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Migration of elephants through Kenya (Shutterstock)

Think safari, think Kenya. Nestled on the coast of East Africa, Kenya is where Roosevelt, Hemingway and Churchill put romance into hunting, and started off the safari industry.

These days Kenyan safaris are all photographic, but the excitement remains. The greatest density of game is in the Masai Mara, the northern part of Tanzania’s Serengeti. This is packed with wildlife during the annual wildebeest migration, but is busy with game and predators year round: sighting come thick and fast.

There are a number of parks in the east. Framed by Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is a small park with too many elephant. You’ll get good sightings, but there’s no longer enough meltwater coming from Kili’s shrinking ice-cap to support the park’s game. The situation is better in the wide expanses of Tsavo, where animals roam freely and and there aren’t too many other vehicles. Shimba Hills National Park is a little gem within easy reach of Kenya’s southern beach resorts, best known for its roan antelope but with cute little bushbabies who cluster round the lodge at night.

Head north and Nakuru is a small park around a beautiful, flamingo-filled lake: its size makes it easy to find the park rhino, but after a bit of birding it’s best to move on. Aberdares is a fantastic park on the foothills of Mount Kenya, with forested slopes that get plenty of rain, but this does mean that game is harder to find. Carry on to Samburu, a beautiful – if arid – park, where you can easily find wildlife if you know where it drinks.

Raise your budget and you can also consider private reserves, often run in conjunction with local tribes, Hot spots include the Laikipia Plateau to the north and the Chyulu Hills west of Tsavo.

Leaving the cool highlands of Kenya’s central plateau and heading east you drop down to Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. The city of Mombasa has a fantastic island setting and an impressive Portuguese fort, but it’s not especially geared up for travellers. Most accommodation is across the causeway north of town, in a string of resorts that line the beach.

The coast road continues up to the charming little village of Watamu and then the slightly seedy Malindi. The road continues (but traffic, including matatus, generally does not) up to the island of Lamu, a welcoming little Islamic enclave generally reached by air. With just four cars – but plenty of boats and donkeys – this is a good place to experience the coast’s Muslim culture.

Head south from Mombasa and you have to take the Likoni ferry. The pace of life slows sharply and there are a line of beautiful beaches, often quite undeveloped, with the best known (and best) being Diani Beach.

Don’t miss the richest part of a Kenyan journey: the Kenyans. There are more than 70 tribes in Kenya, many with their own distinctive costumes and customs. On private reserves these are the people who will be your guides, or they are easy to meet if you step out of your safari bubble. Head north for the Samburu and Turkana people, clustered by the edge of croc-infested Lake Turkana, while in the south the Maasai prevail, proud warriors struggling to adapt to a world where land can be – and increasingly is – privately owned.

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Wanderlust recommends

  1. Migrate. The annual Wildebeest migration sees huge herds of game pour into the Masai Mara – and a feeding frrenzy for the area’s predators
  2. Go Up. The trek up Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain, is more interesting and less crowded than Kilimanjaro. Mount Elgon, on the Ugandan border, is also a worthy climb
  3. Take a Trek. In the north of the country, head out on a camel safari, with local tribesmen as your guides. Take references: potential guides will not willingly admit they’re not from the area and don’t know their way around. On a budget, take a donkey instead
  4. Cross the Chalbi Desert – the ethnically fascinating badlands of Kenya – by truck to reach croc-infested Lake Turkana
  5. Call of the Minaret. Loll around the traditional Swahili streets of Lamu Island, feasting on fresh fish and swimming from deserted beaches
  6. Safari in the City. If time is limited, most of Kenya’s wildlife species can be seen from a taxi in Nariobi’s own small National Park. Be warned: Nairobi is one place where the most dangerous predators have two legs and are found on the city-centre streets after dark
  7. Go Dive. There are good Marine Parks at Wasini in the south and Watamu in the north, excellent for snorkelling or diving

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Kenyan shilling KSH. Most main towns have ATMs. Dollars are useful for tipping and payments at lodges. Haggling is commonplace.

When to go

Upcountry Kenya is almost all at 600 metres or more above sea level, making for a very pleasant climate with warm days and cool nights. Coastal regions are generally hot and steamy year-round, with far more mosquitos.

Kenya’s peak season, when it’s dry and hot and flamingoes flock to Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes, is January-February – prices are high and accommodation booked well in advance.

For better deals and fewer tourists, visit during the shoulder season (June-October); this is also when the Great Migration passes through Kenya’s Masai Mara – one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles.

March to May and October to December are generally wetter, though it doesn’t tend to rain all day, the vegetation is lush, and you can get some great deals on accommodation. Climbing Mount Kenya is best done during the drier months.

International airports

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) 15km from Nairobi; Moi International (MBA) 12km from Mombasa.

Getting around

There is a good network of internal flights all over Kenya, useful for time-poor travellers, and for accessing remote lodges in the bush (via tiny, sometimes wildlife-inhabited airstrips).

Hiring a car in Kenya is costly and for many areas you’ll require a 4WD. Some hire companies bury a large excess in their rental agreement, which is not so good in a country where car-jacking is relatively common: pay someone to guard your rental car whenever you park. Matatus (share taxi minivans) ply Kenya’s roads; they leave when full, are very cheap and often break down. Buses link Kenya’s big cities and vary greatly in quality; size up the vehicle before boarding. Avoid travelling at night: unlit cattle and vehicles – as well as occasional bandits – make it hazardous.

Along the Kenyan coast, sailing by dhow (traditional boat) is the most atmospheric way to access offshore islands.


From the simple to the sublime, accommodation in Kenya covers the full range. Adventurous travellers can take their own tent and camp out in the wilderness; the national parks have basic sites with toilets and taps. Kenya’s bandas, no-frills chalets with beds, bathrooms and sometimes kitchens, are good-value options.

Plusher hotels are available in cities, but the real treats are Kenya’s high-end safari lodges. Often breathtaking in design and location, these are set on private or community-run reserves on the edges of Kenya’s national parks that offer chic rooms, stylish communal bars, quality cuisine and safari activities; they sounds pricey but food and often drink is included and the experience first-class.

Food & drink

Meals at Kenya’s high-end and mid-range lodges are generally Western and delicious, with snacks available in between – you won’t go hungry on a posh Kenyan safari. If trekking, camp food is hearty and plentiful – expect big portions of soup, pasta, meat and fish, veggies and fruit.

Local Kenyan fare is pretty basic and meat-based: expect mutton stews, ugali (stodgy maize porridge) and vegetables such as spinach. Vegetarians may struggle. There’s plenty of homegrown fresh fruit in Kenya, including mango, pineapple and passion fruit; fruit juices are also delicious.

Tusker beer, a G&T or a glass of wine all make good sundowners – the traditional way to end your day on a Kenyan safari. Coffee is generally weak and instant; chai (sweet milk tea) is the Kenyan’s drink of choice.

Health & safety

In Kenya drink boiled/purified water and practice good food hygiene. Make sure you are up to date on your vaccinations. Malaria prophylaxis is required for most of the country though mosquitos are not too much of a problem upcountry; ask your GP for advice.

If climbing Mount Kenya, be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness (headaches, nausea and disorientation). Drink plenty of water and ascend slowly. Avoid driving at night.

HIV is a major problem in Kenya. Assume that anyone who propositions you is HIV positive as you are most unlikely to be the first person they’ve tried.