In Swahili, safari means 'journey', a fitting translation for what is arguably one of the most evocative words to infiltrate the English language. But before you don a floppy hat and slip into your pocket-lined field vest, consider the following author-tested tips for planning the perfect Kenyan safari.
Where & when to go
However clichéd it may be, the image of khaki-clad tourists peering out at the Masai Mara from open-top vehicles is the single key selling point for Kenya's tourist industry. When the annual wildebeest and zebra migration fills up the park with upwards of one million hulking herbivores, a good number of which are silently stalked by hungry felines, the wildlife watching is truly unparalleled.
However, clued-up visitors face an infinite choice of alternative settings and activities. The various Rift Valley lakes offer an aquatic complement to the savannah, while Mt Kenya is home to alpine highlands and glaciated ridges. Samburu National Reserve showcases arid specialists such as the Beisa oryx and Somali ostrich, while Malinidi Marine National Park harbours sea turtles and whale sharks.
Possibly the single most important influence on the behaviour of wildlife (and therefore your chances of seeing it) is rain. The main tourist season runs during the hot, dry months of December and January, and the cool, dry months from June to August, although Kenya can really be visited at any time of year. When the long rains fall from March to May things are much quieter, there are fewer tourists and accommodation prices come down, but note that some places close completely.
How & what to book
The majority of midrange and upmarket travellers prefer to get all the hard work done before arriving in Kenya by booking either through travel agents or directly with safari companies. This practice also ensures that you'll be able to secure a spot at the more famous lodges, especially during peak seasons when places start filling up months in advance. However, if you're going for the budget route, it is often much cheaper to arrange everything on the ground after you arrive.
Most safari operator price quotes include park entrance fees, full room and board, transport costs from the starting base to the various parks, and the costs of fuel plus a guide for wildlife drives. Drinks (whether alcoholic or not) are generally excluded. Price quotes usually assume double occupancy, with supplements for singles ranging from 20% to 50% of the double-occupancy rate.
Most midrange safaris use lodges, where you’ll have a private room and eat in a buffet-style cafeteria. A disadvantage is that they may have somewhat of a packaged-tour or production line feel. Private lodges, luxury tented camps and even private fly-in camps are used in top-end safaris, all with the aim of providing highly personalized experiences without foregoing creature comforts. Most budget safaris are camping trips that keep to a no-frills setup with basic meals and a minimum number of staff.
The safari experience
Game drives are the backbone of most safaris, with the idea being to spend as many hours as possible in the bush searching for animals. A game drive can be done at any time of day, but early morning, mid-morning and late afternoon, with a break early on for breakfast, and another in the middle of the day for lunch, is the usual plan. Night drives are also an excellent way to view nocturnal animals, although they're not permitted everywhere.
A few key accessories can greatly improve the quality of your safari experience. Field guides depict the flora and fauna of a specific area alongside photos, identification pointers and distribution maps. If you're into photography, invest in a high-quality digital SLR with a 100-400mm zoom lens and a small, collapsible tripod. Finally, a quality pair of binoculars is probably the most important piece of equipment on safari – even a cheap working pair is better than none at all!
Animals are free to roam and may not be where you want them to be, but the better informed you are, the more likely you are to see what you are after. Prime your senses, keep quiet and look for clues. Watch out for silhouettes, moving vegetation and shapes that don’t fit into the landscape. Use your peripheral vision, and watch where other creatures are looking. Listen for alarm calls, snorting breath, splashing water and changes in the activity of other creatures. Finally, relax, keep quiet and give heed to your own primal instincts.
Get prepared to take great picture with Lonely Planet's article on how to photograph wildlife.