Take a trip on Kenya's pioneering railway line and discover the stories behind the first safari expeditions with Lonely Planet Magazine's guide. In this excerpt from an article by Oliver Smith, we show you how to stage your own safari expedition in the African wilderness, complete with hair-raising animal encounters and luxurious camps.
1. Start in Mombasa
Although modern-day safaris tend to begin in Nairobi, Mombasa is where expeditions traditionally started. Wander among the narrow alleyways and elaborate doorways that make up the old city, dropping in at Fort Jesus - an imposing, 16th-century Portuguese castle where cannons keep guard of the harbour (museums.or.ke).
2. All aboard the Lunatic Express
The historic Lunatic Express line helped create our modern concept of safari, a means for wealthy Westerners to be whisked away from the African coast and into the continent’s interior. Though the history of the line is intertwined with the ugliness of colonial exploitation and the bygone era of big-game hunting, passengers on the Lunatic Express sought the same kicks as safari-goers in Kenya look to experience today: they craved Africa’s wide-open spaces - the adrenaline rush of a land where human beings are still on a perilous rung of the food chain.
Rift Valley Railways now runs services on the old Lunatic Express line. At the time of writing, overnight services from Mombasa railway station to Nairobi operated three times a week. However, these services aren’t always reliable and can be subject to change at short notice (eastafricashuttles.com).
3. Step inside Nairobi’s Railway Museum
A short stroll from Nairobi railway station, the Railway Museum has a fascinating collection of relics from the heyday of the Lunatic Express - from restaurant car menus to the claws of the Tsavo maneaters themselves. Clamber aboard the rusting locomotives parked in the sidings next to the museum (Station Rd, Nairobi Hill 30121).
4. Experience old-school glamour at the Norfolk Hotel
One of the last remaining landmarks of turn-of-the-century Nairobi, the luxury Norfolk Hotel is a mock-Tudor building where the early safari-goers would check in after disembarking the Lunatic Express. As well as a private tropical garden, look out for the vintage cars parked in the courtyard and archive photos lining its corridors (fairmont.com/norfolkhotel).
5. Camp out
Situated in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, the Amboseli National Park is renowned for its flat, swamp-dotted landscapes, vast, widescreen horizons and a rumbustious local population of elephants. Somak is among the tour operators that can arrange accommodation around the park vicinity, as well as transfers to and from Nairobi (somak.com).
One of Kenya’s best safari camps, Amboseli Porini Camp is run in partnership with the local Maasai community, with profits being used to help support local schools. Guests can choose between a comfortable main camp hidden among shady trees or a more basic mobile camp located nearby (porini.com).
7. Go green in an eco-lodge
A few hours’ drive east of Amboseli, Campi Ya Kanzi is an elegant, Italian-run eco-lodge with wood and thatched buildings on a scrubby hillside by the edge of Chyulu Hills National Park. The green ethos means that hot showers use solar panel-heated rainwater (maasai.com).
8. Stay in the Maasai Mara
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is - with good reason - Kenya’s most popular safari destination. This stretch of grassland plays host to the annual wildebeest migration, although its concentrated populations of big cats are a big draw throughout the year. Tour operator Cheli & Peacock is able to arrange accommodation in the Mara (chelipeacock.com).