What nature lover hasn't longed to visit Kenya's game parks and private reserves, seeing the big five — lions, elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards and rhinoceros — roam freely in the wild? It's a thrill that can't be matched, even by watching Africa's extraordinary wildlife on big-screen TVs or at the most realistic zoo exhibits. Not only is the in-person experience awesome, there's an added bonus. Going on safari in Kenya provides the opportunity to bring home precious souvenirs: amazing photographs. It doesn't require an expensive long lens or professional level skills to come away with stunning images of even the most elusive lions and leopards.
Tours through African Travel in Kenya's parks and reserves ensure you're in the best position for outstanding photos. They conduct their daily game drives in small groups, typically in six-passenger, open-top vehicles with window seats for everyone. Some even offer equipment to enhance your photography, such as thermal imaging cameras and camera traps with motion-activated cameras.
You'll start your trip in Nairobi, welcomed with a cheery “Jambo,” a Swahili greeting that has multiple meanings: hello, good day and how are you? Nairobi is a vibrant, multiethnic capital that is surprisingly close to terrific wildlife viewing.
There's Nairobi National Park, the only protected reserve in the world near a capital city, home to a black rhinoceros sanctuary that's played an important role in reintroducing the species. Because of its success, you can be sure of catching plenty of rhinos in their natural habitat. Hyenas and lions are also commonly seen in the park and you may even spot near-extinct cheetahs — the fastest land animal in the world — and leopards, giraffes, ostriches and zebras.
There's much to do in Nairobi besides seeing wildlife. Sample locally grown coffee roasted and served at stylish cafes and shop for authentic African art at the open air Masai Market, where travelers bargain for elaborate, hand-made beaded jewelry, traditional clothing of bright-colored kanga cloth, and striking woodcarvings. As the tour leaves Nairobi you'll enter the Great Rift Valley, a massive region with huge diversity that includes the Serengeti, a 12,000-square-mile region that spans northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya. You'll soon see why when the United Nations delegates first met in 1975 to select World Heritage sites, the Serengeti topped almost every list.
With the highest lion density in the world and huge expanses of savanna grasslands, the Serengeti — and in particular its Masai Mara National Reserve — is Kenya as most of us imagine it. Expert guides who accompany travelers on the daily game drives are skilled in finding some of the 95 species of mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and more than 400 bird species in the reserve. Early each morning, it's exciting to board four-wheel drive vehicles to search for wildlife, return back to camp for breakfast and a rest before heading out again for another game drive.
Besides being on the lookout for the big five, guides help tour participants spot cheetahs, hyenas, foxes, jackals, hippos, crocodiles, baboons, warthogs, gazelles, impalas, waterbucks and zebras. Most importantly, they position the vehicles so it gets as close as possible for viewing and taking great photos (keeping the safety of the animals in mind). The Mara, as it's commonly called, is most impressive during the massive year-long movement of millions of wildebeests, zebras and other wildlife that search for green, grazing pastures. This “great migration.” lasts from mid-July to mid-October, considered peak season for Kenya safaris because it's when the huge numbers of wildebeest and more make their move in the Mara.
Meet New Friends
Tours also provide a fascinating opportunity to meet Maasai tribal members in their bright-red clothing and see their traditional way of life in a village that's focused on cattle. You'll see women wearing beautiful earrings and necklaces of intricate and colorful beadwork doing housework outside of small huts made of cow dung with thatched roofs. The huts are built in a circle with their cherished livestock in the middle, and a fence made from acacia thorns surrounds the entire village to protect against predators.
Another must-see Kenya gem is Amboseli National Park on the border with Tanzania and just north of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. The mountain towers over the park and usually can be seen when the clouds clear at dawn and dusk, just as groups are leaving on game drives. Amboseli is one of the top places in all of Africa to see large herds of big-tusked elephants and hundreds of bird species. There's also good chance of spotting lions and hyenas.
Other major Kenya reserves and parks typically highlighted on tours includes Mount Kenya National Park, home of Africa's second highest peak, a stunning vision with its snowy summit and jagged peaks, surrounded by forest. The William Holden Wildlife Foundation is an education center adjacent to the Mount Kenya Safari Club and features an animal orphanage and game ranch with many species of wildlife. Lake Nakuru National Park is home to Kenya's largest rhino population but it's known for the millions of flamingos, as well as white pelicans and cormorants who flock to the lake during peak season.
Year-round, you might catch a glimpse of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and white rhinoceros in their natural habitats.
Many tours also add a visit to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary near the foothills of Mount Kenya. Chimps are not native to Kenya but were brought to the country when a rescue center in Burundi was closed due to war. The sanctuary is a memorable opportunity to delve deeper into the complexities of African wildlife conservation and see up close the chimps that were rescued and are now cared for. One of the highlights is spending the night in Sweetwaters, the charming and luxurious tented camp surrounded by thousands of acres of wild African landscapes and wildlife. Each tent has a veranda for relaxing in between game drives.
In Nairobi, Fairmont the Norfolk has a rich history and landscaped tropical gardens. In the Amboseli National Park, the Ol Tukai Lodge's chalet-style rooms look out on the vast plains and Mount Kilimanjaro. Among the most luxurious lodges in Kenya is the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, where 50 elegant tents have four poster beds and verandas overlooking the Mara River, filled with lazily bathing hippos and crocodiles slithering under the water.
Cap a thrilling day of spotting the big five and more wildlife with a local Tusker beer or Kenya's traditional cocktail, the “dawa”, a mix of vodka, lime, sugar, ice and honey. If you'd like something more, just ask and you'll hear “hakuna matata” — “no problem” in Swahili.
Check an African safari off your bucket list this year. Call 800-750-5386 or visit your local AAA office to speak with a AAA Travel Agent about planning your trip of a lifetime.