Expert Reviews – Kenya

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Kenya – middle earth
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Kenya should be the world’s finest safari destination. It has every natural advantage. Wrapped around the equator, it has the most extraordinary range of landscape, from the Indian Ocean to the Turkana Desert, the Great Rift Valley to the forests of Mt Elgon and the soaring highlands of Mt Kenya. The country even shares the great wildebeest migration with Tanzania, as some 2 million plains animals circle the Serengeti Plains, which reach north into Kenya as the Masai Mara.

It was here that the safari was born with ‘great white hunters’ pouring in from across Europe in search of trophies from the 1890s onwards. Photographic safaris came later, popularized by movies such as Hatari, starring John Wayne (1962) and Born Free (1966), based on the real life story of Joy and George Adamson, Elsa the lion and their life in Kenya. Kenya really should have everything. But sadly, for me, now, it is has been flawed – not by nature but by man.
Don’t get me wrong. Go to Kenya and you can have superb safari experiences. The country has some of the finest lodges in Africa, an incredible range of wildlife, birds and scenery. But it all comes at a scary price. There are two tiers of Kenya safari these days. The first is a fairly grim, crammed three-day minibus expedition from the coast to Tsavo and/or Amboseli involving too much driving, too many people and not enough wildlife. The other is extremely high end, quite magnificent and uber-expensive. There is no middle ground, partly because park fees are now so high that they have priced ordinary people out of the market completely. It’s a desperate shame and a serious worry. If they are not careful, they will kill the golden goose.

Classic safari destination where it pays to be discerning
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No true fan of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary or Disney’s The Lion King would ever admit this, but Kenya isn’t the best country in Africa for a safari. Its parks and reserves are full of animals and birds, of course, but all too many of them are stuffed with tourists, too. For a richer, more authentic experience, with stunningly diverse wildlife, pristine habitats and better opportunities to really immerse yourself in the wilderness, you should really be considering Tanzania, Zambia or Botswana instead.

The people that enjoy Kenya most are those who have a strong personal connection with the country, or particularly positive associations with aspects of its history and ethnic make-up or its popular culture. Even if you have no particular interest in seeing the place where Big Cat Diary was filmed (the Masai Mara, easily one of the country’s finest reserves) or the location which inspired The Lion King (Hell’s Gate National Park), you may be enchanted by the Swahili towns and islands of the Indian Ocean coast, fascinated by Maasai traditions or thrilled at the thought of following in the footsteps of Karen Blixen and Ernest Hemingway. For me, the simple fact that Kenya was the first place I ever went on safari ensures that return visits always feel special.

The best way to make the most of Kenya is to choose your area and operator carefully, avoiding the mass-market minibus trips which crowd out the more accessible parks such as Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Nakuru and Amboseli, and perhaps sampling some of the more imaginative ventures which can be found in quieter spots such as Laikipia, Lewa and Samburu. These are good places to find operations run by, or in close association with, local communities – a good way to ensure that your trip is meaningful and sustainable as well as enjoyable.

From game-packed hotspots to little known wilderness
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Kenya’s stunning landscapes include rainforest, beaches, deserts and mountains, but it’s the first class wildlife watching that keeps so many visitors flocking back. Not only is it one of the best places in Africa to see the Big Five, it also counts among the world’s most important bird watching destinations, and is home to one of the most astonishing wildlife spectacles on earth - massive herds of wildebeest making their way across the savanna from the Serengeti plains in Tanzania to Kenya's Masai Mara in the annual migration.

Tourist hot spots such as Amboseli (perfect for that money shot of elephants wandering against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro), and the Masai Mara - where on my last visit I witnessed a lion kill, had a close up encounter with a big cat whilst on foot, and sat watching vast streams of grunting wildebeest cross the river - are deservedly popular, but can suffer from 4WD traffic in high season.

The good thing about Kenya, though, is that there are plenty of small and uncrowded parks, wilderness areas and wildlife conservancies where you can commune with animals and nature with hardly anyone else for company.

A bumpy journey up though harsh desert to the country's north, for example, introduced me to Lake Turkana, a vibrant jade splash in a prehistoric landscape, which large numbers of crocodiles, hippos and snakes call home.

On another occasion, I saw large herds of elephant traipse through the dusty plains of the Samburu, and sat by the rim a crater lake at little-visited Marsabit National Park, watching buffalo graze peacefully below.

Kenya has it all
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Kenya is a good choice for a first-time African safari. It has everything we image Africa to be: savannah plains teeming with grazers and predators, views of the snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro, palm-fringed beaches, sweaty jungles and a vast inhospitable desert. With the oldest safari industry on the continent, the Kenyans run a smooth operation and most tourists seem to walk away happy and fulfilled. I first went to Kenya in 1995 and I’ve been back many times since. It is easy to see a big variety of animals in Kenya.

As a photographer, I love to go to the Masai Mara. I’ve been lucky to witness one of the biggest wildlife spectacles in the world here: the annual wildebeest migration. The timing for this is hard to predict exactly, but the Masai Mara offers some of the best all-year game viewing in a big eco-system. It is especially rewarding for big cats.

Amboseli National Park with its big-tusked elephants is another one of my favourites. The Rift valley lakes in Kenya are some of the most accessible in East Africa, and seeing big flocks of flamingos in Nakuru National Park is another highlight. Deviating a little bit from the main tourist hotspots, I love going to Samburu National Reserve. This arid environment is home to many desert-adapted species, not easily seen elsewhere.

Some people might like to end their safari with some time on the beach, and Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline is one of the finest. I’m not a beach person, but I love heading to some of the pristine coastal forests. Shimba Hills with its sable antelope and many forest creatures is excellent for birding as well.

Africa for Beginners
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Kenya is so easy to get to - just eight hours away by air from London. Fly overnight and you can be in the bush in good time for lunch. Even before you arrive in Nairobi you can see giraffes wandering under the flight path in the city’s adjoining national park. Nairobi is where the whole safari industry kicked off and today it’s still the springboard for Kenyan safaris. Nowadays most visitors fly into the bush from Wilson, the world’s busiest airport for light aircraft. Prices are reasonable and distances short.

The Masai Mara, Kenya’s must-see wildlife destination is just a 45-minute hop away. You could easily spend your entire holiday here; but then you would miss out on Kenya’s incredible diversity, which ranges from the frost-shattered pinnacles of Mt Kenya and the cloud forests of the Aberdares to the flamingo lakes of the Great Rift Valley and the spectacular elephant strongholds of Tsavo and Amboseli. I would always include the Chyulu Hills among my top Kenyan destinations, together with Lewa on the Laikipia Plateau. And afterwards, where better to wash off the dust of a perfect safari than on the laid-back island of Lamu; or a barefoot luxury beach lodge such as Kiwayu on Kenya’s fabulous coral coast?

Home to ‘the greatest wildlife real-estate on Earth’
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The Masai Mara has been called ‘the greatest wildlife real-estate on Earth’ and for the sheer density of its wildlife it probably as no competition anywhere in the world. For a first time safari these days you probably still can’t beat the Mara but you should pick your spot carefully and get a good driver who can help you to avoid the crowded spots. Amboseli has much of the same game with the added draw of one of the most beautiful views in Africa (over-looking as it does Kilimanjaro). Only Lewa Downs (on the slopes of Mt Kenya) could compete with that view for a sundowner setting. Mighty Tsavo is probably Kenya’s wildest park and offers the remotest safari experience for most visitors. I spent several days exploring isolated parts of Tsavo and saw almost nobody all the time I was there. At night I camped alone in a bungalow complex with nobody for several miles and the sound of hyena’s yapping around my campfire at night.

An all-round destination with diverse landscapes, fascinating wildlife, beautiful coastline and intr
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Kenya offers the classic quintessential image of a safari in Africa, and rightly so; the rolling hills and grassy plains really are stocked full of all the African animals people expect to see, including high concentrations of the crowd-pulling Big Five. Additionally, its stunning tropical coastline really does feature brilliant white sands backed by coconut palms, and the azure and inviting Indian Ocean really is alive with colourful reefs and fish.

There are lots of reasons why I like Kenya, but it’s the dramatically diverse range of natural habitats and ever-changing scenery that is the greatest draw-card – rolling savannah roamed by massive herds of wildlife, mountain forests full of birds, high moors of Kikuyu fields, and stony parched northern deserts. There’s a fine collection of reserves and parks, the Masai Mara being the most famous, and while others are out of the way and don’t feature on normal itineraries, they do appeal for their geologically interesting landscapes or even marine life. I find Kenya’s historical and cultural makeup interesting too, which is still evident today – the majestic Maasai and Samburu still stalk the plains dressed in their trademark red and purple robes, ocean-going dhows still ply the Swahili coast, and you can still get a gin and tonic in a Nairobi bar.

Kenya is totally jacked-up for tourism, and it can’t be disputed that the country relies on its natural assets to generate tourist income; although unfortunately in some respects I think too much so – there is one too many lodges in the Masai Mara, the presence of so many other tourists crowded around the same pride of lion in pop-up vehicles can be annoying, and some of the coastal resorts are insensitively-built and old-fashioned. But nevertheless, there are plenty of places to escape to, the typical safari experience is unrivalled, facilities are excellent, and there’s a lot to see and do, making Kenya a hugely rewarding place to travel in.

The home of the safari
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Kenya is the original land of the safari. It is here that the likes of Karen Blixen and Ernest Hemingway pioneered the original early 20th century hunting safaris that eventually morphed into the more populist and eco-friendly photographic safari as we know it today. And it was also Kenya that first established itself as something approaching a mass safari destination, back in the 1960-70s – a circumstance that has led to it being labelled as being more commercialised and touristy than many other top African safari destinations (a rather lazy and unfair tag, in my view, as the country boasts more than its fair share of off-the-beaten track gems, ranging from the bird-rich Kakamega Forest and remote inland sea that is Lake Turkana, to the underrated Meru National Park and private reserves of the Laikipia Plateau)

Of course, Kenya’s popularity is largely attributable to its immense scenic variety and beauty. Hemmed in by sensational Indian Ocean beaches, overlooked by the snow-capped volcanic peaks of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, and bisected by the schism that is the Great Rift Valley, this is a land whose geographic diversity embraces sparkling lakes and palm-lined rivers, dense montane forests and parched deserts… but, above all, several of the world’s most celebrated savanna reserves. Indeed, Kenya’s biodiversity is such that its national bird checklist of 1,136 species is the second highest for any African country, despite it falling outside the continental top 20 when it comes to surface area.

Perennial Kenyan favourites include dust-blown Amboseli, where peaceable herds of tuskers march majestically below iconic Kilimanjaro, and Lake Nakuru, with its shallows tinged pink by a million or more flamingos. Above all perhaps there is the Masai Mara, a northern extension of the Serengeti that hosts the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, in the form of the tens of thousands wildebeest that hurtle across the Mara River annually between July and October. And as a regular safarigoer, I find northern Kenyan reserves such as Meru and Samburu-Buffalo Springs especially attractive for hosting such localised dry-country ‘specials’ such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and gerenuk.

Closely following the game reserves in the popularity stakes is Kenya’s superb coastline. My favourite destination here is Lamu, a richly atmospheric and remarkably laidback Swahili island town that’s barely changed shape in centuries. The old town of Mombasa, set in the heart of the country’s beach tourist industry, is notable for the Portuguese Fort Jesus, while Watamu is a haven for snorkellers and divers, with the added attraction of having the jungle-bound ruined mediaeval city of Gedi on its doorstep. Indeed, Kenya has so much to offer as a travel destination that the biggest difficulty facing prospective visitors is often where to start.

The home of safari
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Kenya, to most people, is safari. This is where it all began, after all, and from Out of Africa to Big Cat Diary the country has provided the images that define the visitor’s idea of Africa. Certainly, when it comes to game viewing, this country has it all. Highlights include the Big Five spectacular of Masai Mara, with its celebrated wildebeest migration and legions of predators; the Rift Valley soda lakes, with their countless flamingos; the slopes of Mount Kenya, with its forest wildlife and famous lodges; the Laikipia Plateau, with its wild landscapes and rare species; and the marine wildlife of the numerous tropical beaches and islands. And that’s not even to mention the likes of Tsavo, Amboseli and Marsabit, all world-class reserves in their own right.

I remember, on my first visit to Kenya, being amazed to find giraffe, zebra and gazelles in large numbers as we began to descend the Rift Valley, still many miles from any park or reserve – something that you simply wouldn’t find in Southern Africa, with which I was more familiar. Times have changed, of course, and a burgeoning human population means that game no longer roams quite as freely across as it once did. Wildlife now has to pay its way: more fences have been constructed and more bush turned over to farmland. Nonetheless, the safari industry is in a healthy state, and the development in recent years of private conservancies – such as Lewa and other properties on the Laikipia Plateau – has added some excellent new options for the visitor.

All this choice brings dilemmas when planning your trip. The first-timer cannot go wrong with a classic package safari that combines Masai Mara with, say, Lake Nakuru, Samburu and the coast. More experienced safari goers might find Masai Mara too crowded, and look either to more exclusive lodges or to lesser-known reserves further north. The serious naturalist, meanwhile, might be just as happy tracking down rare primates in Tana River or golden-rumped elephant shrews in Arabuko Forest. And the birder will be happy anywhere: Kenya holds the world record for the most bird species recorded in a single day.

World-class national parks and amazing diversity of habitats
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Kenya was the first country to embrace the Western tourist trade, and it shows – the safari industry here is well-established and well organized, and the competition is hot enough to guarantee good value for money all round. The country has an amazing diversity of habitats from the semi-desert of the north to the volcanic highlands in the centre and the wide open plans of the south. There are some world-class national parks within easy reach of Nairobi, the capital, and Mombasa, the centre of beach holidays, so if you don’t have much longer than a week to spare Kenya’s good infrastructure and roads make the country a top option.

You’ll likely be sharing your safari experience with lots of others though – Kenya leads the way in ‘mass’ safari tourism and minibuses abound throughout the year in the most popular spots. Don’t let this put you off, as it’s just a matter of doing a bit more research into less-visited areas (try Tsavo East and West National Parks for big five game viewing without the accompanying crowds) and opting for a knowledgeable safari company that understands you don’t want to follow the herd – the human herd, that is. It’s worth noting that the Great Migration of zebra and wildebeest actually spends part of the year in the Masai Mara rather than Tanzania’s Serengeti, so if you’re visiting East Africa between August and October and looking for a viewing of the migration, Kenya’s the place to be.

Out of Africa
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It’s a cliché I know, but you can’t get more Out of Africa than Kenya. The setting for the Karen Blixon’s 1937 novel of the same name - made even more famous by a certain Academy Awarding winning Hollywood movie starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep – it is the quintessential safari destination. From the rolling grasslands of the Masai Mara to the searing plains of the Rift Valley, Kenya is home to some of Africa’s best wildlife attractions. Lions, elephants, leopards and the famous wildebeest migration – it’s a virtual feast for wildlife lovers. Throw in Robert Redford and you could say I’d found my heaven on earth.

For most travellers Kenya’s heaving capital, Nairobi is a mere stopover on the way to/from their safari destinations. A sprawling chaotic city clouded by pollution and clogged with traffic, Nairobi is a city many people love to hate. But more is the pity. Beneath its dusty and dirty veneer, is a thoroughly modern city that is both friendly and fascinating. What’s more, as I discovered, it’s one of the wildest capitals on the African continent. With Nairobi National Park literally on its doorstep, you barely need to leave the city to start your wildlife safari. Also within the city’s bounds you’ll find a number of great wildlife experiences such as Giraffe Manor where you can experience first-hand the power of a giraffe’s tongue as it plucks nuts straight from your fingers and, my favourite, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage where you can get really close to the oversized babies as they feed and play or even adopt your very own orphan elephant.

Kenya: Home of the East African Safari
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When you’re talking safaris, there’s really nowhere quite like Kenya, and that’s largely because Kenya’s portfolio of wildlife is outstanding. It was here that elephants and rhinos were pushed to the brink of extinction by poachers and it is here that these two very special species are making stirring recoveries. Lions, too, are something of a Kenyan specialty, as are leopards and buffalos. As such, Kenya is one of the best places on the continent to see the Big Five, with the Masai Mara and Tsavo just two of the places where you could see all of them in a day if you’re lucky.

In the Masai Mara, the annual wildebeest migration, usually from July to October, is surely the greatest wildlife show on earth, an astonishing spectacle on an astonishing scale and the like of which you’ll see nowhere else on the planet. In Amboseli, you can get up close and personal with the Maasai and with elephants while Africa’s highest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro, looms in the background. In the lakes of the Rift Valley, in the shadow of the volcanoes in the great fracture that almost slices the continent in two, flamingos mass in their millions, turning the earth pink. Then there are the deserts of the north, the primate-rich rainforests of the west, the idyllic marine parks of the coast… This variety of signature African experiences is what gives Kenya a special edge when it comes to choosing a safari, and places it firmly among the elite of African safari destinations.

East Africa’s Most varied Nation
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Kenya is the original home of the safari. This is the land of the world renowned Masai Mara National Reserve where tawny coloured lions feast off the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest that annually migrate into the country from neighbouring Tanzania. This is the country where lakes can be brushed pink by a million flamingos, where elephants trumpet below the snows of Kilimanjaro and where red robed Maasai stride over savannah plains. With such classic images as these being everyday sights in Kenya there is quite possibly nowhere else in Africa better for a safari.

A Kenyan safari can be as easy and luxurious - or as remote and challenging - as you want it to be. You can travel by light plane from animal studded park to animal studded park while staying in some of the most decadent safari camps in Africa and reaping the benefits of the continent’s finest wildlife guides. Or, you can hop on a matatu minibus crammed with locals going to market and camp out under an acacia tree all alone in the wilderness.

From a personal perspective Kenya means more to me than most countries. My father and grand-parents grew up here and over the past twenty years I’ve spent many months travelling around the country. So where are my favourite parts of Kenya? Well, of course, like everyone I adore watching the sun set over the Masai Mara grasslands, but perhaps my favourite parts of Kenya, of Africa even, are a world away from these safari clichés. I love the green and wet western highlands where few tourists venture but where the mass of Kenyans live. This is a muddy, agricultural region with small market towns whose populace is more concerned with the price of maize than the antics of a lion. Travelling the west is about taking ferries to remote and beautiful islands on Lake Victoria, hiking through Congolese-like forests and eating sausage and chips in cafes with red-checked table clothes. Then there’s my next favourite area. The north. This is different again. It’s a wild frontier land of vast, shattered lava rock deserts, lakes of jade, lonely forests on hilltops high in the sky and feather bedecked Samburu warriors in full regalia. Travelling the north is, in my opinion, one of the best adventures in Africa.

But Kenya has so much more still to offer. There’s snow on the Equator at the summit of Mt Kenya, sultry white sand beaches with coral reefs teeming in multi-hued fish down on the coast and a buzzing cosmopolitan cultural scene in the capital, Nairobi (itself the most interesting city in East Africa). Add it altogether and you have the most varied, exciting and rewarding country in East Africa. If I had to pick just one country in the world to return to time after time then without hesitation it would be Kenya.

Quintessential safari country
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My first safari experience was in Kenya's Masai Mara, an unforgettable week that brought sightings of each one of the Big Five and to date my only glimpse of lions on a hunt. Kenya is the archetypal safari spot, boasting flat savannah land dotted with acacia trees, tribal guides in customary dress and the iconic image of giraffes grazing to a backdrop of Kilimanjaro's snow-capped peak. Although all offer something special, parks vary considerably, with the northern reserves such as Samburu often offering a wilder, more rough around the edges experience than southern parks like Tsavo and the Masai Mara. It was in Samburu that we returned to our overland truck after an amazing drive to find that vervet monkeys had found their way in, stolen our snacks and left some not-such-pleasant presents in their place!! Although most people visit with only animals in mind, there is a lot more to the country than wildlife, including scenic hikes up and around Mount Kenya and beautiful beaches along the Indian Ocean coastline.

East African safari stalwart
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I was based in Kenya for six months in 2010 and will never forget the experience. It’s a fascinating place inhabited by fascinating people and brimming with rich cultures, while its wide variety of parks are overflowing with an unprecedented density of wildlife. The Masai Mara was the first place I ever went on safari and I saw the Big 5 on day one within about 3 hours. But sadly this particular experience was slightly tainted by the swarm of vehicles that quickly descended on any interesting sighting.

Far more rewarding, in fact, were other trips to some of the lesser-known gems. These included the picturesque Lake Nakuru National Park, with its abundance of rhinos and the millions of flamingoes that cover the lake’s surface in a great pink cloud. Lake Elementaita is also a beautiful, tranquil spot to see the flamingoes against the backdrop of the Great Rift Valley escarpment.

But the absolute highlight of Kenya for me was the wild and remote Lake Turkana, known to locals as the Jade Sea, in the arid northern reaches of the country, a long way from the beaten path, and from many of my preconceptions about Kenya for that matter. In fact, Kenya is far more diverse than many visitors will realize. It’s a big country that many only experience small fractions of.

For the most part, the urban areas are overpopulated and unattractive, and tourists will have to deal with a lot of hassle from local vendors if they want to explore on foot. Nairobi has some good restaurants and nightlife and is a good place to stock up on curios before heading home, but it’s noisy and sometimes just plain scary.

The coastal towns, too, are sometimes overpopulated and sport a little too much tourist kitsch, but the coastline itself is stunning and makes Kenya, like neighbouring Tanzania, a good “combination” destination.

Sadly, Kenya’s tourism has been hit very hard by recent terrorist attacks in the country. Check with your embassy before visiting, but most of the country remains safe and in need of your tourist dollars more than ever.

A Safari Behemoth
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In some ways, Kenya rates as the best country for safaris in Africa. That is a contentious statement and many would argue that Tanzania should be given that title. Whichever way you go, Kenya is undeniably a destination which will fulfill your African safari dreams.

It’s the variety and density of wildlife interspersed among a network of parks and reserves that are so varied and intricately woven into Africa’s rich fabric of landscapes, that it sometimes feels like you’re on a different planet.
The parks are backed by a well-developed infrastructure, a sophisticated nightlife and culinary scene in the urban centres, and accessible traditional cultures including the famed Maasai. In fact, many parks and conservancies employ Maasai warriors to guard the camps at night, which usually involves chasing away inquisitive elephants, cheeky baboons or hyenas who like chewing through exposed water pipes….

But it’s the wildlife and the Big Five especially that visitors come to see and Kenya doesn’t disappoint. Don’t forget that the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania are host to possibly the greatest wildlife show on Earth during the annual Great Migration. It’s an event not to be missed if you’re in the region at the right time of year.

From the classic African savannah of the Masai Mara, to the mist shrouded mountains of the Aberdares, or the arid, scrubby, gnarly beauty of Samburu, and the stunning Rift Valley scenery of parks like Lake Bogoria and Lake Nakuru, the mesh of landscapes is as much of an attraction as their inhabitants.

Kenya may surprise, it may enchant, it may become an addiction but if you are up for a safari it rarely disappoints.

Average Expert Rating

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