Essential Tips for Your First African Safari

Kenya has some of the best-preserved wildlife and to see it with your own eyes is a dream come true. As I drove in a rustic jeep through the vast expanse of the Masai Mara watching, herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and prides of lions walk past me, it feels nothing short of being in a National Geographic documentary itself.

If you are planning a visit to see the African wildlife, here are a few things to know beforehand.

When To Go?

June through October are the peak seasons to visit Kenya as rainfall is minimal and temperatures are cooler. While wildlife viewing is great throughout the year, you’ll see the most animals during the great migration, an annual event where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest cross the borders between Tanzania and Kenya in search of water and food.

Where to go?

If it’s your first game drive experience in Kenya, allot at least 7-10 days. International flights arrive in the capital city of Nairobi where you want to relax for a day or two after the long journey. In Nairobi, take the opportunity to learn how baby elephants are rescued at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage and kiss a giraffe at the world-famous Giraffe Center.

Head on to Naivasha, where you can see hippos from your luxury camp. This freshwater lake is also a good place to birdwatch. Walk among zebras, giraffes, and gazelles at the Crescent Island Game Park.

The Masai Mara is a 583 square-mile vast game reserve where you can spot the “Big 5” – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffaloes. Around the Mara, you can interact with the local Masai people. They often sell handmade crafts and jewelry, perform traditional dances and offer tours of their villages.

See thousands of flamingos, rhinos and more animals at Lake Nakuru National Park, then head west to President Barack Obama’s ancestral hometown, Nyang’oma Kogelo Village.

Where To Stay?

There are only all-inclusive tented camp hotels (known as camps) located near game reserves ranging in luxury and price. Most of them are nicely decorated with hardwood floors, comfortable bedding and en-suite bathrooms with hot showers. There is generally no air conditioner or heater, and electricity is restricted to few hours in the night. Stay at Sekenani Camp if you want a romantic bathtub inside the tented room or follow the footsteps of the Obamas at Basecamp Masai Mara, where they stayed during a family vacation.

What To Pack?

On a safari trip, it is best to pack light as you will be moving around in a jeep and staying at camps. Since you will spend a lot of time in the car, dress in comfortable camouflage and neutral color clothing that doesn’t attract the attention of animals and blends with surroundings. Layers are great to have as it can get chilly in the mornings and evenings. There are no stores in the reserve, so pack lots of insect repellant and sunscreen along with plenty of spare batteries and memory cards for the unforgettable panoramas you will take.

Who To Go With?

A reputable tour operator and a knowledgeable safari guide can make or break your wildlife viewing experience. My driver/ guide, Danson Kahuria with The Village Experience is a native to Lake Nakuru. He grew up close to animals and knew where to spot them. He could predict their next move and would take us to the best spots to get close-ups. In a matter of few hours, I saw thousands of lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and more.

Kenya is perhaps the best starting point for an African wilderness getaway because everyone speaks English, the infrastructure is well developed and it is quite safe outside the cities. A visa can be obtained electronically through a simple process and there are no vaccinations required (advisable to check with CDC).

Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal/Go Eat Give

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Sucheta is an award-winning food and travel writer who has traveled to 70+ countries and is on a mission to see the entire world. She is also the founder of the nonprofit organization, Go Eat Give and the author of a series of children's books on travel, "Beato Goes To" that teach kids about different countries and cultures. To learn more, visit suchetarawal.com.