By Kenya specialist Arista
Open plains scattered with game, rocky kopjes, distant mountains and sparkling lakes — Out of Africa, The Lion King and numerous David Attenborough documentaries are indebted to Kenya’s landscapes. And, despite it being Africa’s oldest safari destination, you’ll still find relatively untouched wildlife areas.
You can mix and match the country’s varied reserves, whether you’re adamant on seeing the Big Five and the Great Migration herds in the Masai Mara or would rather focus on rarer species in Kenya’s more arid north.
I recommend a route that includes both a safari and time on the beach, taking in the Masai Mara and a quieter place to view wildlife, followed by the white sands of Kenya’s lengthy coastline.
A safari in the Masai Mara
Masai Mara National Reserve
Needing little introduction, the Masai Mara National Reserve is home to all the big hitters. Lion, leopard and cheetah hunt plains game, whose numbers swell during the Great Migration months of July to October.
Elephant herds use their trunks to navigate to the nearest water source. Giraffe trim leaves off acacias with their long charcoal tongues.
Rhino usually hide in pockets of forest, but you can sometimes see them from dawn hot-air-balloon flights. Soaring into the sky with a blast of fire, you float over the plains as the rising sun gradually illuminates the land, speckled with antelope, wildebeest and zebra.
I could make out criss-crossing paths trodden into the ground by countless elephant, and then we flew over a white rhino in the trees. On landing (often with a bump), you’re treated to breakfast out in the bush.
Guided game drives are the main activity in the Masai Mara — usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so you’re back at camp during the hottest part of the day.
I recommend staying in one of the Maasai-owned private conservancies bordering the main reserve. Animals have free movement, but visitor numbers are limited, so you often get wildlife sightings all to yourself.
I like the simplicity and intimacy of Kicheche Bush Camp in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy. Game drives focus on photography, and you can take guided walks through the bush.
Where to safari before or after the Masai Mara
Walking safaris and sleepouts in the Laikipia Plateau
Two hours to the Masai Mara by plane
The Laikipia Plateau not only supports large elephant herds, thriving lion prides and the occasional leopard or cheetah, but it also provides a habitat for more endangered species than anywhere else in East Africa.
A vast tract of land, it spreads from the shores of Lake Baringo to the foothills of Mount Kenya, whose jagged silhouette forms a constant backdrop.
You might see Grévy’s zebra and Jackson’s hartebeest grazing the plains, sitatunga on the riverbanks and wild dog readying themselves for an evening hunt.
Rare subspecies are also attracted to this drier part of the country. You stand a chance to see reticulated giraffe, Somali ostriches, gerenuk (also known as giraffe gazelle for their long necks) and beisa oryx.
What I like about staying in this area is the variety of activities on offer alongside the usual game drives. On guided bush walks you notice a broader spectrum of wildlife, including insects, birds and reptiles.
You can also explore on horseback (if you’re an experienced rider), or by mountain bike.
A particular highlight, though, is sleeping out at the Loisaba Starbeds. Perched on a kopje in the Loisaba Wilderness Conservancy, with far-reaching views over the plains, the hand-crafted four-poster beds are set on platforms with nothing but mosquito nets separating you from the night sky.
Your stay here contributes both to the conservation of wildlife in the conservancy and to the education and welfare of local Samburu and Maasai people, who’ve grazed their cattle on the land for generations.
Rhino and birdlife at Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru
Three hour drive from Nairobi
Rhino and her calf, Lake Nakuru
Spending a few days on the shores of Lake Naivasha, in the Great Rift Valley, is a good way to slow down your safari experience.
I’d stay at Loldia House, right on the lake’s north shore. There are just nine rooms at this old colonial residence, in cottages dotted around the grounds.
You don’t need to leave the property to see the wildlife that gathers at the lake. Hippo partially submerge themselves in the water (you’ll likely also hear their snorts) and more than 400 bird species flit, hover and wade around the lake.
You can get closer to the birdlife on boat safaris led by the resident ornithologist. I photographed kingfishers and white-fronted bee-eaters perched in the papyrus, cormorants drying their outspread wings, and fish eagles keeping watch over the water.
During your stay, I’d make time to visit Lake Nakuru National Park, about two hours away. You can go on a game drive in search of black rhino, which are under protection in the park, as well as giraffe, lion, hyena and antelope.
Flamingoes have historically flocked to the lake in huge numbers, but changing water conditions in recent years have seen them migrate elsewhere. If conditions are right, though, you might be lucky enough to see some dabbling on the water.
Parched landscapes and local culture in Samburu National Reserve
2 hours 30 minutes from Nairobi by plane
Samburu National Reserve
Stark, sun-baked landscapes are interrupted by the vivid green banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, and an intense silence follows you, only to be shattered by the screech of a martial eagle or a trumpeting elephant.
Samburu National Reserve, in northern Kenya, might seem desolate on first glance, but it soon reveals itself as full of life. Game drives home in around the river, which is an important water source for wildlife — look for elephant, buffalo and waterbuck on the banks or in the shade of tamarind and acacia trees.
Bateleur eagles and pygmy falcons patrol the skies, while big cats and wild dog cover the ground on the hunt for antelope, zebra and oryx.
You can join local Samburu guides on bush walks, which amplify the sounds — and the silence — of your surroundings and zoom in on the reserve’s flora and fauna. You’ll begin to see your surroundings through the eyes of the semi-nomadic Samburu people, from their medicinal uses of plants to animal tracking and bush survival skills.
Stay at Elephant Bedroom, whose 12 riverside tents each has a balcony and plunge pool overlooking the water.
Wilderness safari in the home of Born Free, Meru National Park
2 hours 45 minutes from Nairobi by plane
Meru National Park
Despite being the real-life setting for Joy Adamson’s Born Free, Meru National Park sees relatively few visitors. It’s this feeling of wilderness that stands out for me whenever I visit.
Well-watered by 13 rivers, the park groans with wildlife. On game drives you’re likely to see rhino up close, alongside buffalo, elephant and lion. Look too for hippo, crocodiles and varied birdlife along the rivers, as well as dik-dik and lesser kudu on the plains, and baboons and vervet monkeys in the pockets of woodland.
Named after the lioness behind Adamson’s story, Elsa’s Kopje sits on top of Mughwango Hill, where George Adamson (Joy’s husband) set up his first camp. Its 11 large and airy thatched cottages are crafted into the rocks, with commanding views over the plains.
Between game drives, guided walks and fishing in the river, you can cool off in the infinity pool, which seems to disappear off the hillside.
Wildlife viewing in the shadow of Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park
30 minutes from Nairobi by plane
Tortilis Tented Camp
Open plains sprinkled with fever trees, wildlife-rich swamps and marshes, and a large dry riverbed, all overlooked by the cloud-shrouded peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Amboseli National Park showcases the best of Africa’s scenery and wildlife.
The park is known for its elephant, but it has a fine supporting cast of lion, cheetah, buffalo, Maasai giraffe and leopard. The familiar plains game is interspersed with rarer species such as Burchell’s zebra, Coke’s hartebeest, white-bearded wildebeest and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle, which your guide will point out on game drives.
I find it an excellent place for a second or third safari — once you’ve seen all the big game. You might spot vervet monkeys and yellow baboons in the trees, and your guide will identify birds you’ll likely never have seen, including lily-trotters, hamerkops and the rare Madagascar squacco heron.
You never tire of the views from Tortilis Tented Camp, which looks straight across the plains to Kilimanjaro from its elevated position on top of a kopje. Look below and you can watch zebra, elephant and giraffe gathered around the waterhole.
Beach stay ending to your safari
When your safari ends, it’s possible to catch a direct flight from Nairobi to Zanzibar, off Tanzania’s coast. But, you can spend a few days on a beach without leaving the country — Kenya’s own coastline boasts long stretches of sand as white and soft as those on any Indian Ocean island.
Short direct flights to Diani Beach depart both from Nairobi and the Masai Mara. Within a day you could go from a morning game drive to an afternoon by the ocean.
Beachside properties are scattered along this part of the coast, all mingling relaxation with water-based activities such as snorkeling, diving, and boat trips.
I like WaterLovers, set right on the edge of Diani Beach. The hotel blends Mediterranean and Swahili styles, and you can stay in a private cottage with a veranda overlooking the ocean.
When to safari in Kenya
Wildebeest crossing the Mara River
Wildlife viewing is at its best from July to October, when the Great Migration herds pour across the plains. November to March is also a good time for seeing wildlife without the crowds and for pairing your safari with a beach stay, thanks to the warm temperatures. It’s best to avoid April and May, when the long rains fall. For more detail, you can read our full breakdown of the best time to visit Kenya.