Kenya is home to several excellent national parks, reserves and conservancies where you can go on safari. The variety of travel styles and options is impressive, as is the diverse wildlife — from seeing the famous Big 5 to several bird and buck species.

There are a number of tour companies who will offer package deals including transport and full-board accommodation, however, self-driving is also a wonderful way to enjoy a safari holiday. Many parks will have at least one airstrip for commercial, chartered or private aircraft to land from which your lodge can provide a pick-up and drop-off service. Self-driving is also a popular way to enjoy a safari at any of the parks and reserves in Kenya.

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Safari game drive with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance,
Masai Mara Reserve

Safaris in the Maasai Mara

The world famous Maasai Mara is best known for its mid-year wildebeest migration, when 1.2 million wildebeest, hundreds of thousands of zebra, gazelle and impala cross over from the Serengeti National Park in Northern Tanzania. Reaching its peak in between June and October, safari-goer flock to the Mara River to watch the migration’s most dangerous point, as the hooves of thousands of wildebeest plunge into the water where predators like crocodiles and lions await. It’s nature on its grandest scale — but also the busiest time to go on safari in the Maasai Mara.

The Mara Triangle has its fair share of other wildlife all year, most notably having one of the highest concentrations of lions in the world. That, including the rest of the Big 5 (rhino, elephant, leopard and buffalo), makes for a fantastic show in the wild. Look out for the endangered black rhino, which is only found in Kenya in the Maasai Mara. If you’re after a quieter time to go on safari, try January or February before the rains come in March.

The Maasai Mara is actually one of Africa’s smallest reserves, stretching out along the Kenya/Tanzania border and butting up against the Serengeti, allowing free movement for the two parks numerous animals. First established in 1961, it’s perhaps just as well known for culture of its Maasai people, a semi-nomadic people who have embraced tourism as a revenue stream, offering tours into their villages.

The Maasai are best known for their three things: farming, fighting and remarkable survival skills. The Maasai tribe was once the dominant tribe in Kenya, before disease, drought and the impact of British colonialists (who halved the Maasai territory to build ranches) displaced them throughout the country. Their remarkable ability to survive and thrive in such a harsh environment is probably best embodied by the initiation of young men into adulthood. On reaching the age of 14, young men left their families and spent seven years in the wild armed only with a spear, developing extraordinary survival skills (including frequently killing lions and other big cats) that remain to this day.

The Maasai own several private reserves in the park itself, as well as having their own rangers that patrol and protect the reserve. While poaching remains a problem in the Maasai Mara, the Maasai have done much to eradicate it over the last couple of decades.

Accommodations range from mid-range to luxury and boutique tented camps, many with sweeping views over the plains or the action-filled Mara River. Experiences such as hot air balloon rides, bush breakfasts and dinners and community visits to learn about the ways of the Maasai people whose homelands the reserve lies on can all be arranged through tour agencies or hotels.

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Safaris in Tsavo East & West

These two parks are separated by the Nairobi-Mombasa highway and if combined cover a geographical area larger than Israel. The East is Kenya’s largest game park by far.

The characteristic verdant hills of Tsavo East and the red soil and dramatic volcanic landscapes of Tsavo West are home to the Big Five, including many prides of the Tsavo lion – whose males are known for their lack of manes — and heightened aggression (in 1898, two maneless Tsavo lions killed more than 130 people). Tsavo is home to other safari staples such as hippos, impalas, dik-dik and hundreds of bird species.

Given the size of the parks and how much less development there is compared to the Mara or Amboseli, game is much harder to spot (particularly the Big 5), but there is a more peaceful atmosphere to the Tsavo safari experience. You can combine a safari in Tsavo with a beach getaway (Mombasa is just 100km away) or hop on the 4-hour SGR train from Nairobi for a fun adventure with the family. Lodges in Tsavo generally offer transfers to and from the train stations at Voi and Mtito Andei as well as from the several airstrips in the parks.

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Black Rhino at orphanage of Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Wildlife conservation at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

If you’ve ever wondered what the hide of a rhino feels like, wanted to experience a safari at night or dreamed of running (or riding) in the wild, open air of a safari reserve, head to Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The conservancy is 45 minutes outside of Nanyuki town at the foothills of Mount Kenya. The sanctuary is the largest in East Africa to host black rhino and two of the world’s last remaining white rhino. Ol Pejeta is also the only place in Kenya you can see chimpanzees. Conservation is at its core, with several experiences available for intrepid safari-goers who want to do more than just watch the animals.

Those looking to get their hands dirty can join one of the one or two-week volunteer programmes and learn wildlife research and tracking, veterinary care and more of what goes on behind the scenes. People of all ages can join in the fun as well, with the junior ranger day pack for 4-12 years olds introducing younger conservationists to the world of a park ranger. The conservancy has several accommodation options from simple cottages to basic campsites and luxury tented eco-camps.

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The road leading to Lake Turkana

Safaris in the Chalbi Desert and Lake Turkana

Those ready to test their adventurous side should look north to the Chalbi Desert, east of the stunning and remote Lake Turkana where dry, cracked earth meets lush oases surrounded by palm trees and herds of zebra, giraffe, ostrich, oryx and hyena come to drink. This arid part of northern Kenya is largely undiscovered, even by domestic visitors. It’s unique, otherworldly landscape is believed to be formed from a lake that dried thousands of years ago. You’ll find volcanic hills in the background and desert wildlife in the sand dunes.

Thrillseekers can take part in adrenaline-filled activities like sandboarding and dune racing in 4WD vehicles alongside local residents on camelback, nights spent stargazing and perhaps even a swim in Lake Turkana, itself in a national park with good game sighting opportunities. It’s far from easy to get to Chalbi — it’s 425km north of Nairobi — so expect to fly in and then ruse a local driver who knows the roads and terrain (and an appropriate hardy vehicle).

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Giraffe antelope, Samburu National Park

Safaris in Samburu National Park

Samburu National Park’s vast, dry plains and lush banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river are an ideal setting for a romantic getaway or honeymoon. This reserve, named after the Samburu people who inhabit the area, is a popular park despite its remote location towards the north of Kenya. There are a number of lodges and camps, some with views of the river which makes for fantastic game watching when bucks, elephants, giraffes and other animals come to drink and Nile crocodiles await their prey.

Speaking of wildlife, Samburu National Park contains more than 800 elephants, 450 bird species and a good number of lions, leopards and cheetahs. More rare species to be found here include the African wild dog, Somali ostrich and reticulated giraffe. As with other parks, self-driving is a good option. However, Samburu can be difficult to manage during the rainy season (March to June) but it is a wonderful and peaceful area to visit, even with its popularity with visitors.

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School of fish and coral reef, Watamu National Park

Marine safaris Watamu Marine National Park

Safaris and wildlife viewing is certainly not limited to land in Kenya. You might be familiar with the Big Five, but there’s even more underwater — the Marine Big Five: dolphins, whales, rays, sea turtles and whale sharks. All the above as well as the beautifully colourful tropical coral reefs can be explored on a snorkelling or scuba diving trip as well as on boat tours, many run by local fishermen who have grown up in the area and know the ocean and its residents well. Watamu Marine National Park is located north of Mombasa, featuring three bays, the mangrove forest of Mida Creek and elephants and monkeys inland.

Humpback whales migrate to these waters from June each year to breed and take care of their newborn calves in the warm, protected reefs before continuing their journey to Antarctica around October. Luckily, much of the migration occurs in Watamu and nearby shores in the shoulder seasons (June and September-October) so rates for both accommodation and activities/tours are often lower.

Adrenaline junkies are also well-served here with an array of watersports such as windsurfing and waterskiing. Anyone who prefers to relax on or near the shore is assured of pristine white sandy beaches and plenty of lively beach bars and restaurants. Watamu is one of Kenya’s leaders in eco-tourism and encouraging ethical interactions with the animals. The same attitude applies at the hotels and eco lodges in the area, many with zero-waste policies, yoga/wellness focuses and more.

What to do in after a Kenya safari

Kenya's beaches, lakes and cities

What to do in after a Kenya safari
By Julie Olum

Great lakes of Kenya

Kenya makes up part of Africa’s Great Lakes Region — a group of freshwater lakes along the Rift Valley that run from Ethiopia in the north to Malawi in the south. Highlights in Kenya include Lake Victoria, largely regarded as the source of the Nile and also the largest freshwater lake on the continent, and Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. There are migratory birds to watch, healing waters at mineral hot springs, opportunities for boating and fishing and many fascinating legends of the communities who have lived around the lakes for centuries.

Each of the lakes is home to several bird species, including migratory ones such as the elegant pink lesser flamingos that cover the shores of Lakes Nakuru and Elementaita in the dry seasons and populate Lake Bogoria for most of the year. Other birds of note include white pelicans, storks and more. Practically all of Kenya’s major lakes combine stunning birdlife and relaxation on all budgets with good game viewing — Lake Nakuru National Park is a great place to see game at any time of the year.

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Group of pink flamingoes, Lake Nakuru

Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu

Kenya’s three main cities — Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu — each have their own unique personalities and generally don’t get the recognition they deserve from travellers.

Continental hub and capital Nairobi is so much more than just the place you enter Kenya from. It’s a vibrant hotspot of art, music, the tech industry and cultural heritage — all worth exploring for a few days. The city has no shortage of live music venues, art shows, artisanal markets and so many quality bars and restaurants of various cuisines that it’s almost overwhelming. Don’t make the mistake many travellers do of leaving straight after arriving into Nairobi.

Mombasa offers a different experience. It is the country’s largest port and has been a gateway into Kenya and the region for centuries — the influence of generations of people of Arab, Indian and Portuguese heritage is evident here, from the city’s architecture to styles of dress and even the street food. Historical sites like Fort Jesus and the Old Town will stir up your curiosity for Swahili culture. If this piques your interest, head up Kenya’s coast all the way to the Lamu archipelago in search of more. Here, you can learn more about Swahili culture in Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town as well as exploring the 200-year old Lamu Fort or heading out into the ocean on a traditional dhow boat.

Finally, Kisumu, known as the city by the lake — Victoria, that is — is the gateway to Kenya’s second coast and claims the best sunsets in the land. Kisumu is a key stop in exploring Western Kenya with its lush, hilly landscapes, fascinating giant rock formations (and the legends that go with them) and year-round warm climate. There are even lush, unspoiled islands in the lake that you might confuse for the Caribbean with their palm trees and gentle waves lapping at sandy shores. This is beach holiday territory.

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Nairobi cityscape

Seasons and climate

Kenya enjoys a temperate climate with minimal changes in temperature and daylight hours throughout the year. Rather than the four seasons other parts of the world see, here it is either the rainy or dry season — the former hitting between April and June, followed by a cool dry season from July to October, short rains for most of November, and a hotter dry season beginning in December and lasting through to March.

The rains create difficult conditions for off-road driving, so self driving visitors to national parks and conservancies are strongly advised to use a 4WD vehicle during the wet season. Downpours are often heavy but short, with the sun returning. However, those looking for cheaper rates should consider visiting Kenya during one of the wet seasons. December is a particularly good time — the rains are short and you’ll have the chance to see newborn wildlife and migratory birds. Alternatively, try early March when crowds recede but the rains are yet to fully hit.

Although best known for the wildebeest migration, June is also the beginning of the humpback whale migration. Head to the Watamu protected marine area to see whales — and dolphins — on boat tours between June and August. If you’re planning to go diving or snorkelling on Kenya’s coast, water clarity is at its best between January and February. Avoid rainy seasons when water run-off muddies the water.

One of the biggest surprises visitors to Kenya get is how chilly it can get on a safari, especially those leaving early in the morning. Remember that safaris in high altitude areas like the Maasai Mara, Samburu and Laikipia can see temperatures fall below 10C. Factor in the windchill of zipping along in an open jeep and the reality is that safari-goers can become quite cold. Pack layers and be prepared.

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Festivals and holidays

Kenya generally observes a Christian calendar so major celebrations and holidays such as Christmas and Easter are observed countrywide. Muslim holidays such as Eid ul Fitr will be observed in most coastal and north eastern areas. Only the holy Islamic month of Ramadan will have an effect on your travels — during this time, you might find stores and hotels closed during daylight hours and at sunset for the breaking of the fast.

There are fewer music and cultural festivals than you might expect, but for a chilled out festival, try the Lamu Yoga Festival in February — five days of yoga in stress-free, car-free Shela, Lamu. Various styles of yoga are taught by instructors from all over the world and are combined with celebrations of Swahili culture such as sunset dhow cruises.

The end of the year brings the Rusinga Cultural Festival — an extravaganza of colour, music, dance and sport to celebrate and preserve the culture of the AbaSuba people of Uganda and Kenya. Held on the last Thursday and Friday before Christmas on the islands of Rusinga, the celebrations address various social and cultural issues. The headlining event is the boat races in wooden canoes where both men and women row along the lake in clouds of song and dance — not to be missed!

Where to go on safari in Kenya

Julie Olum

Julie Olum is a nomad, writer, YouTuber and architecture graduate from Nairobi, Kenya. The hands and mind behind FrameAmbition.com, she makes online content around solo travel, festivals and visa hacks for holders of “weak passports". Her love affair with travel is now a near-obsession with slow travel and exploring cultural similarities across the world.

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