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Kenya's top 10 safari destinations

Anthony Ham Lonely Planet Author

Kenya is the Africa of which you always dreamed, its immense sweeps of savannah and rainforest-clad mountains inhabited by vast herds of the country's most charismatic megafauna. Catch a glimpse of some of the most exciting safari experiences you'll find anywhere on the continent with our top 10 safari destinations.

Masai Mara National Reserve

It could just be the greatest wildlife show on earth. Every year from mid-June to October, the rich grasslands of Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, in the country's southwest, draw wildebeest, zebra and other iconic herbivores of the African plains in their millions. Their battle for survival with Africa's great predators brings intense daily drama as lions stalk through the grass, cheetahs accelerate across the savannah and crocodiles lurk in the shallows waiting for wildebeest to venture into the water.

Amboseli National Park

Africa's highest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro (5895m), may rise from the soil of Tanzania, but the best views of this soulful mountain are from Amboseli National Park across the border in Kenya. The elephants of Amboseli include among their ranks some of Africa's largest tuskers, and nowhere else on the continent can you draw quite so near to the largest land animal on earth. Put the two together – the elephant set against the backdrop of a snow-capped Kilimanjaro – and you have perhaps the signature image of the African safari.

Tsavo National Parks

The largest of Kenya's protected areas, Tsavo West and Tsavo East national parks are excellent wilderness areas, epic landscapes that shelter the major species of safari lore. This is one of the few places on earth where you can see the ‘Big Five' (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) in a single day. And whether you encounter the descendants of Tsavo's famous man-eating lions, elephant families bathed in Tsavo's red soils, or the highly endangered rhinos that survived the poaching of decades past, a safari here is rich in depth and historical resonance.

Lake Nakuru National Park

In the heart of Kenya's Rift Valley, this compact and intensely beautiful park surrounds a saltwater lake beloved by immense flocks of pink flamingos and pearl-white pelicans. Rhinos, both black and white, share the park with prides of lounging lions, marauding troops of baboons, shy black-and-white colobus monkeys, endangered Rothschild giraffes, and elusive leopards that are the epitome of feline stealth. With waterfalls, sheer cliffs and dense stands of greenery, Lake Nakuru is one of Kenya's more diverse and accessible safari experiences.

Aberdare National Park

The counterpoint to the vast congregations of wildlife in southern Kenya, Aberdare National Park is where the landscape of dense rainforest and Alpine moorlands seems to triumph over its wild inhabitants. That is, of course, until an elephant crashes out of the undergrowth just metres from your vehicle, and you spy bongo antelopes and black leopards lurking in the forest shadows. The wildlife is here in abundance, but you just have to look a little harder – which allows you to capture the true questing spirit of the safari.

Meru National Park

In the shadows of Mt Kenya, Africa's second-highest mountain and one of the Rift Valley's shapelier peaks, Meru National Park counts among Kenya's least-visited parks. This is all the more surprising given its landscapes (Hemingway-esque green hills, riverine forests, baobab and palm trees) and wildlife (including lions descended from those of Joy Adamson's Born Free fame). But use this knowledge to your advantage: unlike in most Kenyan parks, at Meru there's a good chance you'll be the only visitors present while lions snarl over a freshly killed impala.

Kakamega Forest

Kenya's last outpost of the great rainforests of central Africa, Kakamega, in the country's western highlands, has all the hallmarks of a paradise lost. This unique rainforest ecosystem shelters over 330 species of birds, 400 species of butterfly and seven different primate species (including the rare de Brazza's monkey). Stepping beneath its canopy is like crossing a threshold between two completely different worlds and is an antidote to the chaotic urban agglomerations that elsewhere threaten to swallow the country's last remaining wild places.

Laikipia Plateau

An estimated 75% of Kenya's wildlife lives outside officially protected areas and there's little room left for new parks to be created or for old ones to expand. But the privately run conservancies of the Laikipia Plateau represent the future of wildlife conservation and the safari experience in Kenya. These sometimes-vast private ranches revolve around exclusive, ecofriendly lodges and promise rare chances to see endangered species (black rhino, Grevy's zebra, African wild dogs and lions), as well as other well-known species. Best of all, this is a more intimate safari experience – one that you may be lucky enough to have all to yourself.

Nairobi National Park

When Nairobi was founded in the late 19th century, lions routinely roamed the city streets. Even today, nowhere else in Africa does the continent's wildlife get quite so near to the city's edge, albeit now within park confines. Within sight of the skyscrapers of downtown Nairobi, rhino, buffalo, giraffe and the three big cats provide one of Kenya's more surreal (and easy-to-reach) safari experiences. And despite being one of the smallest parks in the country, there are more bird species in Nairobi National Park (over 400) than in the entire United Kingdom.

Marsabit National Park

Amid the at-times-dispiriting deserts of Kenya's extreme north, this park can seem like an evocation of some remote island oasis. Lions, leopards and elephants (Kenya's northernmost pachyderms) inhabit what must be some of Kenya's most spectacular forests, emerging into the forest clearings around dawn and dusk. Few other travellers make it this far north and, with the possibility of walking safaris guaranteed to sharpen the senses, this is an experience unlike any other in Kenya.

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