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Kenya- Still at the Heart of the African Safari Experience
The popular image of safari, especially in the west, is inseparable from Kenya. At the turn of the last century, talented writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen brought to life the vivid images and thrilling life experience that is a Kenyan safari. It was at this time that major celebrities of the day such as Teddy Roosevelt and Prince Edward traveled to Kenya on safari. And so the safari acquired a certain snob appeal. Celebrities went because they were expected. And those who were in production, because the safari was part of the certification they needed on the way up. If you want a glimpse into the mood and character of the players at the time, read Hemingway’s intriguing short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Nowadays, however, a safari in Kenya is accessible to many more people. Despite competition from other destinations, Kenya remains the heart of the African safari experience. The magnificence and diversity of wildlife and scenery is unsurpassed. You are guaranteed to pick the full list of the big five – lion, buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros and elephant. Other less well-known but essential and authoritative members of the savanna ecosystem also abound. The kaleidoscope of scenery highlights the magnificent rift valley, central highlands, savannah grasslands, snow-capped Mount Kenya and the desolate landscape of the northern moon. This is probably the reason why experts advise all those faithful lovers of wild life and nature that at least once in their life they should take part in a Kenyan safari.
Kenya has over 50 national parks and game reserves where wildlife is protected. But as you might already suspect, on the average safari you can’t hope to cover them all. So it’s a good thing that you get very good value by visiting just a few of them. That is if of course you don’t have a lot of time and can afford to go off the beaten path. The most popular and which those with limited time and budget should choose from are – Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Aberdares, Samburu and Tsavo. The best in the off the beaten track category for wildlife or back to nature activities are – Kakamega Forest, Marsabit, Meru, Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon and Shimba Hills.
Maasai Mara is the big one. You should go here even if all you can do is two nights. This is mainly where all those wildlife videos in Kenya are filmed. The Mara, as the Maasai Mara Game Reserve is commonly known, is part of the ecosystem that includes Tanzania’s equally famous Serengeti. With an area of 320 square kilometers, it is nestled in the southwestern corner of the country. The Mara offers wildlife in such variety and abundance that it is hard to believe. In a two-night visit, I saw lions, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, buffaloes, wildebeests, hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, buffaloes, leopards, nine species of antelopes, and elephants. Birds are also plentiful – secretary birds, cranes, storks, vultures and ostriches.
It is in the Mara that perhaps the most spectacular event of the natural world takes place. I refer to the annual migration of millions of wildebeest and zebras from the Serengeti in search of water and pastures. The time of the phenomena is conditioned by the rainfall and occurs in the period June-August. The reverse trip usually takes place in October. With or without migration, the Mara has a large number of resident animals and you are sure to have a good wildlife viewing experience any time of year you visit. If you have enough funds, consider taking a hot air balloon ride over the reserve. This popular and completely unforgettable trip usually starts before dawn and includes a champagne breakfast. Mara is 5 hours from Nairobi by road and 45 minutes by light aircraft.
Amboseli National Park is located on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro, whose peak is across the border in Tanzania. It is quite an experience to see Mt Kilimanjaro hovering above the clouds in the early morning. As the keen photography enthusiast can already imagine, the mountain provides a dramatic backdrop for animal photography. Amboseli is known for its large herds of elephants. You will also see buffalo, black rhinoceros, zebra, wildebeest and other simple animals. Lions and other cats can be seen, but are less numerous here than in the Mara. The park is 3 hours from Nairobi by road and can be accessed through Namanga, the border post between Kenya and Tanzania.
Lake Nakuru’s claim to fame is anchored in its flamingos and over 400 species of birds found here. The lake itself is a soda lake on the rift valley floor. The sight of several million flamingos is quite spectacular. From a distance, the lake appears surrounded in pink. Lake Nakuru is also a sanctuary for the endangered black and white rhinoceros. Lions, Rothschild’s giraffe, buffalo and baboons are all residents here. The park is the most accessible of Kenya’s major parks and is only two hours from Nairobi by road.
At the same distance from Nairobi as Lake Nakuru is the Aberdares National Park. The park has a varied topography that includes waterfalls, rainforests and rivers that supply water to Nairobi’s millions. The flora and fauna is quite unique and not found anywhere else in the country, it is expected in Mount Kenya. Leopard, elephant, rhino and the rare bongo can be found here. But dense vegetation and bad weather make it difficult to detect animals. However, you are guaranteed to see some animals, especially elephants and buffaloes at the waterholes illuminated by the two famous tree hotels, The Ark and Treetops.
Students of the history of the British royal family will recall that it was at Treetops in 1952 that the then-Princess Elizabeth was staying on her honeymoon when her father, King George VI, died. She came down from the Treetops to take on the role of backbone presiding over the empire’s far-flung dominions and colonies. If you stay at Treetops, you will meet some of her fans.
Although not as famous as the Mara, Samburu National Park is another wildlife haven. Here you will spot lions, elephants, cheetahs and the elusive leopard. Some animals are unique to this northern park: Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, kudu and gerenuk. You will find the semi-arid landscape quite dramatic. On your trip to Samburu, you may also want to take in the nearby Shaba and Buffalo Springs game reserves. In addition, this is the place where you can go on a camel safari. Samburu is three hours from Nairobi by road.
Tsavo is so large, all of 20,000 square km, that it is administered as two units: Tsavo West and Tsavo East. This is the park that is closest to Mombasa on the coast. The park is three and a half hours away from Nairobi by road. You will find large herds of elephants, especially in Tsavo East. Tsavo West is teeming with crocodiles, vervet monkeys, antelopes, baboons, giraffes and hippos. It was in Tsavo that poachers were most successful in their bloody racket and this saw a dramatic decline in the elephant population. The good guys have gained the upper hand in recent years and the numbers are recovering.
But Kenyan authorities are still extremely cautious about the future of the elephant in Tsavo. The country is very active in seeking a permanent ban on international ivory trade. At this point I would like to declare to everyone that I am a huge fan of the African elephant. I believe this is the real king of the jungle and not that overrated pretender, the lion. You may remember from the movie “Man-eaters of Tsavo” how the cowardly lions destroyed the construction of the railway in the Tsavo area by feeding on the labor. Would the real royal family be involved in such a shameful affair?
Kenya is a year-round safari destination. The rains fall around April-May and November-December. However, this does not greatly affect the ability of travelers to move. This is with the exception of the heavily forested Aberdare. In the wet season, the roads in the Aberdares are extremely slippery and the park is sometimes closed. In general, the best time to go on safari is during the drier months, when the grass is short and animal sightings are much easier. But in areas like the Mara, the animals are so plentiful that you’ll see plenty of them regardless of the season. Peak tourist season falls around January to February and July to August. April to June is low season and prices for lodge accommodation can be up to 40% lower than in high season.
Accommodation on safari ranges from basic camping to luxury lodges and tented camps. Out in the bush, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that all the trappings of 5-star accommodation are available. But if you want to work it out, you’ll find campsites in almost all game reserves and national parks. Information on hotel, lodge and resort accommodation options in Kenya is available online.
It is generally recommended to take an escorted Kenya safari tour package that includes transport, park fees and accommodation. The reason for this is that tour guides are usually well versed in the animals, where to find them and how to get there, and have other such useful local knowledge. Take a look at some offers with different durations and budgets.
But if you have a lot of time and need more freedom while moving around, then rent a vehicle in either Nairobi or Mombasa. For car hire in Kenya, there is a choice between self-drive and chauffeured vehicles. On safari, wear light cotton and linen. Warmer clothing is needed for the evenings and for your early morning game. Some rain gear is advisable between March and June and October and December.
You should bring a suitable pair of sunglasses. The glow you experience in bright tropical light is a new and uncomfortable experience for most. It’s also a good idea to carry a pair of binoculars. They are very useful for spotting animals and will be the envy of your less knowledgeable travel companions.
Copyright © Africa Point
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