Places to visit in Kenya
Kenya is the true home of the safari and there’s a huge choice of national parks and reserves to visit here, all set in spectacularly beautiful landscapes. The iconic Masai Mara is perhaps the best-known reserve in the world, but Kenya has many world-class wildlife destinations besides. The lakes in the scenic Great Rift Valley, the starkly beautiful central highlights and Amboseli with its backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro give you just a taste. Lapped by the warm seas of the Indian Ocean, Kenya is also a fabulous beach destination, which means that it offers families some of the best value safari and beach holidays.
The world renowned Masai Mara is one of the finest game reserves in Africa and justifiably popular. All of the big-five are found here – lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo are in abundance; rhino can be more difficult to find. Giraffe, zebra and gazelle dot the plains and game viewing is a constant source of entertainment – children will love trying to spot the incredible array of wildlife in the woodlands, atop a picturesque acacia tree or on the rolling green plains. A game of ‘I Spy’ will never be the same again…
The scenery is also magnificent with the dramatic Siria escarpment looming over endless savanna. This is the definitive ‘Lion King’ territory and youngsters will be in awe as they find themselves in the middle of a real life African adventure. Game drives (morning and afternoon) will be interspersed with plenty of time at the pool and evenings can be spent around the campfire or boma (an open air seating area). Visits to a traditional Maasai village can be arranged and there is also the opportunity to take a truly memorable hot air balloon safari – watching the sun rise over the Masai plains and game spotting from on high is surely one of the most magical experiences you and your family will ever enjoy together.
The Masai Mara is roughly a 5-hour drive from Nairobi along somewhat bumpy roads although the scenery and rural life en route provides a useful distraction for fatigued children. It is also possible to fly here on a short 50-minute flight although this will naturally increase costs.
Lake Nakuru National Park is located in the scenic Great Rift Valley and is a fabulous living geography lesson for the children. Lake Nakuru itself is a shallow soda lake attracting thousands of flamingos to its shores. The pink hue produced from this extraordinary concentration of birds creates a mirage effect over the shimmering waters and to drive along the lakeside as they take off in their thousands is a truly memorable spectacle.
The park is also home to giraffe, zebra, impala, bushbuck and over 460 species of birds. It has been enlarged recently to provide a sanctuary for the black rhino so there will be plenty of exciting wildlife opportunities here.
Lake Naivasha is Kenya’s most beautiful freshwater lake. It is one of the highest in the Great Rift Valley and the views over its clear blue waters surrounded by thick papyrus with a backdrop of mountains are stunning. It also offers opportunities for a change of activity as you can enjoy a boat safari here – being on the same level as the hippos and other animals that come to drink in the lake creates a totally different experience to a 4WD safari and allows you to feel closer to the wildlife.
You can also take guided nature walks through the yellow acacia forest around the lake. Walking safaris are a fabulous way for children to get up close to some of the smaller animals that are sometimes bypassed in the hunt for the big-five on a game drive – identifying animal spore, studying paw prints and tracking noises in the bush usually makes for a very exciting afternoon.
Samburu, Shaba & Buffalo Springs National Reserve
In central Kenya, to the north of Mount Kenya, the neighbouring national reserves of Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Springs stretch north towards the barren landscapes of the Chalbi desert. There is a tough beauty to the area, with parched riverbeds, sparse vegetation and cracked earth combining to form a stark but haunting picture.
Surprisingly, the region is home to a great variety of wildlife with many species that are not found in other major Kenyan parks. These include blue-leered Somali ostrich, Grevys zebra and the unicorn-like beisa oryx. There are also significant populations of elephant as well as lion, leopard and cheetah. The mighty Ewaso N’giro River flows through the reserves and is the perfect place to stop and watch the animals congregate for water.
Our favourite activity in Samburu is a camel trek. This can be arranged either in the manner of a walking safari (in which the camels carry the luggage) or, if you prefer, you can actually ride the camels. Children adore this activity and will be greatly amused by the sometimes cranky and often flatulent beasts.
The Central Highlands
Kenya’s central highlands are the location of Mount Kenya (Africa’s second highest mountain) and the Laikipia Plateau – an important area for conservation and an increasingly popular safari destination currently without the crowds of the parks to the south. On its fertile slopes you will find the fabulous Ol Pejeta Conservancy (also known as the Sweetwaters Reserve) and Aberdare National Park, a huge area of deep ravines, cascading waterfalls and high mountain peaks. The scenery here is absolutely spectacular and provides a remarkable contrast to the drier landscapes prevalent in the rest of Kenya. There is a huge profusion of wildlife, with regular sightings of lion, leopard and baboon and a vast array of birdlife. The accommodation in the area is particularly unique. Two of the lodges are built over waterholes with salt licks, which are illuminated at night providing excellent game viewing opportunities.
Travelling through the north of Kenya you pass extinct volcanoes, lava flows and crater lakes (a geography lesson writ large for the children!) en route to the extraordinary Lake Turkana. A World Heritage Site, the lake is known as the Jade Sea because of its striking green colour and is surrounded by a weird moon-like landscape that is often completely devoid of life. Despite the forbidding nature of the terrain, the lake is nevertheless home to extensive populations of Nile crocodile and hippo and you often see camel caravans ambling by.
Amboseli National Park
This is one of the most beautiful game reserves in Kenya, the grassy savannah, rolling hills and acacia trees set against the striking backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, just across the border in Tanzania. The park is renowned for its large population of elephant that amble across the plains and there is also an abundance of other big game. The park is located between Nairobi and the coast making this an ideal stop on a shorter safari and beach tour.
Tsavo East & Tsavo West
These two reserves combine to create Kenya’s largest national park in an area that is larger than Wales. Tsavo West is the more scenic of the two, with rolling hills, stark volcanic outcrops, bubbling springs and ancient lava fields, whilst Tsavo East is flatter, with dry bushveld that is bisected by the Galana and Athi Rivers, home to large crocodile populations.
All of Africa’s most iconic animals can be found in significant numbers in the park, so there are excellent game viewing opportunities. Our favourite part of the park is the Mzima Springs, a series of pools filled with crystal clear water and shaded by palm and fig trees which the children will love as they are home to lumbering hippos, hungry crocodiles and hundreds of chattering monkeys.
The park is located close to the beaches of the Indian Ocean so can be visited on a shorter 1-2 day excursion from the beach. It also combines well with Amboseli National Park on a safari and beach itinerary.
A short 50-minute flight from Nairobi brings you to the glorious sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean near Mombasa – a fitting way to end any family holiday. No more early, and often chilly starts, on safari… after all, even the most avid young wildlife fan can suffer an overdose of elephants. Here everyone can relax and enjoy a somewhat different location for some ‘bucket and spade’ fun or chill out time depending on age.
There are numerous hotels to choose from whether you prefer a slightly smaller family-run establishment (still with that all important pool) or a larger resort. There are also endless activities on offer – day cruises to the marine park, snorkeling trips to enjoy the coral and sea life, nature walks along the coast or just chilling out on the beach in a ‘hakuna matata’ kind of way.
Diani Beach lies to the south of Mombasa and is the epitome of an idyllic tropical beach with white soft sand, coconut palms and warm turquoise water. To the north, Malindi is a rustic, historic town set on a stretch of pristine beaches offering not only water-based activities but also forest walks in the Arabuko Sokoke Reserve and boat trips through the mangrove swamps of Mida Creek.
Most tours to Kenya will start in Nairobi. This is not one of Africa’s great cities and many visitors leave the city directly from the airport, heading for Sweetwaters Reserve (Ol Pejeta) or Amboseli National Park. However, if you do have a night here, perhaps visit Daphne Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage. Here young abandoned elephants are looked after and you can get very close to them as they are bottle fed by the keepers.
You can also visit the Langatta giraffe sanctuary where you can hand-feed the giraffes from a special raised observation platform. There are also several warthogs that roam around the centre, to the great amusement of children.
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Kenya in pictures
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