Kenya safari: the planning guide for first-time visitors

A Kenya safari ignites the imagination. Elephants walking beneath Mount Kilimanjaro; leopards yawning on Mara tree branches; the epic plains of Samburu.

This is the country that came to define an African safari, where you get incredibly close to all sorts of wildlife, on all sorts of landscapes. Almost 50 national parks and reserves provide safari experiences and the wildlife isn’t confined with fences; sometimes it’s walking on the road!

Kenya really put safari on the map. For good reason: in no other country is the wildlife so widespread. In capital city Nairobi you can see giraffe and rhinos backdropped by skyscrapers. Sometimes you see zebra along the highway.

However, Kenya has fallen out of favour in recent years and overtaken by Tanzania in terms of popularity. That’s good news for you. Why? Kenya has all the wildlife and wilderness for an incredible safari experience, plus the well developed infrastructure for making a comfortable connection with your wild side. But the destinations aren’t crowded. Here you can have the safari to yourself.

This detailed guide shows you the places to go, wildlife to see, experiences to consider, and useful tips for planning the adventure. It’s a guide for first-time visitors looking to discover the wonder of a Kenya safari.

Kenya Safari – Essential Information

Where is Kenya and how do I get there?

Kenya straddles the equator in East Africa and has a long Indian Ocean coastline. It borders Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Almost every international visitor arrives into Nairobi’s recently redeveloped international airport. From here it’s easy to travel by air or road to different national parks and safari destinations.

What makes Kenya safaris so special?

While the great wildebeest migration rumbles into Kenya’s Masai Mara every June, Kenya safaris are really special for their ease and diversity. No other country offers so much choice over what to do and where to go. There’s something for every kind of visitor and every level of adventure.

This diversity extends to the settings. Parks like the Samburu feel endless. Others are small and compact. So much choice makes it incredibly easy to go on a safari. Even if you only have a 12-hour Nairobi layover you can still see lions and cheetahs.

What animals can I see on a Kenya safari?

Eclectic landscapes support a stunning array of wildlife. Kenya is superb for encountering the predators, with healthy populations of lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah. It has a growing black rhino population and solid numbers of elephant, buffalo and hippo.

However, it’s usually the supporting cast that makes a Kenya safari so good. Think zebra, different giraffe subspecies, all manner of large antelope, plus primates that swing through the trees around your lodge.

This wildlife is rarely encountered on its own nor is it confined to national parks. You can be relaxing on a white sand beach with colobus monkeys as neighbours. Or taking a bus along the main highway and spotting elephants through the window!

How long do I need a Kenya safari?

To really connect with your wild side it’s better to go on a multi-day, multi-destination safari. Exploring different parks enhances the wildlife experience while staying longer means it’s more immersive.

However, a major highlight of visiting Kenya is that it doesn’t matter how long you have for a safari. You can visit a park for three hours and see a variety of wild animals. Or you could go on safari for a month. With so many destinations to choose from, it’s easy to find a safari that suits your time frame and budget.

What does a Kenya safari cost?

Diversity and choice means a Kenya safari can be tailored around your budget. Kenya is noticeably cheaper than Tanzania although the prices range enormously dependent on where you go.

Famous parks like the Masai Mara and Amboseli are the most expensive, especially if you’re staying within the park or in a private conservancy. Realistically, you should be thinking of USD 150 per day as a starting point when touring the bigger destinations. This rises to over USD 1000 a day for staying in the very best camps and using light aircraft to fly between destinations.

However, you can cycle with zebra and giraffe in Hell’s Gate National Park for just USD 30. It’s possible to camp on Lake Naivasha for USD 10 a night and see hippos every evening. With a tight daily budget of USD 50 – 70, Kenya is still able to offer lots of safari experiences; Kenya is a good choice for backpackers put off by the expensive fees and permits in Tanzania.

How do I travel around Kenya?

Many of the parks can be accessed by public transport, which keeps the costs down. You can take a bus to a town near the park gate and have a local operator take you from there. Tour operators also provide more complete packages. You drive between destinations in the same vehicle you use for a safari – the roof pops open and you stand on the seats for a prime view.

Note that the distances are long in Kenya. For example, from the Masai Mara to Samburu will take you the best part of three days on the road. Upmarket safaris use light aircraft, bringing such a journey down from three days to under three hours.

Why Choose Kenya for a Safari

Kenya brings to mind wildebeest galloping over the plains, elephants roaming in large herds, and lions with flowing manes. Back in the 1980s, this was the country that really introduced African safari to the world.

Here there is a great abundance of different animals and landscapes. It’s easy to find a safari that suits your interests and budget. Plus, it’s possible to get incredibly close to it all.

In Kenya there is all the promise of an African safari and the adventure can be tailored to you. Furthermore, you don’t even need to be on a safari to see wild animals.

But the best reason for choosing Kenya is the lack of other visitors. The Masai Mara is arguably Africa’s most famous safari destination. This park is popular and can get crowded. But everywhere else isn’t.

It’s not the same experience when there are 20 safari vehicles crowding around a leopard. That’s not the case here – the Mara aside – and in some of the destinations you don’t even need a guide with you. You can be walking through fields of wild zebra and buffalo, with nobody else around, for just a USD 30 entrance permit.

Unique safari experiences only found in Kenya

  • Watch great herds of wildebeest cross the Mara River, as crocodiles hang out their hungry jaws.
  • Go on a mountain bike safari in parks like Hell’s Gate, where the lack of carnivores and elephants means the experience is safe.
  • Encounter white and black rhinos together on the Laikipia Plateau (this is very unique indeed!).
  • Explore the vast open grasslands of Samburu in the north of Kenya.
  • Encounter over a dozen primate species, including rare mangabeys, on walking safaris in Kenya’s forested parks.
  • Go on a big-game safari in Nairobi National Park, next to the city.
  • Take thrilling nighttime game drives in one of the country’s private conservancies.
  • Hot air balloon above the Masai Mara.
  • Watch elephants wandering beneath snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli.

Safari experiences that are commonplace in Kenya

  • Relax by a lake or waterhole and watch hippos coming out at sunset.
  • Go on a walking safari – no other county has so many places to do it.
  • Fly between remote wilderness areas in light aircraft, landing on dusty, elephant-surrounded runways.
  • See giraffe and zebra along the road.
  • Track leopards and cheetahs on the grasslands.
  • Come to know different monkey species, especially colobus and vervet monkeys.
  • Stay in a beautiful camp that reminisces about the time of old explorers.
  • Mix up your itinerary to include drives, walks, cycles, boat trips and scenic flights.

Wait, is Kenya safe to visit for a holiday?

Yes. Yes. And yes once more. Okay, Kenya has suffered from a handful of well publicised terrorist attacks. Newspapers and news channels seem to take glee in these, painting Kenya as a volatile country and prime target for terror attacks.

The narrative says that Kenya is dangerous and should be avoided. But after the Paris terror attack the news never suggested it wasn’t safe to visit France. London is considered a safe and amazing city, yet it has had more terrorist attacks over the last 20 years than the whole of Kenya. Then a small number of isolated attacks in Nairobi and there’s a suggestion that Kenya is like Armageddon.

Without wanting to sound too political, part of the problem could be how well developed Kenya has become. The country is thriving economically and has all the potential to be a major world power – educated and passionate people, an abundance of natural resources, a forward-thinking attitude. It’s not the first time that the West has put a rising African nation down.

There is a no-go area of 100 kilometres to the Somalian border. Other than this Kenya is very safe to visit. You need to watch out for rampaging elephants rather than terrorists. And the isolated attacks have been in the most developed parts of major cities – these are many hundreds of miles away from the wilderness.

To not visit the Masai Mara because there was a terrorist attack in Nairobi, is like not visiting the French Riviera because of what occurred in Paris.

The Best Time to Visit Kenya for a Safari

Kenya straddles the equator and has a classic East African climate of dry seasons and rainy seasons. 50 years ago these seasons were very clear cut.

They have become unpredictable. One Africa Freak contributor was at Lake Naivasha in January 2019 and it rained solidly for four days, something that was unheard of to the locals.

Kenya has a hot and steamy Indian Ocean coastline but most of the safari destinations are found on elevated plateaus. So although you are on the equator it’s never usually too hot, even at the peak of dry season.

January to March – Premium dry season game viewing

  • This is usually the warmest time of year and it shouldn’t be raining – even if it sometimes does!
  • A lack of water and low grass makes this a premier time for game viewing; animals are easiest to spot during these months.
  • March is a wonderful time of year to visit, before the rains and without any crowds.

April and May – Rains and off season

  • The long rainy season, with regular downpours that carpet the landscape in fresh colour.
  • Many lodges close during these months and areas of national parks become inaccessible.
  • Visit during these months and you’ll have Kenya all to yourself!

June – Lush green plains and a comfortable climate

  • A great month as the parks are alive with fresh grass and grazing animals.
  • It should be dry and it’s before peak season, making this a good time to see the Masai Mara in bloom.

July and August – Great wildebeest migration and peak season

  • Enormous herds of wildebeest make their famous crossing over the Mara River, to graze in the Masai Mara.
  • The climate is cool and dry; lush high grass does make it more difficult to see the predators.
  • These are comfortably the most popular months for visiting Kenya, especially the Masai Mara.

September and October – Wildebeest cover the Mara and superb countrywide game viewing

  • If you had to choose the absolute best time for a Kenya safari it is now.
  • The grass has shrivelled and game viewing conditions are excellent all across the country.
  • The wildebeest migration is still in Kenya and the Masai Mara provides stunning scenes of predator versus prey.
  • July and August crowds have disappeared, leaving Kenya back to its quiet best.

November and December – Short rains; still good for safari

  • The short rains bring some rainfall, but not as frequent or abundant as earlier in the year.
  • Most destinations remain good for safari although some of the highland areas can become inaccessible.

Where to Visit in Kenya for a Safari

This article provides a more detailed guide to the main safari destinations in Kenya. There are a lot of parks and reserves to choose from and you shouldn’t feel geographically restricted to a particular area.

Combining a selection of these parks is what a Kenya safari is all about, particularly destinations in different parts of the country. The most famous itinerary is the Masai Mara combined with Samburu and a park in Central Kenya.

Note that there are more parks and reserves than this. Only the premier destinations have been listed here.

Southern Kenya

The most famous and popular place to go on a Kenya safari. These parks are a half-day drive or one-hour flight south of Nairobi. They are easily combined with a safari in Tanzania, most famously the Masai Mara with the Serengeti.

Amboseli – With large elephant herds backdropped by Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is as iconic as it comes. It’s a great safari introduction and there’s a real wow factor to the setting.

Chyulu HillsMammals roam rolling green hills here, sometimes alongside Masai tribesmen herding their cattle. You’ll struggle to find the predators but it’s an exquisite place, especially if you’re seeking a little rest and relaxation.

Masai Mara – Africa’s most famous destination, where grasslands are carpeted in wildebeest and zebra. It’s arguably the best place in Africa for encounters with lion prides and to witness raw hunting scenes. The wildebeest migration stays here from July to October but the park is packed with other life all year around.

The Masai Mara is surprisingly small in comparison to the Serengeti and if visiting in peak season (July and August), it’s better to stay in one of the private conservancies.

Central Kenya

A kaleidoscope of different landscapes come together in Central Kenya. Volcanoes soar, forests entice, grasslands extend and the lakes are filled with hippos. Each of these safari destinations has a specific appeal.

They are all worthy places to visit if you seek a short safari experience, or only plan to visit one park. Combining any of these destinations is relatively straightforward and you could see one park a day should you wish.

Aberdares National Park – A forest in the clouds offering stunning multi-day walking safaris. Don’t come for the big five. Instead, Aberdares is a haven for animals you don’t normally see on safari, especially rare and endangered monkey species.

Central Rift ValleyThere are more than ten parks and reserves in the Rift Valley, between Nairobi and Nakuru. Most are small and best for unique half- or full-day activities, such as hiking Mount Longonot or self-guided mountain biking in Hell’s Gate. This is where you’ll see large animals along the highway and the lack of carnivores makes it very safe for different activities.

Kakamega Forest – A rainforest ecosystem reminiscent of Central Africa, Kakamega is cool, calm and completely different from everywhere else in Kenya.

Laikipia Plateau – Home to many private conservancies, this mystical wilderness offers luxurious lodges and exclusive safari experiences. It’s a great place if you have never been on a safari. Here you can encounter lots of different animals in a small area, including the famous big five.

Lake Naivasha – Camp besides a hippo-filled lake and enjoy some of Africa’s best bird watching, without having to pay any national park fees or book a guided safari.

Lake Nakuru National Park – A flamingo-filled lake combined with both black and white rhinos makes this a popular Kenyan destination. You only need a day to see it all.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – One of Africa’s best private conservancies or reserves. Lewa is expensive but offers a perfect three-day safari itinerary, mixing different ecosystems and activities with luxurious accommodation.

Meru National Park – The complete big five and more on the slopes of a volcanic mountain.

Mount Kenya National ParkNot as famous as climbing Kilimanjaro but a beautiful 5,199 metre mountain to climb, with lots of monkeys still living in the forests.

Nairobi National Park – The perfect stopover destination or place to spend the day before your international flight. Rhino, buffalo, lion, hyena, giraffe – backdropped by the lights of a modern city!

Ol Pejeta Conservancy – A small conservancy and the best place in East Africa to see rhinos in the wild, with both the black and white subspecies, along with the only two northern white rhinos left in the world. There’s also a large chimpanzee sanctuary and you can go on a lion-tracking patrol.

Northern Kenya

Wild northern Kenya is home to the Samburu, a tribal people who have expertly preserved both the wilderness and wildlife. Getting here is a challenge but it’s so worth it. As long as you have enough time to enjoy the safari that is, northern Kenya is not for a one-day safari!

Samburu – Wrapped around mountain slopes, Samburu is an escape from the world. If you want a truly wild safari, in a truly untamed wilderness, this is where you should come. Walk with local warrior guides, track the famed big mammals and many others, and experience the beauty of the unknown. You can stay in the national park or in one of the Samburu-owned conservancies.

Coastal Kenya

Over 500 kilometres of white beaches skirt the Indian Ocean, as tropical and exotic as any of the nearby islands like the Maldives. Yet there aren’t any people on the sand.

The classic Kenya vacation is to combine an African safari with some downtime on the beach. Or you can stay on the coast and choose to make a day or overnight safari trip.

The Beaches! – Kenya has the best beaches in the world. Monkeys fill the forests behind endless kilometres of white sand. Indian Ocean waters are rich in marine life and form tropical lagoons. Stunning resorts are spaciously set out but there isn’t much tourism anymore – so their prices are cheap and you can get the beach almost to yourself.

Diani is a stunning destination for all budgets. Malindi has many boutique, upmarket resorts. Lamu is a miniature version of Zanzibar, with coral houses, Swahili culture and open beaches.

Shimba Hills National Reserve – Hundreds of elephants and a handful of other wildlife make this a worthy day trip from Kenya’s southern beaches. There are far better safari destinations in Kenya, but it’s so magical to combine elephants with white sand in a single day.

Tsavo East – This large national park is all about surprise. The biodiversity is breathtaking and you need to visit for at least two days. Large sections of the park lie empty but patience rewards as you stumble upon intimate and dramatic safari scenes.

Tsavo West – Separated from Tsavo East by the Nairobi to Mombasa highway, this park of green mountains and wetlands is scattered with the big five. It’s a good place to see hippos and other wildlife as most action is easily found around the Tsavo River and Mzima Springs.

What is a private conservancy and why do I need to know about it?

National parks and national reserves are managed by the Kenyan government. Anyone can visit them and you pay a daily park fee. Rules are relatively strict in order to preserve the landscape, such as no driving off road; these rules vary by park.

Private conservancies are privately managed wilderness areas. Usually you can only visit if you’re staying at a lodge or camp in the conservancy. They are more expensive and exclusive, offering a wider variety of activities and less rules. Usually you can get closer to wildlife in conservancies.

Some conservancies share unfenced boundaries with national parks; for example, there are almost a dozen of them around the Masai Mara. Visit these and you enjoy all the beauty and bounty of the famous park, but with more flexibility about what you do and even fewer other visitors.

Tips for Planning a Kenya Safari

Safari is all about connecting with your wild side and Kenya has more wild places than anywhere else. Africa Freak partners with top safari specialists, who can help plan a trip that’s best for your interests and budget. You can do this by clicking here.

We’re also confident that the warm Kenyan people will assist you once you arrive. If you have time for a two- or three-week trip it’s easy to plan when you arrive and fit in a huge variety of safari destinations.

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3 thoughts on “Kenya safari: the planning guide for first-time visitors”

    1. Indeed, thanks for pointing that out.

      There are no “wild” elephants in Nairobi National Park, only “orphaned” ones at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

      We just made the appropriate changes, thanks again.

  1. Awesome guide! Learned a lot reading your blog. And the photos are incredible! Loved that you mentioned that Kenya is a safe place to explore. I guess many people think twice about visiting the country due to bad news about war and terrorist attacks. But seeing your blog is just so light and refreshing. It’s nice that you mentioned the parks in the country that we can go see and brief descriptions about them. Great work! Keep it up!

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