A hearty welcome from Masai Mara tribes draped in scarlet shukas. Lion sightings, newborn Rothschild giraffes, Pink flamingos, and chubby baby elephants play in mud baths. All this perfected with crimson African sunsets and scrumptious campfire food. Kenya is bewitching and captivating. It puts all who wander here under its spell.
Brief Introduction to Kenya
Kenya is an East African country that sits on the equator, with a mix of distinct zones from rainforests, wetlands, moorlands, savannah and semi-dessert. Habitat to over 25000 species of animals, 1000 species of birds and 7000 species of plants and trees, Kenya gives you a complete taste for a safari. The country is also known for the Big Five, which includes lions, leopards, elephants, Black rhinos and Cape buffalo. Kenyans are friendly and welcoming people. Greet people with “Jambo,” which is a friendly way of saying hi in the official Kiswahili language. When interacting with younger generations, they may find it cool if you get them with a “mambo” or “niaje.”
Get Your Visa on Time
Kenya requires that you apply for your visa at least 30 days in advance before your trip. The application is completed online and is detailed. You will be required to provide the addresses, websites and phone numbers for your accommodation. You will also need to provide proof of a return air ticket, a travel itinerary and a recent color photograph. Once issued, the visa will be valid for the next three months. Once you are in Kenya, remember to always carry your passport. The police, especially in the cities can occasionally stop you and expect you to present it.
Plan Your Vaccination and Carry Anti-Malaria Pills
Check with your healthcare provider before departure to Kenya. The provider will recommend several vaccinations based on your age and destination. Among the vaccinations specific to Kenya include yellow fever, typhoid fever and meningitis. Since some regions in Kenya are prone to malaria, you may need a prescription for anti-malaria pills. Usually, you will need to start taking the pills a day before entering the country and this may continue for two weeks after leaving.
Don’t Carry Single-Use Plastics
In its environmental conservation efforts, Kenya is a leader in the ban on single-use plastics. Some of the prohibited items include plastic bags. When you arrive at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, your bags are screened and you can be fined if you are found carrying single-use plastics. Consider purchasing convenient reusable mesh bags, which are widely used in Kenya for packing and carrying luggage.
Be Aware of Safety Issues
During our time in Kenya, we always felt safe. While out in the national parks we had no reason to worry. When stopping for coffee or groceries in a shopping centre we always felt secure.
Kenya’s authorities have dealt with terror threats and there is strict security at airports and security and police at supermarkets, outdoor markets and public gatherings. Most travel advisories relate to the non-touristy areas in the border areas between Kenya and the borders of Ethiopia and Sudan.
Like any country with extreme poverty, there is petty crime. Be cautious and minimise yourself as a target.
- Don’t carry large sums of cash
- Keep money out of view
- Watch your bags in crowded areas
- Don’t wear expensive jewellery
- Don’t walk alone at night
Occasionally, especially during election years, ethnic tensions can be common in Kenya. Although you may not be a target of ethnic hostility, it may be a good idea to avoid visiting Kenya during the electioneering period. Generally, Kenya is a safe country to travel all year round. In fact, thousands of tourists visit Kenya’s wildlife parks every year without incident or worry.
Our accommodation in Nairobi was the Wildebeest Eco Camp. It is safe and secure and only a short drive from the airport and the Elephant Orphanage. The tents with ensuite are cute, clean and good value. Breakfast is included and the buffet meal served at night is nice.
Know the Kenyan Climate
Kenya is on the equator and has a tropical climate, though due to the altitude the temperatures can vary considerably. Kenya’s daytime temperature averages about 20°C to 30°C
June to November
Daytime temperatures average about 23°C at higher altitudes and 30°C at lower altitudes.
At higher altitudes such as Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru, it can get cold especially during June, July and August. Temperatures can drop below 10°C at night.
November to May
Daytime temperatures average about 24°C to 27°C at higher altitudes and 30°C at lower altitudes
June to October and January to February
Best weather – June to October
The days are beautiful and sunny with clear blue skies.
Some of the parks and campgrounds can get very crowded during these times.
March to May
Very high rainfall
Some lodges and camps close due to the wet and road closures.
Best Time to Go
If you are going to Kenya for safaris, the best time for game viewing is during the dry winter months between June and August, and the warm months between September and mid-November.
During the dry season, the wildlife is easier to spot as the landscape is dry and the bushes and grass are not too high. The wildlife goes to water and rivers, making the sightings more regular. The wildebeest migration arrives at the Masai Mara in July and returns to Tanzania in October.
During the wet season, it is beautiful and green, and there is still plenty of wildlife but it is harder to spot. Some migrant birds return and newborn animals including thousands of baby antelopes arrive around November and December. It is also a good time to see the Lions.
Except for March, April and May the rains are short and only in the afternoon and night, and rarely spoil a safari. November and December are great times because you will often have the parks and the sightings all to yourself at a lower price!
We were there in early July which is the beginning of the dry, high season which goes until October. The Great Migration happened during this time and we were at the very start of it.
Money (Kenyan Currency)
The currency is the Kenyan Shilling.
ATMs are readily available, but many won’t disperse the cash. We found Absa (previously Barclays) and Standard & Chartered the most reliable. Many ATMs in Kenya still have the old magnetic strip technology, which can cause problems with your bank. We’re told they will upgrade to the new chip technology by the end of the year. We brought the required US Dollars with us and withdrew the majority of our Kenyan Shillings at the airport ATM on our arrival. Although the Kenyan shilling is the official currency in the country, it is best to bring some US dollars as well. Some prices are sometimes quoted in USD, and it may be more economical to pay this way.
A Variety of Food Options
Being a vegetarian in Kenya is easy and the food is scrumptious. The locals cook with a lot of couscous, rice, pasta and make use of any fresh produce in the area. Following are some of their local vegetarian dishes which we had a lot of while camping.
Sukuma wiki – Spinach, tomato and onions fried with salt.
Vegetable stew – Served at most local restaurants and often accompanied with rice.
Ndengu – Bean stew made from mung beans, tomato, and onion and deliciously seasoned.
Chapati – Round flat pan-grilled bread that is the perfect accompaniment to the vegetable and bean stews. It’s often sold with fried eggs rolled into the chapati.
Roasted Corn on the cob – A tasty snack with lime and chilli
Before going on safari remind the company or guide in advance if vegetarian, vegan or other food is required.
Most hotels serve a Western breakfast of cereal, toast, eggs and fruit.
In the cities, there is a good choice of Kenyan, western and international restaurants that serve vegetarian.
Abyssinia Restaurant serves authentic African and Ethiopian food and has vegetarian on their menu. The juice is always freshly squeezed and the coffee is divine.
Clay Oven Restaurant is an Indian restaurant that specialises in North Indian cuisine that even makes cauliflower taste scrumptious!
Plan Your Safari Itinerary
With so many places to visit, you will need a carefully planned itinerary. The four main parks, including Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Aberdare and Amboseli will take you on about a 6-day safari drive. You may take 6-8 hours to drive from one park to the next. So, a clear plan will help you cover all grounds and have enough rest.
If you want to cover more places, you may use readily available budget airlines. Several budget airlines operate in Kenya, and they are safe, efficient, and cheap. For instance, a common journey in Kenya is from Nairobi to Mombasa (coastal) region, which will cost as low as $40 USD with airlines like Fly540 or Jambojet.
If you want to experience the journey at a cheaper option, using the train will be ideal. Booking the train is online through the Madaraka Express website, with prices ranging from $10 and $30 USD. However, you will need to register for M-Pesa (local mobile payment service), which is the main mode of payment for the train and most services in the country.
All About a Kenya Safari
Do your research for reviews and recommendations on companies and guides before booking with them. We watched group tours and guides that had a checklist to complete. It was a mad rush to see as much as possible in a short time. It didn’t matter if it was only the backside of a lion; as long as it’s seen, it’s ticked off the list. Ask questions – find out what sort of safari vehicle, how many guests will be in the vehicle, where your campsite or lodge is in relation to the park, is there a time restriction at wildlife sightings and what time will you be in and out of the park?
Our guide Martin hired an extended Toyota Landcruiser Troopcarrier. It was huge but ideal for the trip. Martin took out the middle seat so it had heaps of room for camping equipment and photographing on game drives. There was no shoving for the best position on this trip!
The Landcruiser has a pop-top that provides shade, a must for game drives. We spent most of the time standing and photographing so shade and rain protection was essential. Wildlife can be missed while a person is sitting down inside. A lot of other vehicles had the open-top but no shade roofs, so everyone was sitting down inside to avoid the heat.
A smaller 4WD can be hired to cut the price down.
Consider if you want to go as part of a group or privately. Group safaris are often less expensive and can attract like-minded people and you can form lifelong friendships. A private safari is usually more expensive but a lot more flexible.
Going private and having our own guide was worth the extra money to us. The ultimate was having our own vehicle as we were in full control of where we went and how long we spent at sightings. It was up to us and not in the hands of a group of strangers to make decisions for us.
Our campsite in the Masai Mara was Ndovu. It is on the Oloololo gate side, away from the crowds of the busy and more commercial areas of the Masai Mara. This allowed us to have some of the lions and other sightings to ourselves, rather than sharing them with up to 30 plus vehicles fighting for positions in the busier areas.
Most locals don’t mind having their photograph taken if you ask their permission beforehand. Be generous enough to show the photo you have taken. However, do not take photos of any military or government buildings while in Kenya. Your camera can be confiscated, or you could be detained and questioned about the photos.
While the actual sightings of the lions were many, the felines are usually sleeping and obstructed by the grass. Sometimes it requires patience and a good guide to wait until they move. Sometimes we would continue game driving and come back to the location. Usually, the lions would move around 6-6.30 pm. Camping inside the park was a bonus as we could stay late, whereas other vehicles had to leave well before the park closed at 7 pm to get back to their accommodation. The same at sunrise – we had the park to ourselves.
Our 400mm lens was adequate for photographing most of the wildlife. A 600mm lens would have been perfect for the flamingos though!
We suggest a lens hood as the wildlife is often in harsh light or the side of the sun.
A small and collapsible tripod or a small bean bag tripod is a practical choice for travelling and on safari. Rooftop camera mounts are another option for the more serious photographer.
A set of a good pair of binoculars is a must-have.
For birdwatchers don’t forget a field guide for bird identification.
Don’t ask how far somewhere is in kilometres as it can be misleading due to the road conditions. Ask how far in hours or minutes.
We advise that you pack at least one set of light warm layers. It should be something you can easily take off when it warms up later in the morning.
The cold and wind combined can make it freezing on the game drives, especially if you start early in the morning. The wind can dry out lips and skin, so bring plenty of lip balm and moisturiser. A hoodie is also a good idea.
Bands or clips come in handy to tie back long hair as the dust and the wind on safari drives can cause chaos with it.
Use a sunhat with an adjustable drawstring to prevent losing it to the wind.
A dust-proof bag is essential for all photographic and electronic equipment while travelling.
Don’t forget the insect repellent. Wear long pants and long sleeves for protection against mosquitoes.
Blackouts are common in Kenya and you may go for hours without electricity. A portable power source will ensure that your equipment remains operational. Packing a power bank will also ensure that your smartphone and other devices remain active during your tour.
HerdTracker is a real-time Google map that tracks the migrating wildebeest’s exact location in the Masai Mara and Serengeti. We never had this but it sounds awesome.
No one can predict exactly when the wildebeest migration will start and finish.
Usually, they arrive in the Masai Mara in July and depart in October.
September is often a good time as the migration is in full mode and wildebeest are seen as far as the eye can see.
The location of the flamingos can no longer be guaranteed. Because of climate change and flooding, they have fragmented and can move daily. The afternoon before our visit, our guide Martin made a phone call to confirm they were at Lake Bogoria.
When visiting the flamingos at Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria or any of the other lakes try and get there early, but not too early, as they can be spooked in the dark and fly off! Get there immediately after sunrise and be the first to arrive because the flamingos can be startled by crowds and fly off or move from the shoreline. If you arrive later, there is a possibility of missing them.
The park fees in Kenya are expensive, but you have to pay them no matter where you stay. They are sometimes not included in the advertised price of accommodation, so make sure you check this. If the fees are what it takes for Kenya to protect their wildlife, we consider it a small price to pay.
If you’re not that keen on camping, there are many accommodation options in and outside the park, from backpacker accommodation, Airbnb hosting, local apartments and 5-star luxury lodges. You can stay at any of these and still have the private services of a guide for guiding, game drives and transport.
What we Packed for our Camping Safari
When going on a camping safari, you need to pack light. If not on a private trip the safari vehicle may have another four or more passengers, with little space for luggage. For our safari, we packed:
Cargo long pants
Light long-sleeved shirt
Stretch long pants for relaxing around the fire at night
Broad Brimmed Hat
Our cameras and equipment packed in camera bags covered in a dust proof bag
Small change for markets/locals
Toiletries including heaps of moisturiser, lip balm, sunscreen and wipes
- The Kenyan power supply is 220 Volt 50Hz and Type G plug.
- Water is NOT drinkable. Drink only bottled or treated water.
- WiFi is scarce. We bought a local sim card for our smartphone and used it as a hotspot for internet. We paid $10 for 3GB of Data.
- DON’T FORGET YOUR YELLOW FEVER VACCINATION & CERTIFICATE because you are not allowed out of the country without it!
- EXTRA TIP: Keep embassy and consulate details on hand. You may take a photo of your passport, visa, vaccination proof and other documents. Save them in an email for easy access.
Travelling to Kenya is an amazing experience you will never forget. You will meet some of the friendliest people, experience world-leading safaris, incredible wildlife and taste some amazing African cuisine.