape of open moorland studded with bizarre giant forms of heather, lobelia and groundsel. The two mountains host an outstandingly varied fauna, including all the Big Five alongside more localised forest specialists such as Sykes monkey, black?and?white colobus, Harvey’s red duiker, mountain antelope and giant forest hog.
The impressive and majestic Mount Kenya | Credit: Magical Kenya
Though not as popular as Kilimanjaro, the multi-day hike to Point Lenana – at 4,985m, the highest point on Mount Kenya accessible without specialist climbing equipment – leads through a similar spectrum of attitudinally-determined Afromontane vegetation zones. And while it may appeal less to peak-baggers, Mount Kenya has the advantages of being less crowded, less expensive, and less likely to be treated as a single-minded exercise in summiting.
The highest two points on Mount Kenya at 5,199m and 5,188m respectively, Batian and Nelion Peaks are highly alluring to experienced climbers with specialist equipment.
Rhino the the Aberdare National Park
Aberdare National Park is best known as the site of the tree hotels Treetops and The Ark, stilted timber monoliths which double as overnight hides overlooking forest-fringed water holes that attract a steady stream of wildlife, including elephant and black rhino. Historic Treetops gained overnight fame in 1952 when it hosted the young Princess Elizabeth on the very night that her father King George VI died, and she became the uncrowned Queen of the United Kingdom.
Conceptually similar to the tree hotels of the Aberdares, Serena Mountain Lodge, the only hotel set in Mount Kenya’s forest zone, provides an excellent introduction to highland fauna. It overlooks a waterhole that occasionally attracts all the Big Five, as well as forest specialists such as giant forest hog, bushpig, Sykes monkey, black-and-white colobus monkeys, silvery-cheeked hornbill and Hartlaub’s turaco.
Game drives in Aberdare National Park follow little-used network of rough 4×4-only roads from the forest zone into an Afro-montane moorland punctuate with lovely waterfalls. Wildlife includes black rhino, elephant, buffalo, giant forest hog and various monkeys. The Aberdares is one of the few places in Africa where melanistic (all black) leopards are regular. The forests support one of only two remaining wild populations of the mountain bongo Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci – a beautifully marked and Critically Endangered large forest antelope that is now effectively endemic to Kenya having become extinct elsewhere in its range.
Lion in the Laikipia Plateau | Credit: Larangai House
Kenya’s highest town, Nyahururu is perched at 2,360m on the edge of the Laikipia Plateau alongside the attractive Thomson’s Falls, which plummet 75m over a volcanic ledge into a forested gorge inhabited by black?and?white colobus monkeys and a varied selection of birds.
A variety of zebra can be found in the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy
The private Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy is a wildlife orphanage that operates several important conservation projects, none more so than rehabilitation of a herd of captive-born mountain bongos for release into the forests of Mount Kenya, where it was last seen in the wild in 1994.
Founded in 1970 as a breeding centre for rhinos, Solio Game Ranch is a private conservancy situated on the grassy highland saddle that links Mount Kenya to the Aberdares. Starting with a combined introduced population of 39, it now hosts at least 50 black and 85 white rhino. In addition, more than 100 individuals born at Solio have been translocated to other locations in Kenya.
All the sites listed above can be reached in up to four hours from Nairobi along a good surfaced roads through Thika. Regular domestic charter flights connect Nairobi and the Masai Mara to Nanyuki Airport, from where it is a short drive to most sites of interest in the vicinity of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares.
Hikes on Mount Kenya are best arranged with specialist operators who know the mountain well and employs experienced guides and porters. The shortest option for a a round hike is three days, but it is advisable to spend at least three nights on the mountain before ascending Lenana to minimise the effects of altitude.
Any of the region’s three tree hotels – Treetops, The Ark or Serena Mountain Lodge – makes for a great overnight stop on road safaris between the Masai Mara or Rift Valley and Laikipia, Samburu-Buffalo Springs, Shaba or Meru.
In addition to these upmarket lodges, medium-large highland towns such as Nyeri, Nanyuki, Nyahururu, Meru and Embu all have a few adequate restaurants and hotels. They also offer the opportunity to draw money or do some last-minute grocery shopping before heading out on safari.
Northwest Safari Circuit is characterised by changeable landscapes
The vast swathe of Kenya that runs north from Nairobi towards the remote border with Ethiopia is characterised by geographic extremes. On the one hand, there are the cool and fertile central highlands that rise towards the 5,199m peak of Mount Kenya, not only Africa’s second-tallest mountain, but sufficiently lofty to actually support glaciers less than 15 km south of the equator. By contrast, the hostile plains that stretch north from Mount Kenya rank among the most parched and barren of sub-Sahelian landscapes, supporting a thin population of nomadic peoples who eke out a living as traditional pastoralists.
These contrasting landscapes offer some of Kenya’s finest and most varied game viewing. Admittedly there’s nothing quite on the scale of the Masai Mara, but the remote and rugged likes of Meru National Park, Samburu-Buffalo Springs National Reserve and the private ranches of Laikipia support a fascinating array of dry-country wildlife, while the highlands around Mount Kenya are rich in forest wildlife. Overall, the northwest will perhaps be less rewarding to first-time safari goers than the more famous southern circuit, but when it comes to unusual wildlife encounters and a genuine wilderness experience, it arguably has more to offer repeat African visitors.
Hut Tarn and Midget Peak, Mount Kenya National Park | Credit: Kenya Airways
Protecting Africa’s second-tallest mountain, Mount Kenya National Park is also Kenya’s most popular destination for multi-day hikes. For ordinary hikers, the usual goal is the 4,985m-high Point Lenana, but peak-baggers with suitable climbing experience and gear can head all the way up to the 5,199m Batian Peak. Either way, weather permitting, the landscapes – from lush rainforest to stark equatorial glaciers – are stunning.
Fine dining at the Serena Mountain Lodge
Set in the forest zones of Mount Kenya and nearby Aberdare National Park, a trio of hide-like tree hotels – Serena Mountain Lodge, Treetops and The Ark – offer a unique overnight game-viewing experience, overlooking water holes that regularly attract some or all of the Big Five, as well as a host of secretive forest-dwellers.
The attractive Thomson’s Falls stands alongside Kenya’s highest town Nyahururu.
Solio Game Ranch, set on the grassy highland saddle between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, operates Kenya’s most important breeding program for black and white rhino.
Lions in the Laikipia Plateau
The vast Laikipia Plateau protects a patchwork of private and community-owned sanctuaries that offer an exclusive all-inclusive safari packages focussing not only on the Big Five but also on rarities such as Grevy’s zebra and black rhino. At many ranches, game drives are supplemented by a more varied menu of night drives, guided walks and horseback safaris.
Elephants crossing the Ewaso Nyiro River | Credit: Rainbirder
Set on the arid plains north of Mount Kenya, the Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba complex of national reserves protects a harsh environment alleviated by the forest-fringed waters of the perennial Ewaso Nyiro River. It is the best place to see a long list of localised dry-country mammals and birds whose range is limited to northern Kenya and bordering parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.
The Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy north of Samburu can be explored on exclusive multi-day camelback and walking safaris.
The beautiful Mount Meru National Park
Arguably Kenya’s best-kept game-viewing secret, Meru National Park holds out the possibility of seeing all the Big Five in an untrammelled and little-visited wilderness of grassy plains and babbling jungle-lined streams.
Now accessible along a newly asphalted road running north all the way to the Ethiopian border, the underrated Marsabit National Park protects a volcanic massif that rises in verdant isolation from the surrounding arid plains. Supporting a cover of lush forest, and studded with pretty crater lakes, the park is also home to a good variety of wildlife including some impressive tuskers.
A young El Molo child
One of Kenya’s most alluring off-the-beaten-track goals, Lake Turkana is the world’s largest desert lake, its deep jade waters submerging the Rift Valley floor for a length of 300 km from north to south. Set in a primeval landscape of extinct volcanoes and naked lava flows, this forbidding lake supports the world’s largest concentration of Nile crocodile, and it is also where several of the world’s oldest and most important hominid fossils have been unearthed. The lake hinterland is of great cultural interest thanks to the presence of traditional and colourfully-attired ethnic groups, among them the Rendille, Samburu, Turkana and El Molo.
The main air gateway to the region is Nanyuki Airport, which stands close to the eponymous town and is serviced by daily flights from the Masai Mara and Nairobi. Nanyuki is a short drive from most sites of interest in the region, but those heading on to more remote parts of Laikipia or the likes of Namunyak may need to charter an additional flight.
Public reserves and parks are best visited on an organised safari, which can be arranged through any operator. Self-drive out of Nairobi is also a possibility. It is quite common to tag a visit to one or more of Laikipia, Meru and/Samburu-Buffalo Springs onto a southern safari taking in the likes of Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru. Any of the region’s three tree hotels – Treetops, The Ark or Serena Mountain Lodge – would make for a great overnight break en route.
Hikes on Mount Kenya are best arranged with specialist operators who know the mountain well.
Upmarket lodges and tented camps can be found in all national parks and listed conservancies. Private lodges in Laikipia mostly cater to the top end of the safari market, and their standard thing is an all-inclusive package that covers transportation, meals, activities and in some cases drinks. Most lodges in public reserves operate more like conventional hotels.
The sheer basaltic cliffs of the Rift Valley northwest of Nairobi hem in a classic East African landscape of open savannah studded with jagged volcanic outcrops and strung with beautiful lakes. Large mammals are less prolific than in the likes of the Masai Mara or Amboseli, but the area is renowned for its prolific birdlife. The main attention-grabbers are the million-strong flocks of flamingos that frequently amass at saline lakes Nakuru and Bogoria.
Lesser flamingos in Lake Naivasha
Then again, the freshwater lakes Naivasha and Baringo vie with each other for the accolade of ‘top general birding hotspot outside the natinal park system’. In addition, Lake Nakuru National Park is one of the best places in East Africa to look for both black and white rhino, while the likes of Crescent Island, Hell’s Gate National Park and Green Crater Lake Sanctuary offers great opportunities to see large wildlife on foot.
The stunning Lake Naivasha during sunset
Fringed by fever-tree forests and low mountains, freshwater Lake Naivasha, only 90 km northwest of Nairobi, provides a superb ornithological primer for East Africa (resident birders talk glibly of ticking off 100 species before breakfast). The shallows host large numbers of hippo, while Crescent Island offers the opportunity to walk amongst giraffe, buffalo and waterbuck. A popular afternoon treat is high tea at Elsamere Field Study Centre, which boasts a small museum dedicated to its former owner Joy Adamson of Born Free fame, and lovely lakeshore gardens frequented by black-and-white colobus monkeys.
Springbuck in Hell’s Gate National Park
Named after the twin basaltic cliffs that guard its northern entrance, Hell’s Gate National Park protects a dramatic volcanic landscape of ancient lava plugs, sulphuric water vents and obsidian outcrops. It is also one of the last places in East Africa where one can walk or bicycle unguided through herds of plains wildlife. Buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and eland are resident, and elephant, lion and cheetah pass through occasionally.
Fish Eagle, Lake Songasoi
The Green Crater Lake Sanctuary is a private reserve centred on the hyper-alkaline Lake Songasoi, which owes its verdant cast to a dense concentration of Spirulina algae. Nestled in a forested volcanic crater, the scenic lake often attracts large flocks of flamingo. Guided game walks or horseback excursions come with a good chance of spotting black-and-white Colobus monkey, buffalo and various antelope.
The impressive Mount Longonot
Dominating the skyline south of Naivasha, 2,776m-high Mount Longonot is a distinctive ragged-edged volcano that last erupted in the 1860s and is now protected in an eponymous national park. The crater rim offers fine views in all directions and the steep hike from the base takes around 90 minutes in either direction. It is also possible to the circumnavigate the full rim over 3-4 hours.
Lake Elmenteita drawns pleny of birds to it’s shores | Credit: Travel Notes
Situated entirely within the Delamere Estate, alkaline Lake Elmenteita has a primeval setting amongst a range of evocatively-shaped volcanic plugs. Superb views over the lake, whose shallows are frequently tinged pink by flamingos, can be obtained from a conspicuous hilltop cairn 2 km west of the main Naivasha-Nakuru Road.
Excavated Homonid fossils at the Kariandusi Prehistoric Site
Excavated by Louis Leakey over 1928-31, Kariandusi Prehistoric Site was once a factory for the production of Stone Age tools, which have been unearthed there by the hundreds, made either from local lava rocks or from glassy obsidian sourced at nearby Mount Eburu.
An enduringly popular fixture on Kenya’s safari circuit, Lake Nakuru National Park is famed for its concentrations of up to two million flamingos, a phenomenon that Roger Tory Peterson proclaimed to be “the most fabulous bird spectacle in the world”. In recent years, the flamingos have more often been amassed at Lake Bogoria, but even without them, Nakuru is a splendid reserve, and an important stronghold for black rhino, white rhino and Rothschild’s giraffe. All the Big Five other than elephant are present too.
Nestled at the base of the sheer Laikipia Escarpment, Lake Bogoria National Reserve has in recent years replaced Nakuru as the place to see aggregations of hundreds of thousands of flamingos, which feed on the prolific blue-green algae. Other highlights include a scalding trio of primeval sulphuric geysers that empty into the alkaline lake along a network of multihued channels. Large wildlife is scarce in the surrounding overgrazed scrub, but the reserve is one of the last Kenyan strongholds for the greater kudu, which is most active at dusk.
Njemp children outside a traditional hut in Bogoria | Credit: Elsen Karstad
Freshwater Lake Baringo, set below the Rift Valley escarpment north of Bogoria, ranks among the top birding destinations in Kenya, with 500-plus species recorded in the immediate vicinity, notably such northern dry-country specials as white-crested turaco as well as Hemprich’s and Jackson’s hornbill. The lakeshore Njemps people specialise in fishing from flimsy balsa boats and a community project arranges boat trips to look for hippo, crocodile, monitors, lizards and aquatic birds.
Although domestic charter flights are available to certain sites, the Rift Valley lakes are readily accessible from Nairobi by surfaced roads, and the area is well-suited to self-drive tours or independent travel using public transport.
On more extended safaris, it is easy enough to divert to Naivasha en route between Nairobi and the Masai Mara. You could also stop overnight at Naivasha and/or Nakuru to break up the drive between the Masai Mara and more northerly reserves such as the Aberdares and Laikipia.
The shore of Lake Naivasha is lined with lodges, hotels and campsites catering to most tastes and budgets. At Lake Nakuru, a couple of upmarket lodges set within the park are supplemented by campsites and a few budget hotels in the neighbouring towns of Nakuru. There’s also good accommodation for all budget at Baringo. Options are fewer at Elmenteita and Bogoria.
The cluster of national parks and reserves set in the semi-arid lowlands running broadly northeast from Mount Kenya includes some of the country’s most rewarding safari destinatio
ns. In part, this is because they protect a very different fauna to their more southerly counterparts: not only an intriguing selection of localised dry-country large mammals including reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and gerenuk, but also a long list of birds whose range is more-or-less confined to the north of Kenya and far south of Ethiopia.
The region’s best-known attraction is the near-contiguous trio of Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves, which protect a combined area of 440km2 flanking the perennial Ewaso Nyiro River as it flows through an otherwise austere landscape of scrubby rocky plains and bare termite mounds. Less popular is the 870km2 Meru National Park, whose cover of tropical grassland and savanna is bisected by a series of narrow perennial streams that rise in the central highlands and empty into the Tana River – Kenya’s longest waterway – as it runs along the park’s southern boundary.
Named after the red-robed pastoralist people who inhabit the surrounding plains, Samburu National Reserve, set on the north bank of the Ewaso Nyiro, protects a relatively hilly tract of dry thornbush that rises to 1,250m at Ol Doinyo Koitogorr. Characteristic wildlife of the open plains includes the endangered Grevy’s zebra, which is far bulkier and more narrowly striped than the familiar common zebra, and the handsome reticulated giraffe, distinguished by its geometrically-marked coat. Dry-country antelope include Beisa oryx, lesser kudu, Guenther’s dik-dik and the bizarre stretch-necked gerenuk, which habitually stands erect on its hind legs to reach the leaves that most other browsers can’t.
Lioness in Buffalo Springs National Reserve
Buffalo Springs National Reserve, set on the south bank of the Ewaso Nyiro, supports a similar range of wildlife to facing Samburu. It is one of the more reliable places in Kenya for leopard sightings, and the springs for which it is named – a perennial marsh fed by underground water – attract plenty of wildlife in the dry season.
Herds of buffalo near Joy’s Camp
Situated on the south bank of the Ewaso Nyiro only 5 km east of Buffalo Springs, little-visited Shaba National Reserve is if anything even drier and more sparsely vegetated than its neighbours, but the range of wildlife is similar. The main game-viewing loop runs through a mosaic of lava-strewn plains, parched grassland and acacia woodland, offering glimpses to the river and passing by several hot springs. In the far east, a spring-fed waterhole once used as a campsite by Joy Adamson now attracts a steady trickle of elephant, buffalo, lion, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and antelope.
Egyptian vultures are sometimes referred to as the pharaoh’s chicken
A long list of avian specials whose range is largely restricted to northern Kenya and bordering parts of Somalia and/or Ethiopia makes Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba a key site for birdwatching. Literal heavyweights on this list of specials include are Somali ostrich, Abyssinian ground hornbill and the spectacular vulturine guinea fowl, and it is the most reliable site in East Africa for Egyptian vulture. Other specials include white-headed mousebird, Somali bee-eater, golden pipit, rufous chatterer, bare-eyed thrush, bristle-crowned starling and black-capped social weaver.
This unique safari activity allows you to explore the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy | Credit: Elewana Collection
Running north from Samburu-Buffalo Springs, the 3,940km2 Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy protects an area of arid northern plains surrounding the Mathews Range, whose forested slopes host plenty of wildlife and several rare plant species. The main attraction here is multi-day camelback and walking safaris.
The famous tree-climbing lions in Mount Meru National Park
More lush and moist in feel than Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba, Meru National Park possesses a genuine wilderness atmosphere that make it a favourite with repeat safarigoers. All the Big Five are here. You can be pretty certain of seeing elephant, buffalo and rhino (the latter restricted to a large fenced area that runs south from the main entrance gate), but big cats are generally quite difficult to spot on the tall grassland. The reticulated giraffe is very common, but other dry-country ungulates such as lesser kudu, Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx and gerenuk are relatively scarce.
The largest of 13 waterways running through Meru National Park, the palm-lined Rojewero River flows through an excellent hippo pool. It is also a good place to look for African finfoot, Pel’s fishing owl, giant kingfisher and the endemic golden palm weaver,
The boundary between Meru National Park and the remote Mwingi National Reserve by is a lushly-forested stretch of the Tana River. Here, the rapids known as Adamson’s Falls (after George Adamson), are the most accessible point anywhere along the course of what is Kenya’s largest waterway.
A tributary grave for Joy Adamson’s beloved lion, Elsa | Credit: Paul D
Meru National Park’s Ura River is the site of Elsa’s Grave, the burial place of the lioness subject of the film Born Free. Hand-reared as a pet by Joy and George Adamson, Elsa was released in to Meru National Park in 1958 and successfully reared three cubs there before dying of a tick-borne fever at the age of five.
All the reserves and parks described above are best visited on an organised safari, though self-drive is also a possibility. They can be reached in a long half-day drive from Nairobi via the frontier town of Isiolo, or appended onto a safari also taking in the likes of Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru and the tree hotels of Aberdares and Mount Kenya. The closest airport for scheduled flights is Nanyuki, but charter flights directly to the reserves are available.
Samburu-Buffalo Springs is serviced by a good range of lodges, tented camps and campsites. There are also lodges and camps in Shaba and Meru, but fewer, which only adds to these reserves’ aura of exclusivity.
The golden sun sets on the Masai Mara | Credit: Sala Camp
Southern Kenya offers some of the country’s finest wildlife viewing. The region is a showcase for three of East Africa’s most thrilling safari highlights: the migratory wildebeest that flood into the Masai Mara from the Serengeti over August to October, the equally prolific flamingos that aggregate sporadically in the shallows of Lakes Nakuru and Bogoria, and the elephant herds that sweep across the Amboseli Plains below the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro. But while this region forms the core of most safari itineraries through Kenya, it also offers some great goals for independent travel and of-the-beaten-track, with the likes of Lake Naivasha, Lake Baringo, Hell’s Gate, Kakamega Forest and Saiwa all being perfectly accessible to self-drivers or those using public transport.
Maasai in the Amboseli National Park
Renowned for its dense population of well-habituated elephants, Amboseli National Park abuts Tanzanian border at the northern base of Mount Kilimanjaro and is the best place to photograph plains wildlife below its majestic and photogenic snow-capped peak.
Wildbeest cross the perilous Mara river on their epic journey | Credit: Great Plains Conservation
Kenya’s most prominent safari destination is the Masai Mara National Reserve, the most northerly component in an immense cross-border ecosystem that also incorporates the Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains and forms the arena for the spectacular annual migration of two million migratory wildebeest. The Masai Mara peaks in popularity between August and November, when the wildebeest cross over from Tanzania, but it offers fabulous Big Five- and predator-viewing all year through.
A superb base for keen walkers, birdwatchers and independent budget travellers, scenic Lake Naivasha offers enough activities to keep you busy for a week. You can walk amongst big game on Crescent Island, or in the nearby – and wonderfully scenic – Hell’s Gate National Park and Green Crater Lake Sanctuary. More challenging is the hike up the barely vegetated slopes of Mount Longonot, a 2,776m-high volcano that last erupted in the 1860s and whose summit offers fine views in all directions.
Although it is no longer a reliable site for the flamingoes that use to amass in its shallows, peri-urban Lake Nakuru is set within a small national park that offers a good chance of spotting both black and white rhino in the course of one game drive.
Often home to hundreds of thousands of flamingos, Lake Bogoria National Reserve is also noteworthy for the dramatic hot geysers that erupt close to its western shore.
Hippo float in Lake Bogoria
A top-notch birding destination, freshwater Lake Baringo is also home to plenty of hippos and crocs, and has a refreshingly off-the-beaten-track feel.
Fishing in Lake Victoria
The southwest of Kenya is occupied by Lake Victoria, which it shares with Uganda and Tanzania. This is the largest lake in Africa at 66,800 km2, but its Kenyan portion is poorly developed for tourism and suited only to aficionados of genuinely off-the-beaten-track travel.
Blue monkey in the Kakamega Forest National Park | Credit: Olonana on Safari
A contender for Kenya’s most underrated attraction, Kakamega Forest National Reserve protects the country’s largest stand of equatorial rainforest. It is easily explored on foot, and its diverse fauna possess strong affiliations to Central Africa. A tally of seven primate species includes black-and-white colobus, blue and red-tailed monkey, and the nocturnal potto. The checklist of 360 bird species includes more than 30 forest-dwellers found nowhere else in Kenya, among them the spectacular Great blue turaco.
The rare Sitatunga in Saiwa Swamp
Another underrated pedestrian-friendly gem, tiny Saiwa Swamp National Park, traversed by a walking trail that leads to a series of wooden viewing platforms, is possibly the best place in Africa to observe the semi-aquatic Sitatunga antelope and white-bearded DeBrazza’s monkey. A long list of forest and swamp birds includes the gorgeous Ross’s turaco.
The most straightforward way to explore the Masai Mara, Amboseli and to a lesser extent Lake Nakuru is on a fly-in safari combining one or all of these destinations with other national parks and reserves elsewhere in Kenya. It is also possible to drive into and between these reserves, a more affordable option that will entail a lot of time spent on dusty roads getting from A to B.
Most other destinations within this region are less remote and quite easily reached by car or by using public transport.
Accommodation to suit most tastes and budgets can be found throughout the region. These range from the exclusive tented camps and larger hotel-like lodges in and around the national parks and reserves to agreeable budget lodgings in more accessible destinations.
Kenya’s gorgeous Indian Ocean coastline is the ideal place to chill out on the beach after a few days on a dusty safari. It is lined with a seemingly endless succession of white sandy beaches that look like they’ve leaped straight out of the pages of a travel brochure. Indeed, for a country often billed as the ultimate home of the safari, Kenya can also lay claim to being one of the world’s great beach destinations. Better still, there is much more to the Kenyan coast than a stock equatorial seaside holiday. Most coastal towns and villages possess a strong sense of place, determined both by the cultural cohesion of the Swahili people who inhabit it, and the antiquity of mediaeval trade ports such as Mombasa, Malindi and the jungle-bound ruins of Gedi.
Coral reef diving in Kenya
The offshore reefs, alive with colourful fish, offer world-class snorkelling and diving, while coastal forests protected in the likes of Shimba Hills National Reserve and endemic-rich Arabuko-Sokoke National Park are rich in terrestrial birds and mammals. Deeper inland, the vast plains of Tsavo East and West National Parks – which together form the country’s largest contiguous protected area – offer fine Big Five game-viewing in a classic African safari setting.
Beached dhow boat in Kenya’s northern coast | Credit: Kenya Coast
The historic island port of Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and the main air, rail and road gateway to the the coast. Its atmospheric old town is capped by the 16m-high Fort Jesus, which has stood sentinel over the old harbour since it was constructed by the Portuguese in the 1590s.
Arguably the most popular and best-equipped tourist destination on the Kenyan coast, Diani doubles as an idyllic palm-fringed beach resort and base for some fine marine and terrestrial wildlife viewing.
A sable antelope in the Shimba Hills Reserve | Credit: Howie’s Wildlife Images
The rolling slopes of Shimba Hills National Reserve, inland of Diani, support the likes of giraffe, zebra, warthog, elephant, buffalo and sable antelope.
Shimoni in Kenya
Situated to the south of Diani only 10km from the Tanzanian border, Shimoni is a low-key fishing village whose name – “Place of the Hole” – alludes to a gloomy beachfront cave that once served as a holding pen for slaves captured in the interior before they were shipped to Zanzibar. Chains and hooks dating to the caves ignominious past are still embedded in the walls.
Kenya’s most overt resort town, Malindi has a delightful beach and lively Italian-influenced culinary scene, but it is also is scattered with landmarks that recall its long history as a mediaeval Swahili port and 16th century Portuguese stronghold.
Palace Gedi National Monument | Credit: Travel Unplugged
Arguable the most beautiful beach resort in Kenya, low-key Watamu is known for its superb offshore snorkelling and proximity to the jungle-bound Gedi National Monument and endemic-rich Arabuko-Sokoke National Park.
The endangered Red colobus monkey | Credit: MonkeyChild.org
The remote and little-visited 28 km2 Tana River Primate Reserve protects an isolated stretch of riverine forest that supports the only known populations of two Critically Endangered species of endemic monkey: Tana River red colobus and Tana mangabey.
The quaint town of Lamu
The sleepy and remote Lamu Archipelago is liberally endowed with idyllic beaches and snorkel sites, but its main attraction is Lamu Town, a traditional Swahili enclave whose unique architectural and cultural integrity have led to it being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visits are not currently recommended due to security concerns relating to its proximity to Somalia.
Black rhino in Tsavo | Credit: Tsavoaccounts.com
The vast Tsavo West National Park, bounded by the main road between Nairobi and Mombasa, is an untrammelled Big Five destination notable for its untrammelled wilderness atmosphere, dramatic volcanic landscapes and dense population of black rhino protected within the well-guarded Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary.
Larger even than the eastern namesake it borders, Tsavo East National Park protects a wonderfully remote habitat of red-earth plains bisected by the perennial Galana River and inhabited by plentiful elephants along with an alluring variety of localised dry-country birds and mammals.
Elephant mother and calf in Taita Hills
Ideal for beach holiday makers seeking a one-night safari break, the Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, which borders Tsavo West, offers stellar elephant viewing, as well as a good range of other plains wildlife, including lion and leopard.
The main gateway to the region is Mombasa, whose Moi International Airport is serviced by a steady stream of domestic and international flights. Mombasa is also connected to Nairobi by a direct 480 km road flanked by by Tsavo West and East National Parks, and a historic railway line that started operating in 1890s. There are also regular flights to Malindi and Lamu, or you can travel by road between Mombasa and Diani, Malindi or Watamu. Visits to Tsavo West and East National Parks, Shimba Hills National Reserve and Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary are best arranged with operators, though self-drive is a possibility for the intrepid.
Accommodation is plentiful throughout the region, though it tends to be on the pricey side in the national parks and more exclusive beach resorts. Good budget accommodation is available in Mombasa and Malindi.
While wildlife is not as prolific in Tsavo East, there are still wonderful moments to enjoy
Extending over 21,812 km2, both Tsavo East and West form the largest conservation area anywhere in Kenya, and protect significant populations of all the Big Five. Despite this, the parks are less popular than the likes of the Masai Mara and Amboseli, due to the relatively low wildlife densities and difficulty of spotting animals in the dense acacia woodland. Separated somewhat arbitrarily by the main road between Nairobi and Mombasa, the two parks are nevertheless quite different in character.
Elephant returning from a refreshing drink at the Galana River
Tsavo West protects a volcanic landscape of jagged black outcrops, solidified lava flows and tangled acacia woodland overshadowed by Kilimanjaro on the southwest horizon. The red-earth plains of the larger and less developed Tsavo East have stronger affiliations with the semi-arid badlands of northern Kenya, despite being alleviated by the presence of the perennial Galana River. Both parks have a untrammelled wilderness atmosphere that will appeal to repeat safari-goers, with the western component being marginally better for conventional Big Five viewing, while its eastern counterpart ranks higher for localised antelope and bird species associated with northern Kenya.
Shetani Lava Flow
The Shetani Lava Flow is the most spectacular of the many stark volcanic landmarks that scar the northern circuit of Tsavo West. A 200-year-old stream of jagged tar-coloured solidified magma, its Swahili name means ‘Devil’, and it is avoided by locals, whose oral traditions recall that many people and animals were buried alive beneath the fast-flowing fiery lava when it erupted from the nearby Chyulu Hills 200 years ago.
Chyulu Hills | Credit: Great Plains Conservation
At once immensely beautiful and a fascinating geological phenomenon, the oasis-like Mzima Springs is fed by a sparkling clear subterranean stream that rises on Kilimanjaro before being filtered through the porous volcanic rocks of the Chyulu Hills. The main source of water for Mombasa, Mzima supports a lush groundwater forest of palms and fever trees, plenty of woodland and aquatic birds, and a few pods of hippo that can sometimes be observed underwater from a submerged observation chamber.
Nguli Rhino Sanctuary
Created in 1986 to protect the Tsavo West’s last few black rhino, Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary is enclosed by a tall electric fence and guarded by a dedicated anti-poaching unit. The sanctuary has five waterholes and now supports a population of around 70 black rhinos (roughly one per square kilometre), which means chances of spotting this elusive browser are very good.
Crocodile in Lake Jipe
A shallow sump-like waterbody set in the far south of Tsavo West below Tanzania’s North Pare Mountains, Lake Jipe attracts plenty of elephants and supports large numbers of hippo and crocodiles. Boat trips offer an opportunity to see localised aquatic birds such as Lesser jacana, Pygmy goose and Black coucal.
Lake Chala is a translucent crater lake situated on the southern foot slopes of Kilimanjaro bordering Tanzania. Almost 3 km in diameter, yet practically invisible until you topple over the rim of the caldera wherein it nestles, the lake is particularly beautiful when Kilimanjaro emerges from the clouds on the northern horizon.
A Taita falcon with starling prey | Credit: HBW Live
Rising to 2,208 m on the border of Tsavo West, the isolated Taita Hills is the only Kenyan component of the Eastern Arc Mountains, a series of 13 massifs whose ancient forests are known for their high level of endemism. It is renowned among birdwatchers as the only place to see the Critically Endangered Taita thrush, along with Taita apalis, Taita white-eye and Taita falcon.
Leopard in Tsavo West
Sharing an unfenced border with Tsavo West, Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary lies on the scrubby plains below the mountains for which it is misleadingly named. It is most often visited on a standalone overnight safari package from the coast, inclusive of day and night drives – the latter offering a good chance of spotting secretive nocturnal species such as leopard, White-tailed mongoose, Honey badger and genet. The quirkily stilted Salt Lick Lodge is wonderfully positioned for in-house elephant viewing.
Cheetah with cubs in Tsavo East
An important focal point for game-viewing in Tsavo East is Aruba Dam, which was constructed on the Voi River in 1951 and forms the only permanent water source in the vicinity. Lions are often seen resting below the trees around the dam, while the road running west towards Voi Gate is a good place to look for cheetah, impala, Coke’s hartebeest, zebra and gazelle. The arid plains running north towards the Galana River pass through scrubby plains that support several localised dry-country creatures, notably gerenuk, Fringe-eared oryx, Somali ostrich, Golden pipit, Vulturine guineafowl and Golden-breasted starling.
Lugard Falls in Tsavo East
The most significant landmark on the Galana River as it runs through Tsavo East is Lugard Falls, a sequence of rapids that flow across a bed of black dolomite striated with white quartzite rocks. A good hippo pool stands a short way downriver of the falls.
Mudanda Rock | Credit: Petra Coner
A major landmark in Tsavo East, the 1.5km long Mudanda Rock – East Africa’s answer to Ayer’s Rock – overlooks a waterhole where elephant and buffalo gather to drink and wallow, and leopard sometimes emerge towards dusk.
Road access to both Tsavo East and West is straightforward, since the two parks are bisected by the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, which also forms the border between them. Tsavo West is often incorporated into a southern road safari out of Nairobi, or running between Nairobi and the coast, together with Amboseli. Tsavo East is perhaps more often visited as a standalone road excursion from coastal resorts such as Malindi or Mombasa, as is the Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. In all instances, it is best to make arrangements with an experienced safari company, though self-drive out of Nairobi or Mombasa is a possibility too, and both national parks are serviced by charter flights.
Tsavo East and West and Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary are all served by a selection of upmarket lodges and tented camps. Budget accommodation can be found in the towns of Voi or Mtito Andei, which stand alongside the Nairobi-Mombasa highway close to the main gates for Tsavo East and West respectively.
Like Mombasa, Malindi is an ancient Swahili trading port that fell under Portuguese influence in the 16th century. It is far smaller and more low-rise than Mombasa, and has a less conspicuous sense of antiquity, though the old town is scattered with a few important historical landmarks. These days, Malindi, more than any other comparably large town in Kenya, functions largely as a beach resort, offering a good choice of midrange lodges aimed at the European package market, as well as a lively beachfront restaurant scene, and a host of other urban distractions, from nightclubs to supermarkets.
Turtle on the shores of Turtle Bay | Credit: Wonders of Watamu
Separated from Malindi by 15km of Indian Ocean frontage, Watamu feels less like a resort town than it does like an overgrown fishing village, and is all the better for it. Boasting arguably the most handsome beach in Kenya, Watamu also offers superb offshore snorkelling in the calm transparent waters of Turtle Bay, and it stands practically within walking distance of the jungle-bound ruined mediaeval city of Gedi and forest wildlife of Arabuko-Sokoke National Park.
15th Century stone pillar in Malindi Old Town
The most significant monuments in Malindi Old Town are a pair of 15th-century pillar tombs stood in front of the seafront Friday Mosque and a small thatched chapel built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.
The limestone Da Gama Cross, erected by the pioneering Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama after he landed at Malindi in 1499, stands on a windswept coral peninsula a short walk south of the town centre.
The National Museum of Malindi is housed in the three-storey waterfront ‘House of Columns’ built by an Indian trader circa 1890. Displays include a stuffed 77kg coelacanth and a collection of engraved Gohu burial totems.
Both Malindi and Watamu have good sandy swimming beaches, but the latter’s Turtle Bay stands out scenically, thanks to a distinctive forest of ragged coral formations that rise out of the preposterously clear water like giant mushrooms.
The beaches of the Malindi Marine National Reserve
Africa’s oldest marine reserve, Malindi Marine National Reserve protects 213 km2 of offshore reefs and open water, running south from Malindi to Mida Creek. It offers some of East Africa’s finest marine wildlife-viewing, with the calm coral gardens of Watamu’s Turtle Bay being ideal for snorkelling, while diving is usually undertaken on the larger barrier reefs further out to sea.
Grey plover | Credit: The Flacks Photography
Separated from the open sea by the Watamu Peninsula, Mida Creek is an important marine bird watching site that can be explored on a stilted boardwalk and small hide constructed as part of a community-based ecotourism project. An important wintering site for Palaearctic migrants such as Crab plover and Grey plover, it is also a good place to mangrove kingfisher and Greater flamingo. The surrounding coastal scrub hosts the less striking but very rare Sokoke pipit.
Ader’s duiker in the Arabuko-Sokoke National Park
The 420 km2 Arabuko-Sokoke National Park protects East Africa’s largest remaining tract of coastal forest and a host of globally threatened and near-endemic mammals and birds including Ader’s duiker, Sokoke dog mongoose, Yellow-rumped elephant-shrew, Chestnut-fronted helmetshrike, Clarke’s weaver and Sokoke scops owl. Large fresh pats often seen on the park’s extensive network of roads and walking trails serve to remind that it is also home to a furtive and seldom seen population of 120 elephants.
Gedi National Monument is a fascinating set of ruins
The most impressive and atmospheric of the many mediaeval ruins along the Kenyan coast, Gedi National Monument protects the remains of a 20ha walled Swahili city-state that flourished as a cabinet of maritime trade between the 11th and 13th centuries. The site museum displays artefacts found on site but manufactured from as far afield as India, Egypt, Arabia and Spain, and the jungle-bound ruins include a 900 m2 Sultan’s Palace and eight mosques. A birdwatching platform high in a baobab tree between the palace and largest mosque offers a wonderful monkey’s-eye overview of the site.
Marafa Depression | Credit: Stefano Negri
Also known as Hell’s Kitchen, the Marafa Depression, 35 km northwest of Malindi, is studded with spectacular sandstone pillars that stand up to 30 metres tall and comes across like a diminutive version of the Grand Canyon. It is most impressive in the early morning, when the layered columns glow pink.
Watamu and Malindi lie about 90-minutes’ drive north of Mombasa. There are also scheduled flight from Mombasa, Lamu and Nairobi to Malindi, whose airport lies 3km from the town centre and less than 20 km from Watamu.
Both towns have plenty of accommodation, Malindi is stronger on package hotels and budget accommodation aimed at backpackers, while Watamu’s hotels tend to have a more individualistic feel.
Any hotel or local operator can set up diving and snorkeling excursions, or day trips to the likes of Gedi, Arabuko-Sokoke or the Marafa Depression.
January tends to fall in Kenya’s wet season in the wider sense of the term (November to May), it lies outside of the two notable ‘long’ and ‘short’ rain periods, which means that you can expect much less rain with stunning landscapes, albeit unpredictable at times. Potential rains are generally quite short and occur in the afternoon, so it won’t affect your safari.
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, cool by night and receive a moderate amount of rain. Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives little rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive very little rainfall.
January is a good time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, though daytime temperatures can get very high. This is an excellent time to visit the Mara because January is when it experiences one of its driest spells, with only around five days of rain and eight hours of sunlight every day.
Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in January. Birdlife is boosted by a variety of intra-African and Palaearctic migrants. For divers and snorkelers, January is probably the best month to see larger marine creatures such as whale shark, manta ray, and various sharks, dolphins and turtles. Being relatively warm and dry, January is on if the best months for climbing Mount Kenya.
There is little rainfall in Nairobi during February
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, cool by night and receive a moderate amounts of rain. Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives very little rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive very little rainfall.
February is a good time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, though daytime temperatures can get very high. Game viewing in most safari destinations is good this time of the year. While birdlife is boosted by a variety of intra-African and Palaearctic migrants. February experiences the lowest levels of precipitation in the Masai Mara, compared to that of the rest of the year, with only around three days of rain. Due to this, the chances of spotting the wildlife at the watering holes is higher.
For divers and snorkelers, February is a good month to see larger marine creatures such as whale shark, manta ray, and various sharks, dolphins and turtles. Being relatively warm and dry, February is one of the best months for climbing Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest peak after Mount Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania.
Bamburi beach along the Kenyan coast is hottest in March
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, comfortable at night and receive a moderate to high rainfall. Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives occasional rain. The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive occasional rain.
March is the hottest month on the coast, but if you can tolerate the heat, it’s a good time for beach holidays. March usually signals the start of the long rains in most safari destinations, which means that game viewing can be relatively challenging, as animals are dispersed away from water sources and thick vegetation tends to reduce visibility, and minor tracks may be inaccessible when inundated with water.
Coastal areas will benefit from clear sea visibility before the arrival of the rains, so diving is excellent and marine life abounds.
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, comfortable at night and receives plenty of rain.
Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives little rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive high rainfall. Having said that, April can produce some moody backdrops for wildlife and landscape photography – be sure to take the correct gear along to protect yourself and your equipment from the elements.
April is one of the wettest months on the coast and not good for beach holidays or underwater activities. As a result, game viewing can be challenging, as animals are dispersed away from water sources and thick vegetation tends to reduce visibility, and minor tracks may be inaccessible when inundated with water. Most Intra-African and Palearctic migrant birds will have flown north by April.
Fun in the warm sun on Diani Beach, Mobasa | Credit: Luxury Travel Diary
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, comfortable at night and very wet.
Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives little rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive a high rainfall. May could be a great (more cost effective) option for seasoned safari-goers because it offers the chance to experience Kenya in a completely different light. Although, this is not recommended for first-time safari enthusiasts because the chances of seeing much wildlife is slimmer.
May is by far the wettest month on the coast, with an average monthly rainfall of greater than 300mm, making it a very poor time for beach holidays or underwater activities.
The long rains continue into May in many safari destinations. As a result, game viewing can be challenging, as animals are dispersed away from water sources and thick vegetation tends to reduce visibility, and minor tracks may be inaccessible when inundated with water.
The kusi monsoon brings cooler weather to the Kenyan Rift Valley | Credit: Lingofacts
Nairobi and the central highlands are warm by day, cool at night and receive little rainfall.
Mombasa and the coast is hot by day, relatively cool at night, and receives a fair amount of rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive occasional rain. Some of the rains brought in by the kusi monsoon occur early in June, however as the month progresses the cooler, drier weather develops.
The climate throughout June becomes much more comfortable than the preceding months, particularly in the highlands. Although drier, it is likely to remain cloudy keeping the sun and higher temperatures at bay. This can be a great time to travel with children as you don’t need to worry about humidity and constant sun cream application.
June is one of the wettest months on the coast and not good for beach holidays or underwater activities.
Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in June.
First held in 2008, the annual Lake Turkana Festival, a colourful showcase for 14 traditionalist ethnic communities associated with the northern deserts, takes place at the small town of Loiyangalani, usually in June.
The Great Migration is well underway as the herds make their way to the Masai Mara
Nairobi and the central highlands are warm by day, cool at night and receive practically no rain.
Mombasa and the coast is hot by day, relatively cool at night, and receives a fair amount of rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive a moderate to high rainfall. Come prepared with lots of layers especially for morning and night drives – this is even more important in higher altitude parks and conservancies such as the Mara and Laikipia.
July is an ideal time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, being the coolest month, and relatively dry. Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in July. The wildebeest migration sometimes arrives in the Masai Mara towards the end of the month, making it a spectacular opportunity to possibly view river crossings.
Humpback whales migrate along the coast of Kenya around August
Nairobi and the central highlands are warm by day, cool at night and receive practically no rain.
Mombasa and the coast is hot by day, relatively cool at night, and receives a fair amount of rain.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive a rather high rainfall.
August is an ideal time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, being the second-coldest month, and relatively dry. Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in August. August is usually when the migration arrives in Kenya from Tanzania, and prime wildlife-viewing season in the Masai Mara.
Although safari guides will try their best to take you to the quieter areas at the right time, if you are looking for a less crowded experience, then consider a different time of the year.
Humpback whales are often seen off the coast over August-September.
Kenya’s quirkiest annual event since it was first held in 1990 is the International Camel Derby Festival, a three-day event that takes place in Maralal, usually on the second weekend in August.
October is a good time to visit the Masai Mara after the crowds have dispersed
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, cool by night and might receive occasional rain.
Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives a moderate to high rainfall.
The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive a moderate rainfall.
October is a fair time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, being relatively cool and not too wet.
Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in October. The wildebeest migration is usually still to be found in the Masai Mara, making it a great time to be on safari there. The post-migration calm and pleasant climate make October a good time to visit Kenya. Wildebeest and zebra can still be seen in their numbers throughout the Mara, offering great photographic opportunities.
The Mombasa Carnival is the highlight of November | Credit: Travel Kenya
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, cool by night and receive a high rainfall.
Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and receives a moderate to high rainfall. The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive a moderate rainfall.
November isn’t the best time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, since it is quite wet and daytime temperatures can get very high. Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in November, though there is a risk of it being interrupted by storms during the short rains. This transitional month also usually heralds the arrival of large numbers of intra-African and Palaearctic migrant birds.
For divers and snorkelers, November is a good month to see larger marine creatures such as whale shark, manta ray, and various sharks, dolphins and turtles.
The multicultural Mombasa Carnival, Kenya’s most colourful street festival, is held in the eponymous port city every November.
December is a great time of the year to spot the whale shark off the coast
Nairobi and the central highlands are hot by day, cool by night and receive a moderate to high amount of rain. Mombasa and the coast is very hot by day, rather hot at night, and might receive occasional rainfall. The Rift Valley and western interior are hot by day, cool at night and receive occasional rain.
From December onwards the Tsavo sees an increase in humidity and although it can get rather intense, it’s still a good time to visit the coastal regions. The ocean breeze also helps to alleviate the heat and the warm water is a pleasure.
December isn’t the best time for beach holidays on the Kenyan coast, since it is quite wet and daytime temperatures can get very high. Game viewing in most safari destinations is good in December. Birdlife is boosted by a variety of intra-African and Palaearctic migrants.
For divers and snorkelers, December is a good month to see larger marine creatures such as whale shark, manta ray, and various sharks, dolphins and turtles.
The currency that you will be using on a Kenya Safari is the Kenyan shilling.
Pack neutral-coloured clothing to blend into the bush during Game drives
Long-sleeved shirts help to provide sun and mosquito protection
T-shirts and shorts are also great for warmer days
Evenings and cooler days call for jeans or longer pants
A rain-proof jacket is always a good idea to pack along
The Nile Crocodile
Kenya's fantastic safari areas are safe to visit, and the country's kind, welcoming people will make your journey unforgettable. A Rhino safari is no different if you are accompanied by a safari guide in a safari area. There should not be any problems.
The most apparent area to look for rhinos is Nairobi National Park, which is located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya's capital. This national park is a fantastic place to visit during a safari in Kenya.
Nairobi National Park is a national park in Kenya's south-central region, located 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Nairobi.
The best time to see the wildebeest migration is in August as the herds cross the Nile crocodile-infested Mara River, crossing an international border between Kenya and Tanzania.
Africa is a great continent to go horse riding and the fact that many destinations in Africa that you may want to visit may not have functioning roads, so horse riding could be one of your only options to achieve seeing all there is to see.
Kenya has a world of variety when it comes to tented accommodation camps, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another realm in the bush as your every desire comes try.
In some parts of Southern Africa, it is safe to drink tap water, however, it is highly recommended to stick to bottled water (mostly supplied) during your trip as even drinkable African water is completely different in taste and consistency from European, American or Asian water. In East Africa, specifically Kenya, however, water pathogens are a huge problem. So it is advised to always stick to bottled water.
Keep costs down by buying inexpensive food at stalls and market. Remember to always wash your produce before eating
Visitors who want to explore the major attractions without blowing too much money could think about joining a set departure or group safari, either with a safari company or with an overland truck and also to travel out of season. The set group departures in Kenya do have different accommodation options, starting from mid-range and going up.
Eating out is generally quite inexpensive unless you actively seek top-of-the-range restaurants aimed at upmarket tourist and expats. Wine is almost all imported and tends to be disproportionately expensive compared to the cheap and refreshing local beers.
Kenya is quite easy to travel through on a tight budget, with two main provisos. The first is that high daily entrance fees at game parks, and the need for a 4×4 make most safari-oriented reserves difficult to explore cheaply, so you would need to focus on other attractions. The second is that wherever possible you’ll need to use amenities geared towards the local economy (buses, guesthouses and small restaurant catering mainly to Kenyans) rather than those charging inflated prices to tourists and expats. Attractions that are particularly well-suited to budget travellers include Lake Naivasha, Lake Baringo, most parts of the far west and central highlands, and the entire coast.
Kenya is a country of contrasts; everywhere you look, you'll see different tribes, all dressed up in their finest. The culture here is incredible, but regions like the Masai Mara, when paired with the north (Samburu, Laikipia, or Meru), feel like you've been transported to another country.
Kenya's coastline is equally beautiful, with white beaches and a turquoise sea, not to mention Lamu, one of the world's most distinctive islands and a quiet refuge. Kenya is also home to the Great Rift Valley, whose lakes may give a peaceful break from your safari.
Overcrowding isn't a concern for our visitors because we still operate with some of Kenya's most isolated and luxury safari properties for your luxury safari in Kenya. It is typically the Kenyan people that make your luxury Kenya safari so memorable – they are fascinating, engaging, and have a great sense of fun.
Your luxury Kenya Safari may include everything you choose, from the wilderness to the beach, leisure to action – travel to two distinct locations and feel as if you've visited two different nations.
Those seeking luxury in the bush can pick from a variety of premium tented camps located on community or private concessions abutting the Masai Mara and Amboseli, as well as on the Laikipia Plateau.
Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro watch over unspoiled nature in this wonderful nation, which has some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Explore the real uncharted wilderness on your luxury Kenya safari by foot, 4WD, or horseback.
Given the distances and roads, the most comfortable way to go on a luxury vacation would be to use the scheduled and chartered light aircraft flights that connect Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, and all of the major safari locations.
Stay at some of the most luxurious and intimate safari lodges and camps in the world. These lodges often combine traditional ‘Out of Africa' type lodging with top-notch meals, imported wines, well-trained personnel, and a variety of skillfully led activities such as game drives, bush walks, and even night drives or equestrian safaris.
There are a few boutique hotels along the coast and in the major towns that combine five-star service and amenities with unique décor and an exclusive vibe.
Witness the annual wildebeest migration as it passes through the Masai Mara, the world's eighth wonder. Observe lions, leopards, and cheetahs as they chase down unwitting victims. Before retiring to the blue tempting waters of the Indian Ocean, learn the Masai and Samburu traditions and dance around the campfire.
Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline offers ideal conditions for chilling out. The most popular resorts are Diana, Malindi and Watamu. These resorts also boast a fine array of restaurants specialising in seafood and other international cuisines.
The interior of Kenya is suited to a feet-up kind of holiday. The best way to keep a safari relatively relaxed is to visit fewer places and stay at least three nights at each of them to really immerse yourself in the environment and engage fully with the wildlife.
The tree hotels of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares offer possibly the most passive and relaxing safari experience in Africa, the idea being that you wait for the wildlife to come to the lodge, rather than chasing it on game drives or walks.
Kenya offers many options to adventurous travellers. For budget-conscious travellers, exploring the country on public transport can be a Kenya adventure in itself.
Rift Valley lakes such as Naivasha and Baringo offers plenty of opportunities on holidays in Kenya for visiting wildlife-rich areas on foot or by boat, as do Kakamega and Saiwa Swamp National Park in the far west, and parts of the coast.
For a more curated budget Kenya adventure, join an overland truck safari to the major reserves, or one of the occasional departures to remote Lake Turkana, set in the northern deserts bordering Ethiopia.
Take an Overlanding trip for a Kenya adventure holiday | Credit: My Overlanding Adventure
For those with fewer budget restrictions, an excellent option is a camelback safari through the little-visited Mathews Range in the vast Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy.
Horseback riding in Kenya | Credit: Mario Moreno for Elewana Collection
The two most popular activities in Kenya are safaris and beach holidays. Since the former generally involves long hours being driven through the bush in search of animals, and the latter is all about chilling out and doing as little as possible, neither is inherently well suited to active travellers. That said, except during the long rains, Kenya’s climate makes it ideal for outdoor activities, and there are many ways of keeping yourself physically active, whether on the beach or on safari.
Trekking Mount Kenya
Of Kenya’s main beach resorts, the best suited to active travellers is Watamu. Here you can take long walks in the coastal forests of Arabuko-Sokoke, explore the mysterious ruined city of Gedi, and spend long hours snorkelling offshore in lovely Turtle Bay. When it comes to safaris, the private concessions of Northern Laikipia are also well-suited to active travellers, since guided walks take precedence over game drives. Another excellent goal for active travellers is Mount Kenya, whose thrilling montane landscapes make it the country’s premier hiking destination.
If you plan on walking a lot, bring suitable footwear and a few pairs of thick socks. A walking stick can be useful in more hilly areas or trails with loose rocks underfoot. Binoculars will greatly enhance bird and other wildlife sightings on the trail.
A bush and beach safari is the best way to enjoy all the wonderful facets of Kenya
Kenya is ideally suited to a beach and bush holiday. Indeed, you could say that it is tailor-made for this combination of activities. Safari options are covered in detail elsewhere on this website, but we would broadly recommend 7-10 days on safari, ideally split between two or three major reserves, broken up with overnight stays at Lake Nakuru and/or one of the Tree Hotels of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. This could be followed with 4-7 days at a beach resort such as Diani, Malindi or Watamu.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust does amazing work in Kenya for elephants who are poached for their tusks
Kenya is one of the best places anywhere in Africa for ticking off the Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino. A good short safari combination for those hoping to see all these charismatic creatures (and much more besides) would be Masai Mara (for lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant) and Lake Nakuru (for black and white rhino). Other top safari destinations that host all or most of the Big Five include Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Amboseli, Laikipia Plateau, Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba, Meru and to a lesser extent Shimba Hills. It is important to note Kenya’s ongoing conservation efforts to protect some of its greater and lesser species – one of which is the elephant population. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is today the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world and one of the pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa. Founded in 1977 by Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E, in honour of the memory of her late husband, famous naturalist and founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park, David Leslie William Sheldrick MBE, the DSWT claims a rich and deeply rooted family history in wildlife and conservation.
An elephant calf gets around-the-clock care from dedicated members of the DSWT team
The DSWT has remained true to its principles and ideals, remaining a sustainable and flexible organisation. Guided by experienced and dedicated Trustees and assisted by an Advisory Committee of proactive naturalists with a lifetime of wildlife and environmental experience, the Trust takes effective action and achieves long-lasting results.
Kenya is one of only 15 countries globally where more than 1,000 bird species have been recorded, and it lies third on the African avian diversity list after DR Congo and Tanzania. This list includes the world’s two largest birds (common and Somali ostrich, now regarded as separate species) and its bulkiest flying creature (Kori bustard), along with a wealth of raptors and a dazzling array of colorful bee-eaters, turacos, parrots, rollers and passerines.
Birdwatching is rewarding everywhere in Kenya. For dedicated birdwatchers, a well-planned two-week itinerary is likely to result in a trip list of 350–400 species, a figure that compares favorably with anywhere in the world.
Purple grenadier | Credit: Bird Guide
The open savannah of southern Kenyan reserves such as Amboseli and the Masai Mara provides an excellent introduction to East Africa’s commoner birds, with the likes of superb starling, purple grenadier, lilac-breasted roller and African grey hornbill all conspicuous. The Rift Valley lakes are also superb: Nakuru and Bogoria are rightly famed for their mind-boggling flamingo aggregations, but the less celebrated Naivasha and Baringo are arguably even better for general birding.
For regular Africa safari goers, a region of special interest is the arid north, where Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba hosts a high quotient of dry-country species whose range is otherwise restricted to less accessible parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.
For visitors with limited exposure to the rainforests of west-central Africa, Kakamega Forest and Saiwa Swamp protect dozens of forest species at the very eastern extreme of their range.
Sokoke scops owl
For coastal birds endemic or near-endemic to Kenya, Arabuko-Sokoke National Park near Watamu is home to Clarke’s weaver, Sokoke scops owl, grey-crested helmet-shrike, Sokoke pipit and Amani Sunbird. The central highlands also host several endemics, notably Sharpe’s longclaw, Aberdare cisticola and Hinde’s babbler.
Kenya offers excellent birdwatching throughout the year, but the prime season runs from October to March, when resident populations are boosted by Palearctic migrants. This also broadly coincides with Kenya’s rainy season, when several resident species shed their drab eclipse plumage in favor of bright breeding colors.
Butternut and dhania chapati. This meal is very similar to Indian flat breads | Credit: Kaluhis Kitchen
Kenya doesn’t really qualify as a dedicated foodie destination, but there are plenty of opportunities to eat well. Nairobi hosts a wide variety of restaurants representing a cosmopolitan selection of cuisines, as do Mombasa and the various coastal resorts (but to a lesser extent). Seafood is particularly recommended on the coast, while Nairobi excels when it comes to meat dishes and Indian restaurants, the latter usually offering a good vegetarian selection.
On safari, it’s customary to eat all meals at your lodge or camp. This is because most such places offer full-board packages, and there is generally no alternative within a reasonable driving distance. Larger lodges typically serve expansive buffet meals, while smaller lodges and tented camps generally offers three- or four-course set menus. Standards vary from mediocre at more package-like places to exceptional at certain more exclusive lodges.
The local cuisine usually consists of a lightly-spiced meat-based stew eaten with rice, ugali (stiff maize porridge or chapati (a flat Indian-style bread). In coastal towns and around the great lakes, whole fried or grilled fish is often available. The distinctive Swahili cuisine of the coast makes generous use of coconut milk and is far spicier than other Kenyan food.
Generally, Africa is a top choice for nature-loving lovers. A Kenya honeymoon especially has long been a choice destination for couples wanting spectacular safari experiences.
Kenya is a country where falling in love all over again is as easy as spotting a wildebeest. The rustic surroundings, soft-sand beaches with their azure waters make Kenya timeless for romantics.
Coupled with the excitement of seeing the Big Five, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Great Wildebeest Migration and some of the world’s most exclusive and romantic secluded private wildlife conservancies, it’s no wonder that a Kenya honeymoon is a popular choice.
A great Kenya honeymoon itinerary would be to start with a few days at one of the exclusive camps that stud the conservancies bordering the Masai Mara or Amboseli, then maybe head to a similar camp on the Laikipia Plateau. This could be followed by a few days relaxing at a ‘barefoot luxury’-style beach resort near Diana, Watamu or Malindi.
Kenya is a highly photogenic country. The main point of interest for most people that want to go on a Kenya photography safari is the prodigious wildlife that inhabits the national parks and other reserves. Landscapes are greenest in the wet season, and the sky is least hazy then too, but this can be a difficult time to travel as game drives and other activities are washed out by frequent storms.
For dedicated Kenya photography safari-goers, there are several advantages to staying in private concessions or reserves such as those on the Laikipia Plateau and bordering the Masai Mara. These private reserves are relatively costly to visit, but they tend to have better and more sympathetic guides, and the ability to drive off-road, combined with the lack of other tourist traffic, means you can stick longer with a good photographic subject, and usually get far closer to it, and line up better.
Wildlife photography requires faster and higher-magnification lenses than most other subjects. The ideal lens combination would be a zoom that goes up to 300 together with a fixed 400, with the fastest f-stop of 4, or better 2.8. Bring a beanbag upon which to rest your lens to minimise the risk of camera shake; to save weight you can carry it empty to Kenya and fill it up with rice, beans or a similar instance after you arrive.
Colourful traditional ethnic groups such as the Maasai, Samburu and Turkana make for great subjects, but it is important to ask permission before photographing them on your photography holiday in Kenya. Many people will refuse, while others will expect to be paid. A good option for photographing traditionally-attired people is to arrange a paid visit to a traditional village bordering the Maasai Mara or Samburu-Buffalo Springs. The Swahili people of the coast are also sensitive about being photographed, in particular the women, whose Islamic culture perceives it to be immodest.
Malaria is prevalent in most parts of Kenya. This includes the entire coast and most safari destinations, among them the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu-Buffalo Springs, Lake Nakuru and Meru. Exceptions are parts of the Laikipia Plateau (much of which sits at too high an altitude for the malaria parasite) and the tree hotels of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. The risk of catching malaria in highland Nairobi is negligible, though there are occasional incidents, thought to be attributed to infected mosquitoes that arrive there on a bus from a lower-lying destination. A safari that focussed solely on Nairobi, the tree hotels and Laikipia would thus be borderline malaria-free, but a slight risk would still exist. It’s therefore advisable to take necessary precautions before travelling and check with your local healthcare provider what prophylactics are best suited for Kenya.
Walking safaris in Kenya are a wonderful activity to enjoy on safari
Kenya is especially well suited to walking holiday. Climbing Mount Kenya offers more than enough to keep you going for a week, but this is suited more to dedicated hikers than to to casual ramblers. Other destinations that offers some great opportunities include Lake Naivasha (a good base for day hikes to Hell’s Gate and Mount Longonot), Kakamega Forest, Saiwa Swamp and Watamu. Even here, however, the options are better suited to independent travellers with a DIY approach than to organised tours.
For tourists looking to see wildlife from the perspective of being on foot and immersed in the environment, there are some concessions that arrange walking (guided) safaris if you are feeling more adventurous. This offers the unique experience of seeing wildlife in a different light – where the sounds, sights and smells will play a more pronounced role in your safari experience.
Enjoying a game drive in Kenya | Credit: Ol Lentille
Most parts of Kenya are suited to couples. The coast is ideal for a romantic getaways, while more active couples looking for quality time together might consider booking a private safari or renting a self-drive 4×4.
The romance of a Kenyan sunrise
Kenya’s beaches are among the most romantic in the world, all white sand, shady palms and lovely sunrises. As with solo travellers or families, a highlight for most couples will be the opportunity to spend a few days on safari, watching the Big Five and other creatures in the likes of the Masai Mara, Amboseli and Lake Nakuru. For something more offbeat, try self-driving or travelling by public transport through the Rift Valley.
Although most couple are happy to spend plenty of time alone together, it can be fun to break things up with the odd night at a more sociable venue such as a backpacker hostel or intimate private lodge.
Kenya is a great destination for some family bonding time | Credit: Govenor’s Camp
Kenya is a reasonably family-friendly destination, but it boasts few attractions that cater specifically to youngsters, and the threat of malaria might be deterrent for families with young children. Most children will enjoy a few days on safari, but be warned that youngsters often become bored on long hot game drives. For this reason, smaller and more contained safari destinations such as Lake Nakuru and Nairobi National Park might be preferable for families than the vast expanses of Tsavo, Masai Mara and the like.
Kids will love the interesting wildlife in Kenya | Credit: Sabuk Lodge
The highlights are much the same as for solo travellers or couples: the thrilling volume and variety of wildlife present in the likes of the Masai Mara, Amboseli and Lake Nakuru.
Of the beach resorts, Diani is probably the most family-friendly, since its large package hotels tend to have an excellent range of on-site activities and amenities suited to all age groups, as well as offering plenty of excursions.
It is not advisable to enter malarial areas with children not yet old enough to safely take prophylactic drugs or be able to clearly communicate any malarial symptoms to their parents.
Parents of younger children should check whether their hotel offers babysitting services.
Some private game lodges place a lower-end age restriction on children, while others specifically cater to younger children and provide them with alternative activities when adults are on game drives. Check this when you make a booking.
Self-drivers with children should avoid overambitious itineraries. Distances in Kenya are far longer than you might be used to at home, and roads tend to be rougher, so and children might quickly become bored or carsick.
Even if you’re travelling solo, there are plenty of ways to meet people and have a great holiday | Credit: Governor’s Loldia House
Most parts of Kenya are suited to solo travel. Independent travellers using public transport will find that locals are very friendly and keen to engage in conversation with single foreigners. On safaris, small tented camps and private concessions’ reserves are probably better suited to single travellers than larger lodges in public sanctuaries, since they tend to offer a more hands-on personalised service.
Lazy days on the beach
Most solo travellers want to go on safari and visit the coast. The highlights are the same as for other travellers: the thrill of being in the bush and the range of wild animals to be seen in popular reserves such as Masai Mara, Amboseli and Laikipia. Of the coastal resorts, Malindi has the most inherently sociable and integrated vibe, making it perhaps better suited to sociable solo travellers than rustic Watamu or spread-out Diani. The Rift Valley lakes are a worthwhile goal for solo travellers with an interest in local cultures.
Sociable solo travellers might be more keen to join group safaris, or to stay at lodges that offer all-inclusive packages with group game drives and customarily encourage guests to mingle by dining together at one large table.
There are no risks specific to solo travel in Kenya, but single women in particular should apply the usual common-sense precautions such as not walking alone at night in cities, particularly Nairobi, and avoiding deserted beaches.
The Great Migration in the Masai Mara is a highlight of a Kenyan safari
Often regarded to be the ultimate safari destination, Kenya undoubtedly incorporates some of the continent’s most rewarding and exciting national parks and wildlife reserves.
Best known is the incomparable Masai Mara, whose undulating green grasslands support staggering concentrations of lion, cheetah, spotted hyena and other predators. Over August to October, the Mara also hosts the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, when hundreds of thousands of manically baa-ing dust-kicking wildebeest stream across the Mara River from neighbouring Tanzania.
Elephant in Amboseli National Park
No less iconic is Amboseli, where some of the continent’s most impressive and well-habituated elephant herds can be seen crossing the dusty plains below snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
The country is bisected by a dramatic stretch of the Rift Valley floor which is studded with gem-like lakes. There is Lake Nakuru, shores grazed by prehistoric-looking rhinos; Lake Bogoria, its shallows tinged pink by more than a million or more flamingos; and lovely Lake Naivasha, fringed by reedbeds that are alive with birds and hippos.
Chameleon in Mount Meru National Park
Arguably the most unique of the Kenya reserves are those lying north of the equator. Here, the likes of Laikipia, Samburu-Buffalo Springs and Meru support a range of dry-country specialists – the lovely Reticulated giraffe, the outsized Grevy’s zebra, the freaky gerenuk, and many dozens of colourful birds – at the southern limit of their restricted range.
There’s no better index of Kenya’s biodiversity, perhaps, than its national bird checklist of more than 1,000 species – placing it third in Africa, a figure made all the more remarkable when you realise that it doesn’t make the continent’s top 20 countries in terms of surface area.
A Turkana woman
Kenya is undoubtedly one of Africa’s finest Big Five destinations. But it has a great deal more to offer than just safaris. Culturally, it is a fascinating mass of contradictions. One of Africa’s most developed countries, it has an unusually high level of education, a substantial middle class, world-class tourist facilities, and a growing industrial belt sprawling out from its bustling capital. Yet away from the cities, on dusty plains populated by pastoralists such as the Maasai, Samburu and Turkana, it ranks among the most visibly traditional of African nations.
Diani beach is one of Kenya’s most popular stretches of coast | Credit: www.dianibeach.com
Then there is the sultry Indian Ocean coastline, which comprises more than 500 km of idyllic beach frontage set to a backdrop of mysterious mediaeval ruins, dense tropical jungles, and traditional Swahili port towns. Offshore are coral reefs whose kaleidoscopic swirl of fish is as delightful to snorkelers and divers as the country’s more familiar terrestrial wildlife.
Mount Kenya | Credit: Rishil Blog
Elsewhere, Kenya’s geographic diversity embraces the vast inland sea of Lake Victoria, the intimate palm-lined shores of the Galana River, the dense tropical rainforest of Kakamega, the parched badlands that surround Turkana (the world’s largest desert lake), rolling Afro-alpine meadows below snow-capped Mount Kenya, and the tortured volcanic plugs of Hell’s Gate and of course, the hypnotic tracts of acacia-studded African savanna protected within the legendary game reserves.
Almost all visitors from abroad fly in. Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport (NBO) is the main port of entry for international flights, and it has excellent connections to most other parts of Kenya and many other African capitals. Some carriers also operate international flights to Mombasa Moi International Airport (MBA).
The national carrier, Kenya Airways operates an extensive network of flights to and from major cities in Europe, Asia and elsewhere in Africa.
Most major international carriers operate direct flights between their home country and South Africa, among them Air France, Air Mauritius, British Airways, EgyptAir, Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad, KLM, LAM Mozambique Airlines, Lufthansa, Malawian Airlines, Oman Air, Qatar, Rwandair, Royal Air Maroc, South African Airlines, Swiss International Airlines and Turkish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, Particularly coming from a major European city such as London or Paris, there might be dozens of indirect options and you can save a lot of money by shopping around.
It is possible to enter Kenya overland from the neighbouring countries of Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, but you’d only be likely to do so as part of an extended overland trip through Africa or if you were doing a multi-country safari.
People keep coming back to Kenya for the amazing wildlife viewing | Credit: Kicheche Camps
Kenya attracts plenty of repeat visitors. The main reason for this is the unpredictability of its game reserves (no two days on safari are ever alike) and its immense variety of safari destinations (it would be difficult to do full justice to more than half of them in the course of one vacation).
Many people develop an affinity of one particular beach resort, be it Diani, Watamu or Malindi, and return there every few years to soak up the sun and chilled atmosphere. For independent travellers, Kenya’s extraordinary diversity and number of attractions is enough to keep you busy for a two-month trip – or several shorter ones!
Kenya is more of a dedicated wildlife destination than South Africa. A far greater proportion of the country is given over to national parks and other wildlife reserves, and these tend to have a wilder and more untrammelled feel than their fenced-in South African counterparts and their asphalt-roads and village-like rest camps. Kenya would thus be the better destination for people seeking a safari-dominated wilderness itinerary. That said, Kenya’s safari circuit is far less suited to budget-conscious travellers, or to DIY self-drivers, than the likes of South Africa’s Kruger National Park or Pilanesberg.
South Africa offers a far lower risk of contracting malaria, bilharzia and other tropical diseases makes it a safer bet for families, first-time safari goers, and other health-conscious travellers (indeed, South Africa also the only country in Africa to boast several malaria-free safari destinations). South Africa is a far more family-friendly destination than Kenya. Both countries have a superb coastline, but South Africa’s beach resorts tend to be better developed for families and children, while the ancient ports of Kenya have a interesting cultural dimension provided by the Swahili people and some amazing ruins dating back to medieval times.
Uganda is a great destination for a gorilla trekking safari
Kenya is a better destination than Uganda when it comes to quality Big Five sightings and plains wildlife in general. Its game reserves tend to be far larger than their counterparts in Uganda, and to offer a more varied selection of lodges and tented camps. Equally, Uganda offers several attractions not found in Kenya or indeed most other safari destinations. Foremost among these is the opportunity to track mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and chimpanzees in the likes of Kibale National Park. Overall, Uganda offers far greater diversity when it comes to primates, and it matches Kenya for general birdwatching, though it tends be stronger on forest birds that are difficult to see elsewhere in eastern and southern Africa. Uganda’s three main savannah reserves are also wonderfully scenic, and offer the opportunity to explore thrilling tropical waterways by boat. There is nothing in landlocked Uganda to compare with the Indian Ocean beach resorts such as Diani and Watamu. Kenya is also a more visibly diverse and interesting country when it comes to traditional cultures, be it the pastoralist Maasai and Samburu, or Arab-influenced Swahili people of the coast.
The iconic African elephant against the backdrop of Mount Kenya
Kenya’s geographic diversity means that it supports an extraordinary range of wildlife. The country’s premier national parks and reserves, a list that includes the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo East and West, Samburu-Buffalo Springs, Meru and Laikipia, are all home to most or all of the Big Five, i.e. lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and Black rhino.
We would rank the Masai Mara as one of the top five reserves in Africa for lion and cheetah sightings, and it is also unusually reliable when it comes to leopards, along with other less glamorous carnivores such as spotted hyena, jackals and bat-eared fox. Amboseli is one of the top places anywhere in Africa for watching elephant interactions at close quarters.
Hyenas in the Masai Mara
After South Africa, Kenya is the second-best place to see both black and white rhino, with healthy and conspicuous populations of one or both to be found in Tsavo West, Meru, Lake Nakuru and several of the reserves on the Laikipia Plateau.
Other wildlife tends to be more regional. The relatively moist southern savannah protected in Masai Mara and Amboseli is home to eland, Coke’s hartebeest, topi, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle and impala, as well as Maasai giraffe, plains zebra and warthog. Wildebeest are resident in both reserves, but the Masai Mara is renowned for the migration of hundreds of thousands of these doleful looking antelope from neighboring Tanzania between August and October.
The more arid northern reserves, most notably Samburu-Buffalo Springs, support a quite different set of grazers, for instance Beisa oryx, Lesser kudu, Guenther’s dik-dik and the unique Long-necked gerenuk. Here you will also see the Critically Endangered Grevy’s zebra, which is the world’s largest wild equid, and far more narrowly striped than the more widespread plains zebra, which occurs alongside it in Samburu-Buffalo Springs. Another creature unique to the north is the reticulated giraffe, which has a more geometric and striking coast pattern than the Masai Giraffe.
The generuk has an elongated neck
Other major reserves such as Laikipia, Meru and Tsavo East and West tend to support an intermediate selection of grazers. Very different again are the montane forests of the Aberdares and Central Highlands, coastal forests around Diani and Watamu, and tropical lowland forests in western sites such as Kakamega. These tend to support a wide range of monkeys, most notably the striking black-and-white colobus, as well as small forest antelope known as duikers, and oddities like the Golden-rumped elephant shrew (coast only), mountain bongo (Aberdares only) and Giant forest hog.
Kenya is one of the world’s finest bird watching destinations. A national checklist of more than 1,000 species places it among the world’s top 15 countries in terms of avian diversity. But even this figure doesn’t quite convey the variety of colorful and striking birds on display countrywide. There are several places, most notably perhaps Lake Naivasha or Baringo, where a moderately skilled birder could tick 100 species in a day. And for dedicated birdwatchers, a well-planned two-week itinerary taking in key ornithological sites such as Kakamega Forest, Samburu-Buffalo Springs, Mount Kenya, the Rift Valley Lakes and the coastal forests around Watamu should result in a trip list of at least 350 species, quite possibly more.
Kenya also hosts a diverse marine wildlife. A year-round attraction is the colorful reef fish that proliferate diving and snorkeling sites in the reefs offshore of Watamu, Malindi, Mombasa and Diani. Other, more seasonal, marine wildlife includes dolphins, whale-sharks, marine turtles and manta rays.
All visitors must present a passport upon arrival at their port of entry. This must be valid until at least 6 months after the end of their intended stay, and must have at least two blank pages to accommodate entry and exit stamps.
Technically, visitors should also have a return or onward ticket, and be able to demonstrate access to sufficient funds to cover day-to-day expenses for the duration of their stay, but these requirements are seldom enforced.
Most visitors require a visa to enter Kenya. This includes nationals of practically all European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and North or South American countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand. For single-entry tourist visits of to 90 days, eVisas can be bought online, provided this is done at least two days prior to departure, and it is also usually possible to get a visa on arrival.
Multiple-entry and non-tourist visas must be applied for through a Kenyan embassy or high commission abroad.
Visas for stays of up to 90 days are not required by passport-holders of certain African and Caribbean countries, among them South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
An East Africa Tourist Visa allows multiple-entry visits to Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, but not to Tanzania or Burundi.
A good network of scheduled and charter flights connects Nairobi to other major cities in Kenya, for instance Mombasa, Malindi and Kisumu, and light aircraft flights connect and all the main game reserves to Nairobi and to each other. Not that most but not all domestic flights to/from Nairobi depart and arrive nor from Jomo Kenyatta Airport but from the smaller Wilson Airport (WIL), so check your booking.
Most people explore the country on an organised group or bespoke safari or tour, which can be arranged through innumerable international and local operators.
Most trunk roads are all surfaced and well maintained, so self-drive is an option, provided you have a valid license, but be aware that driving tends to be reckless by Western standards. Driving is on the left side of the road, as in the UK, which may require some adjustment for drivers accustomed to driving on the right.
National parks and other safari destinations are not generally accessible on public transport, but it is easy enough to travel between towns by bus or local matatu minibuses. Be warned that these are often poorly maintained, overcrowded and recklessly driven, and fatal accidents are commonplace. A notable exception is the historic train service that connects Nairobi to Mombasa, a trip that qualifies as an attraction in its own right.
The Kenyan shilling (KSh) trades against most international currencies at a favourable rate. There’s no need to bring large amounts of hard currency cash or to buy shillings in advance. Major international credit/debit cards (for instance Master and Visa) can be used to draw local currency at 24-hour ATMs in most cities and beach resorts, but not in national parks and other safari destinations). Many vendors do not accept cards, however, so it’s a good idea to carry a few hundred dollars’ worth of hard currency cash as a fall back.
Nicknamed ‘Nairobbery’ by jaded locals, Nairobi has a longstanding reputation as a crime hotspot, one that is largely justified, but unlikely to affect those who stay at a suburban hotel, since crime targeted at tourists is mostly associated with the city centre. The triangle of streets between Moi Avenue and River Road should be avoided at all times unless you have a trusted local escort, and it it is best to use a taxi of you leave your hotel after dark. Crime is also a problem on some parts of the coast but far less so in small upcountry towns and the game reserves and other rural areas. The majority of visitors have hassle-free holidays and so should you if you follow the commonsense dos and don’ts below:
Carry a scan or electronic version of all important travel documents, in case they are lost or stolen. You might also want to email all such backups to a webmail address you can access anywhere on the road.
Padlocking your luggage might not prevent a determined thief from slashing it open, but it is a strong deterrent to casual light fingers.
Never leave valuables (cash, mobile phones, electronic devices etc) lying around openly in your hotel room; where possible, stow your passport and other important documents, as well as spare cash and cards, in a hotel safe.
Leave expensive jewellery at home.
Avoid exposing cameras, laptops or large amounts of cash in urban areas.
Avoid walking around towns after dark. If you must, do so as part if a group and stick to busy and well-lit streets.
Tip your safari guides and helpers if you feel that your expectations have been exceeded, which happens often in Kenya | Credit: Sambuk Lodge
Tip in local currency where possible; it may be quite difficult for locals to exchange small amounts of hard currency into Kenya shillings.
Tipping is not standard at eateries or bars catering mainly to a local clientele, but that doesn’t mean a small something won’t be appreciated by the recipient.
Tourist-oriented restaurants operate on a similar basis to those in Europe or North America. A 10-15% tip to the waiter is standard, depending on the quality of service.
At hotels, it’s usually easier to sign drinks and meals to the room than to pay cash, but you could still leave a tip for an individual waiter or bartender, or add one to the bill before you sign it.
Hotel porters usually expect a tip equivalent to around US$1 per item of luggage.
On organised tours, it is customary to tip to the guide and/or driver and/or cook at the end, usually as a group rather than on an individual basis.
Upmarket lodges and camps that operate on a full-board basis generally have a tip box at reception. Tips will usually be distributed between all the staff, a system that seems fairest to backroom workers in a country where hotel staff is very poorly paid.
In game lodges that offer guided game drives, any guides, drivers and trackers should be tipped. Many such lodges have guideline in the rooms; failing that ask management for a directive.
You can buy a variety of arts and crafts in Kenya, all made with love
Nairobi and to a lesser extent Mombasa and Malindi are equipped with a fair selection of shops and malls, at least by African standards. Shops in smaller towns are less varied and more poorly stocked, but most regulation items likely to be required by tourists will be available. Once on safari the only options are usually gift shops in lodges and camps, which generally stock a fair selection of basic toiletries, books about Kenya, expensive touristy clothing, handicrafts and a few packaged goods such as chocolate bars, crisps and chewing gum.
Modern Makonde carvings
The opportunities for craft shopping in Kenya are practically endless: there are handicraft shops and stalls dotted all around Nairobi and the various coastal resorts, as well as along several of the more widely-used trunk roads and outside game reserves and national parks. In addition to an almost limitless choice of tacky identikit wildlife carvings and paintings, a range of more interesting and individualistic items is available, including intricate Makonde carvings and fantastically stylised Tingatinga paintings, from neighbouring Tanzania, inventive batiks, traditional musical instruments, Akamba basketwork, Gusii soapstone carvings, malachite knick-knacks, Masai beadwork and other tribal items, as well as toys made inventively from wire, wood or whatever other materials the creator found to hand.
Craft shops generally charge fixed prices, though there may be some slight wiggle room for negotiation. Bargaining is essential at craft stalls. To get a feel for prices, ask the price of a few similar items at different stalls before you actually contemplate buying anything.
Swahili was the first native African language to get Twitter recognition
More than 60 different languages are indigenous to in Kenya. The official languages are English, which is widely spoken to a high standard in the tourist industry, and KiSwahili, an East African lingua franca that originates from the coast and spread inland along trade routes in the early 19th century. Other major languages include Kikuyu, Luo, Akamba and Maa.
Most languages spoken locally belong to two broad language families: Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan, spoken by the country’s Bantu and Nilotic populations, respectively. The Cushitic and Arab ethnic minorities speak languages belonging to the separate Afroasiatic family, with the Hindustani and British residents speaking languages from the Indo-European family.
Kenya’s various ethnic groups typically speak their mother tongues within their own communities. The two official languages, are used in varying degrees of fluency for communication with other populations. English is widely spoken in commerce, schooling and government. Peri-urban and rural dwellers are less multilingual, with many in rural areas speaking only their native languages.
Malaria is the biggest single medical threat to visitors to Kenya. It is present in most parts of the country throughout the year, though the risk of transmission is generally far higher at low altitudes and during the rainy season. There is no vaccine, but several different oral prophylactics are available, and it is advisable to visit a travel clinic or other suitably qualified medical professional for up-to-date advice about the option best suited to your requirements. No prophylactic is 100% effective, so take all reasonable precautions against being bitten by the nocturnal Anopheles mosquitoes that transmits the disease.
These include donning a long-sleeved shirt, trousers and socks in the evening, and applying a DEET-based insect repellent clothes to any exposed flesh. Always sleep under a net, or failing that in and air-conditioned room, under a fan, or with a mosquito coil burning. Malaria normally manifests within two weeks of being bitten, but it can take months, so if you display possible symptoms after you get home, get to a doctor immediately, and ask to be tested. Travellers with young children or who prefer not to take medication might consider visiting a malaria-free safari destinations elsewhere in Africa in preference to Kenya.
Anti-malarial drugs are as good as essential and advice should be sought at least a few weeks in advance to be sure you use suitable medication. At the same time, check which (if any) vaccinations require updating. All over-the-counter medications are available at pharmacies in the larger cities, but not in game reserves or more isolated beach destinations, so best to buy any prescription drugs or others that you use regularly before you travel, along with essentials such as sunblock and insect repellent. People who wear contact lenses often find that their eyes are more irritable in the dry heat typical of many safari destinations, so it is a good idea to bring glasses as a backup.
A yellow fever vaccination and certificate is not mandatory for those entering Kenya from Europe or North America. You may be asked for one if you enter arrive from elsewhere in the yellow fever belt of Africa or South America. It’s important to be up-to-date on tetanus, polio and diphtheria, and you might consider immunisation against hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, rabies, typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis.
If no other assistance is at hand, the emergency number for fire ambulance services is 999 or 020-2222181/182. Superior private hospitals in Nairobi include the Aga Khan University Hospital (tel: 020-3662000), MP Shah Hospital (tel: 020-3746177) and Nairobi Hospital (020-2845000). In more remote areas, Flying Doctors (tel: 020-6992299) is a highly regarded organisation offering emergency air evacuation services.
A public healthcare system exists but it is underfunded and rudimentary by international standards. Private medical facilities compare favourable to most parts of Africa other than South Africa but are not always to the standard you’d expect in Europe or North America. On the plus side, medical consultations are generally very cheap, and local doctors are highly experienced when it comes to recognising symptoms of malaria (the most common threat to travellers) and prescribing appropriate medication.
It is recommended that you take comprehensive medical travel insurance, inclusive of air evacuation from remote areas. Be aware that some insurance policies may not cover paragliding or scuba diving other activities deemed to be hazardous, and it might also be null and void in areas subject to travel warnings by the British FCO or US state department.
Although the official languages are Swahili and English, Kenya is a multilingual country. There are 62 languages spoken throughout which mainly consist of tribal African languages as well as a minority of Middle-Eastern and Asian languages spoken by descendants of foreign settlers (i.e. Arabic, Hindi, etc). The African languages come from three different language families – Bantu languages (spoken in the center and southeast), Nilotic languages (in the west), and Cushitic languages (in the northeast).
Kenya is not a homogeneous country ethnicity wise. The make-up of Kenyans is primarily that of 13 ethnic groups with an additional 27 smaller groups. The majority of Kenyans belong to ‘Bantu’ tribes such as the Kikuyu, Luhya and Kamba. There are also the ‘Nilotic’ tribes such as the Luo, Kalenjin, Maasai and Turkana. The ‘Hamitic’ people include the Turkana, Rendille and Samburu. Around 13% of the population are of non-African descent, i.e. Indian, Arab and European.
Kenyans are group-orientated rather than individualistic. “Harambee,” (coming from the Bantu word meaning “to pull together”) defines the people’s approach to others in life. The concept is essentially about mutual assistance, mutual effort, mutual responsibility and community self-reliance.