The range in Kenya’s vast terrain is naturally bewildering. Hugging the continent’s eastern coast, Kenya often conjures images of safari staples: lazing lions, sprawling savannah, and wide-brimmed hats. It’s amazing just how true those images can be; you really will see those lion dens and plains (and you’ll probably pack that silly hat, but you don’t actually need it).
And while this image centers on classic—the safari we know well—don’t forget that Kenya has a north to its south; rushing rivers complement its dry savannah and nuances add to its unruly norms. A near 10th of Kenya’s land is protected national park or reserve, all different from one another. You may picture yourself belted into the back of an open Land Rover, but did you ever imagine you’d be on safari, on a bicycle? Sure, you knew about the rolling grasslands, but have you counted on a snow-capped peak, or a view of juxtaposed hyenas and skyscrapers? You might think zebras can’t change their stripes, until you’ve seen the Grevy’s zebra, whose stripes are narrower (and their ears larger).?
For more safari surprises, make your way around Kenya’s protected lands.
Keith Flanagan is a writer, eater and consummate traveler who loves the journey home to Brooklyn, NY, as much as the open road.
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1. Nairobi National Park
No other city in the entire continent—or world—boasts a comparable wildlife park so close to its capital. Drive just beyond city limits to Nairobi National Park, and the sights are immeasurable; 45 sq. miles of grass plains share the horizon with Nairobi's skyscrapers—don't be surprised when a giraffe lifts it's head to enjoy the hazy cityscape. Pack your binoculars if you're hoping to spot one of the 400+ species of birds. Fancy the "Big Five," Africa's most revered animals? Out of the handful, Nairobi National Park is home to four: lion, rhino, buffalo, and leopard. Spend the morning tracking wildlife before heading back into Nairobi's bustling streets.
Photo via Mkimemia
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2. Amboseli National Park
Southeast of Nairobi is where you'll spot the one mammal out of the Big Five that Nairobi National Park is missing: the elephant. At Amboseli National Park you're in the midst of one of the rarest, highest concentrations of one of the largest elephant species in the world. About 1,600 elephants rumble beneath the shadow of distant snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, foraging with twisted trunks, huddled together with grand, ivory tusks for which they're unfortunately poached. Here, in this wildlife haven, longstanding operations like Amboseli Trust for Elephants study and protect the population, while glamping properties like Tortilis Camp operate adjacent, private wildlife conservancies (over 30,000 acres, in fact), to expand the safety net.
Photo via Tortilis Camp
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3. Maasai Mara National Reserve
Sharing its southern border with Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is Kenya's most coveted intersection—or at least, its most popular destination. Wildlife is naturally unruly, so safari guides rarely make guarantees in Africa. But only in the Maasai Mara National Reserve will guides practically promise one particular spotting: the lion (this particular spot happens to be densely packed with them). Sprawling 583 sq. miles, it's safe to assume you'll see at least some of the Big Five, as they frequent the park in troves. The Maasai people, ancestral inhabitants of the reserve for which it's named, live just beyond the game parks, many of whom now command posts at safari camps (like the riverside Karen Blixen Camp).
Photo via Naboisho Camp
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4. Hell's Gate National Park
Unlike its name might suggest, Hell's Gate National Park is so peaceful that, unlike most other national parks in Kenya, travelers can safari on foot, or even bike. North of Nairobi, the central park rarely sees the carnivorous game of other regions. Zebras, buffalos, giraffes, elands and impalas enjoy their freedom to graze, while you're free to watch. Of course, game viewing isn't the only sport; volcanoes and towering red cliffs are among the higher sights in the dusty terrain that's well-suited for a hike.
Photo by Ninara CC BY
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5. Samburu National Reserve
For making the trek to the Northernmost camp out of the batch, Samburu National Reserve, the reward is not just the chance to see the less-seen, but to see something special altogether: Kenya's "Special Five." Also known as the Samburu Five, the set of wildlife is unique to this part of Kenya and includes the Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx, Somali ostrich and the long-necked gerenuk. If authenticity and undisturbed remoteness is what you seek, Samburu National Reserve has a spot for you. And fear not for your bucket list: the region is home to every one of the Big Five, too.
Photo via Joy's Camp