About eight per cent of Kenya is formally protected for wildlife and environment conservation, either as national parks (there are 23 on land and another four marine parks) or as national reserves (28, plus six marine ones). The 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. As well as these formally demarcated areas, the conservation effort is increasingly 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 as you are charged on arrival, it is helpful 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, independent travellers pay – in cash only – at the gate where they enter and receive a paper ticket. However, entry to the eight most popular national parks is by a pre-loaded smartcard called a Safari Card. You can obtain temporary Safari Cards at various Points of Issue and Points of Sale (POIPOS) with proof of identity. You need to be over 18 (under-18s’ fees go on adult cards). Once you’ve got your Safari Card, you load it with credit, whether in cash or with a credit card (Visa or MasterCard), covering entry fees (per person and per vehicle), as well as any camping fees – the precise sum determined by which park or parks you’re visiting and for how long. If you have sufficient credit, your Safari Card is good for entry by any entrance to any Safari Card park. Unused credit is non-refundable, and the card needs to be surrendered on your exit from the park – meaning you have to go to a POIPOS to get a new one if you want to make further visits to Safari Card 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 (such as a vehicle breakdown), it’s a good idea 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’park entry fees range from $20 to $80. Kenyan and East African residents’ fees range from Ksh350 to Ksh1200. Children’s fees apply to anyone over 3 but under 18 and are usually half the price of the adult fee. On top of per person entry fees, there are vehicle fees: a car (fewer than six seats) is Ksh350, while a vehicle with six to twelve seats (like a minibus) is Ksh1200. Again your safari operator will be paying this unless you are visiting the parks in your own vehicle.
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 are again strictly for periods of 24 hours. Transactions take place only at the gates or airstrips on arrival.
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. 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 March and mid-June. And, when the sun shines in the rainy season, the photographic conditions can be perfect.
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. Furthermore, safari operators with paying clients on board simply won’t pick you up for free. Also, 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. Alternatively, head to one of the safari lodges or camps on the outside of the park boundaries and arrange game drives from there. You can also use public transport to reach the Talek or Sekenani gates of Maasai Mara National Reserve, again 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 vehicle 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 scar 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 travelling 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 high and peak seasons. Besides its campsites KWS has a limited range of self-catering cottages, houses and bandas in most of the parks. See wkws.go.ke/ 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.
Kenya’s location and range of altitude and its climate, dominated by the Indian Ocean’s monsoon winds, have given rise to a diverse range of ecosystems. From lowland rainforest to savanna grassland, high-altitude moorland to desert, and coral reef to mangrove swamp, these zones provide equally varied habitats for its extraordinary fauna and flora. With few large rivers, Kenya’s riverine habitats are restricted, but those that exist – notably the Tana and the Athi-Galana-Sabaki – are extremely attractive to wildlife. The vast, relatively shallow expanse of Lake Victoria, fed mainly by rainwater rather than rivers, is low in nutrients, but ideal for papyrus beds and marshes, harbouring birds found nowhere elsewhere in Kenya.
West of the Rift Valley, the 240 square kilometres of the Kakamega Forest, and a few adjacent outliers, are examples of the “Guineo-Congolan” equatorial forest, usually found only in central Africa and home to many animal and plant species encountered nowhere else in Kenya. Beyond Kakamega, Kenya’s once widespread forests are now limited largely to the highlands, notably Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range, and to a much smaller extent the coast, where patches of old forest often correspond to the sacred groves or cultural villages of the Mijikenda, known as kaya.
The wooded savanna of grassland with scattered trees – East Africa’s archetypal landscape – covers large areas of Kenya between about 1000m and 1800m. The main grasslands are in the Lake Victoria basin, which includes the Maasai Mara, and east and southeast of Mount Kenya, where the savanna is protected by the national parks of Meru and Amboseli and the better watered areas of Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Dry-season fires are quite common – whether natural or deliberately set to encourage new pasture with the first rain – and many of the often broad-leaved and deciduous trees are protected by their cork-like bark. The savanna of the Great Rift Valley is dotted with bird-rich lakes – ranging from freshwater Naivasha and Baringo to intensely saline Magadi and Bogoria – which act as a magnet for wintering migrants from Europe and northern Asia.
Starting just 30km inland from the Indian Ocean, a vast region known as the nyika – “wilderness” – stretches west across the drier areas of Tsavo East and West to the edge of the central highlands. Nyika is characterized by an impenetrably thick growth of stunted, thorny trees with scaly bark, such as acacias and euphorbias. Grey for most of the year, they sprout into a brilliant palette of greens during the rainy season. Where the land is lower than around 600m and there’s unreliable rainfall and strong winds, the vegetation is sparse and scrubby, with tufts of grass, scattered bushes and only occasional trees, mainly baobab and acacia. In these semi-arid areas, where much of the ground is bare and soil is easily removed by the wind, long droughts are common. Kenya’s true desert habitats are drier still, with very limited plant life and only dwarf trees and bushes. Large areas of northern Kenya consist of bare, stony or volcanic desert with thin, patchy grasses and the odd bush along seasonal watercourses.