I came to Kenya looking for the big five: lion, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard and cape buffalo. I found them all and so much more.
Kenya is home to some of the planet’s most diverse and vibrant landscapes, from the tropical broadleaf forests along the Indian Ocean to the mountainous highlands of Mount Kenya and the sweeping grassland of the Masai Mara. These rich ecosystems host abundant wildlife, attracting nature lovers from around the globe in droves each year. Beyond Kenya’s natural treasures, visitors will discover so many cultural highlights throughout the country, such as tasty African cuisine, beautiful handcrafted beads and woodwork.
Last October, I had the pleasure of experiencing some of these incredible sights firsthand during a group tour hosted by the travel company Trips. Here are a few of the unforgettable highlights of that journey.
Upon arrival in the capital city of Nairobi on a late Sunday evening, our group was escorted from the airport to the historic, five-star Fairmont Norfolk Hotel, where we enjoyed a private welcome reception with our Trips safari director before settling in for the night.
After breakfast the next morning, we gathered for a presafari briefing and then set out to explore some of the city. Driving past rows of eucalyptus trees and quaint houses encircled by stone walls, we traveled to the outskirts of Nairobi to the trendy suburban neighborhood of Karen, named after Karen Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame.
The centerpiece of the neighborhood is the Karen Blixen Museum, a beautiful estate and farmhouse where the renowned Danish author and her Swedish husband, Baron Bror von Blixen Fincke, managed a coffee plantation for many years. Later in life, Blixen wrote a best-selling memoir about her life in Nairobi titled “Out of Africa,” which was eventually adapted into an award-winning film of the same name.
Animal lovers will appreciate a visit to the nearby Giraffe Centre. Managed by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the center was founded during the late 1970s to educate the public about the endangered Rothschild giraffe, one of three giraffe subspecies based in Kenya. Visitors can meet and hand feed some of these remarkable creatures at the center, which currently houses seven females and three males at its Nairobi location.
Next, our group stopped by the Kazuri Bead Factory. Kazuri means “small and beautiful” in Swahili. The Kazuri Bead Factory employs more than 400 single mothers and disadvantaged members of the local community, who handcraft a rare clay harvested from the foothills of Mount Kenya into stunning ceramic beadwork and pottery. Groups can tour the facility and watch the workers as they work and sing in unison.
That evening, our group concluded its first full day in the country with dinner at the iconic Carnivore Restaurant, a meat lovers’ paradise that serves a true taste of Africa with exotic meats such as crocodile, ostrich and camel.
The next morning, we departed Nairobi and embarked on a three-hour drive north through lush tea and coffee plantations. About midday, we arrived for lunch at the picturesque Aberdare Country Club, a heritage property and resort nestled atop Mweiga Hill in the Aberdare Highlands. In addition to enjoying a sweeping view of the Great Rift Valley, guests can often catch a glimpse of wildlife such as zebras, peacocks, antelopes and baboons roaming the grounds.
We continued our journey into Aberdare National Park for an overnight stay at the Ark, a one-of-a-kind “tree hotel” overlooking a floodlit watering hole and salt lick. From a distance, we could make out the vessellike outline of the hotel, fashioned after Noah’s Ark in the Bible.
The Ark offers a front-row seat to wildlife viewing at the watering hole just outside, which attracts wild elephants, rhinos, leopards, cape buffalos, hyenas and more from the surrounding national park. Guests can take advantage of numerous viewing decks throughout the facility, including an open-air observation deck, a glass-enclosed lounge and a ground-level bunker. Many members of our group stayed up late into the night to watch these animals interact in their natural habitat. At one point, a rival elephant herd showed up and faced off against the elephants already gathered around the water, leading to an animated display of trumpeting and tossing trunks. Later, a group of hyenas tried to sneak closer to the watering hole, only to be chased away by a few of the territorial elephants.
Mount Kenya Safari Club
After our unforgettable night at the Ark, our group headed another hour north to the Mount Kenya Safari Club at the foot of Mount Kenya, the country’s largest mountain and the second-largest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro.
Along the way, we stopped in the town of Nanyuki to visit the PCEA Nanyuki girls’ boarding school, a top-performing all-girls school. While there, we had the chance to tour the school grounds, learn about the education system in Kenya and watch several student choir groups perform. We also stopped by Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers next door to learn about the fine craft of spinning, dying and weaving wool products.
Soon after, we arrived at the Mount Kenya Safari Club and enjoyed several hours of downtime to rest and explore before dinner. Directly over the equator, the Mount Kenya Safari Club encompasses over 100 acres of beautifully manicured grounds, where guests will often spot a roaming peacock or a long-necked wading bird in the ponds.
The resort offers a number of guided activities throughout the day, including a high tea, a traditional song-and-dance demonstration and a mountain-biking expedition through the bush. In addition, visitors can take a turn wandering through the labyrinthine hedge maze or pay a visit to the club’s phenomenal animal orphanage.
Shaba National Reserve
The following morning, we gathered in the Mount Kenya Safari Club gardens to watch a narrated demonstration of water circulation patterns on either side of the equator, which cause the water to rotate in opposite directions. Next, we drove about two and a half hours northeast to the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge in the heart of the Shaba National Reserve just east of Samburu National Reserve. This majestic arid landscape was made famous by the best-selling nonfiction book and subsequent film adaptation “Born Free,” about the attempts of a British couple to reintroduce a rescued lioness into the wild.
The luxurious Sarova Shaba Game Lodge is an oasis getaway along the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River with towering palm trees, shaded seating areas by the water and a large swimming pool that winds through the center of the property. Travelers strolling down the stone pathways that lead to the guest houses often spot baboons and vervet monkeys lounging in the trees and grass.
After settling into our rooms and cooling off in the pool for a few hours, the group piled into four safari jeeps to embark on our first game drive of the trip through Buffalo Springs National Reserve.
No number of photos or videos can prepare visitors for the sheer abundance of wildlife that exists in Kenya’s sweeping grasslands and arid terrain. During our brief afternoon excursion across the reserve, we encountered elephants, reticulated giraffes, Grevy’s zebras, Beisa oryxes, Grant’s gazelles, impalas and gerenuks, which all seemed relatively unperturbed by our presence. At one point, a herd of several dozen zebras casually trotted around our stopped vehicle. As the day ended, we watched the sun set over the golden grasses of the savanna.
Samburu National Reserve and the Samburu Tribe
After breakfast the next day, we climbed back into the jeeps for an early-morning game drive through Buffalo Springs National Reserve and Samburu National Reserve. We came across various new animal species, including black-and-white Somali ostriches, charming little antelopes called Kirk’s dik-diks and vulturine guinea fowl birds with vivid blue stripes.
We also saw our first lion when our jeep happened upon two young lionesses in a standoff with a crocodile in the river. The drama heightened as the lionesses lost interest in the crocodile and began stalking a family of warthogs farther down the river, with one lioness taking the high ground by our jeep while the other crept along the riverbank. Just before our morning adventure came to an end, we caught sight of a young male leopard lounging amid the scrub brush, allowing us to check off another of the Big Five on our list.
For our next stop, we paid a visit to one of the local Samburu settlements. The Samburu people are a semi-nomadic tribe of Kenya that live in groups of five to 10 families and continue to uphold many of their ancient customs. Upon our arrival, the tribespeople treated us to a traditional song and dance and then took us on a tour around the mud huts, which are all built by the women using mud, animal hide and grass mats. Afterward, we had the chance to purchase some of their stunning beadwork, baskets and wood carvings.
The next morning, we bid farewell to Kenya’s northern region as we checked out of the Shaba Sarova Game Lodge and headed to a local airstrip. Our 30-passenger plane took us south over the mountainous terrain of the Great Rift Valley to the sweeping savanna of the Masai Mara near the Tanzania border. Once we landed, we were greeted at the airstrip by staff from the Fairmont Mara Safari Club bearing fresh juice and hot hand towels. On our way to the resort hotel, we spotted an enormous herd of hippos dozing on the banks of the Mara River.
Rated one of the world’s top 20 luxury resorts by Travel and Leisure magazine, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club is an upscale tented camp perched above the deep ravine of the Mara River. Each of the resort’s 50 tents includes a four-poster bed, a three-piece bathroom and a veranda overlooking the river, where guests can often spot a crocodile or a hippo. Visitors can also take advantage of an indoor restaurant, a bar and a library with internet access in the main lodge.
After lunch, we set out on an afternoon game drive through the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya’s crown jewel of wildlife viewing. Home to more than 95 species of mammals, amphibians and reptiles and over 400 species of birds, the breathtaking grasslands of the Masai Mara span more than 100,000 acres along Kenya’s southwestern border by Tanzania. It is a principal viewing area of the Great Wildebeest Migration, a spectacular natural event that occurs each year as more than 2 million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles circle the Serengeti and Masai Mara regions in search of greener pastures.
During our excursion, we enjoyed new wildlife sightings of beautiful animals like black-streaked wildebeests, striped Thompson’s gazelles and star-patterned Masai giraffes. At one point, we even spotted a small litter of baby lions tucked away beneath the underbrush as their mother stood on guard nearby.
Hot-Air-Balloon Ride and Rhino Encounter
On the final day of our incredible journey, we woke up in the early hours of the morning for a sunrise hot-air-balloon ride over the plains of the Masai Mara. As the sun cast a golden-red hue over the horizon, we could see small hunting packs of lions and herds of wildebeests running across the savanna. Later, as we made our descent onto the yellowed grass of the Mara, we startled a quartet of Masai giraffes in a run. We closed out the exhilarating experience with a delicious champagne breakfast right on the veldt.
Afterward, we set out on a late-morning game drive and came across a massive male lion, which lumbered past our trucks without a single glance in our direction. During one of our more dramatic wildlife encounters, we watched two black-backed jackals take down a baby Thompson’s gazelle while the mother frantically circled the scene.
That afternoon, our guide surprised us with a trip to the Mara Ol Chorro Conservancy to see the only two southern white rhinos in the entire region; named Kofi Annan and Queen Elizabeth, they are kept under 24/7 armed guard. Keeping our voices low and using slow movements, we were able to walk within about 15 feet of the gentle giants as they grazed. And with that memorable visit, we finally checked off the last of the big five from our list.