Kenya’s national parks are administered by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) as total sanctuaries where human habitation, apart from the tourist lodges, is prohibited. National reserves, run by local councils, tend to be less strict on the question of human encroachment. Increasingly, the conservation effort is also being supported by private sanctuaries and community wildlife conservancies, where private operators work with the local community to conserve wildlife and the environment while bringing landowners a direct income from tourism.
Most parks and reserves are not fenced in (Lake Nakuru, Aberdare and the north side of Nairobi National Park being exceptions). The wildlife is free to come and go, though animals do tend to stay within the boundaries, especially in the dry season when cattle outside compete for water.
All the parks and reserves are open to private visits (though foreign-registered commercial overland vehicles are not allowed in). A few parks have been heavily developed for tourism with graded tracks, signposts and lodges, but none has any kind of transport at the gate for people without their own transport (Nairobi National Park is the one partial exception, with a weekend bus service taking visitors around the park). In general, without your own transport, you’ll have to go on an organized safari.
It’s important to bear in mind some simple facts to ensure that you leave the park and the animals as you found them. Harassment of animals disturbs feeding, breeding and reproductive cycles, and too many vehicles surrounding wildlife is not only unpleasant for you, but also distresses the animals. If you’re camping, collecting firewood is strictly prohibited, as is picking any flora. If you smoke, always use an ashtray. Cigarette butts start numerous bush fires every year.
Park and reserve entry fees are set in US dollars and payable either in dollars (the best approach) or in pounds, euros or Kenya shillings (all often converted at rather poor rates). They are charged per person per 24-hour visit, and you are expected to know exactly how long you plan to stay. Your ticket will indicate your time of arrival. One re-entry is allowed per 24 hours, meaning you can leave the park to stay overnight outside and return again the next morning.
For most parks and reserves, you pay – usually in cash only – at the gate where you enter. However, entry to the six most popular national parks – Aberdare, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Nairobi, Tsavo East and Tsavo West – is by a pre-loaded smartcard called the Safari Card. You can obtain Safari Cards at various Points of Issue and Points of Sale (POIPOS) with proof of identity. The card costs Ksh1000 to issue. You need to be over 18 (under-18s’ fees go on adult cards). Once you’ve got your smartcard, you load it with credit, which you can do in cash or with a credit card – the precise sum determined by which park or parks you’re visiting and for how long. If you have sufficient credit, your smartcard is good for entry by any entrance to any Safari Card park. Unused credit is non-refundable, and the card is retained as soon as credit runs out – meaning you have to go to a point of sale to get a new one if you want to make further visits to smartcard parks. The whole system seems somewhat complicated, but it’s designed to stop large sums of money being held at the gates.
If you’re visiting the parks on an organized safari, all this is handled and paid for on your behalf. But if you’re travelling independently, it does require some planning and makes last-minute changes of itinerary potentially problematic. Happily, there seems to be enough flexibility in the system to allow most gates to process independent visitors who turn up hoping to pay in cash. If your itinerary has gone awry, or you’re entering through a minor gate, you can also usually persuade KWS rangers to allow you to travel through the park to a gate where you can rectify your status. Likewise, if you decide to stay another day, you can usually pay the balance owing on departure.
Note that if you overstay, even by a few minutes, you will very likely have to pay the full 24-hour fee (for a group that could easily be more than $300). If you are genuinely delayed through no fault of your own, it’s a good plan to alert the rangers and ask them to radio ahead, as the gate you exit through is more likely to waive the excess fee if they have been notified. Don’t, however, expect to use this plan to do an extra game drive or stay for lunch: they watch the clock.
Non-residents’ fees range from $15 to $80. Residents’ rates range from Ksh300 to Ksh1000. Children’s rates apply to anyone over 3 but under 18, while students under 23 can apply for student discounts in advance direct to KWS (wkws.go.ke). Students need to be studying or researching in Kenya to get the reductions: leisure trips don’t count.
In the national reserves (the main ones are Maasai Mara, Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba), revenue is not controlled by KWS but by rangers employed by the local county councils. Fees are comparable to national park fees, and strictly for periods of 24 hours, but transactions usually take place only at the gates. In 2012, Narok County Council began an experiment with a pre-payment smartcards system for the Maasai Mara National Reserve through select branches of Equity Bank in Nairobi, Mombasa and Narok. As of late 2012, rangers at the gates and airstrips were still accepting fees from independent travellers in cash.
Most of the parks get two rainy seasons – brief rains in November or December, more earnest in April and May – but these can vary widely. As a general rule, you’ll see more animals during the dry season, when they are concentrated near water and the grasses are low. After the rains break and fill the seasonal watering places, the game tends to disperse deep into the bush. Moreover, if your visit coincides with the rains, you may have to put up with mud and stranded vehicles, making for frustrating game drives. The effects of climate change have led to several temporary closures over recent years, and park conditions are often unpredictable. By way of compensation, if your plans include upmarket accommodation, you’ll save a fortune at lodges and tented camps in the low season. Most places reduce their tariffs by anything from a third to a half between April and June. And, when the sun shines in the rainy season, the photographic conditions can be perfect.
Getting around the parks
If you’re travelling on a shoestring budget and don’t have access to a vehicle or a tour, then with a lot of luck you may be able to get a lift at one of the busier park gates with visitors in a private vehicle, but this is not a common option and you could wait a very long time, even at a relatively popular park. And you still need a plan for where you will stay once you’re in the park. The best gates to try are Voi Gate of Tsavo East National Park and Mtito Andei Gate of Tsavo West National Park. In both cases, if you have to give up, you can easily pick up public transport to get away again by walking back to the highway or into town. You can also use public transport to reach the Talek or Sekenani gates of Maasai Mara National Reserve, making arrangements to do game drives with local vehicle owners or budget tented camps located just outside the reserve.
If you’re self-driving, or renting a vehcle with a driver, a 4WD vehicle is close to essential in the parks. None of the park roads is paved; most car rental companies will insist you have 4WD to visit them, and rangers on the gates may not allow you to enter in a 2WD vehicle, especially in wet weather. A night spent stuck in Maasai Mara mud isn’t to be recommended; nor is trying to reverse down a boulder-strewn slope in Tsavo West. In any case, a normal saloon will be shaken to bits on the average park road.
Be sensitive to the great damage that can be done to delicate ecosystems by driving off marked roads. Even apparently innocent diversions can scour fragile, root-connected grasslands for years, spreading dust, destroying the lowest levels of vegetation and hindering the life cycles and movements of insects and smaller animals, with consequent disruption to the lives of their predators.
The effects of this are especially visible in Amboseli and Maasai Mara, both of which are now ecologically at risk. Use only the obvious dirt roads and tracks (admittedly, it can sometimes be hard to judge whether you’re following a permitted route, or simply the tyre marks of others who broke the rule), and if you have a driver, ask him to do the same. Stick to the official maximum speed limit posted at the gates, usually 30km/h. Night driving between 7pm and 6am is not allowed in Kenyan parks and reserves without permission from the warden.
If you’re travellng independently on a medium-to-high budget and staying in lodges or tented camps, it’s very wise to make advance reservations as there is often heavy pressure on beds, especially during the peak seasons. Besides their campsites KWS have a limited range of self-catering cottages, houses and bandas in most of the parks. See wkws.org for reservations or take a chance at the gate.
If you’re visiting the parks on a shoestring budget it may well be worth bringing a tent – consider renting or buying one in Nairobi. If you don’t have one, you will find the budget options fairly limited, and in some parks and reserves a campsite may be the only affordable place to stay, as well as significantly adding to the adventure.
If you’re on an organized drive-in (road) safari, your driver will conduct morning and afternoon game drives – two- to three-hour excursions from wherever you are staying, slowly heading around the park, looking for animals to watch and photograph. If you fly in, you’ll use the services of the driver/guides and vehicles at your lodge or camp. Invariably, two game drives per day are included in your safari.
If you’ve booked a lodge or camp yourself, and made your own travel arrangements, you may have to pay extra for game drives (usually around $40–80/person for 2–3hr). If you want exclusive use of the vehicle, expect to pay $150–200 for a drive and up to $350 for a full day. Lodge or camp-based drives are usually very worthwhile because the drivers know the animals and the area.
The usual pattern is two game drives a day: at dawn and late afternoon, returning just after sunset. In the middle of the day, the parks are usually left to the animals. While the overhead sunlight makes it a poor time to take photos, the animals are around, if sleepy. If you can put up with the heat while most people are resting back at the lodge, it can be a tranquil and satisfying time.
Rangers can usually be hired for the day: the official KWS rates are Ksh3000 for a full 24-hour period, or Ksh1500 for six hours. If you have room in your vehicle, someone with intimate local knowledge and a trained eye is a good companion.
There are some fairly obvious rules to adhere to when watching animals. If you’re stopping, switch off your engine and be as quiet as possible, speaking in low murmurs rather than whispering. Obviously, never get out of the vehicle except at the occasional (often rather vaguely designated) parking areas and viewpoints. Never feed wildlife, as it upsets their diet and leads to dependence on humans (habituated baboons and vervet monkeys can become violent if refused handouts). Remember that animals have the right of way, and shouldn’t be disturbed, even if they’re sitting on the road in front of you. This means keeping a minimum distance of 20m away, having no more than five vehicles viewing an animal at any one time (wait your turn if necessary), and not following your subjects if they start to move away.
To see as much game as possible, stop frequently to scan with binoculars, watch what the herds of antelope and other grazers are doing (a predator will usually be watched intently by them all), and pause to talk to any drivers you pass along the way. Most enthusiastic wildlife-watchers agree the best time of day is just before sunrise, when nocturnal animals are often still out and about, and you might see that weird dictionary leader, the aardvark.