Many travel enthusiasts recognize Kenya as the true home of the African safari. There are several good reasons for this, the most obvious being that the national parks and game reserves in Kenya are some of the finest destinations for wildlife safaris in Africa.
When going for your very first safari holiday to Kenya, follow the travel tips below, and you will have a memorable experience.
Make prior arrangements, even if you like “doing-it-yourself.” Make sure that before landing at the Jomo Kenyatta international airport in Nairobi, you already have made hotel reservations for where you will spend the first night. You should also have booked your safari with a reputable tour operator in advance.
For your first visit to Kenya, I would not advise you to do it yourself, unless you are accompanied by a seasoned traveler to Kenya or a local resident. But, even if you are going it your way, it still pays to have a well laid out plan well in advance. You do not want to fall prey to the many touts at the airport. Neither would you want to spend your entire safari changing from one low-class accommodation to another because all other decent places are fully booked due to the high season.
2. Take it slow
Do not rush your safari. True, there’s a lot you must see, and your time is limited. But if you rush to visit so many destinations in a very short time, you will miss some fine unique experiences and photo-ops that make all the difference between a great safari and a not-so-great one. Not to mention the strain and fatigue it may cause your body and mind.
Most often, you may not be lucky enough to spot all the big five animals on your first day in Masai Mara for example. But on the second or third day, you might witness an unusual wildlife spectacle such as a leopard killing a crocodile.
In my opinion, you should give yourself at least 10 days for your first Kenya safari, if your budget allows. That way, you’ll be able to visit the key attractions and still enjoy the best they have to offer.
3. Visit at least 3 national parks/reserves
Each of the over 50 national parks and game reserves in Kenya has something unique to offer. However, there is no way you can visit all of them in one visit. My advice is to pick three of the best for your first safari.
Many Kenya travel experts agree that the top among these are the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Aberdares, Lake Nakuru, Samburu/Shaba, and Tsavo. Whatever combination you pick for your first safari, the Mara is a must-see. No other park or reserve gives you as much animal diversity and concentration as you will find in the Masai Mara.
4. Take a hot air balloon ride in the Mara
I don’t think there’s a better way to enjoy game watching in the Mara than on a hot air balloon ride. This is especially true during the wildebeest migration. A balloon ride gives you a panoramic view of the drama taking place in the plains below.
Currently, there are only very few licensed hot air balloon companies in the Mara. Still, your tour operator or the Masai Mara lodge you stay in can help you book a ride. Most often, your operator will also organize breakfast in the open Mara plains for you after landing from your hot air balloon ride.
5. Witness the local culture
There is more to Kenya than just its wildlife. In fact, the Kenyan people and their culture is the icing on the Kenya safari cake. Your safari is not really complete before you visit a Masai or Samburu manyatta, a Rendile village, or a Swahili town to get a first-hand experience of the people’s traditional way of life.
Kenya is such a diverse nation with over 42 ethnic communities, each of which had unique cultural practices. While most of the communities have nowadays adopted a more modern culture, a few still retain their traditional values, giving you an opportunity to see authentic African culture. The most renowned of these are the Masai, Samburu, Rendille, and a few other pastoralist communities.
6. Take time to relax at the coastal beaches, preferably after the safari
After spending several nights in the bush, beach relaxation is a great way of winding down before traveling back to your home country. The Kenyan coast is home to several fine beaches that rival the best in Africa.
Diani, in the South Coast, has one of the best beaches and beach resorts in Kenya. Other equally great beach destinations are found on the North coast including places like Shanzu, Watamu, Malindi, and Lamu.
7. Live local life
You should not travel back to your country before doing things the local way, at least for one day/night. By this I mean traveling like the locals do, taking a matatu ride in the city, experience the night life in Nairobi and the major towns, visiting the non-touristy places frequented by the locals, eating out where the locals eat, etc. How else can you really appreciate the very vibrant Kenya and the true hospitality of its people.
If you have booked your safari through a tour operator, make sure to leave one free day in the itinerary to do some of this stuff. Of course, you will need to take necessary safety precautions because Kenya, like any other country, has its fair share of criminals and people who can take advantage of foreigners. It will help if you have a local guide for this.