Kenya: the greatest wildlife real-estate on Earth

[words & images © Mark Eveleigh]

Kenya has been called ‘the greatest wildlife real-estate on Earth’ and for the sheer density of its wildlife, it probably has no competition anywhere in the world.

For a first-time safari you probably still can’t beat the Mara but you should pick your spot carefully and get a good driver who can help you to avoid the crowded spots. Amboseli has much of the same game with the added draw of one of the most beautiful views in Africa (over-looking Kilimanjaro). Only Lewa Downs (on the slopes of Mt Kenya) could compete with that view for a sundowner setting. Mighty Tsavo is probably Kenya’s wildest park and offers the remotest safari experience for most visitors. We spent more than a week exploring the whole length of Tsavo East and West and saw almost nobody all the time we were there. At night we camped alone in a tent beside our Landcruiser with nobody for several miles and the sound of lions roaring out on the savanna.

 

Kenya Masai Mara National Reserve – big cat country par excellence:

Where else can you be following a lioness and her three cubs towards their luggah hideout and at the same instant see a pair of cheetahs sitting high on their termite hill lookout? The Masai Mara has everything within an incredibly short distance – it has been called the prime wildlife real-estate on earth. We even had the classic Mara scenario of having a cheetah use our Landrover roof as a lookout and I once saw a full-scale battle here over a kill between a pride of lions and a group of about 30 hyenas. I have visited the Mara on several occasions (both at camps inside the park and at concessions on Maasai land on the fringes – where walking safaris and ‘controlled’ night-drives are possible). I have never been lucky enough to coincide my visit with the migration however (although I did see it in the neighbouringSerengeti). One day I’ll be back.

 

Nairobi National Park – unspoiled savannah in the shade of the concrete jungle:

Within 20 minutes of collecting my bag at Nairobi international airport I’m already driving through seemingly endless savannah on the trail of hunting lions. Nairobi National Park is often overlooked – and occasionally actively scorned – by inexperienced safari ‘aficionados’ who see it as little more than an urban safari park. In fact Nairobi NP deserves recognition as an incredible wilderness region where great herds of zebra and antelope graze alongside herds of several hundred buffalo. Despite its location, right on the edge of the city, Nairobi National Park boasts about 80 rhino (declining, sadly) and a population of lions that is almost too large for the area. Recently two wonderful accommodation options have opened here (Emakoko Lodge and Nairobi Tented Camp) and it’s to be hoped that open-minded travellers will begin to realize that you can now start your safari within a few minutes of leaving the airport…rather than have to battle across town to an inner-city hotel through Nairobi’s notorious traffic.

 

Kenya Amboseli National Park – one of Kenya’s most picturesque parks with spectacular views of Kilimanjaro:

I creaked into Amboseli after a frantic break-neck drive with the military convoy from Tsavo in a near-dead Suzuki Vitara hire-car. I had a soldier riding with me and the cartridge of his AK47 wore a hole through the dashboard because of all the spine-jaggling potholes. The Suzuki’s suspension finally gave up altogether when I was already alone somewhere near the lakes in Amboseli and I began to think about spending a long night sleeping in the car deep in lion territory. The car more or less held together though and eventually I creaked into camp about dusk and was rewarded with one of the finest sundowner spots (and most welcome G&T) I could have imagined, overlooking a waterhole with Kilimanjaro as a backdrop. One of the highlights of Amboseli is surely the elephant herds which spend a lot of their time up to their bellies in the lakes and can be very entertaining to watch. This is also prime Maasai country and apart from wildlife you should take a chance to enjoy a cultural trip to one of the local manyattas. 090 - Kenya-03

 

Tsavo East National Park – the Kenyan giant:

If you have your own vehicle and can explore farther afield you’ll find that Kenya’s biggest national park (roughly the same size as Israel) is a unique adventure. Only the area nearest Voi (on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway) sees any tourism and if you can take the time to drive into the virtually unexplored region north of the Galana River you’ll have the uneasy feeling that you have all of Africa to yourself. Ndolo Campsite near Voi Gate is a wonderful public campsite that is frequently haunted by elephants, hyenas, lions and (unfortunately) big troops of thieving baboons. After the ivory poaching horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s Tsavo East is once again becoming one of the gems of Kenya’s national parks and the great elephant herds are on the increase. A decade ago the park was basically one immense thicket of scrub-bush and wildlife spotting was challenging, to say the least. Now the elephants are making massive inroads into opening the country up (with the help of occasional bushfires) and much of the park is once again covered in savannah, and even spectacular sections of open desert.

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Tsavo West National Park – perhaps Kenya’s greatest unexplored wilderness:

To the south-west of Tsavo East, and on the opposite side of the Trans-Africa Highway, you find Tsavo West National Park. This park is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles that this remarkable country has to offer. Even compared with the Masai Mara the wildlife density at Lake Jipe (far to the south, on the Tanzania border) is astounding. There are great herds of plains game here, immense flocks of waterfowl, massive pods of hippos and vast herds of elephants that can often be seen swimming between the reed islands that lie just offshore from the Kenyan bank. Chyulu Gate campsite in the north of the park makes an ideal first stop and from there a single day’s driving will take you to the Kenya Wildlife Service bandas on Lake Jipe. There are no lodges or hotels in this area though since it is just too remote and there are no convenient airstrips. For the time being one of Kenya’s most beautiful wildlife areas can only be accessed with a sturdy 4wd, several extra jerry-cans of fuel and a fair amount of dedication. Make the sacrifice though and you’ll never regret it.

 

Shaba National Reserve – one of Northern Kenya’s desert gems:

There’s a good reason why Joy Adamson set up her leopard research operations in Shaba National Reserve and these days many people return to relive those famous experiences (albeit on a markedly more grandiose scale) at the luxurious Joy’s Camp. Big Cat sightings are far from guaranteed but even if you just sit still at the waterhole where Joy camped (and was murdered) the procession of wildlife that passes through is truly astounding. Without even moving from your chair in front of your perfectly appointed Hemingway-style tented suite you are likely to have good sightings of elephant, oryx, zebra, giraffe and impala. When the drought hits nearby Samburu Reserve then Shaba, with its springs, can often be the best bet. It can get hot and dusty in this area too but this park, with its sandy gullies, rocky lava plains and spectacular kopjes gives the feeling of remote, backcountry Africa and you’ll rarely see other visitors.

 

Samburu National Reserve – amazing predator territory:

Samburu is often considered to be a poor substitute to the more famous parks of southern Kenya. This is not a realistic outlook though: not only does this great Northern Frontier District wilderness manage to avoid the crowds and tour buses of the south but it is also extremely rich in wildlife (and some would say that it is even more spectacular as predator territory). I stayed for 10 days in Samburu area but in the course of just two memorable days I saw five lion, two different leopard and a pack of 13 wild dogs. The ‘Samburu Special 5’ (Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, Somali ostrich and gerenuk) can be an exciting alternative wish-list to the more hackneyed Big 5 and if you get a chance to visit a traditional Samburu manyatta you will find that these tough desert pastoralists have a unique culture that is actually far removed from the traditions of their more integrated Maasai cousins.

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Kenya Lewa Downs – a highland paradise on the slopes of Mount Kenya:

Lewa is justly famous for its great herds of rhino but it is the magnificent views of the nearby peak of Mount Kenya that will remain in your mind just as much as the gigantic herbivores. I first rode into Lewa (on an extremely fast one-eyed polo pony) at the end of a five-day horseback safari across the flanks of Mount Kenya. The rhinos were an impressive sight – seemingly oblivious to our presence – and we galloped with lolloping giraffes and among a herd of Grevy’s zebra (rarely seen elsewhere). A safari this high up the mountain offers some pleasant experiences that most people don’t often associate with Africa: it is chilly here at night and the pleasure of sitting around a log fire and drifting off under thick, cozy blankets with the sounds of the African night outside is unforgettable. As are the misty dawns with the great peak of Mt Kenya just beginning to raise its jagged head.

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