Africa

A First – Timer’s Guide to Planning a Safari in Kenya

Experts share practical tips for preparing for a successful safari

Elephants roam the plains of Amboseli

Elephants roam the plains of Amboseli taken while on a Wild Eye photographic Safari

I wrote this piece for U.S. News & World Report but I thought some of you might find it interesting here as well… 

You’ve been dreaming about going on safari in Kenya ever since the credits rolled in “Out of Africa,” and now you’re ready to embark on the trip of your dreams. To make sure you get the most out of the country’s spectacular wildlife and jaw-dropping landscapes, here is the information you’ll need, so that the only surprises you’ll encounter are ones that you’ll love.

An Average Day on Safari

While every accommodation is unique, most camps follow a similar schedule. Led by a wildlife guide, you’ll go on at least two game drives per day with other guests for three to four hours per ride. Along the way, you’ll stop at picturesque locations to stretch your legs, grab a snack and revel in incredible scenery. In the middle of the day, when predators and other species are hiding in the shade, you’ll be in camp relaxing. Expect to take your meals at camp, though dining in the wild is also common. At night, you’ll cozy up to a warm fire and mingle with the other guests to share your day’s adventures before letting the sounds of the bush serenade you to sleep.

Taken from the main deck overlooking the Mara Triangle

Taken from the main deck overlooking the Mara Triangle. James, one of the Maasai nature guides takes in the view.

Activities and Extra Costs

Game drives are the crux of most safaris, but there are plenty of other activities for you to enjoy, from guided walks and visits to tribal villages to hot air balloon rides over the Masai Mara or camel safaris in the Northern Frontier. Some activities are included in your daily rate, but “it’s always a good idea to know ahead of time what’s included in your stay, as many options may come with an additional price tag,” says Linda Friedman, CEO of Custom Safaris. Also, keep in mind that you may be charged for park entry fees, laundry, premium liquors and other amenities.

An adorable gerenuk that eats by standing up on its hind legs. Only found in Northern Kenya

An adorable gerenuk that eats by standing up on its hind legs. Only found in Northern Kenya

Wildlife-Viewing Opportunities

“Kenya is known not only for its massive concentrations of game but also for its vast open plains. You can spot and track wildlife from a fair distance and there is almost always something to see and some sort of interaction between species,” says Andrew Beck, a professional wildlife photographer and a co-founder of Wild Eye, a photographic safari company. There are also certain areas that contain larger concentrations of specific species. If you love elephants, consider Amboseli where herds can reach 100 members or more. And from August to October, the Masai Mara plays host to millions of wildebeest during the Migration, while species like the Grevy Zebra, Somali Ostrich, reticulated giraffe and the gerenuk can only be found in the north.

Guides know all about animal behavior and the area in which your camp is located, as well as the location of recent sightings, dens and kills. Still, they can’t make animals appear on cue, so stay open to what the day brings. In the bush, the world can change on a dime; with a little patience, you’ll have the time of your life.

Samburu living near the Shaba reserve dance for guests

Samburu living near the Shaba reserve dance for guests

Family  

Taking your child on safari can be one of the best ways to instill a lifelong love of wildlife and respect for the environment, and in the last few years, more companies are enticing families with larger tents or villas and special programs designed with families in mind. As Friedman points out, it’s important to ask up front if children are allowed or if there is a minimum age requirement. If your child is very young, you may be required to reserve a private vehicle. 

Photography

A DSLR camera and longer lenses are best for wildlife photography, but if that’s not your objective, Beck suggests getting a point-and-shoot with the maximum optical zoom. “Don’t even bother looking at the digital zoom feature as this is essentially a crop of the image,” he says. It’s also a smart idea to bring plenty of memory cards. There is nothing worse than having to delete images from your camera on the fly to make room for your next shot.

A handmade necklace and decorative gourd created by the Samburu tribe

A handmade Samburu necklace and decorative gourd from the Northern Frontier

Safety

When it comes to the bush, safety at any lodging is top priority. Upon arrival, you’ll be given all the dos and don’ts and it’s important to follow directions. While safaris are safe, Friedman cautions, “These are wild animals, not kittens.”

Preparing for Your Safari

Paperwork

You’ll need a passport that is valid for at least six months prior to your arrival. Your passport must contain a minimum of two blank pages for stamps. You’ll also need a $50 visa. You can apply for a visa online at Evisa.go.ke or you can wait until you arrive at the airport in Kenya.

Vaccinations

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are no mandatory vaccinations for travel to Kenya though you may be required to get a yellow fever shot if your travels take you through endemic zones prior to your arrival. The agency also advocates being up to date on immunizations for Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies and meningitis. Additionally, you may want to consider pills for malaria. Make sure to speak to your physician about your travel plans to determine what you need.

A handsome male lion, aptly named, Handsome.

A handsome male lion, aptly named, Handsome.

Packing

Pack enough light casual attire for a long weekend and take advantage of the same-day laundry service (weather permitting) that the majority of camps provide. It’s chilly in the morning and evening, but hot in the afternoon, so dress in layers. A good sunscreen is also a must-have, in addition to a wide brim hat and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. And flip-flops are fine for the jeep, but also pack a pair of comfortable sneakers.

Luggage

Small commuter planes are the main mode of transport into the bush and all the domestic carriers are sticklers about baggage restrictions. Bags must be soft, no longer than 26 inches and wheel-free, and the total luggage weight per person cannot exceed 15 kilograms (33 pounds), including your carry-on. If you go over the limit, your best-case scenario would be paying a fee, but in a worst-case scenario, you may have to buy a separate ticket for your baggage or wait until there is a plane with space available.

Alice, a guide at Angama Mara. One of only 6 female guides out of 500 in Kenya

Alice, a guide at Angama Mara. One of only 6 female guides out of 500 in Kenya.

Money Matters

Kenya shillings is the local currency. You can pick up shillings at the airport upon arrival, but U.S. dollars are also widely accepted. Keep in mind, accommodations will accept major credit cards such as Visa or MasterCard (American Express is not as widely accepted) for amenities or gift shop purchases, but you should bring cash for gratuity as well as extras, such as cultural visits to local villages or souvenirs like handmade jewelry or other trinkets from local artisans.

You can't beat the sunsets in Kenya

You can’t beat the sunsets in Kenya

Gratuity

Tips are not mandatory, but they are customary. Your guide should be at the top of your list, and according to Friedman, you should plan to pay $15-25 per person per day. If you have a large family, less per person is acceptable. If you want to distribute gratuity to all staff members, most camps have a staff box where guests can leave a gratuity of $5-10 per person per day. When in doubt, ask a manager for advice, Friedman says.

65 replies »

  1. Great advice. Also, you may be tempted to sleep in on some days, but don’t miss a single game drive or whatever adventure is offered. Otherwise, you’ll hear about that amazing wildlife sighting you missed. Safaris are still one of my all-time favorite travel experiences.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Ahhh! Kenya is definitely a huge dream of mine and your article just stirred up my massive case of wanderlust! Thank you for sharing and fingers crossed I can use some of these insights in the future!!🙂

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  3. I’m very keen to get your opinion on which country was better for you to experience the Migraton (and the actual river crossings) – Kenya or Tazania (assuming you have seen the Migration (peak) in both? I look at these photo’s of the Masai Mara and I think, wow perhaps I should go to Kenya.

    I was going to go to Tanzania in August, but have now changed my travel plans to rather go to Botswana in June because the Rand has fallen so much against the US$, and the Migration price is given in dollars. So now I have to plan my Migration trip again for next year.

    I have been to Kenya before, many years ago, and stayed in the Masai Mara, but that was in April.

    Since I might only experience the peak of the Migration (Aug/Sep) once in my life – as it is an expensive Safari -, I am now trying to find out from others whether they preferred the experience in Kenya or in Tanzania more, or doesn’t it really matter because you’re at the border anyway? I know it is a very difficult question to answer, but, personally, if you could only experience it ONCE where would you base yourself? (By the way, the Migration trip I was booked on – and might still do next year – is over seven nights, staying in three camps, the final camp, three nights, at Mara Under Canvas Tented Camp in the Northern Tanzania).

    I am incredibly drawn to The Serengeti , and although I do want to exprience the Migration and Crossings, if I had to go there right now and just sit outside my tent and look out over the vast expance of savannah and only see giraffe and thorn trees during my stay, that will be good enough for me! It’s the image imprinted on my brain of what the Serengeti is (but that trip can be done at another time).

    Another question, I have been reading up a lot on WildEye’s photo safaris, and noticed their trip to Tanzania would have cost me A LOT LESS than the organised safari I was going to go on (with SA company). I know that WildEye is excellent and their guides are very good and helpful. I assume the costs are less because you don’t stay in luxury accommodation – which, as you know, is NOT necessary – nice, but not necessary. Did you find it was a “more-intimate-with-wildlife” trip when you went with WildEye, compared with other companies? Thanks in advance, Susan!

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    • Hi Lorenda-I’ve been to Tanzania but not for the migration, only Kenya, so I cannot provide you with an answer to your first question. I can only say that I’ve not been disappointed with my time in the Mara.

      Re: Wild Eye- I’ve always enjoyed camping so being 20 feet from the Mara River in a tent ( no luxury but very comfortable) is ideal. I highly recommend it. If you’d like an introduction to the founders there I’d be happy to do so.

      Surprised that Botswana would be cheaper- even in the Rand. It’s typically considered the most expensive county for safari.🙂

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    • Thanks Susan for your reply. Yes, can you believe Botswana is cheaper than the Migration trip would have been. Costs for the Migration is linked to the US$ whereas Botswana not. If I do the Migration in Aug or Sept I will be paying about R70,000 (excluding gratuities and drinks and one or two meals). I also want to do the hot-air balloon trip, which is also quoted in US$. For us South Africans the exchange rate is not at all in our favour, but for travellers from the US is the greatest time right now to come on Safari.

      My Botswana trip (seven nights) staying 2 nights Savute Elephant Lodge, 2 nights Kwai River Lodge and 3 nights Eagle Island Lodge (which apparently is now superb after a revamp), inlcuding, as you would know, ALL actitivies, and all meals, drinks and laundry is costing me R36,210.00 – excl gratuities (but including flight to Maun and transfers between camps!) . So, now you can see why I have changed my plans about doing the Migration in Tanzania in August.

      However, I must add the price I gave above for the Migration is during August and September only. Outside “peak” Migration time (there are also trips in April and May coming up) the Northern Serengeti trip would cost around R36,000 (in other words what my trip to Bots is going to cost me, except drinks are excluded and I think one or two meals).

      I am going to seriously consider WildEye next year, because I have only heard excellent things about them, and I really don’t mind not staying in luxury.

      By the way, in case anyone reading is thinking of doing the same Botswana trip I am doing from the US, the price I have given is for South African Residents only – I don’t know what they would quote for people outside SA. If you are keen to find out, the company is called Explore Plus Travel & Tours.

      I CANNOT WAIT TO GO TO BOTSWANA – SUPER, SUPER EXCITED!!!!!!!!

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  4. £2,000 is for 7 days, no single supplement, as I was comparing it to the safaris with WildEye. In 2014 we went for 19 days which was amazing, next year we are planning on 2 weeks just in the Mara as we are also doing a self drive of Namibia.

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  5. I am Kenyan and am totally happy to know that you enjoy Safaris in my country…..BUT even more grateful that you have used your blog to promote tourism in Kenya (which has taken a real beating over the past few years)

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    • Thank you very very much. I adore Kenya and I know that it has suffered the last couple of years. I couldn’t be happier to spend time there and to share my experiences with the world.🙂

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  6. I am proudly Kenyan and I love how you are promoting tourism here which has suffered a few setbacks. It’s eye opening to see you guys enjoy what we sometimes take for granted.

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  7. Thank you for sharing your tips. I’m looking at taking a safari either the summer of 2017 or summer of 2018 (so much depends on school holiday dates when you’re a teacher!), and I’m beginning to curate information now. Good information to get me started on sorting out exactly what I’d like to do.

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