Expert Reviews – Kenya

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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