Where to go on safari in Kenya

Going beyond the Maasai Mara into Kenya's hidden parks

Where to go on safari in Kenya
By Julie Olum

Kenya is home to several gazetted 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 air strip for commercial, chartered or private aircrafts 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.

Where to go on safari in Kenya

By 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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