Kenya Safaris, Nairobi

Nairobi panorama, Kenya, Africa

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, the main entry point for Kenya safaris. But don’t hang about! Photo by Dexxe

Why take Kenya safaris?

Kenya’s extensive selection of game parks such as the Maasai Mara and comfortable lodges will almost inevitably involve flights to/from Nairobi but the city has little to offer so plan to spend as little time as possible here. Nairobi would be a pleasant, lively and walkable town if not for the criminal element, particularly after dark. It has a couple of good museums and the usual market, of course. You’ll probably have to spend some time here anyway.

Moi Avenue, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa

Moi Avenue in Nairobi. Photo by Wing.

When to go there

Very best time for animal-watching on Kenya safaris: October-November when there are fewer tourists, the grass is short (best for game viewing) and the migration is still on. June-September is prime migration time but August-September is a particularly busy tourist time and sightings get uncomfortably crowded.
OK: December – February (so-so with small rains and low prices)
Worst: March-May (big rains, animals disperse and long grass conceals the action)


Nairobi bus station, Kenya, Africa

Reality check! This is Nairobi bus station and a pretty good reason not to hang about in the city. Photo by Chris73.

• Violent crime is a fact of life in the big towns, especially Nairobi (sometimes known as Nairobbery), and areas near the Somali border. Car-jacking is almost as popular as mugging so best not to rent your own car. The police do little without substantial bribes. Read Travel Safety.

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

• Malaria, a bad version, so take your pills. 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.

East African People

Masai kids asking for money at the roadside, Kenya, East Africa

Young Maasai beggars betraying their rich heritage for a few dollars more. It’s difficult to blame them for acquiring easy money by posing at the side of the road. But.

One of the most depressing sights while on Kenya safaris is tourist-dependent locals – who are not poor by African standards – endlessly standing by roadsides, dressed-to-ill in gingham tablecloths, plastic sandals and blunt spears, waiting patiently, rain or shine, for their prey to appear, heavily pregnant Land cruisers lurching majestically to a halt to deliver litters of frantic photo-wallies desperate for a few local culture photos to enrich their Kenya Facebook pages.

This may be where most travellers hear for the first time the ubiquitous cry of the lesser-cultured African love-money bird, ‘Give me money, give me money, ‘ or its ex-French colony variation ‘Donnez-moi l’argent. Un euro! ‘

If you want to see colourful, exotic, genuine cultures it’s better to head for Asia or Latin America, where traditional cultures are more treasured and preserved and less corrupted by the dollar god.
There was a time when East African society was fascinating, diverse and vibrant, but these characteristics are increasingly difficult to find. Much of the colour and tradition seen today is a tourist inspired veneer, a poorly acted pretence to extract dollars from tourists.

The Maasai, for example, are an attractive and interesting people with a relaxed and noble air if you encounter them in the right place at the right time in the right way, but travelling with a budget tour operator is not going to fulfil those criteria.

There are some brilliant local people out there but not within a day or two’s drive of Nairobi.

Three Samburu women in genuine colourful dress, Kenya, East Africa

Samburu women in north Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, either carrying water from the nearest well or cooking oil from the market. These are the genuine article.

Things to Do in Kenya

Apart from shooting wildlife – with a zoom lens. Hint: never use the digital zoom, only the optical, and it had better be long, at least 400mm equivalent.

• take an early balloon ride ending with a champagne breakfast. Sounds terrific but actually cold, noisy and expensive though the panoramic views are pretty good.

• if you’re lucky enough to be in a luxury camp or lodge there may be a wellness centre, massages, swimming pool, jacuzzi and so on.

• visit Maasai villages. This can range from pathetic, dress-up charades by village kids for budget tour groups or really fascinating excursions to meet and learn about the real thing. The difference is cost and connections.

• Walking and Hiking: Mount Kenya is a common target, as are the few walking wildlife parks. ‘ Mt Elgon and Ngong Hills are also good, less frequented hiking areas.

• 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.

• You can’t take a walk, bike ride or go jogging when out in the wilds at a tented camp. This is wild life, red in tooth and claw! At our camp in the Mara we had to walk with an armed guard at night. One guest that took a moonlit stroll a few months earlier was killed by a Cape Buffalo.
However, walking with a guide – or even without on occasion – is possible in some parks such as Hell’s Gate, obviously places where Cape buffalo and lions are not commonly found lurking on the sidelines.

Kenya Beaches

Sunrise on Diani Beach, Kenya

Sunrise on Diani Beach, Kenya. Photo by Lukasz Ciesielski.

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 are palm-fringed with wide 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.
Lamu is 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. It’s adjacent to some great beaches and so laid back it’s almost horizontal.

• Game Fishing: Malindi and south of Mombasa.

• White Water Rafting: Athi and Galana River.

And finally, on Safari!

Mother hippo and two young in Maasai Mara, Kenya

A female hippo with two young showing some displeasure.

Trivia: Safari is taken from the Swahili word kusafiri meaning journey or travel that is itself derived from the Arabic word safariyah. Thus safari did not originally mean cruising around looking at animals, more like getting from A to B in a reasonable time, which on a camel was not very fast.
Richard Francis Burton, a famous English explorer who reputedly spoke 29 languages introduced the word safari to Europe in the 1860’s after returning from Africa in search of the source of the River Nile from 1856-1860.