For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017.
Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.
If it’s your first time traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and your main goal is to see wild animals in their natural habitat, go to Kenya. The East African nation is well developed when it comes to tourism, with easily accessible flights to Nairobi.
Kiss Giraffes in Nairobi
The capital city is worth spending a day or two in. It will likely be your first stop in East Africa and will act as a gateway to other destinations around the country.
Nairobi is a bustling city with clogged roads and impoverished slums, juxtaposed to posh condos and luxury hotels. The large expat population (mainly working for consulates and NGOs) has paved way for a vibrant dining and nightlife scene in the city. Talisman, known as one of the best restaurants in Nairobi, is a fun place to grab a drink by the fireplace and taste globally inspired cuisine in an African-Arabic ambiance. Also, their Singapore chili soft shell crab is to die for. To take a break from the congestion, go to Amaniyajuu, a fair-trade restaurant and boutique located in a charming garden inside the city.
Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning. If you’re an animal lover like me, you may end up fostering a young elephant for a $50 donation. Head over to the Giraffe Center for the perfect Instagram photo opp kissing a giraffe in its natural habitat.
Walk with Zebras at Lake Naivasha
An hour outside of Nairobi is a freshwater lake located on the elevated Kenyan Rift valley. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds as well as a sizable hippo population. Lake Naivasha Crescent Camp is a good base to glamp (luxury camp) on the bank of the lake and take a boat ride to spot pelicans, eagles, storks, and cormorants.
For a unique experience, get off at Crescent Island Game Park and freely walk among wild animals. Zebras, giraffes, gazelle, waterbuck, and wildebeest are free to roam around as the park is not fenced in. Here you can find more animals per acre than any other park in Kenya and it’s completely free to visit.
Watch the Big Five in Masai Mara
Over 4% of Kenya’s total area is made up of wildlife reserves and the Masai Mara game reserve is best known for its wildebeest migration, where millions of animals cross the Mara river during the months of September and October.
Plan to spend at least two nights in the Mara to see the famous “Big 5” game animals – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and buffaloes. Sekenani Camp, located right outside the park’s entrance, is easily accessible within minutes. Individual tents come with comfortable beds, hardwood floors, private bathrooms, and even bathtubs. Fancy a hot soak while hearing the lions roar in the background? You can do it here!
Ride in an open jeep during a game drive through the park (which is not fenced in like many other reserves in South Africa), as thousands of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, wildebeest, and impalas pass by. Given the open terrain, it’s easy to spot animals in the Mara. I was thrilled to see over 70 lions, cheetahs, and leopards hunting, mating, eating, roaring, and snuggling like kittens – up close!
Race Donkeys in Lamu
Most travelers to Kenya choose to visit one of the beach towns in the Archipelago. Lamu is one of the oldest Swahili seafront towns and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is where you can feel the Arabic influence on the architecture, food, people, and religion of the region. Walking through narrow streets dotted with hole-in-the-wall food stalls, ornate wooden doors, and modestly dressed women covered in veils, you may feel like you’ve gone back in time to the 17th century.
Lamu is also known as “donkey island”. No cars are allowed on the island, so all goods are transported on donkeys. As there are 6,000 of these beasts on the roads, there are also major donkey traffic jams!
Shela Village in Lamu is a quiet place to stay with renovated Swahili villas converted into rentable apartments. There are a handful of restaurants and you get to know most residents if you’re around for a couple of nights. During the day, enjoy secluded beaches, swim, snorkel, and taste freshly caught seafood, and at sunset, take a dow (traditional sailboat) with snacks onboard. The Lamu Cultural Festival held in August, with its donkey races, swimming, and dhow sailing competitions, attracts visitors from the mainland and abroad. The Village Experience, a socially responsible tour company, partners with local businesses and helps uplift impoverished communities around the area.
In Kenya, there are lots of opportunities to get up close to the animals and bring back lasting memories (as well as great Instagram shots). It is, no doubt, the best place to start your African safari adventure.
~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017.