Kenya Travel, East Africa

a lion pride eating a wildebeest on the maasai mara, kenya, East Africa Safari

The Masai Mara at breakfast time, Kenya travel.

Why Kenya travel?

Wildlife and Local Tribes

***Masai Mara (aka Masai Mara). Huge, flat and loaded with beasts of every description, including herds of jeeps. This used to be the world’s best wildlife experience, then things fell apart under the local council but are now back on track under private management. The Mara is still on the receiving end of the million beest migration June-September, the ultimate wildlife experience? The Mara is a bad day’s drive from Nairobi, or an expensive flight.

**Samburu. Less visitors and more romance than the Mara, tho’ slightly less wildlife visible, especially predators. A day’s drive, or flight.

*Amboseli. A small park not far from Nairobi, with a backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro and plenty of big game, it’s bound to be crowded, and it is.

*Tsavo West. The most scenic of the parks, with hills, a pretty oasis and a mass of hippos and crocs.

*Aberdare. A mountain park, partly rainforest, with good walking routes, poor weather and great views, especially of waterfalls. .

* Nairobi National Park. Only minutes from the town centre it has most of the must-see creatures except elephant.

Birds

*Kakamega Forest, west Kenya. A classic equatorial African rainforest buzzing with birds, monkeys and reptiles and accessible on foot. A day’s ride from Nairobi.

Flamingoes are often found massed in/on Lake Nakuru or Lake Bogoria, but no guarentees. 3 hours drive from Nairobi.

Downsides

• Violent crime is a fact of life in the big towns, especially Nairobi (sometimes known as Nairobbery), and areas near the Somali border are suspect too. Car-jacking is almost as popular as mugging. The police do little without substantial bribes. Read Travel Safety.

• The accepted way to see the country is with a knowledgeable Africa tour operator a) to keep you away from the bad guys b) to keep you near the good animals. This is fine but expensive, as are flights to wildlife zones and decent game lodges.

• Malaria, the bad kind. Read Malaria.

• Locals tribes like the Masai can be sadly unnatural and mercenary.

• What’s the difference between a Kenyan road and a cigarette? There’s more tar in a cigarette.

Weather

Best: January-February, June-September (migration time)
OK: October-December (so-so with small rains and low prices)
Worst: March-May (big rains, animals disperse and long grass conceals the action)

When to go

Although it varies year to year, the peak migration period is from July to September: lodges are full, the prices are high and the Mara River is lined with vehicles.
In the shoulder months of May, June and October, November – the Mara is relatively free of tourists and thus much more pleasant. You may not see the wildebeest crossing, but the game on the plains is plentiful.

The best guides in the Mara believe that even during the peak of the migration they can find you vantage points away from the minibuses – although they admit these do not include the narrow passageways across the Mara River that are the subject of famous documentary footage.
However, the good guides rise earlier, leave sightings when crowds descend and, most important, can take you off the beaten track. A good tour operator will be able to connect you to a quality guide.
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Masai Mara Migration, how to avoid the  crowds

It is called the Eighth Wonder of the World and is the single wildlife event that can be identifiably defined by two words: The Migration. This massive movement of wildebeest and zebra and accompanying ungulates and predators from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the sweet red-oat grasslands of Kenya’s Mara plains between June and August is wildlife drama writ large.
It is also a noisy, overcrowded and often unedifying gathering of the human species at its worst. For some years now wildlife enthusiasts have been complaining bitterly about overcrowding in the Mara, and especially during the migration. Stories abound of large numbers of vehicles surrounding small groups of stressed, anxious lions and cheetahs; of 70 or 80 Kombis lining the Mara River, their overexcited occupants yelling at the animals as they cross.
For these reasons the Masai Mara is both the most loved and the most loathed wilderness area in Africa: loved because of its sheer physical beauty and abundance of wildlife; loathed because of the crowds.

The Mara reserve extends over about 580 square miles. Although much of it is uncluttered open grass plains, in the eastern sector, around the Talek, Sekenani and Olumuna gates, there are large hotels that have no place in a wildlife park. On my last trip four years ago I was obliged to stay in the 120-bed Sarova Mara, which was crowded and unedifying. The memory of a line of Kombis and packed Toyotas leaving the camp in a long convoy will remain with me for ever.

Not far away from the Sarova Mara are seven other lodges, including the 250-bed Figtree and the 150-bed Simba Lodge. To the south-east is another cluster of five camps and lodges, including the 150-bed Mara Sopa Lodge. In all there are some 5, 000 beds in the Maasai Mara National Reserve; when these are full, the early-morning game drives inevitably involve long trains of vehicles.

Where you will find the fewest vehicles and smallest camps – and they are tented camps rather than lodges and hotels – is in the communal conservancies that lie along the park’s borders: Naboisho, Olare Orok, Mara North, Motorogi and Ol Kinyei. Here private operators have done deals with the Maasai landowners and created relatively uninhabited wildernesses, where there is only one tent for every 700 acres.

One of the pioneers of this concept, Jake Grieves-Cook, a former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board, says the conservancies have achieved three things: “They have added protected habitats right next to the reserve, so wildlife numbers have increased; they allow the Maasai landowners to derive real benefits for setting aside land for wildlife conservation; and they give a more rewarding safari experience to visitors, who can see wildlife without minibuses. ”

Another key factor is your guide. For my two days at Topi House I was guided by a famous Maasai man of the bush, Jackson Looseyia. Jackson says that bad guiding is also a major contributor to the overcrowding: “A good guide will plan the day to avoid the crowds, leaving earlier. He will move off a sighting when other vehicles arrive. He will encourage you to get away from the Big Five mentality: ‘Go and see the birds. Go and smell the flowers. ‘
I was there during what Jackson called the mini migration, the March-April movement of some 300, 000 zebra and wildebeest from the Loita Plains. It’s not nearly as dramatic as the major Serengeti migration, yet Rhino Ridge and Topi Plains and large parts of the Olare Orok Conservancy were covered in zebras.

My final stop was an area known as the Mara Triangle, in the north-east of the reserve and across the Mara river. This is a particularly beautiful part of the Mara – it was here that some of the most spectacular scenes in Out of Africa were filmed – and has the distinct advantage of being relatively free of minibuses. There were more vehicles than I’d seen in the private conservancies but no more than you’d expect to encounter in Botswana or Zimbabwe. The two main camps here, Governors’ and Kichwa Tembo, are well designed, with tents tucked away in thickly wooded enclaves so that you get a sense of privacy that is lacking in those massive lodges-cum-hotels in the east.
The final word on how to avoid the crowds came from Stefano Cheli, owner of the 16-bed Elephant Pepper Camp in the Mara North private conservancy. Cheli suggests that travellers should avoid August and September because it’s the most crowded and expensive time. The best months for viewing over the past six years have been October and November, “when there are fewer tourists, the grass is short [best for game viewing] and the migration is still on”.

Kenya’s Best Beaches

**Malindi. A big, busy, beach resort with plenty of everything except mosquitoes (they don’t fly well in sea breezes). Good food, fishing, windsurfing and some atmospheric ruins at Gede nearby.

*Watamu has beautiful bays in a marine park, good for snorkelling, bad for ethnic culture.

*Diani and Tiwi. South of Mombasa, palm-fringed, white sand and reef-protected (so no shark danger). Diani is longer and more developed than Tiwi, tho’ Tiwi sometimes has a seaweed overload situation. Both beaches have a shortage of cheap accomodation.

Towns

***Lamu. A tiny, pretty little Arabic town on the island of Lamu; narrow carless streets in use by donkeys, traditional Muslim locals, neo-hippies and affluent adventurers. Adjacent to some great beaches. So laid back it’s almost horizontal.

Nairobi. Would be a pleasant, lively, walkable town if not for the criminal element – particularly after dark. A couple of good museums and the usual market, of course. You’d probably have to spend some time here anyway.

*Mombasa. Hot, humid and stretches onto Mombasa island, with a big history, a small attractive old town and a small, unattractive terrorist cell.

Activities

Walking and Hiking

Mount Kenya is a common target, as are the few walking wildlife parks (see under ‘Where to go. . ‘ Mt Elgon and Ngong Hills are also good, less frequented hiking areas.

Watersports: windsurfing, snorkelling, and scuba all have excellent, varied locations.

Game Fishing: Malindi and south of Mombasa.

Airsports: ballooning & microlight available. And by the way, don’t expect your balloon flight to be quiet! (the burner is bloody noisy).

White Water Rafting: Athi and Galana River.

Walking with Wildlife

Mount Kenya Park (alpine vegetation)

Lake Bogoria (hot springs and antelope)

Hell’s Gate (scenic gorge and plenty of wildlife)

All are accessible by public transport from Nairobi.