You’ve been dreaming about going to Kenya wildlife safari. Good choice. There’s no better time to go. Kenya Airways now has a direct flight from New York to Nairobi, which means the usual 22-hour journey, including a layover, is now a 14-hour direct flight. Trust me, even though it’s still a long-haul it’s so much better than going through another country to get there. (Pssst… If you want some suggestions on how to stay comfortable on long-haul flight look here.)
With this in mind and the help of a couple of travel specialists I know, I’ve pulled together some essential information you’ll want to consider so you can make the most out of your trip.
This post contains affiliate links which means if you buy something from the links below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. .
What Makes Kenya Special
Kenya’s diverse terrain and breadth of wildlife are renowned and one of the key reasons Kenya is such a popular destination.
In the north, you’ll find thick forests and dense brush, Mount Kenya, and the Great Rift Valley. In some areas, plateaus of rocks give way to red soil peppered with thorny acacia. It’s rugged, arid, and captivating. In addition to the Big Five ( an old hunting term used to categorize the five species that were the hardest to kill on foot: lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, rhino. Over the years, marketers have turned that into a sales pitch), The Special Five” live here. These are species endemic to this region and found nowhere else in Kenya: the Somali ostrich, Grevy zebra, reticulated giraffe, the long-necked geranuck, and the Beisa oryx.
In the southwest, is the Masai Mara, where Sydney Pollack directed Out of Africa. With its wide open spaces, big skies, and a high density of wildlife (including the Big Five) make every day an adventure. It’s here, the annual Great Migration takes place. The memory of watching hundreds (sometimes thousands) of wildebeest crossing the Mara River is one you won’t soon forget.
In the southeast is Amboseli near the Tanzanian border. It’s known for its large herds of elephants and the underground springs that flow from nearby Mount Kilimanjaro. Here, there are magical acacia forests, verdant swamps, and stark plains.
These three areas alone could keep you entertained for weeks.
How Safaris are “Built”
When planning your safari know that it’s the norm to spend a holiday split among multiple locations. “Safaris are built to provide a mix of experiences, environments, and wildlife,” says Dan Saperstein, a leading Africa travel specialist, and a partner in Hippo Creek Safaris, in New Jersey. Staying in multiple locations guarantees a well-rounded holiday.
Most people stay for two or three nights per place. I won’t stay less than three. In certain areas where there’s a lot to see and do I might stay four. I like to get to know a place and relax. Two nights feel hurried to me.
Here’s why: If you stay two nights you ‘ll arrive in camp the first night in the afternoon, enjoy one full day of activities the following day, and then you’re on the move again after your third day morning game drive. It’s too fast in my opinion.
An Average Day on a Kenya Wildlife Safari
Every camp or lodge has its own personality but most follow a daily schedule similar to the following:
- In the early mornings, get used to hearing “Jambo,” the Swahili term for hello, announcing the arrival of your guide or another staff member. This is your in-person wake-up call. With them will be your favorite morning beverage and a little nibble to get you moving and to your vehicle on time.
- You’ll go on the first of your two, three to four-hour game drives led by your guide. (Note: Unless you chose to arrange for a private vehicle, you’ll share a Landcruiser with other guests. Personally, while it’s a personality crapshoot, I like sharing with other people. It’s a great way to make friends. I’ve only wanted to throttle my jeep mates a couple of times in all the times I’ve been on safari.)
- Your first drive will begin around sunrise, the second in the late afternoon. Why? Because during these times the animals are most active. In the middle of the day, the heat is at its peak and viewing isn’t.
- At some point during both of your game drives, the guide will stop in a safe scenic spot so you can stretch your legs and have a snack. If you need to relieve yourself, your guide will find a proper spot. In the a.m., the food is light (yogurt, muffins, hard-boiled eggs). You’ll either have a full hot breakfast in camp after the drive or sometimes they’ll surprise you with a spread in the bush.
- In between game drives, and aside from lunch, you’ll have a few hours of leisure to read, nap, take a shower etc. until it’s time to hop back in your vehicle.
- Near the end of your afternoon game drive, you’ll make another stop to enjoy a cocktail with a few nibbles and a beautiful view of the sunset as part of a wonderful tradition known as a sundowner. (Note: You’ll never go hungry during a safari and most camps will accommodate specials diets.)
- Before dinner, you may have time for a cocktail before dinner around the fire pit, or perhaps you’ll leave it for after.
- After dinner it’s up to you, perhaps you’ll chat with guests swapping stories about the day’s sightings, or call it a day and go back to your tent and let the sounds of the night lull you to sleep.
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Types of Accommodations
Kenya has a variety of lodges and camps, making it easier to find the perfect fit in terms of taste and budget. There are standard hotels with a lot of beds (60+) and more affordable rates and ones with fewer rooms and typically more expensive. Nine times out of ten these properties are fenced so you can walk freely without worrying about predators or it’s in a region where it’s not an issue.
More Affordable: Serena Hotels and Lodges is a chain that has properties in several locations throughout the country.
Less Affordable: Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, once a private hunting club in the 1950s (no longer) owned by Actor William Holden.
Permanent Tented Camp
Permanent tented camps are just what they sound like, properties that offer guests a more “rustic” sensibility with rooms that are on a permanent foundation, usually raised, with walls and ceiling of canvas. They are the most common style of camp. Bathrooms are en-suite or an attached, open-air lavatory that’s fenced for privacy and accessed through a doorway (either an actual door or zipper pass through from your room). In some areas, tents may give way to thatched roofs more in keeping with the surroundings.
I’ve stayed in studio-sized tents that were very comfortable but basic and others that were three times the size of my New York apartment, decorated for a magazine cover, and came with a personal butler.
Rate-wise, Dan says a good rule of thumb is the smaller the camp (ie fewer the tents) the more expensive the rate. Tented camps are usually all-inclusive but what comes with that “all” is not standard. For example, laundry service may be free in one camp but cost extra at others.
Mobile Tented Camps
Some camps move seasonally to follow animal movements such as the migration. Bathrooms may or may not be attached to your tent and you wash in a “bush shower.” A large bag filled with heated water is placed upside down in a container with a shower head you can turn on and off with a lever.
Camps with a Unique Feature(s)
These are also camps, usually on the higher end of the spectrum, that have an extra special feature or quality. (This is not an “official” class of any kind, just something I like to point out.)
There’s Ol Malo camp in Laikipia, built into the side of a cliff overlooking the Laikipia plateau. The views are extraordinary and the room decor is half safari lodge, half Game of Thrones. On the view front, Angama Mara in the Mara Triangle is hard to beat. It’s perched nearly 1,000 feet up on the Oloololo escarpment. Looking down at the countryside, it’s so high the valley looks like a map.
Saruni Rhino in partnership with the Sera Rhino Sanctuary offers guests the opportunity to track black rhino on foot and see them in a way very few people ever will. I had the pleasure of doing this in Namibia at Desert Rhino Camp, but Saruni (as of 2017) is the only East African camp to offer it. A portion of the guests’ room rate goes toward the Sanctuary’s conservation efforts.
Activities and Extra Costs
Game drives are what safaris are known for but camps have other activities too. Some may start the day with yoga while others might mountain bike. Activities I’ve enjoyed in past include bush walks (walking with a guide into the bush. Learning about both the flora and fauna. A completely different experience than in a vehicle and worth trying); visits to local tribal villages; hot air balloon rides, photography workshops, horseback riding, and camel rides. What’s offered is dependent on the property, its location, and the season.
“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, another great safari specialist based in DC. Also, keep in mind that you may be charged for park entry fees, laundry, premium liquors, and other amenities. Sometimes you’ll find that the so-called “cheaper” camps are not so affordable once you start adding on all the extras. But in their defense, you also only pay for what you use.
What’s Worth Paying For?
The two things worth paying more for are location and quality of guides. The smaller more expensive camps often have both, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay where Prince William proposed to Kate. The best choice, according to Dan, is where the type of experience you want intersects with the amenities you feel you must have, and your budget. “This is a trip worth doing right,” he says. ” It’s worth saving up an extra year so you can have the experience you want instead of rushing in and skimping on things.” And I would agree with that.
When you arrive at each camp you’re assigned a guide who will be with you for the length of your stay. You’ll be amazed at the crazy encyclopedic knowledge they have of nature. From bugs on the ground to the birds in the sky and everything in between. They know the location of recent sightings, watering holes, dens, and kills, and the areas each species frequents. Their understanding of animal behavior and the surrounding region means you’ll have the best possible chance of seeing a ton of wildlife.
That said, animals don’t appear on cue, so stay open to what the day brings. Don’t get wrapped up in the Big Five mania. There are so many amazing animals to see, don’t let others get you into the checklist game. Besides, in the bush the world can change on a dime; with a little patience, you’ll have the time of your life.
Family Safari Holiday
Taking your family on safari is one of the best ways to give your children a lifelong love of wildlife and respect for the environment, and to share a life-changing experience.
In the last 10-15 years, more companies have doubled down on making lodgings more family and kid-friendly with larger tents and villas and special children’s programs. For example, the Saruni camps, have a warrior training camp. Your kids can do it for a day or longer if they wish. Some of the fun things they learn are tracking animals, how to make arrows and how to shoot arrows. According to Dan, there are all kinds of kid immersion programs offered today.
On the flip side, Linda points out, it’s important to ask upfront if children are allowed or if there is a minimum age requirement. If your child is very young, you may be required to arrange a private vehicle. That way, if a youngster becomes bored or has a meltdown, they won’t bother the other guests.
When it comes to the bush, safety at any lodging is a top priority. Upon arrival, you’ll be given all the dos and don’ts and it’s important to follow directions. And to be clear, I in 15 safaris have never felt unsafe.
During the day you are welcome to walk in designated areas and walkways. However, at night, the staff escorts guests to and from their tents in case there are animals in camp. Don’t get cocky and think you can walk by yourself.
One night, a herd of buffalo came into camp and they are ornery creatures. When my guide came to pick me up for dinner he led me through the trees parallel to the walking path because the buffalo were on it. If I’d gone on my own, I could have walked right into them and that would have been unfortunate.
At night, you’ll hear animals around camp. I’ve had at different times, a lion, buffalo, elephants and a leopard only feet from my tent. I love it. Predators and other animals are not interested in getting in your tent. Let me repeat. They are not interested in getting inside your tent. They don’t recognize your scent as food and breaking into your tent takes far more energy than any of them are willing to expend just for the heck of it. But taking a stroll alone in the middle of the night might be read as threatening to an animal so just don’t do it.
As Linda Friedman said to me one day, while safaris are safe, “These are wild animals, not kittens.”
Best Time to Visit Kenya
July-thru October – Great Migration: Great opportunity for a Masai Mara Safari (Dry season)
November – Mid December – (Short Rains / Shoulder season)
Late December – March – (Dry Season)
April – May (Long Rains )
The most popular times for travelers are during the dry season which also boasts more moderate temperatures. While the migration is temporary, all the other animals except the big herds of wildebeest are there year round.
There’s great viewing in January / February but it’s really hot in the middle of the day. The good thing: it’s cooler before 8:00 am and after 5:00 pm, which means the really uncomfortable weather doesn’t last that long, and most of it you’re spending in camp in downtime.
Things to Consider (What’s Right For You?)
Fenced vs not fenced
there are properties that have a perimeter fencing of some kind that keeps large animals from coming in, others allow free movement. Meaning, anything can walk through. Personally, I prefer the latter. I like the idea of animals in camp, it feels more authentic, but I also respect nature and obey all the rules. (See safety.)
If you want a greater barrier between you and Africa’s four-legged friends, then stay someplace with fencing.
Family Style Meals vs Separate Tables
As a solo traveler, I love camps that have a family-style eating policy. Big table, no assigned seats, and a lot of conversation with new people. I’m still friends with some of the people I’ve met this way.
If you’re going solo or you like to socialize with other guests, camps with family-style meals is a good option for you. If you’re on a honeymoon or prefer to have more privacy, then look for d meals served at separate tables. Besides, you can always push two together if you end up wanting to talk to another couple.
I love iPhones but when it comes to wildlife photography, they just don’t cut it. You’d be surprised how many people think they will. Sure, they’re great for selfies and fun videos with lions in the background, or the elephant, or the pretty tree, but the best camera for a safari is a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a longer lens— 400mm minimum. If you don’t have a long lens, why not rent one? Companies like Borrowlenses are wonderful for just this sort of thing. (This is a piece I wrote about how to take amazing wildlife photography)
If photography isn’t central to your trip and you just want a good camera that will document your bucket-list trip, then use a point-and-shoot with the longest optical lens you can find. Don’t use the digital zoom, however, it will reduce your image quality.
(This post gives you a sense of my gear.)
How to Plan Your Safari
Independent Travel Specialists
There are a couple of ways to plan your safari. The first and the one that I recommend is to work with an independent Africa Travel Specialists like Hippo Creek or Custom Safaris. They are small companies who will work closely with you to make sure your trip is exactly what you’ve dreamed about.
Normally, I believe people can book their own holidays with a little quality research but in Africa, there are so many nuances and variables to consider you’re going to get the best results working with an expert who knows the safari landscape intimately. Otherwise, you’re going to spend an enormous amount of time researching all the possibilities, when a few conversations with a specialist will net you a more satisfying outcome.
Also, travel specialists have no allegiance to specific companies, their allegiance is to you. If mix and matching camps owned by different companies will be a most satisfying trip within your budget that’s what they’ll do. If you book directly with a safari company that owns camps, they want you to have a great time but they’re incentivized to book you in their camps, even if another camp they don’t own would be better.
In addition, travel specialists spend years developing relationships that can work on your behalf when it comes to an upgrade, a free activity, or other perks.
The key to success is to really think about what you want and your budget and then speak on the phone (not email) about what you want. Do you want an active holiday or relaxation? The amenities you can’t live without (Wifi, massage, high luxury, or do you prefer to go rustic?). A good travel specialist will throw out options, activities, and ideas until they have a clear sense of your dream, and so will you.
(And if you’re wondering, I don’t have any financial relationships with travel specialists. I truly believe they are your best bet.)
Work directly with safari companies that own and/or operate their own camps
Another option is to do what I mentioned above. Work directly with companies who own camps in multiple countries such as Sanctuary Retreats, AndBeyond (FYI- Wilderness Safaris, with many camps only books through a travel specialist.)
A smaller company owned by award-winning wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert called Great Plains Conservation is one of my favorites. I love the look of their camps and their dedication to sustainability. Plus, because they’re filmmakers, their guides are trained to work with photographers and their modified vehicles make it easier to get the best shots.
Taking a tour is another route. Companies like Abercrombie and Kent and Micato Safaris have pre-packaged trips you can take which takes care of planning worries. The only downside is the lack of flexibility. You have no control over the itinerary or length of stay.
Don’t get me wrong, the trips are great but they don’t cater to your wants and needs. Plus, you share your experience with a bunch of other people. This can be a pro or a con depending on what you looking for.
These companies can also plan private safaris but then you’re effectively using them as a travel specialist.
Do a lot of research online, reach out to camps, ask a lot of questions, and don’t forget to ask about logistics. How will you get from place to place? Those reservations are often the trickiest.
Passport, Visas and Vaccinations
I’m going to state the obvious, you need a passport. What you might not know is that it must be valid for at least six months prior to your arrival and contain a minimum of two blank pages for stamps.
Kenya Travel Visa
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are no mandatory vaccinations for travel to Kenya though you may have to get a yellow fever shot if your travels take you through endemic zones before Kenya.
The agency also advocates being up to date on immunizations for Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies, and meningitis. Additionally, consider pills for malaria.
DON’T GO TO AFRICA WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE. At the very least buy medical and evacuation insurance. You are going to remote locations in a third world country if something happens, you’ll be flown out. You can go bankrupt with the costs you’ll incur. If you pay attention to nothing else in this post, please take this to heart.
A great place to compare policies is Insuremytrip.
Note: many camps and tour companies will insist you have travel insurance.
I’ve put together a page of resources you can find here. I recommend you bookmark it for all your journeys.
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 offer. 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 pack a pair of comfortable sneakers for walking around.
Check out this post for a free downloadable safari packing list.
In country, you’ll take small commuter planes to reach your destinations. Don’t think about driving, distances are too big and the roads leave a lot to be desired. Some camps can’t even be reached except by plane. You’ll waste valuable time and sanity if you go this route.
Domestic carriers are sticklers about baggage restrictions. Bags have to 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 a plane with space available.
Here are some of my go to’s for safaris. If you’d like to see more, visit my “Safari Must-Have’s” store on Amazon.
Speak to almost any ardent traveler and I bet you they’re using packing cubes. They’re ideal for keeping your clothes sorted, organized, and streamlined. I use three cubes to separate my undies, tops, and bottoms. I especially love them when I’m faced with a multi-stop itinerary–packing and unpacking is infinitely easier.
A lot of people like universal cubes that contain every adapter known to man deployed by a series of sliders, and while I appreciate the concept, I’ve never found one that doesn’t break almost immediately or size-wise didn’t annoy me. Too clunky. This 5-piece set is great because I can cherrypick what I need and plop it into my Think Tank case (see below) which I pack into my carry-on. I use the case that comes with it to keep all the adapters together at home; I rarely take the whole shebang with me.
I won’t be without a mini power strip. It’s probably the one thing other than my phone I always have with me when I travel. I like this model by Upwade because it has two widely spaced international outlets which provide ample room for those pesky wide plugs that come with cameras and other devices, as well as four USB ports. The cord is a little longer than I need at 5 ft but I’d rather have it longer than too short. At 6 inches in length, it fits in any purse or carry-on bag.
The best insect repellent I’ve ever used. The towelettes make it easy to pack and control. Wouldn’t use anything else.
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.
Tips are not mandatory but are customary. Put your guide at the top of your list. You should plan to pay between $15-25 per person per day for your guide. If you have a large family, less per person is acceptable. It’s also customary to distribute gratuity to staff members, most camps have a staff box where guests can leave an envelope of money. $5-10 per person per day is good. When in doubt, ask a manager for advice.
Tip: I prepare all my tips in advance and put them in separate envelopes for each camp before my trip “Guide” and “Staff”. I’ll add the guide’s name and increase the gratuity in real-time if I feel an individual deserves more. It avoids last-minute hassles and the worry that you might spend your cash elsewhere beforehand.
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