When we were invited to visit our relations in Uganda, we just had to combine it with some wildlife watching in Kenya. Of course, the famous Masai Mara National Reserve—with its lions, cheetahs, zebra and wildebeest—just had to be on the agenda. But we thought it would be a shame if we didn’t do more. So on the advice of our relatives, we included a trip to Amboseli National Park to see its elephants, and maybe catch a glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro. And we decided (not very wisely, in retrospect) to visit Lake Nakuru National Park for its infinite flocks of flamingos.
Also read: Our tiger safari experience in Ranthambhore
Planning our Kenya safari
Of course, deciding where to go and actually planning the whole trip are two entirely different things. We realized quickly that it’s far more easily said than done, especially because our Kenya safari wasn’t the only thing that was on the cards for our visit to Africa. In fact, out of the three weeks we were there, our safari would take up only a week. The rest of the time, we would be in spending time with family in Kampala, rafting the rapids of the White Nile in Jinja, and chilling on the beach in Malindi.
We decided we would visit Amboseli, Nakuru and Masai Mara during our Kenya safari.
Finally, after much discussion, we decided that we would spend a week in Kampala, then fly to Nairobi, from where we would visit Amboseli, Nakuru and Masai Mara. From there, we would head back to Nairobi, and then fly to Mombasa for a few days on the beach at Malindi, and the fly back to Kampala for a few more days with the family. Our agency—Tekko Tours and Travel—made all the arrangements for our safari, including our stays in Nairobi. So far, so good.
Touchdown in Nairobi
As per schedule, we landed in Nairobi late in the morning. We were received at the arrival by Maggie, our helpful coordinator from Tekko Tours. Also there were Stephen, who would be our driver and guide for the next week, and his modified green safari-ready Toyota Land Cruiser. As we made our way to our hotel through this modern city’s legendary traffic, Maggie told us a bit about how the next week would play out.
We would spend the rest of the day and the night in Nairobi, and drive to Amboseli the next morning. After lunch, we would go on a game drive to see the park’s elephants, and maybe catch a glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro, across the border in Tanzania. The next day, we would spend most of the day driving to Nakuru, and do an evening game drive after arriving there. The next day, we would head off to Masai Mara, where we would arrive for lunch. We would be there for two nights, so we would have lots of time to see its sights. In retrospect, we had packed too much into our plan. But that realization came later.
Checking out the local cuisine
Once we had checked into the quite-fancy Laico Regency hotel, we asked Maggie if she could recommend a good local restaurant nearby. We were curious to see what the local food was like, because we had heard that the cuisine had strong Indian and Middle-Eastern influences. Not only did Maggie recommend a restaurant—the popular K’Osewe Ranalo Foods—she also came along and helped us order, though she had another appointment and couldn’t join us.
We found out that the local Kenyan cuisine was very non-vegetarian, with lots of meat and seafood.
It turned out that the local cuisine was very non-vegetarian, with meat and seafood featuring prominently. Any vegetables seemed a bit like an afterthought. The only Indian influences we could identify were the presence of the familiar chapati, and the kachumbaari salad of onions and tomatoes, probably derived from the Indian cachumber.
The K’Osewe experience
K’Osewe worked like a combination of cafeteria and restaurant. All the dishes were on display in a buffet-style arrangement, but we had to order at the cash counter at the opposite end of the restaurant. A waiter then took our bill and brought our food to the table.
A typical order would consist of a meat or seafood main dish, with a side dish of vegetables, and/or a starchy accompaniment—either chapati, rice or ugali. We found out that ugali is dried corn, which is then ground and steamed, making a dense mass. One eats it by rolling a little into a ball with one’s fingers and then dipping it into whatever gravy one has. It couldn’t get more local than that, so of course, I had to order it. We also ordered some fish and chicken for my mom (who isn’t vegetarian), and what I think was mchicha (spinach) and sukuma wiki (collard greens). I ended up just eating the ugali, kachumbaari, and greens. A bit boring. I suppose one needs to tag along with a local for a while if one wants to really eat local.
Our Kenya safari begins
The next morning, after a grabbing a quick breakfast and checking out of the hotel, we were on our way. Despite it being early, the roads were already choked with traffic, and it took us a long time to get out of town. Once we were on the highway, though, it got better. There was still lots of traffic, but now it was mostly trucks carrying their loads between Nairobi and Mombasa. And at least it was moving.
The soil, grasslands and hills could easily have been from somewhere in India.
We were surprised at how familiar the landscape looked. The red soil, the scrubby grasslands and the hills in the distance could easily have been somewhere in India. There were even herds of cows strolling along the roadside! If it weren’t for the African faces flashing by, and the sudden appearance of vast fields of white wildflowers, the illusion would’ve been complete.
We arrive at our ‘camp’
A few hours out of Nairobi, we turned off the highway onto a bumpy unpaved road that led off into the distance. By lunchtime, we were at Amboseli, and checking into our stop for the night: Kibo Safari Camp. This was quite a posh affair, with a huge open reception and roofed bar and dining room, both done up in very safari-esque style. And our ‘tents’ were essentially cottages with thatched roofs but canvas walls, set up at the end of a long stone path.
Amboseli of the elephants
After a nice lunch and a quick snooze (again), we set off on our game drive. As we waited at the park gate for Stephen to finish off the formalities, we watched the Masai ladies in their (I assume) traditional finery trying to convince other tourists to buy some souvenirs. About 15 minutes later, we were in. Our Kenya safari had really begun!
After so many years of watching National Geographic, we were finally here!
As we drove along the dusty trails with the top of our Land Cruiser open, every sight was exciting. After so many years of watching this sort of thing on National Geographic, we were finally here! We sighted our first zebras, our first wildebeest, our first cape buffalo (though, to be honest, the buffalo looked too much like the water buffalo at home to be very exciting). And finally, our first wild African elephants!
There were so many things to see, I would rather that my photographs do all the talking.
After a few lovely hours of driving around Amboseli’s dusty trails, we headed back. Another big meal, and we turned in for the night, surrounded by the sounds of the savannah.
Good morning, Kilimanjaro!
When we stepped out of our tent early next morning, a stunning sight greeted us. Over the tops of the acacia trees, the snow-capped peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro towered into the sky, glowing in the morning light! It had been cloudy the previous evening, so the only bit of the mountain we could see was its base. But that morning, it seemed like Kilimanjaro had revealed itself just for us! We spent the better part of an hour taking photographs and just admiring the sight. We even stared at it while eating breakfast. Only after several reminders from Stephen could we tear ourselves away and get into the Land Cruiser again.
Nakuru, here we come
The first bit of our drive to Nakuru was back through the park, so managed to see some more wildlife against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro. The mountain was quickly hidden again by the haze, though. Once we got out of the park, it was back to Nairobi. We picked up a packed lunch there, and then headed back out of town in the direction of Nakuru. There was lots of traffic again, and there was even a jam that went on for kilometres. Stephen hopped the Land Cruiser off the road several times to get around it.
We stopped to eat our lunch at a view point overlooking the Great Rift Valley.
We stopped for lunch at a view point overlooking the Great Rift Valley—the geological fault that runs thousands of kilometres down east Africa. It was cloudy and hazy, so we couldn’t see very far, but it was still very impressive. We had been on the road for about six hours until then.
About an hour later, we turned off the highway onto what Stephen said was a shortcut. And we all know what happens with ‘shortcuts’. What followed were some of the worst roads we had travelled so far. We bumped and rolled over rocks and around muddy pools (it had been raining), and though the landscape was beautiful, we couldn’t wait for the drive to end.
A rainy game drive at Nakuru
Finally, we arrived at the entrance gate to the park. We had been on the road for about nine hours. We didn’t have time to check in at the lodge before our game drive, so off we went immediately. To make things worse, it had started raining. But luckily, the rain added a lot of atmosphere. The animals didn’t seem to mind the rain all that much either, and just went about their business.
We were disappointed to see that there were hardly any flamingos on the lake at all.
A big disappointment, though, was that—far from the legendary millions of flamingos of Nakuru—there were hardly any flamingos on the lake at all! It turns out, the area had been getting more rainfall than usual the last few years. That meant the alkaline water was getting diluted, so there wasn’t that much algae for the flamingos to feed on. So they had moved on to greener pastures, so to speak.
We did see some other amazing wildlife, though—including the only male lion we encountered during our entire time in Kenya.
The long road to Masai Mara
The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed early again. We wanted to get as early a start as possible so we could get there by lunch and then go on an afternoon game drive. The Flamingo Hill Camp where we were staying was inside the park, so we actually saw some wildlife from just outside our tent on that misty morning.
After finishing some formalities at the exit gate, we set off. Because we wanted to get to our next camp quickly, we didn’t take the long roundabout highway route, but set off on a more direct road through the White Highlands. Another shortcut, with the same result. While the White Highlands had some lovely landscapes, the road was absolutely horrendous most of the way. And because we needed to make good time, Stephen pushed the Land Cruiser over the bumps and ruts, at speed and with gay abandon. Aside: In case you’re wondering why the video footage isn’t shaky, my camera stabilizer smoothed things out.
A short respite at Narok
We were intensely relieved once we hit the highway, and after a quick break at Narok, we continued on. Soon, we turned off the highway again, and onto the road to the Masai Mara National Reserve. The road was relatively decent for about half an hour. And then the paved road stopped. It seems they were laying a proper road to the reserve for the first time! This came as quite a shock to us, considering that the Masai Mara must be one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.
The road was decent for the first half an hour. Then the paved road stopped.
A rough track to one side of the under-construction road was the only way forward, so that’s where our Land Cruiser went. The track was bumpy and dusty, and every time we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. The last kilometre to our camp was absolutely excruciating! The track had been all but washed away by the recent rains, and the water had cut deep channels through the soil.
We finally get to our camp
By the time we got to the Osero Enarau camp, we felt like tossed salad must feel. We had been on the road for eight hours. We were so tired that we skipped that afternoon’s game drive because we couldn’t stand the thought of getting back in the Land Cruiser so soon. Since we had a full-day game drive the next day, we figured we would relax a bit that afternoon. The camp turned out to be the most modest yet, but with the best food by far. It was run largely by local Masai tribespeople, and was quite cosy and personal, presided over by the very friendly Raphael and Mary. And millions of stars filled the spectacular night sky!
Our epic day-long game drive in Masai Mara
The next day’s game drive was epic! We rolled through endless grasslands bordered by high hills, and saw wildlife at every turn. By now we had gotten used to seeing zebra, gazelle and wildebeest everywhere, but new species kept popping out at us here. We saw a family of lionesses with cubs that completely ignored the line of safari vehicles next to them. One lioness even strolled through the vehicles almost within arm’s reach! One sight annoyed us intensely, though: that of a single-engine plane landing on the reserve’s airstrip. If someone had told us there were flights into the reserve, we would have spared ourselves the agonizing drive!
One lioness even strolled through the line of safari vehicles almost within arm’s reach!
Anyway, we still had a great time during our day out in the Masai Mara (though I was a little embarrassed at mistaking a family of warthogs in the grass for lions). A long-held dream had been fulfilled on the African savannah.
Back to Nairobi, and then off to the beach
The next day, after a leisurely start, it was back to Nairobi. On the way, we stopped at a traditional Masai village to see what their lives were like. The experience was a bit touristy (especially the ‘entrance fee’). But since these used to be their lands, it was understandable for them to try and see some benefit from tourism too.
We got through the bone-jarring stretch to Narok by telling ourselves we would be OK once we were on the highway. And luckily, we were. The highway was good, and there wasn’t too much traffic. The day ended with a nice dinner at the Italian restaurant attached to our hotel.
The Central Park experience
Our flight to Malindi the next day wasn’t until the afternoon, so we had the morning to ourselves. The previous evening, we had a seen a nice park outside our hotel window, and we decided to explore it. While we were strolling around the park, we quickly realized that all was not as it seemed. There were people lying asleep on the grass everywhere, and most walkers in the park were staying on the main paths that led through. At one point, a group of heavily armed policemen (who seemed like they were on patrol) stopped to ask us a few questions.
People were asleep on the park’s grass, and walkers in the park stayed on the main paths.
We got the message, and after a quick look at a slightly dilapidated monument, we got out of there. On the way to the airport, Stephen told us that we had been in Central Park, that the people sleeping on the grass were probably glue addicts, and that we were lucky not to have had our phones or wallets snatched. Scary stuff.
But we forgot all that once we got on the plane to Mombasa and headed towards a few relaxing days on the beach at Malindi. Our Kenya safari was over, but we’ll always keep the incredible memories it gave us.
IQ’s top tips for your Kenya safari
- Masai Mara has an airstrip, and flying in is much easier on the back (if not the wallet) than driving.
- Lake Nakuru doesn’t have as many flamingos as it used to, its water has been diluted. You’ll probably have better luck at other alkaline lakes like Lake Natron across the Tanzania border.
- It might make sense to factor in at least two days per national park, so that you can fit in at least two game drives and not feel rushed.
- You should probably ask your tour operator for suggestions and advice before finalizing your schedule. We had no idea that the roads would be so bad, that Nakuru wouldn’t have many flamingos, or that Masai Mara had an airstrip. And our operator didn’t tell us any of these things, because we didn’t ask.
- For your safaris, book a Land Cruiser. It’s more expensive than a van, but it’s more comfortable, and can go places a van can’t.
- Take a sweater and a jacket along. It can get surprisingly cold in the parks and in Nairobi.
- Nairobi’s got a bit of a crime problem. Ask locals about what’s safe to do, and at what time.
- You can expect to pay around 1,300 USD per head for a week-long mid-range safari including meals, and including one night in Nairobi before and after, with breakfast.
- Tipping is commonplace in Kenya. Most tips can be quite modest, but your safari driver will expect a hefty one. If possible, check with locals about tipping practices.
- Vegetarian food in Kenyan cuisine is usually served as an accompaniment, and mainly consists of greens or salads, with peas and red beans available if you’re lucky.
- Matoke (green banana) is a popular staple, though, and you can eat it steamed, fried or in a sauce.
- There are also lots of European and other restaurants in Kenya as well, which serve good vegetarian options too.
- At buffets, check carefully if a dish is vegetarian or not. The labels might not specifically mention if something has meat or seafood.
Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai
My travel accessories
I took most of the photos and the footage for this video with my trusty Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera, and my GoPro Hero5 action camera using my Moza AirCross camera stabilizer (read my review). For lenses on my DSLR, I used a friend’s Canon 100-400mm super zoom lens, and my basic Canon 18-55mm STM wide-angle lens and Canon 55-250mm medium zoom lens. I took some photos and footage with my old Samsung Galaxy S5 phone.
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