When you think of a safari in Africa, what scenes spring to mind? Herds of wildlife on vast open plains, a pride of lion on the hunt, the sun setting behind an acacia tree, red-robed Maasai under a clear blue sky – these are all images of Kenya. The birthplace of the safari, Kenya is still considered one of the best places to see Africa’s herds and prides.
There are over 40 national parks and reserves in Kenya, so picking five is no easy feat. I had to leave off the forested mountains of Aberdares, the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy – known for its consistently good rhino sightings, and further south the vast and wild Tsavo National Park.
Here are the five that I feel really offer somthing unique. If you’ve been to Kenya before, I’d love to know your favourite destinations. Why not take a few minutes to add them to the comments below.
A dramatic scene captured during the wildebeest migration in the Mara (photo: Mara Plains Tented Camp)
Masai Mara: Plenty of Predators & the Wildebeest Migration
The Masai Mara is Kenya’s best known reserve, and for good reason too. Home to an abundance of big game, the Mara is excellent for predator sightings – cheetah, lion and leopard – with the open grasslands and far reaching views making these big cats easier to spot. Game viewing reaches its peak in July with the arrival of the thousands-strong wildebeest herds of the annual migration.
The popularity of the Mara does have its downside as the national park can get busy, especially during the migration. For this reason I highly recommend the neighbouring private conservancies. You’ll pay a bit more but not only will you be rewarded with a more exclusive safari experience, you’ll also be able to enjoy activities such as off-road driving (for up-close sightings), Maasai-led walking safaris and bush breakfasts – none of which are allowed in the national park.
The striking pattern of reticulated giraffe seen on a game drive in Samburu (photo: Samburu Intrepids)
Samburu: Dramatic Scenery & Unusual Wildlife
A starkly beautiful reserve, Samburu is a good choice for a classic big game viewing – lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo (there are no rhino in the reserve) – along with some more unusual sightings. Unique to Kenya’s arid north, these animals are called the Samburu Special Five and are made up of the rare Grevy’s zebra, beisa oryx, long-necked gerenuk, Somali ostrich and the reticulated giraffe with its striking checkered pattern.
Accommodation is generally set along the coffee-coloured waters of the Ewaso Niyo River. And, along with game drives, most lodges offer camelback safaris, guided walks and visits to local villages where you can learn more about the fascinating culture of the Samburu people.
Game viewing in Amboseli with a herd of elephant againt the view of Kilimanjaro (photo: Tortilis Camp)
Amboseli: Game Viewing Against the Backdrop of Kilimanjaro
Amboseli is a relatively small park that covers a diverse range of landscapes from dry savannah to delta-type swamps. But the most dramatic scenery of all is the view of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, which (while situated in Tanzania) can clearly be seen towering high over the sun-baked plains.
The park protects over a thousand elephant including some of Africa’s largest tuskers, as well as good numbers of lion, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and several antelope species. But for many Amboseli safari-goers, the real highlight is capturing and appreciating that iconic image of long-tusked elephant (or a journey of giraffe) on dry savannah plains with Africa’s highest mountain as a backdrop.
The magnificent view from Elsa's Kopje over Meru National Park (photo: Elsa's Kopje)
Meru: the Unspoilt Wilderness of Elsa the Lioness
Meru is a beautiful, wild and little visited national park. And while the game viewing here is not as good as the Mara you don’t get the safari crowds either. That said, there is plenty of wildlife about, with the reserve being particular good for rhino sightings as it contains an enormous fenced rhino sanctuary (which is currently being extended). Other big game you’re likely to see include elephant, lion, buffalo and again some of those rare northern species you’d see in the Samburu.
While this blog post is about reserves I feel I should mention Elsa’s Kopje, as it really has helped put Meru back on the safari map. This award-winning luxury lodge is built near the remains of the original camp where George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa the lioness (as documented in the book and film “Born Free”) and is a fantastic place to stay with remarkable views over the untamed wilderness. You can read more in our recent popular blog post: Elsa’s Kopje & the Return of Meru Park.
The brilliant pink of a flock on flamingos on one of Lake Nakuru, a Rift Valley lake (photo: Loldia House).
Lake Nakuru: Great Lake Tinged Pink by Flamingos
Lake Nakuru lies an easy drive from Nairobi, and is a good starting point for a Kenya safari. While this small national park does not have the same wilderness feel as many of the larger reserves, it is still well worth visiting. Lake Nakuru was established as Kenya’s first rhino sanctuary and along with white rhino you’re likely to spot Rothchild’s giraffe, buffalo, waterbuck and possible even leopard.
But the reason this park made it one to my list is because of its greater and lesser flamingos. For a while the lake water became too deep and the flamingos went elsewhere. But now they have started to return and (if conditions are right) you’ll be treated to the shimmering pink of up to a million birds lining the lake shore – a truly magnificent sight.
Top Kenya Safaris
- Wildlife and Warriors: this 10-day itinerary includes the Rift Valley lakes, the wildlife and warrior culture of Samburu and a classic big game safari in the Masai Mara.
- Luxury East Africa Safari: combine two of Kenya's top reserves with game drives on Tanzania's Serengeti Plains and the wildlife-packed Ngorongoro Crater.
- Masai Mara Tented Safari: an authentic under canvas safari with phenomenal game viewing, and a good chance of seeing the river crossings of the wildebeest migration.
Top Kenya Lodges
- For ideas on where to stay, read our popular blog post Kenya's Top 20 Lodges & Luxury Camps.