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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.5/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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