The popular image of safari, especially in the west, is inseparable from Kenya. Earlier in the last century, gifted writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen brought to life the vivid images and uplifting life experience that constitutes a Kenyan safari. It is at this time that leading celebrities of the day such as Teddy Roosevelt and Prince Edward traveled to Kenya on safari. And so the safari gained a certain snob appeal. The famous went because it was expected of them. And those on the make because the safari was part of the certification they needed on the way up. If you want to take a peek into the mood and character of the players at that time, read Hemingway’s intriguing short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.
In our day however, a Kenya safari is accessible to many more people. Despite competition from other destinations, Kenya remains the heart of the African safari experience. The magnificence and diversity of the wildlife and landscape is unsurpassed. You are guaranteed to tick off the full roster of the big five –lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino and elephant. Other less well-known but essential and chartered members of the savannah ecosystem are also abundant. The landscape kaleidoscope rolls out the magnificent rift valley, the central highlands, the savannah grasslands, snow capped Mount Kenya and the desolate moonscape of the north. This is perhaps why the experts advise all those faithful lovers of wildlife and nature that at least once in their lifetime they must partake of a Kenyan safari.
Kenya has over 50 national parks and game reserves where wildlife is protected. But as you already suspect, on the average safari you cannot hope to cover all of them. It is therefore a good thing that you get very good value by visiting only a few of them. This is unless of course you have a lot of time and can afford to take off the beaten track. The most popular and from which those with limited time and budget need to pick from are- Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Aberdares, Samburu and Tsavo. Top in the off-the-beaten track category for either wildlife or back to nature activities are- Kakamega Forest, Marsabit, Meru, Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon and Shimba Hills.
Maasai Mara is the big one. This is where you must go even when all the time you can spare is two nights. This is mostly where all those wildlife videos on Kenya are filmed. The Mara, as the Maasai Mara Game Reserve is commonly known, is part of the ecosystem that includes the equally famous Serengeti of Tanzania. Covering 320 square kilometers, it is nested in the southwestern corner of the country. The Mara offers wildlife in such variety and abundance that it is difficult to believe. On a two-night visit, I saw lions, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, giraffe, wildebeests, zebras, buffalo, warthogs, hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, buffalo, leopard, nine kinds of antelopes and elephant. The birds are also in plenty –secretary birds, cranes, stork, vultures and ostriches.
It is in the Mara that perhaps the most spectacular event of the natural world takes place. I refer to the annual migration of millions of wildebeest and zebra from the Serengeti in search of water and pasture. The timing of the phenomena is conditional on the rains and occurs between June and August. The reverse journey is usually taken in October. With or without the migration the Mara has abundant numbers of resident animals and you are sure to have a good wildlife viewing experience whatever time of the year you visit. If you have sufficient funds, consider taking a balloon trip over the reserve. This popular and thoroughly memorable ride usually commences before dawn and includes a champagne breakfast. The Mara is 5 hours from Nairobi by road and 45 minutes by light aircraft.
Amboseli National Park sits on the lower slopes of mighty Kilimanjaro whose peak is across the border in Tanzania. It is quite an experience to see the Kilimanjaro hovering above the clouds in an early morning. As the keen photography enthusiast can already imagine, the mountain gives a dramatic backdrop for animal pictures. Amboseli is renowned for its huge elephant herds. You will also see buffalo, black rhino, zebra, wildebeest and other plain animals. Lions and other cats can be seen but are less plentiful here than in the Mara. The park is 3 hours from Nairobi by road and can be approached through Namanga, the border post between Kenya and Tanzania.
Lake Nakuru’s claim to fame is anchored on its flamingo’s and the over 400 species of birds found here. The lake itself is a soda lake on the floor of the rift valley. The sight of the at times millions of flamingos is quite spectacular. From a distance the lake appears ringed in pink. Lake Nakuru is also host to a sanctuary for the endangered black and white rhino. Lions, Rothschild’s giraffe, buffalo and baboons are all residents here. The park is the most accessible of Kenya’s bigger parks and is only two hours from Nairobi by road.
At the same distance from Nairobi as Lake Nakuru is the Aberdares National Park. The park has a diverse topography that includes waterfalls, rain forests and the rivers that supply water to Nairobi’s millions. The flora and fauna is quite unique and is not found elsewhere in the country, expect on Mount Kenya. Leopard, elephant, rhino and the rare bongo can all be found here. But dense vegetation and inclement weather makes it difficult to spot animals. You are however guaranteed to see some animals especially elephants and buffalos at the floodlit waterholes of the two famous tree hotels, The Ark and Treetops.
Students of the history of the British royal family will recall that it was at the Treetops in 1952, where the then Princess Elizabeth was staying on honeymoon when her father, King George VI, died. She descended from Treetops to assume the backbreaking role of presiding over the far-flung dominions and colonies of the empire. If you stay at the Treetops you are bound to meet with some of her fans.
Though not as famous as the Mara, Samburu National Park is another wildlife haven. Here you will spot lions, elephants, cheetahs and the elusive leopard. Some animals are unique to this northern park: Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, kudu and gerenuk. You will find the semiarid landscape quite dramatic. On your trip to Samburu, you may also want to take in the nearby Shaba and Buffalo Springs game reserves. In addition, this is the place to take a camel safari. Samburu is three hours from Nairobi by road.
Tsavo is so huge, all of 20,000 sq km, that it is administered as two units: Tsavo West and Tsavo East. This is the park that is closest to Mombasa at the coast. The park is three and a half hours away from Nairobi by road. You will find large herds of elephant, especially in Tsavo East. Tsavo West is filled with crocodiles, vervet monkeys, antelope, baboons, giraffes and hippos. It is in Tsavo that poachers were most successful in their bloody racket and this saw a dramatic fall in elephant population. The good guys have in recent years gained the upper hand and numbers are recovering.
But Kenyan authorities are still extremely wary of the future of the elephant in Tsavo. The country is very active in seeking a permanent ban on the international ivory trade. I wish at this point to declare to all that I am a great fan of the African elephant. I believe this to be the true king of the jungle and not that overrated pretender, the lion. You may recall from the movie “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” how cowardly lions disrupted the building of the railway in the Tsavo area by feeding on the workforce. Would true royalty be involved in such a disgraceful affair?
Kenya is a year round safari destination. The rains come around April- May and November-December. This does not however, much affect the travelers’ ability to get around. This is except for the heavily forested Aberdares. In the wet season the roads in the Aberdares are extremely slippery and the park is at times actually closed down. Generally the best time to go on safari is over the drier months when the grass is short and sighting animals is so much easier. But in areas such as the Mara, the animals are so plentiful that you are going to see lots of them regardless of the season. The peak tourist season falls around January to February and July to August. April to June is the low season and prices for accommodation in the lodges can be as much as 40% lower than in the high season.
Accommodation on safari varies from basic camping to luxury lodges and tented camps. Out there in the bush, you will be pleasantly surprised that all the trimmings of 5 star accommodations are available. But if you want to rough it out, you will find campsites in almost all the game reserves and national parks. Info on Kenya hotels, lodges & resorts accommodation options is available online.
It is generally recommended to take an escorted Kenya safari tour package that includes transport, park fees and accommodation. The reason for this is that the tour guides are usually well versed about the animals, where to find them and how to get there and have other such useful local knowledge. Have a look at some offers of various durations and budgets.
But if you have a lot of time and need more freedom as you get around, then hire a vehicle in either Nairobi or Mombasa. For Kenya car rental there is a choice between self-drive and chauffer driven vehicles. On safari, wear light cottons and linen. Warmer clothing is needed for the evenings and for your early morning game drive. Some rainwear is advisable between March and June and October and December.
You should bring along a decent pair of sunglasses. The glare you experience in bright tropical light is a new and uncomfortable experience for most. It is also a good idea to carry a pair of binoculars. They are very useful for spotting animals and will earn you the envy of your less knowledgeable traveling companions.
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