At the heart of most visits to Kenya, the safari is the wildlife-watching part of the trip, and usually implies at least an overnight stay. Before anything else, bear in mind that the professionalism and experience of your guide can transform any visit to the parks. Then think about whether you want comfort or a grittier experience, and whether you want the convenience of having it pre-booked as part of a package holiday, or the independence of picking and choosing online, or once you’re in Kenya. Remember that the parks can be visited privately, allowing you to arrange your own itinerary. If you have the time, this is a good alternative to an organized trip.
Types of safari
Air safaris, using internal flights to get around, will add significantly to the cost and comfort of your trip and give you spectacular views, but a much less intimate contact with Kenya. A week-long air safari will work out in the range of $500–1000/person per day, assuming four scheduled flights and three different camps or lodges, but will depend on the quality of your accommodation and, to a lesser extent, the size of your party. With air safaris, your actual wildlife viewing – your game drives – will be organized with the vehicles and guides of the lodge or camp you are staying at, which usually means good local knowledge of the park and the particular area, and specially adapted, often largely open, 4WD vehicles.
On a road safari, on the other hand, the long drives require minibuses or other closed vehicles with pop-up roof hatches, and your game drives will be conducted in the same vehicle. The journeys can be exhausting, while hours of your time are eaten away in a cloud of dust. Moreover, opportunities to see much of the landscape or communities through which you’re passing can be somewhat limited, though this will depend on the route you take, the quality of your vehicle and the level of engagement of your guide, and thus the cost of the trip.
Most road safaris take you from one lodge or camp to another, staying two or three nights at each lodge, in two or three parks. Samburu–Nakuru–Maasai Mara would be a typical route. Make sure you have a window seat and ask about the number of passengers and whether the vehicle is shared by several operators or is for your group only. A week’s safari by road, staying at lodges or tented camps, will cost in the range of $300–700 per person per day, assuming at least five or six clients.
The alternative to a standard lodge safari is a camping safari, again usually in a minibus, where the crew (or you, if it’s a budget trip) pitch your tents each day. With this kind of trip you have to be prepared for a degree of discomfort along with the self-sufficiency: insects can occasionally be a menace; you may not get a shower every night; the food won’t be so lavish; and the beer not so cold. The price should be in the range of $200–300 per person per day, depending on the itinerary.
It’s common on camping safaris to spend the hot middle of the day at the campsite. Some of these are shady and pleasant, but that’s not always the case and, where there are nearby lodges with swimming pools, cold beer and other amenities, it’s worth spending a few hours in comfort. Similarly, if you want to go on an early game drive, or spend the whole morning out, don’t be afraid to suggest to the tour leader that you skip breakfast, or take sandwiches. Too often, the itinerary is a product of what tour operators think customers want (passed from management to drivers and cooks), constrained by the driver’s fuel allowance. In practice, daily routines may be altered to suit the clients easily enough if you ask, though going over-budget on fuel is likely to be an issue.
On better camping safaris, you travel in a more rugged vehicle that’s higher off the ground – a 4WD Land Rover or Land Cruiser or even an open-sided lorry – giving more flexibility about where you go and how long you stay. The most expensive camping safaris come very expensive indeed: you can easily expect to pay $600–1000 per person per day. But you’ll be guided by expert guides (you want a silver guide, or a gold guide if possible) and usually looked after superbly, with top-quality tents ready for your arrival at your fly-camp every evening, good meals, cold drinks and informed safari chat.
Horseriding, camel-assisted, walking and cycling safaris are also available, and are generally comparable in price with mid-range or expensive conventional safaris.
Note that the balloon safaris you see advertised are short balloon flights, not complete tours. They take place at dawn and last a couple of hours. They can be done in the Maasai Mara (and sometimes one or two other parks), and the bill is a big one, around $500/person.
Booking safaris direct
If you want the flexibility of booking your own safari, rather than having a travel agent or operator at home organize the whole trip for you, you will probably be dealing with agents or operators in Nairobi or on the coast, although you could piece the whole trip together yourself direct with camps/lodges and local airlines or car rental companies. It’s worth noting that the minibus safaris that are included in inexpensive Mombasa-based charter packages venture no further afield than the three national parks easily accessible from the coast, Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Amboseli. Trips north to Samburu or west to the Maasai Mara are cheaper if arranged from Nairobi.
If you have the budget to organize a tailor-made, exclusive safari, your only constraints will be the availability of staff and vehicles at the companies you approach. Choosing a budget safari company, however, can feel fairly hit-or-miss. Unless you have the luxury of a long stay, your choice will probably be limited by what is available during your visit. If you’re booking at the last minute, many companies are willing to offer a discount in order to fill unsold seats; some outfits will also give student or other discounts if you ask.
This is not to recommend the very cheapest outfits. Some camping operators sell safaris that undercut the competition just to get seats filled, and then have to cut corners to make any kind of profit. The easiest way for disreputable operators to cut costs is to avoid paying park entry fees, or to disguise a one-day, 24-hour park stay, as a “3-day safari”: Day 1: leave Nairobi, drive slowly to camp outside park doing “game drive”; Day 2: enter park after breakfast for all-day game drive; Day 3: enter park again for early game drive, leaving for breakfast before ticket expires, followed by a slow drive back to Nairobi.
Some companies make a habit of failing to deliver on their promises, knowing that a combination of their clients’ goodwill and inadequate legal recourse will allow them to get away with it. Before signing up, always ask for a full breakdown of what is included in the proposed itinerary, including the number of park tickets and the exact locations and names of the places you will be staying.
You should be somewhat suspicious of any safari to the main parks and reserves that comes in under $200 per day. Some such itineraries are run by legitimate small operators content to make very narrow margins. But some are crooks.
Some recommended operators are listed in the Nairobi section, but it’s difficult to find a company that’s absolutely consistent, and this is particularly the case among the budget operators. While unpredictable factors such as weather, illness and visibility of animals all contribute to the degree of success of the trip, and group relations among the passengers can assume great significance in a very short time, it’s the more controllable factors like breakdowns, food, equipment and competence of the staff, that really determine reputations. If anything goes wrong, reputable companies will do their best to compensate you on the spot.
The Nairobi grapevine and social media are probably your best guide to the latest good deals. Membership of KATO, the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (wkatokenya.org), is a good sign, but don’t take it as a guarantee. KATO, based in Longonot Rd, off Kilimanjaro Ave, in Upper Hill, Nairobi (t+254 (0)20 2713348 or t(0)722 434845, wkatokenya.org), publishes full lists of its members, and can offer advice if you have problems with any of them. The KATO website runs a quotation service, which forwards your needs and interests to their members who then contact you directly by email.
Guides and tips
Leaving aside your choice of itinerary, transport, and standard of accommodation, the one aspect of your safari that is right out of your hands once you’ve booked is the calibre of your guide. Since the late 1990s, the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (wsafariguides.org) has taken the lead in setting benchmarks for professional guides in Kenya. They hold monthly exams and there are now more than a thousand accredited KPSGA bronze guides in the country. Of these, nearly two hundred have also passed their silver exam and a dozen have reached gold.
It’s highly rewarding to go out game-watching with a silver or gold guide. They can offer memorable insights into animal behaviour and can be astonishingly adept at tracking animals and interpreting their observations: a good guide will know, for example, why two male lions are being chased by a lioness, and what you might expect to find if you discreetly follow the lioness later. And all silver and gold guides have a wealth of knowledge about natural history in general, not just big game.
Bronze guides can be very good, too: they have to wait three years before they can take their silver exam, and many bronze guides will spend hours every day reading the literature. Many, too, will have worked for many years before thinking about getting qualified: a thoroughly proficient and experienced bronze or unqualified guide is likely to be as good in most respects as a young and eager silver student. You can check the association’s bronze, silver and gold members at the KPSGA website, and it’s perfectly fair to ask your company if they have any accredited guides and if so whether they will be guiding your safari.
Good guides are far more than animal-spotters: they are often gifted linguists, highly practical in every way, and excellent bush companions. Many visitors become close friends of their guides and are drawn back to the same company repeatedly to renew the friendship.
Guides earn reasonable salaries by Kenyan standards, but clients’ tips still make up a large proportion of their income, accounting sometimes for more than half their earnings. Tipping – of guides, drivers and other staff – can often cause misunderstandings between clients, who are usually expected to organize themselves to give collective gratuities on the last day. Some companies even make suggestions in their briefing packs. You should budget for Ksh500, or around $5–10 per member of staff per day from each client, slightly more for a small group of two or three, and less for a very large group, or one that includes children. If you are a couple, in a group being looked after by a driver/guide and an animal spotter or second-in-command, then you might give $200 in tips at the end of a week’s safari. If this sounds like a lot, especially in Kenyan terms, bear in mind that the guides may spend many weeks each year not working.
Sooner or later, a Kenyan safari operator will start offering tip-free safaris, paying salaries that fully reflect the income expectations of their staff instead of relying on a system of ad hoc contributions from clients in lieu of proper wages.