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THE INS AND OUTS OF KENYA SAFARIS:
EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW
BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
by Ted Cookson
Published in September 2006
Male lion at Samburu National Park, Kenya, 36-second video clip
Elephant eating at Samburu National Park, Kenya, 50-second video clip
4-wheel-drive vehicle fording a stream at Kenya's Samburu Park, 44-second video clip
Kenya is far and away the most popular safari destination
from Cairo. Many expatriates in Egypt opt to capitalize on their close
proximity to East Africa by taking a safari and/or a beach holiday there.
GETTING THERE: The best airfare to Nairobi is obtained by flying the same airline round trip. Egypt Air flies nonstop to Nairobi three or four times a week, while Kenya Airways operates daily flights to Nairobi weekly via Khartoum where there is usually a 45-minute stop in transit. (Disembarkation at Khartoum is allowed only for those passengers ending their journey there.) Both airlines offer overnight southbound flights from Cairo to Nairobi. While Egypt Air's nonstop flights would at first glance appear to be more convenient, Kenya Airways offers three big advantages. On most days Kenya Airways provides an early evening northbound return flight while Egypt Air departs Nairobi in the morning. Thus Kenya Airways passengers avoid the expense of a final hotel night in Nairobi. In addition, Kenya Airways passengers don't have to suffer the inconvenience of rising early on the final morning in order to depart from their hotel in downtown Nairobi at 2:45 a.m. to drive to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for an Egypt Air return flight to Cairo departing at about 5:00 a.m. Finally, because Egypt Air does not fly to any destination in Kenya other than Nairobi, Kenya Airways offers the cheapest airfare to Mombasa and elsewhere on the Kenya coast (and, for that matter, to Zanzibar for anyone wishing to combine a safari with a visit to that lovely and unique spice island).
THE SAFARI: A Kenya safari holiday is normally six nights or longer in duration and includes a visit to at least two game reserves and a lake resort in the Great Rift Valley. Other options include a visit to one of the tree hotels near Mt. Kenya, an overnight in Nairobi and/or a visit to Mombasa, Malindi or Lamu on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast. In addition, of course, a visit to Kenya may be combined easily with a beach holiday in the Seychelles or with a visit to another African destination served by Kenya Airways (Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, etc.)
Both lodge accommodation and luxury tents are available in Kenya. Luxury tented accommodation, which costs no less than staying in a lodge, features all of the facilities of a regular hotel room, including furniture, shower and flush toilet. A much less expensive option is a basic tented group camping safari. While the animals are the same no matter where one sleeps, anyone who elects to combine two of the shorter group camping safaris (rather than taking one longer group camping safari) will need to spend an extra hotel night in Nairobi in order to connect.
Whether one stays in lodges or tents, the normal safari routine generally includes three game drives in each game reserve. Morning game drives are taken after an early breakfast, and afternoon game drives are taken around 4 p.m. The drives typically last anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on one's mood and one's luck. The animals tend to be active, drinking and feeding, in the morning and late afternoon. In the middle of the day, while the animals are asleep, visitors relax or take a dip in the pool.
THE GAME RESERVES: Masai Mara is considered to be Kenya's premier game reserve. A rolling grassland beautiful to behold, the Mara plays host to the great migration every summer when millions of animals, chief among them wildebeeste, migrate north across Tanzania's Serengeti plain into Kenya's Masai Mara. There is still game aplenty after the animals have returned to the Serengeti by early autumn. A visit to Masai Mara is usually combined with a visit to either Amboseli Game Reserve or Samburu Game Reserve.
Amboseli is situated in what was a dry lake bed until the El Nino/La Nina phenomena of the 1990s. The wildlife inhabiting this reserve seeks sustenance near several small streams which run through it. The primary attraction of Amboseli is its proximity to 19,340-foot (6,447-meter) Mt. Kilimanjaro which lies just across the border in Tanzania. With luck, visitors are able to photograph game animals with the mountain as a backdrop. The long rainy season stretches from mid-March until mid-June while the short rains occur from mid-November until early December. The sun normally reappears right after each short downpour.
Samburu, on the other hand, is somewhat drier than Masai Mara although it too is rich in game. In fact, Samburu boasts some species of animals seldom seen outside Kenya's North. These include the gerenuk (a long-necked gazelle which feeds while standing up on its hind legs), the reticulated giraffe and Grevy's zebra with its thin stripes. The primary attraction of Samburu for many, however, is leopard. In Samburu several of the lodges bait leopard in the evening; so, with luck, visitors can watch the nighttime predator come to feast on scraps of meat under floodlights.
A Kenya safari also includes a visit to one of the lake resorts in the Great Rift Valley since it is too far to drive comfortably between any two of the three game reserves in a single day. Lake Nakuru, for instance, is famous for its flamingos and pelicans. A rhino sanctuary has also been established there. Nowadays this may be the only opportunity for tourists to view rhino in Kenya.
OTHER OPTIONS IN KENYA: So called because they are in essence hotels on stilts, the three tree hotels - The Ark, Mountain Lodge and Treetops - all offer the opportunity to view mountain, forest and nighttime animals as opposed to the plains game seen in the large open parks. The tree hotels are all situated in forests in the vicinity of Mt. Kenya north of Nairobi, and the game viewing routine is the same at them all. Visitors arrive for lunch, perhaps rest briefly in the afternoon, and then before and after dinner until well into the night feast their eyes on the sights and sounds of the various species as they come to drink from the water hole in front of the lodge. Viewing is done from one's bedroom, open balconies, glassed rooms or from an underground blind. It is necessary to bring along warm clothing for a stay at a tree hotel as well as high speed film in order to photograph at night under the floodlights. If one hasn't seen all of the species by bedtime, he can notify the game spotter who will buzz one's room if that leopard does turn up at 3 a.m.! To minimize noise, children less than about seven years of age are not allowed at the tree hotels.
Nairobi, with a population of about two million, offers some excellent shopping. Tourists will find distinctive wood carvings and woven purse baskets for sale at rest stops along the highways in Kenya. Similar items can be found at gift shops at the lodges in the parks, but they will be more expensive there. If one doesn't see what one wants in the bush, it is likely to be found in Nairobi. There one can buy everything from a safari suit to camera lenses. One should be cautioned, however, that Nairobi continues to have a street crime problem. Daytime incidents consist mainly of purse snatching, and it is not advisable to walk any great distance on Nairobi's streets at night. If one elects to overnight in Nairobi, he should consider taking a taxi when going out to eat at one of the city's excellent Indian, seafood or other fine restaurants.
Resort hotels stretch along Kenya's coast both north and south of the island of Mombasa. Diani Beach, Mombasa's best, is a magnificent five-mile stretch of white sand on Mombasa's South Coast. Malindi, further to the north, is a much smaller resort. Lamu, a coastal island far to the north, is a unique destination reminiscent of Zanzibar. Kenya resorts offer the full range of facilities for water sports and diving.
WHEN TO GO: The absolute best time to visit Kenya is July-September when the migration is at its peak in Masai Mara. But the game is generally excellent in Kenya even if one cannot travel when the migration is on. Travelers from Egypt tend to visit Kenya from Christmas through March, typically during school holidays.
The other major consideration is climate. Game is easiest to spot during the dry seasons as then the animals can only find water in certain places. The long rainy season stretches from late March until early June while the short rains occur from mid-November until early December. Rain usually occurs in short downpours after which the sun reappears.
Contrarian travelers may benefit by traveling in the long rainy season. During these months there are fewer tourists and less dust. In addition, from April through June lodging rates are usually discounted up to 15%. During the rainy seasons one would expect to encounter all of the animal species but perhaps lesser numbers of each.
Sitting astride the equator which passes north of Nairobi, the temperature in Kenya does not change much over the course of the year. Rather, temperature is a function of altitude. For instance, because Nairobi and Masai Mara are a mile high, they offer a combination of warm days (when short sleeves and short pants are appropriate) and cool nights (when a sweater or a light jacket is appropriate).
Nairobi's average high temperature varies between 81 F./27 C. (March) and 73 F./23 C. (July-August). Nairobi's average low temperature varies between 55 F./13 C. (January-February) and 59 F./15 C. (April-May). Average rainfall in Nairobi varies from 1 inch/3 cm (July-September) to 8 inches/20 cm (April).
VISAS AND HEALTH REQUIREMENTS: Citizens of the U. K., the U. S., Canada, Egypt and most other countries require tourist visas to visit Kenya. It is recommended that tourists to Kenya be up-to-date in their yellow fever vaccination. In addition, a prophylactic for malaria should be commenced at least one week prior to arrival in Kenya and should be continued for four weeks after returning. The web site of the U. S. Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov, is an excellent resource regarding health requirements for all international travel.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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