Masai Mara National Reserve
Of all Kenya’s national parks the Masai Mara is undoubtedly the most famous. It is home to the “big five” – rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo, and elephant – and is a truly stunning expanse of scenery, where the horizon stretches for hundreds of kilometres and you are surrounded by nature at its most glorious.
When people speak of Africa, this is the landscape they imagine. Immense blue skies sprawl over tawny reaches of earth. Zebras in their black and white stripes gallop across the plains, while smaller groups of ungainly but majestic giraffes graze on the trees and shrubs. The great migrations take place between September and November and at these times it seems the entire animal population of the park is on the move.
Lake Navaisha and the Rift Valley
The geographical phenomenon known as the Great Rift Valley neatly bisects the entire country. Formed by a geological fault, where the earth’s crust split causing the land to sink, it is a remarkable sight. Narrow ribbon lakes are scattered across the valley’s length, the most impressive of course being Lake Turkana way to the north. The valley is at its most impressive just north-west of capital Nairobi at Lake Navaisha, where the sides are formed by cliffs nearly 2km in height. The drive from Nairobi to Naivasha provides a most breathtaking view of the Rift on the old escarpment road.
Navaisha and the lakes clustered here are famous for their flamingos, who flock to the mineral rich waters, host to a thriving eco-system of algae and tiny aquatic creatures. The richness of the water is caused by ongoing seismic activity in the region. Fissures in the earth’s crust allow geo-thermally heated hot springs to bubble to the surface. As well as Navaisha, Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria and Barringo are also worth visiting with their deep turquoise colour surrounded by a lunar landscape.
The second tallest mountain in Africa, Mount Kenya is also known as the “home of God“. In fact it was a misunderstanding of this phrase in the local tribal language that evolved into the name eventually given the entire nation. The peak lies north-east of the capital near the soft blues of the Abedare Mountain range. Naturally its foothills and the mountain itself are popular for hiking and camping, but there are also luxury resorts and golf among other attractions that visitors can enjoy.
The Mount Kenya National Park surrounds the mountain, and consequently you’ll find the forests and scrubs of the lower slopes are rich in wildlife, including elephant and antelope. The upper slopes are snow-covered which seems somewhat incongruous when you consider the sweltering heat of the central plain from which the mountain rises.
Elsewhere in the central highlands are several wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, prime locations for spotting wildlife. The Meru National Park east of Mount Kenya was famous for being the reserve where George and Joy Adamson lived the adventures recorded in the book and film Born Free. Meanwhile the Samburu National Reserve affords a unique view of Kenyan wildlife and people. The Samburu people are a colourful, semi-nomadic tribe who embrace the wildlife into their way of life. Of special interest to the Samburu, as well as the visitor, are the resurgent herds of elephant on these dry savannahs.
A natural base for excursions around Kenya, the capital Nairobi is not only the gateway to the country’s wonders but it offers a few surprises itself. This is the nation’s cultural centre and you shouldn’t neglect to visit the National Museum at least before heading off to see Kenya’s wealth of natural beauty. This institution now houses the findings from such archaeological sites as Olduvai – the location of the oldest human remains ever discovered.
Other attractions include theatres, fine restaurants and the pleasures of shopping at the Maasai Market. Alternatively within a short hop of the city you can romp with rhino and elephant orphans at the David Sheldrick Centre, hike in the Ngong Hills (still home to roaming prides of lions), and visit the long-necked occupants of the Giraffe Centre and the Nairobi National Park.
Although not the largest nor the most famous of Kenya’s numerous national parks, Amboseli (almost directly south of Nairobi on the Tanzanian border) has a fair claim to being one of the most popular. It is mostly a gigantic dust bowl, although there are also areas of wetland, forest and the watery expanse of Lake Amboseli to explore. Nevertheless the plains that form the majority of the area are most people’s classical ideal of what an African game reserve should be.
It’s rather a paradox, as most of the animals stick to more inhabitable areas of the reserve, but you can still see small herds of antelope or buffalo and family groups of elephants sweeping across the plain. The park is also one of the few places even in Kenya where you can see the formidable black rhino, a rare treat. Across the border in Tanzania rises the bulk of Mount Kilimanjiro – the highest point on the entire continent. From the plains of Amboseli, you are treated to a sea-level view of the peak, well over 5,000m in height. The contrast is amazing, from dusty plain to snow-capped mountain.
Nestled on the sands of the Indian Ocean, Mombasa merges history with the present, and a wander through the circuitous streets of the old town takes visitors through a confluence of cultures. The Portuguese were here in centuries past, the city being a convenient toehold on the north-eastern coast of Africa. The influence of these colonial settlers is still tangible, most notably at Fort Jesus. Still guarding the coastal capital’s harbour 300 years after it was built in 1593, the walls of the former arsenal nowadays hide a museum.
Once you’ve visited this relic of the past see living history at the markets of the city. The Makupa Market is typically African, full of noise and energy and a great place to pick up traditional fabrics and artworks. Alternatively head for the floating market in a creek in the northern suburb of the city. Although Mombasa’s main docks is now a vast modern port you can still see plenty of the traditional wooden dhow vessels which have sailed these waters for years. It’s even possible to take a trip on one around the local coast – or try a moonlit evening cruise for the ultimate in stargazing.
Tsavo National Park
Kenya’s biggest national park Tsavo offers the “big five” mammals as well as some of the most stunning scenery in the country. Tsavo’s volcanic landscape forms some fantastic scenery of twisted and tortured rock. The park was always famous for its healthy elephant population, numbering in the tens of thousands. In the 1980s and 90s, like many of the parks in the country, Tsavo had major problems with poachers, who came close to wiping out the elephant and rhino populations. Nowadays, through careful policing and conservation you can once again see groups of both animals here.
The park is split into Tsavo West and Tsavo East. Of the two, most people visit the western, more developed, part of the reserve. Around, Mzima Springs, a natural water source, visitors can see crocodiles and hippos as well as the land mammals that use the pool and its river. In Tsavo East head for the Kanderi Swamp, where once again animals come for water. The Chyulu Hills rise from the plains and are a volcanic playground of craters, pillars and cooled lava flows.
The Great Migration
Nowhere in the world is there a movement of animals as immense as the wildebeest migration, over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya during July through to October.
The migration has to cross the Mara River in the Maasai Mara where crocodiles will prey on them. This is one of the highlights as the animals try and cross the Mara River alive.
In the Maasai Mara they will be hunted, stalked, and run down by the larger carnivores. The Maasai Mara also has one of the largest densities of lion in the world.
It is important to speak with your guide to discuss with him the days plan and the pacing. Ask plenty of questions as this will be a key in making your trip a success
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