The safari was born in Kenya, a land of diverse habitats and abundant wildlife. Richard Trillo explores the rich appeal of its parks and conservancies. Illustrations by Karen Laurence-Rowe
ugust 1981: We hitched a ride to the Masai Mara in the back of a pickup, and camped in our homemade tent by the Mara River. Above us, a billion stars cast an eerie light across a landscape of scurrying shadows, slow-moving megafauna and countless unseen dramas. Nervously cocooned in our sleeping bags, we held our breath (and our noses) as hyena, attracted by the smell of a hippo carcass, whooped from the bushes nearby.
It was peak migration madness time, and that afternoon we’d watched as hundreds of wildebeest struggled across the surging river, frantically jostling up the steep banks. The million-strong herd was spread on every horizon, among their number 200,000 calves born in the southern Serengeti just six months earlier — easy pickings for the predators that would kill half of them before they turned south again. The migration felt like being witness to a dramatic historical event, controlled by brutal, violent forces. It still does.
That first experience of being on safari in Kenya was addictive. In the decades since, wildlife numbers have been battered as human population pressures take their toll on habitats. Paradoxically, however, the actual wildlife experience gets better with every passing year. In part, this is due to the habituation of wildlife to humans. Following the country’s hunting ban in 1977, elusive species such as leopard are more visible. Even notoriously shy lesser kudus seem more at ease. It’s also the result of the proliferation of private wildlife conservancies over the past 20 years, focused on sustaining the environment and preserving Kenya’s rich diversity of ecosystems.
Nowhere has the impact of the conservancy movement been greater than in the Kenyan extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti. Bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve, the glorious landscapes of Mara North, Olare-Motorogi, Naboisho and Ol Kinyei have been set up as conservancies on the Maasai tribe’s land, on the principle that the communities reduce their cattle herds while benefiting from income from tourism and conservation funds.
Access is limited to visitors staying in the safari camps, whose size and number are controlled. As a result, these conservancies have some of the best animal densities in Africa — and much smaller herds of Homo sapiens touristicus.
Lion are prolific across the Mara region and it’s common to witness mating, mothering, hunting and inter-pride disputes on many game drives. There’s nothing quite like watching a lioness defending her cubs against a coalition of roaming male lions trying to kill them and take over her pride, while nervous zebras monitor the action from a safe distance, to remind you that you’re very much in the kingdom of the animals.
Throughout the Mara, the grazers and browsers are everywhere. As well as zebra, ungainly wildebeest, sleek topi bucks overseeing their harems from the top of old termite mounds, spiral-horned eland and graceful, prehistoric-looking Masai giraffe, you’ll soon learn the difference between the smaller Thomson’s and the larger Grant’s gazelles, and ask yourself why warthog families, so often seen busily grazing on their knees, always get up and flee at the approach of your vehicle, their tails erect like flags — the least habituated animal in Kenya.
Up to 2000 elephants roam the region in matriarchal herds or bachelor groups, and when you drive from the plains into the magical cover of a woodland area, it often resounds to the cracking of trees and the chewing of branches as a herd of elephant works through.
Every one of these herbivores, except usually the elephant, meets its end in the jaws of a predator. The other big cats of the Mara are those spotted hunters — the leopard and the cheetah. As human-wildlife conflict has reduced, you are increasingly likely to see leopard out and about during the day, even with cubs: most safari camps know where their nearest chui (leopard) are to be found. Cheetah have been squeezed by lion and leopard, but the Masai Mara is still one of the best places to see them: they’re largely active by day and captivating in action.
I recently watched a lone male set his sights on a pair of tiny dik-dik antelope. They only noticed him as he loped inquisitively towards them (at about 40mph), and managed to freeze in a thicket where he missed them completely.
The Mara’s wild dog population was decimated by canine distemper in the 1980s, but they’re back. For years, the best area to see them has been Laikipia, the vast tract of conservancies and ranch country north-west of Mount Kenya. Although the dogs were hit by disease in 2017, they’re on the rebound and several conservancies frequently have sightings. As with other large predators and endangered species, individuals are often fitted with radio collars, allowing researchers and visitors to follow their movements. Locating a pack using tracking equipment can be quite easy — they are utterly uninterested in humans — but keeping up with these enchanting, playful ‘painted wolves’ is another matter. If you’re looking for dogs give yourself several days in one location.
A much easier goal in Laikipia is a visit to a 200-strong troop of habituated baboons. The Walking with Baboons project is part of a long-term university behavioural study and allows you to accompany a guide right into their roosting rocks — giant granite boulders — where curious youngsters peer at their reflections in your camera lens and unconcerned adults feed and groom each other all around you.
Also in Laikipia, Kenya’s greatest conservation success story is the indigenous black rhino, whose numbers are steadily recovering. Visit any of the Ol Pejeta, Solio, Borana or Lewa conservancies and you’re almost sure to see these massive, solitary browsers.
The most exciting way to encounter black rhinos is by tracking them on foot, in northern Kenya’s Sera Conservancy. You go out with radio-tracking equipment and an experienced team of scouts and guides, driving until you pick up a signal. Then you walk silently through the thorn bush, staying downwind of the rhino to avoid giving away your scent. My guide carried a little cotton bag of wood ash, which he shook periodically to check which way the wind was blowing. Our bull rhino was magnificent, with full horns and a great hump on one shoulder from an old injury. While a rhino’s eyesight is poor, its hearing is as acute as its sense of smell: one camera click too many and this one trotted away. Then, as we followed him on a parallel path through the thorn bush, he suddenly turned and charged. What was the advice in the briefing? “Always find a bush, and the rhino will turn.” True to form, he veered off to the left almost as soon as he’d started to hurtle towards us. By then, I had definitely found a bush, and a lot of thorns.
Most of northern Kenya is outside the traditional safari circuit. The exceptions are the beautiful Samburu National Reserve, run through by the seasonal Ewaso Nyiro with its fringe of otherworldly doum palm trees, and the ravishing Meru National Park, with its lacework of streams, forest and tall grass savannah. Both are home to Kenya’s ‘northern five’: the long-necked gerenuk antelope; the strikingly patterned reticulated giraffe; the pinstriped Grevy’s zebra; the smartly coated Beisa oryx; and the blue-legged Somali ostrich.
Samburu is also one of Kenya’s most important elephant reserves, where they find water in an otherwise arid environment, even when the river runs dry, by digging in the sandy riverbed — an activity that makes the region survivable for many other species that come to the waterholes to drink.
Amboseli National Park, in southern Kenya, is the country’s elephant park par excellence. Hundreds emerge daily from the woodlands south of the park — to drink, soak and play in its permanent swamps, supplied by the meltwater from the snow on Kilimanjaro, Amboseli’s iconic backdrop. I recently watched at least 100 drift almost silently through the acacias towards us as we waited in our vehicle, then walk right past us, infants between the legs of their aunties, teenage boys mock-fighting. Among them, happily, were some wise old adults who posed in front of the mountain.
East of Amboseli, the combined Tsavo West and Tsavo East national parks are home to Kenya’s biggest population of elephant — and Tsavo East, where they are brick red from the laterite soil, has some particularly big tuskers. This was where the famous bull elephant Satao lived until killed by poachers. It’s a rewarding area to explore as you can drive for hours and meet no other vehicles.
Tsavo West has a special trump card in the shape of Mzima Springs — a chain of small lakes fed from underground by Kilimanjaro’s snow melt, and home to large numbers of hippo and crocodile. The underwater viewing chamber is looking its age, but it’s always a delight to sit down there and wait for a croc to glide by, or a hippo to appear, doing that charmingly graceful tip-toe swimming.
In the far north-west of Kenya, the immense inland sea of Lake Turkana is home to Africa’s biggest population of Nile crocodiles. Central Island, a volcanic islet with three lakes of its own, is where many of them breed. I was once there in May, as dozens of croc-lets were squeaking and wriggling through the scrub from their nests.
Everywhere in Kenya is a wildlife area, even Nairobi, whose southern boundary is fringed by the splendid slab of hilly plains and woodland that makes up Nairobi National Park. Minutes from the city centre, a female black rhino nurses her calf, lions tear into an eland kill, giraffe reach for tastier foliage, a leopard tortoise (yes, even at 1800m) stumbles gamely across the track, and a platoon of buffalo halt their march to watch your vehicle go by, lifting their heads in turn as if to say, “What are you staring at?” It’s an easy question to answer.
The birder’s guide
Kenya has more species of bird than any other country in Africa after the DRC, and between October and March the 850-odd resident species are boosted by 250 migrants from Europe and Russia. There are 13 endemic birds to tick off your list, including the Jackson’s francolin, Williams’s lark and the Kikuyu white-eye. The following itinerary covers some productive areas and exciting species:
Greater Nairobi offers 605 species, so you can start collecting sightings as soon as you arrive. Starting on the Langata Road in suburban Nairobi, near Wilson Airport, hope for a sighting of a crowned eagle – a huge forest raptor – soaring above the Ngong Road Forest Sanctuary, where a pair sometimes nests.
Head north out of the city, and one of Kenya’s rarest endemic birds, the peculiarly furtive Hinde’s babbler, can be found in the south-west foothills of Mount Kenya. If you climb higher through the mountain forest, you may spot no fewer than nine species of sunbird including the golden-winged sunbird.
Head down to the Rift Valley and any Kenyan birder will recommend freshwater Lake Baringo. This oasis is the sight of the world-record 24-hour bird count (342 species), and location of the Ruko Conservancy, a Ramsar wetlands area where guides row you through a water-bird paradise.
Kenya’s most famous birds are the millions of lesser flamingos that once flocked at Lake Nakuru. With flooding and habitat loss, finding the once iconic scene of vast pink flocks can be tricky these days, but Lake Bogoria, south of Baringo, is still pretty reliable and some smaller Rift Valley lakes can also be productive.
A classic Kenyan bird cry is the gull-like keening of the fish eagle. Freshwater Lake Naivasha still has wonderful wooded hotel grounds around its shores, where you can hear the fish eagle’s call and watch them fishing, along with hundreds of other species from lovebirds to marabou storks.
Head west to the relic rainforest of the Kakamega Forest and great blue turacos will be your reward. These handsome fruit-eaters are the stars of a canopy that is also the unique home in Kenya of the largely West and Central African blue-headed bee-eater.
Passing the water-bird rich shores of Lake Victoria, you climb through the hills of western Kenya to the fabled grasslands and riverine woodland of the Masai Mara. Ostriches, ground hornbills, kori bustards and secretary birds are all impressively present here, along with 400 other species.
Finally, down on the coast, the sprawling coastal woodland of the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve, near Watamu, is home to the Sokoke scops owl and the red-capped robin chat, the companion and guardian of the golden-rumped elephant shrew. You can witness their wonderfully evolved relationship in action among the Gedi ruins.
The country has between 17 and 21 (depending on the authority) endemic species or subspecies of mammal. The largest and most noticeable are: the two northern white rhinos in Ol Pejeta Conservancy; the hirola or Hunter’s hartebeest, in Tsavo East; the Tana River red colobus and Tana River mangabey, protected in the remote Tana River Primate National Reserve; and a number of smaller species, including the golden-rumped elephant shrew, found in the Arabuko Sokoke forest and the charmingly named Kenyacola butterfly bat of the Tana delta, and the ultimate shrew, found in the highlands.
Wildlife all year round
Kenya straddles the equator and has complicated seasonal variations. While most areas — except the far north and the dry south-east interior — receive some rain every month, in an average year most areas have several weeks of heavy rain between late March and early June (‘the long rains’) and a shorter spell of heavy rain in November and December (the ‘short rains’).
January (Dry season)
Elephant dig waterholes in the dry riverbed (Samburu). Wildebeest and many gazelle and antelope calve (until February).
February (Dry season)
Swimming with whale sharks possible in Diani.
March (Dry season)
Best diving visibility on the coast before the long rains.
April (South-east monsoon or kusi; long rains)
Palearctic migrant birds gather to fly back north. Also buffalo and zebra calving season. Crocodile eggs hatch (Central Island, Lake Turkana).
May (South-east monsoon; long rains)
Frogs breed in the ponds in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest. Wildebeest, impala and other grazers breed or rut. Kilimanjaro looks its best when heavy rain falls as snow on the summit.
June (End of the long rains)
The Taru Desert, between Tsavo West National Park and the coast, is carpeted with flowers.
July (‘Winter’ and the dry season)
Wildebeest migration arrives in the Masai Mara. Simbi Lake, near Kisumu, and Crater Lake, Naivasha, often attract thousands of lesser flamingos.
August (Dry season)
Wildebeest migration peaks (until September).
September (Dry season)
Natural bush fires flush out insects and smaller wildlife for birds of prey.
October (Dry season)
Palearctic migrant birds arrive (until March). Turtles hatch at Watamu (until November).
Amboseli swamps attract thirsty wildlife including large herds of elephant.
November (North-east monsoon wind or kaskazi; short rains)
Good swimming with dolphins off Lamu (until April). Birders gather at Ngulia Lodge, in Tsavo West, to ring Palearctic migrants.
December (End of north-east monsoon; short rains)
Mango season begins, providing excitement for primates and elephant.
Meet the artist
This article has been illustrated by Karen Laurence-Rowe. Born in Uganda, daughter to a civil engineer, her childhood was spent trailing across eastern Africa watching her father carve roads into a land teeming with game and sweeping landscapes — an Africa virtually unspoiled in the early sixties. She has lived in Africa all her life and now resides in Kenya, where the extraordinary wildlife and landscapes continue to capture her imagination. Over the past few years, her attention has increasingly turned to the conservation of wildlife and endangered species, which her work clearly reflects. Many of her paintings are donated or part-donated to conservation groups struggling to cope with poaching and the result of human encroachment into Africa’s wild spaces. Her efforts have earned her the Simon Combes Conservation Artist Award in Canada (2015), the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year (2012) and the David Shepherd Personal Choice Award in this year’s Wildlife Artist of the Year.