Kenya is synonymous with safaris and as an African destination conjures up images of open plains rich with migrating wildebeest, relaxed game and scatterings of acacia trees than this East African country.
Actually, the term safari originates from the Arabic word safara which means ‘to journey’ and was adapted by the Swahili to the verb kusafiri which translates ‘to travel’. Today a term universally describes the privilege of time in the bush, 4×4 vehicles, competent guides and remote camps where one is invited to reconnect with nature and be humbled by the big skies and sightings of game.
Yet this is not the only thing on offer in Kenya. Beyond the Masai Mara you will find the Amboseli National Reserve, the traditional customs of the people, Lake Nakuru with its thousands of flamingoes and the Indian Ocean treasures of Malinda, Watamu and Lamu. The Great Rift Valley divides the country, the peaks of Mount Kenya and the vibrant activity-rich capital of Nairobi.
To help you plan your visit, here are ten of my favourite things to do in Kenya.
Do not underestimate Nairobi. It bursts with interesting things to do and warrants at least a couple of days’ stay. It’s best to base yourself in the suburb of Karen and explore from there, as traffic can be prohibitive and many of the city’s attractions are found in this area. You can visit the Nairobi National Museum for more insight into Kenya’s colourful colonial history and learn how early settlers came here to seek their fortunes in the coffee and tea industries. Walk around the Karen Blixen Museum, the restored residence of the famous Danish author of the book “Out of Africa”, and after whom the suburb was named. Spend time with the precious orphan elephants at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and visit the Giraffe Centre. For curio shopping look to Love Bird Curios, Kazuri Beads and the very impressive and vast Utamaduni Craft Centre. There’s a good Masai Market for shopping in the city centre too.
2. Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park is just a 10-minute drive from the centre of Nairobi, with only a game fence separating the wildlife from the metropolis. The city’s skyline is actually visible from the park but despite its proximity and relatively small size, Nairobi National Park has a large and varied wildlife population. Migrating wildebeest and zebra gather in the park during the dry season and it is home to one of Kenya’s most successful rhino sanctuaries.
3. Maasai Mara National Reserve
The Maasai Mara National Park, or the Mara as it is fondly known, is situated in southwest Kenya and is undeniably one of Africa’s greatest wildlife reserves, linking to neighbouring Tanzania’s Serengeti. Named in honour of the Maasai people whose ancestral habitat it is, this is the site of the annual migration that sees millions of wildebeest and zebra arrive on the plains. Throughout the year the park holds a rich residential population of Maasai lion, leopard, cheetah, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle. You can opt to stay within the actual reserve or on one of the private concessions. From there, activities include game drives, bush walks, a visit to a nearby rhino sanctuary and time in a real Maasai village. Consider a hot air balloon ride for particularly rewarding views.
4. The Great Rift Valley
The Great Rift Valley runs from Northern Syria to Central Mozambique, a distance of around 3000 miles. Within Kenya it is a dramatic sight and home to around 12 volcanoes and seven lakes. These include Lake Bogoria, where geysers regularly erupt, sending columns of water high into the air, and Lake Turkana, the largest permanent desert lake in the world.
5. Lake Nakuru National Park
Central Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park is famous for its huge flocks of pink flamingos which live on Lake Nakuru, which makes up almost a third of the park’s area. The park was established in 1961 and is recorded to have more than 450 species of birds as well as a rich offering of other wildlife and also works to protect the largest euphorbia candelabrum forest in Africa. These tall branching succulents are endemic to the region and standing among them is an eerie and humbling feeling.
6. Tsavo National Park
Kenya’s largest park, Tsavo, is sliced in two parts, Tsavo West and Tsavo East. Together these parks comprise four percent of the country’s total land area and include rivers, waterfalls, savannah, volcanic hills, a massive lava-rock plateau and abundant wildlife. Located between Nairobi and Mombasa, Tsavo East is famous for large elephant herds rolling and bathing in red dust, the palm-fringed Galana River, Mudanda Rock and Lugard Falls. Tsavo West receives more rainfall with Mzima Springs, the Chaimu Crater and Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary as its highlights.
7. Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves
Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba Reserves lie in the more arid region of northern Kenya. Shaba National Reserve is one of two areas where George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa the lioness, made famous in their film Born Free, from which the conservation movement was founded. The wildlife in all three reserves depends on the waters of the river to survive and many species are specially adapted to the dry conditions. One of the main attractions in Samburu National Reserve is the Sarara Singing Wells, local watering holes where Samburu warriors sing traditional songs while collecting water for their cattle to drink; it’s magical.
8. Malindi and Watamu
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to watersports at Malindi and the quieter Watamu village, with snorkelling and diving offered in the protected coral gardens and turtle reef. You can take lessons in kitesurfing, stand up paddle boards (SUP), windsurfing, kayaking and body boarding. There are sunset Dhow cruises, walks in the mangrove forest and neighbouring Arabuko Sokoke, as well as the ancient Gede Ruins and remains of an ancient Swahili town to explore. Don’t miss sundowners at Mida Creek and some shopping for art and curios. A must visit is Bio-Ken Snake Farm, a research centre who does good work developing anti-venom and educating locals not to kill snakes on sight in their Saving Snakes program. Definitely consider spending time as an Eco Visitor at the Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch. I can’t recommend the experience and inspiration taken enough.
The charming small island of Lamu, northeast of Mombasa, is a World Heritage site and Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited settlement, with origins dating back to the 12th century. Strolling the streets, visitors get a feel for the island’s rich trading history, which is reflected in the buildings. Architectural features from the Arab world, Europe and India are evident, yet the Swahili influence dominates. Few, if any, cars exist here and donkeys still rule the streets as they have done for centuries. Most of Lamu’s population is Muslim and men and women dress in traditional attire. Top attractions on Lamu include the Lamu Museum, Lamu Fort and the heart-warming Donkey Sanctuary.
10. Amboseli National Reserve
Referred to as Land of the Giants, Amboseli is where you will come face to face with African Elephants as they graze leisurely on the plains of Mount Kilimanjaro. Said to be larger than anywhere else in the country, they stand as much as four metres tall here and the opportunity to observe a full herd is a moving one. The park is home to about 900 elephants in total and has become internationally acclaimed as the perfect place to observe their behaviour. Most other game occurs here too.
Head off on a safari with Round the World Experts’ East Africa Discovery Journey, which takes you to Nairobi, Lake Nakuru and the Maasai Mara before continuing to Tanzania.