Greater Masai Mara
Arguably the most famous wildlife area in the world and one of Kenya’s must-see places. The Masai Mara National Reserve is in the southwest of Kenya, bordering Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. This is an ecosystem of vast grasslands prowled by cheetah, peppered with acacia thickets in which leopards lurk, and divided by the Mara, Sand and Talek rivers.
From July to November each year, the great wildebeest herds arrive from Tanzania. To reach the grasslands of the Mara, they must risk their lives crossing the Mara River, where famished crocodiles wait in the swollen waters. After nervously milling about on the banks, it takes just one wildebeest to leap in, and then the herd follows en masse in a cacophony of grunts, thundering hooves and splashing water. The river crossings are iconic — the subject of many nature documentaries — and attract huge numbers of tourists each year.
But there’s much more to the 150,000-hectare reserve and its surrounding conservancies. This is big cat territory, with healthy populations of lion, leopard and cheetah. There are elephant, buffalo and rhino, completing the Big 5, plus nearly 500 recorded bird species to spot.
The Masai people have lived here for hundreds of years and make the best guides and custodians of the land. Surrounding the Masai Mara National Reserve are several community-owned conservancies. Together, they make up the Greater Masai Mara area.
The Mara is a mere 45-minute flight from Nairobi and there are plenty of bush flights connecting it to the Serengeti in Tanzania and other Kenyan destinations, such as Laikipia.
January to May
There are fewer tourists in the Mara, but still plenty of possible wildlife sightings (like black rhino, elephant and Masai giraffe). Some wildebeest remain in the Mara, where they are preyed on by the area’s big cats. From November until April, the migratory birds swell with the Mara’s recorded bird count close to 500. There are two rainy seasons: March to May (long rains) and November to December (short rains). The peak of the wet weather is between March and May. The temperature doesn’t change much throughout the year. The high ranges from 25°C to 28°C/77°F to 82°F during the day with night-time lows ranging from 11°C to 3°C/52°F to 56°F.
July to November
The wildebeest herds arrive in the Mara from July and depart in October or November. Their movements differ slightly year to year, depending on the rains and the availability of pasture.
It’s possible to see these massive wildebeest herds from several camps in the Mara. At some camps, guests can watch the herds without even leaving camp. The dry season is from June to October. The temperature doesn’t change much throughout the year. The high ranges from 25°C to 28°C/77°F to 82°F during the day with evening lows ranging from 11°C to 3°C/52°F to 56°F.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Situated in the foothills of snow-capped Mount Kenya in central Kenya’s Laikipia County, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a trailblazer in conservation, most famous for protecting the world’s last two northern white rhinos.
Across the 36,400-hectare conservancy, you might spot lion prowling the plains, giraffe and elephant munching on whistling thorn trees, cheetah scanning for prey or even elusive wild dog and leopard. Above all, it’s one of the largest black rhino sanctuaries in East Africa. Unlike in many protected areas, cattle farming has been built into Ol Pejeta’s conservation plan, benefitting the land and wildlife through strategic grazing, and the people through employment.
Ol Pejeta offers a huge range of activities and is ideal for active types, families or honeymooners, making it one of the best places to visit in Kenya. For instance, start the day with a jog with the rangers or a walk across the savannah to spot birds. Learn about tracking, identify plants and maybe even watch a black rhino browsing from a safe distance. In addition to game drives, visitors can go cycling or horse riding through the reserve, meet the anti-poaching dogs or track lion with the conservancy’s researchers. The fees for these activities help fund conservation initiatives.
Ol Pejeta is easily accessible and less than a four-hour drive from Nairobi. In addition, you can also fly in on a light aircraft from Nairobi or the Masai Mara, and it’s easily paired with a beach break on the Kenyan coast or Zanzibar.
January to March
The dry period between January and February sees excellent game viewing, with wildlife drawn to water sources. As the short rains have just fallen, the landscape doesn’t look too parched, therefore making it for better photographs. This is also the season for migratory birds in Ol Pejeta. It is a hot, dry time of year with temperatures hitting a high of 27°C/81°F in February. However, as it’s a high-altitude area (1,800 metres), nights can still be chilly with lows averaging 7°C/45°F. Pack layers.
April to June
This is when the long rains arrive in Ol Pejeta. It’s a quiet time of year for tourism, but there are still plenty of clear spells when you can get out on safari. In other words, the landscape looks green and healthy and you won’t have to share with as many other visitors. The heaviest rainfall occurs in April and by June there is very little rain. Temperatures peak at 25°C/77°F and the average low is 11°C/52°F.
July to September
This is a dry period when wildlife viewing is good and weather is pleasant. It’s a busier time, due to school holidays. July and August have average highs of 23°C/72°F, the temperature in September climbs slightly to 25°C/77°F. The average low is 9°C/48°F. August may see some afternoon showers.
October to December
Late September to late October is the best time to travel, with fewer people in the conservancy. You will have great wildlife-viewing opportunities. November and December see the arrival of migratory birds from North Africa and Europe. The rains result in lush landscapes, ideal for photographers. The short rains begin in late October or November, with less rainfall in December. The average high temperature is 24°C/75°F and the low drops from 10°C/50°F in October to 8°C/46°F in December.
Samburu National Reserve
North of Laikipia is Samburu National Reserve, a protected area of arid plains and acacia woodland on the edge of the desert. For this reason, it is one of the top places to visit in Kenya.
The Ewaso Ngiro River runs through the reserve, attracting elephant, zebra and kudu. Leopard skulk in the riverine bush and there are lion prides on either side of the river. Spot the long-necked gerenuk antelope balancing on their hind legs to browse high branches or the blue-skinned Somali ostrich strutting along. Together with the beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe and Grévy’s zebra, they make up the Samburu Big 5. Further the reserve is also home to more than 400 types of birds, including the migratory species that arrive with the short rains in November.
The Samburu people, known for their distinctive bright fabrics and layers of beaded jewellery, live north of the reserve. Many work as guides and staff in the region’s safari camps, presenting an opportunity for guests to learn about the tribe’s culture and traditions.
Samburu is connected by bush flights to Nairobi and other reserves. For this reason, it is best combined with a Masai Mara safari and a few days on the beach, either in Zanzibar or on the Kenyan coast.
January to March
January and February are two of the best months to travel to Samburu. It’s dry and there are great wildlife-viewing opportunities. The migratory birds are also in Samburu at this time. January and February are hot and dry, with an average high of 33°C/91°F. March sees a little more rainfall, as the long rains begin. The average minimum temperature ranges from 14°C/57°F in January to 16°C/61°F in March.
April to June
April and May are when the long rains fall in Samburu, with the heaviest rainfall in April. By June, the rains have finished. The landscape is beautiful and green with less dust and perfect sunrise/sunset conditions — all great for photographers. April sees the most rainfall, with May receiving some and June virtually no rainfall. The average high is 32°C/90°F and the average low is 16°C/61°F.
July to September
July to September is a perfect time to visit Samburu. This is the long dry season when the wildlife viewing is best. There are fewer mosquitos around, too. These months are dry and warm. July and August have an average high temperature of 31°C/88°F, while September is slightly hotter. The average low temperature is 14°C/57°F.
October to December
The short rains of this period clear the air and make for better photographic conditions. In November, the migratory birds start flying in from North Africa and Europe. The short rains start in October or November and end in December, with November being the wettest month. The average high is 33°C/91°C in October, falling to 31°C/88°F in November and December. The average low is 15°C/59°F.
AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK: Kenya’s most popular park after the Mara. Located 258 kilometres from Nairobi, it offers a stunning view of both Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. In addition to the beautiful sunsets and sunrises, guests can enjoy an eclectic array of animals and wildlife habitats from atop The Observation Hill.
NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK: Nairobi National Park is a major attraction for visitors to Nairobi, offering them a chance to enjoy Kenya’s wildlife from within the city. Located less than 16 kilometres from the city itself, the national park is also a rhino sanctuary and guests can enjoy buffalo, zebra and wildebeest sightings as well as a host of birdlife.
TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK: Now separated from the original Tsavo, Tsavo East is popular with tourists from Kenya’s coast. Less than 160 kilometres from Mombasa, it is served by several airstrips and guests can see the infamous “Man-Eaters of Tsavo” lions, as well as elephant, rhino and a variety of other bird and wildlife.
TSAVO WEST NATIONAL PARK: Occupying 30 percent of Kenya’s total park area, Tsavo West is one of the largest parks in Kenya. It is easily accessible from the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and borders Tanzania to the south. Tsavo West offers tremendous views of a landscape packed with diverse wildlife habitats: rocky ridges, acacia woodlands, isolated hills, semi-desert scrubs and mountain forest.
LAKE NAKURU NATIONAL PARK: 153 kilometres northwest of Nairobi, Nakuru is famous for the pink flamingoes that inhabit the lake, alongside white rhino and over 400 bird species.