Essential Africa: Kenya
Issue 35

A rich cultural heritage, dramatic scenery, stunning beaches and wildlife galore make Kenya a classic safari destination that's much-visited and much-loved. For Claire Foottit, author of Kenya: the Bradt Travel Guide, this evolving country has far more to offer than minibus tours and poolside cocktails: here, she shortlists Kenya's most compelling attractions and suggests three specialist itineraries to excite the interest of experienced and discerning travellers. 

ImageElephants silhouetted in the rising mist of dawn in the Mara. The shocking pink of thousands of flamingos on Lake Nakuru. Endless horizons where Maasai and Samburu pastoralists follow a traditional lifestyle. The eerie cackling of hyena on the night air. The thundering of millions of hooves of migrating wildebeest. These are just some of the lasting images that will linger long after a safari is over, together with the warmth and friendliness of the Kenyan people.

A nation the size of France, Kenya has been dubbed ‘all of Africa in one country’. In the past decade, a new vogue in safaris has emerged, with diverse activities and varying modes of travel. There are exciting community enterprises where local people gain a cut of the tourism cake, giving them an incentive to protect the wildlife in the areas outside the parks.

Kenya offers a wide choice in accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets. The most popular areas get busy at peak times (particularly July to September and December to January) and if you’d like to visit the Masai Mara during the wildebeest migration it’s crucial to book early. But with careful planning you can enjoy areas where it’s rare to see another tourist.

Lake Turkana
The jade sea is the largest of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes, stretching from the Ethiopian border to the Suguta valley. Surrounded by arid scenery, the lake has a huge population of Nile crocodile while enormous Nile perch attract the fishing fraternity. Sibiloi National Park, regarded as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ for its fossil discoveries at Koobi Fora, is a World Heritage Site.

Lake Nakuru
Located in Lake Nakuru National Park, this shallow soda lake is easily circumnavigated in three hours by vehicle. An international RAMSAR site, the wetlands are famous for large concentrations of greater and lesser flamingos, white pelicans and palaearctic migrants. Within the park, white rhino, waterbuck, impala and vervet monkeys are common, while black rhino, leopard and Rothschild’s giraffe are occasionally seen.

Kakamega Forest
An isolated pocket of forest covering 23,000 hectares, Kakamega is a remnant of the equatorial Guinea-Congolian rainforest. Trees tower 60 metres high trailing brightly coloured orchids, with some 350 species. Birds are prolific, but rarely seen; keep a sharp eye out for the exquisite turquoise plumage of the great blue turaco. There are several kilometres of marked forest trails. Take a local guide; they are extremely informative.

Lake Victoria
Divided between Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, Victoria is the second largest lake in the world. Kenya’s section is dominated by the Winam Gulf, Kisumu being the main port, and the islands of Rusinga, Takawiri and Mfangano off Mbita Point. Fossils from the Miocene period litter Rusinga island, while on Mfangano there are 18,000 year old rock paintings by the Twa pygmies. The lake has a flourishing small-scale fishing industry, while sports fisherman are drawn by the trophy-size Nile perch.

Second to the Mara in game numbers, the Laikipia plateau also boasts the highest concentration of endangered species – sitatunga antelope, Grevy’s zebra, black rhino and white rhino – in East Africa. Perhaps the most exciting development here is at Lewa Downs, a former cattle ranch now transformed into a wildlife conservancy. Visitors to the region can enjoy community eco-lodges, camel treks, walking, riding and cycling safaris.

Samburu National Reserve and the surrounding community lands of Samburu are a haven for Somali ostriches, Grevy’s zebras, gerenuks, Beisa oryx and reticulated giraffes, together with fascinating birdlife. Large elephant families congregate on the Ewaso Ngiro river in the dry season. Spend at least three nights in the region to appreciate this arid wilderness.

Mount Kenya
Rising majestically through the clouds, the craggy peaks of Bation (5199m), Nelion (5188m) and Point Lenana (4985m) glisten with tropical ice. Nelion and Bation require technical climbing, but some 15,000 people a year trek to Point Lenana. Take time to acclimatise, as those ascending too fast are prone to pulmonary oedema which can be fatal. The scenery and flora are magnificent, ranging from thick forest to rich alpine meadows, giant lobelias and groundsel.

Chyulus Hills
Ernest Hemingway’s “Green hills of Africa”, the volcanic Chyulus range is covered in verdant forest, volcanic vents and lava flows. Riding and walking are popular, with views of Mount Kilimanjaro. For those interested in caving, Leviathan has the world’s fourth longest lava tube system, with 12.5 km of passages. Be sure to take a guide to get the most from a visit.

Lying off the north Kenya coast, the Lamu archipelago comprises the islands of Lamu, Manda, Pate and Kiwayu. Lamu Town, a World Heritage Site, dates from the ninth century with excellent examples of 19th century merchant houses and a strong Swahili culture. In recent years numerous foreign-funded restoration projects have taken place, and Lamu has been dubbed ‘the Marrakesh of East Africa’. The island offers visitors Swahili ruins, dhow trips, superb snorkelling and golden, dune-fringed beaches.

A gateway island to the northern and southern beaches, Mombasa is a trading port and the second largest metropolis in Kenya. The Old Town, with its 13th century Swahili heritage, and Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, are of key interest. Elsewhere in town you’ll find colourful markets and bazaars, Hindu temples and mosques and an unmissable landmark: the tusks on Moi Avenue.

Masai Mara
The jewel in Kenya’s crown, the Masai Mara National Reserve is a year-round destination. Combined with the Greater Mara area of communal ranches, it extends for some 3,000 square kilometres, brimming with wildlife. Spend at least three nights to fully appreciate what’s on offer: the annual wildebeest migration and the stars of Big Cat Diary, together with colourful Maasai pastoralists, big skies and magnificent vistas to the Oloololo escarpment and the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Famous for its large elephant herds, which have been studied for 35 years by the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, and a former hunting ground of Ernest Hemingway, Amboseli National Park and the surrounding Masai ranches lie in the lee of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. The marshes are home to chortling hippos and exotic birdlife and there are gazelles, zebras and giraffes aplenty, together with clans of hyenas. The park gets very busy in the high season.

Get Planning!

Kenya has plenty of enticing safari options, from the traditional wildlife-watching adventure, to special interest and sporting trips. Here's one example:

Kenyan golfing safari
Days 1-2: Nairobi
Enjoy several rounds of golf in pristine surroundings with a little game viewing on the way. Start in Nairobi, at the Windsor Golf and Country Club, surrounded by coffee estates. Its 18-hole championship course is considered one of Africa’s finest, with views of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro from the end of the fairway.

Day 3: Nanyuki
Travel by road to Nanyuki; the Mount Kenya Safari Club exudes an old world charm and has a 9-hole course
set in tropical gardens.

Days 4-5: Aberdares
Unique to Kenya are the tree hotels, so spend a night at The Ark and watch elephant, buffalo, bushbuck and giant forest hog coming to the waterhole. Returning to the Aberdare Country Club, there’s a 9-hole course, where warthog often graze the fairway.

Days 6-11: Naivasha
Travel by road to Great Rift Valley Lodge overlooking Lake Naivasha. It has a superb 18-hole course. Take a day trip to see flamingos in Lake Nakuru National Park, or fly-in to Little Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara National Reserve for prime game-viewing.

Days 12-14: Diani
Fly to Mombasa and travel by road through coconut plantations to Diani. Stay at Leopard Beach Hotel and try out the good 18-hole course at The Leisure Lodge Golf Club, with lessons on offer. When not golfing, go snorkelling and diving in the marine parks, take an excursion to Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary or visit Shimba Hills National Park, the only place in Kenya to see sable antelope.

Community and Conservation
Days 1-2: Amboseli
Focusing on a new vision for African wildlife conservation outside the protected areas, stay in lodges and camps which support local communities. Drive from Nairobi to Porini Amboseli, a delightful bush camp in Selenkay Conservancy near Amboseli, where elephants wallowing in the swamps and aquatic birdlife are a speciality. Entertaining walks with knowledgeable Maasai guides and tree house picnics.

Days 2-3: Shompole
Drive to Shompole, an award-winning eco-lodge on the dramatic Nguruman escarpment. Walking, cultural visits to Maasai manyattas and the geysers and flamingos on Lake Natron.

Days 5-7: Masai Mara
As you fly to the Masai Mara, observe the scale of the Great Rift Valley. Stay at Porini Mara, an intimate bush camp in the picturesque Ol Kinyei Conservancy, where wildlife is plentiful. Enjoy bush walks, night drives to see melanistic bush babies, and day trips into the reserve.

Days 8-10: Laikipia
Flying to Lewa, it's a short drive to another superb award-winning eco-lodge, Il Ngwesi, on the edge of the Laikipia plateau. Take a camel trek, or learn about the medicinal uses of indigenous plants on a guided walk.

Days 11-14: Mathews Mountains
Fly to Sarara, a remote bush camp in the Mathews Mountains. There’s a ‘pool with a view’ where you can sometimes see elephants on the plains below. Combine  s with visits to the singing wells where Samburu water their cattle.

Kenyan Art Safari
Days 1-4: Naivasha and Nakuru
Starting from Nairobi, accompanied by an art tutor, drive to Malewa River Lodge near Lake Naivasha, with stunning views across the Great Rift Valley to Mount Longonot and Lake Naivasha. Excursions to mix ‘flamingo pink’ at Lake Nakuru, with its prolific birdlife, and to paint rare Rothschild’s giraffes and ostriches on the Malewa Conservancy.

Days 5-10: Masai Mara
Capture the intensity and movement of the wildebeest migration crossing the Mara river. Big cats are a major draw, while the spectacular skies and endless plains of the Masai Mara give vivid landscapes. Staying at Kicheche, a traditional tented bush camp, you can walk with the Masai and draw al fresco.

Days 10-14: Lamu
Fly to Lamu and become immersed in Swahili culture by staying in a guest house with cool courtyards and rooftop views, inspired by the intricate buildings with carved wooden doors, winding alleys, traditional dhows, donkeys and markets, kohl-eyed women in black buibuis and men wearing kofias.

Right Time, Right Place

Mount Kenya 
The dry months of January and February are best and August fair for climbing the mountain. Avoid May and November.

Lake Nakuru
There are flamingos all year round, but the largest concentrations are generally in July after the rains.

Masai Mara 
A year-round destination with excellent game viewing. Peak season is the
migration, when wildebeest, zebra and gazelle start arriving in July, moving up to the Mara river towards August/September and heading south to Tanzania in October.

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