Where to Go and Where to Stay
The variety of destinations within Kenya and Tanzania can be overwhelming, but its easily manageable and having choices is always a good thing.
Certain parks and certain countries and activities are better at some times of the year than other. but somewhere is always good and some places are not seasonal, but always good as well. So its an easy and fun experience to put together a custom safari.
I’ve written a number of descriptions below, for a number of my favorite places in East and Southern Africa. Read through them, ponder when you would like to come to Africa, and what places might work well for you. Then let’s correspond directly, and in more detail, and get your personalized itinerary finalized.
The Seasons: Safaris in Kenya are good all year around except for April, May and November, when its raining quite hard and consistently. Some parks are still seasonal, even outside the rainy season, so read the descriptions below and then ask me any questions at all.
Kenya is really “The King” of safari destinations, and for good reason. Kenya’s weather patterns allows it to be a great safari destination virtually all year around, with the exceptions of April and May. Kenya offers the greatest wildlife experience, diversity and ease of accessibility.
A few examples for you:
- The world famous wildebeest migration pour into Kenya in late July/early August, and remains in the Maasai Mara until late October/November. Add to this the magnificent Maasai people and this, alone, makes Kenya well worth the trip.
- Northern Kenya is completely different than the open grasslands of the southwest. Instead, you’ll find a dry and sandy country of open acacia woodlands, isolated mountain ranges, and surprising rivers adding strips of green to this dry land.
This part of Kenya is far less touched, less traveled, but with our own aircraft getting there is easy. We can spend days in the wildlife parks of Samburu, Buffalo Springs, Kisima Hamsini, Kitich, and the Mathews. We’ll have to spend time with the people of this region as well; the Samburu, Rindelli, Boran, Gabra, and perhaps even go as far north as the incredible Omo Valley.
The Omo Valley is a world unto itself, and for those interested in true and unspoiled culture, this is a “must see” location. The Lower Omo Valley is completely cut off from the rest of the world, too far south to be accessible from Ethiopia and way to far north to be reached from Kenya. Even by plane it is too far away to charter there (because the charter plane has to return and then come back and collect you later). But we have our own plane and its always with us, so suddenly this amazing country is ours alone.
- Kenya has over four hundred miles of stunning Indian Ocean coastline. Most of this coastline is protected by a nearby barrier reef; making snorkeling and scuba diving readily available in the rich, clear, and warm waters.
The island of Lamu is now, justifiably, a World Heritage Site, and, again, because we have our turbine aircraft always with us, is less than two hours away. To go sailing at night in an ancient dhow, nibbling on fresh samosas and drinking mango juice while watching the stars above, as you idly drag a hand in the water to see the phosphorescence sparking off your finger tips—its just sublimely amazing.
Kenya has been involved with tourism for, literally, a hundred years. Over the decades it has developed a great variety of activities for people coming on safari.
Let me just give you a short list of possibilities to whet your appetite. In Kenya one can:
- Go on game drives forever.
- Go safely walking with wildlife for a few hours or for two weeks.
- Scuba diving and snorkeling is available up and down the whole coast of Kenya; and there are a number of National Marine Parks.
- Horseback safaris are a common activity, whether you go out for a morning’s walk, or prefer to be in the saddle for a whole safari.
- Kenya’s tribal peoples are, with no exception, friendly and incredibly welcoming. If you’d like to spend the night in a Maasai or Samburu Manyatta that can be easily arranged (even on the spur of the moment). If you would like to learn how to cook traditional foods, do beadwork, go out on Lake Victoria and handline with the local Luo fishermen, its all there waiting for you.
- Kenya is one of the world’s most well known birding destinations, with over 1,100 species of birds naturally occurring here. Whether you like it or not (at the first) you’re going to learn something about birdlife in Africa.
- Camel safaris are great fun and offer a vastly different approach to both viewing wildlife and moving through a country.
- Kenya is also a great “launch platform” from which to go and see both the mountain gorillas and the chimpanzees.
Sample itineraries coming soon!
Samburu and Meru National Reserves
Samburu and Buffalo Springs reserves are good all year around and are easily driven as the parks are semi-desert and sandy or rocky.
I use Samburu and Buffalo Springs for a number of reasons; These parks are a drastically different habitat type than the Maasai Mara or the Serengeti. This area is in the dry north of Kenya, and is open acacia woodland habitat. This country is great for a good number of specialty animals that you can’t see elsewhere, or are very hard to find elsewhere. Gerenuk, Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffe, and beisa oryx are all common here and can be impossible to find elsewhere (and don’t exist in the Mara or Serengeti, etc).
Samburu and Meru are also great places to spend hours with both elephants and the always elusive leopard.
One of the huge keys to seeing wildlife in these dry parks is that they are cut through by permanently flowing rivers. This precious water concentrates the wildlife wonderfully, thus making it readily available for us.
So, to be honest, we never have to spend hours and hours of “empty” driving to find wildlife. Its easy to find big herds of elephants, zebras and oryx. And the leopards and lions aren’t far behind.
The soil in Samburu and Meru is also wonderful soil for tracking. The fine particle nature of the reddish sand holds, in great detail and for a long time, the signs of all animals that have passed through.
I am the only guide that has permission to walk right through the middle of this park, and its well worth spending some time, even thirty minutes or so, walking, studying and learning the animal tracks. You’re guaranteed to find it fascinating.
In Samburu and Meru I really prefer to be under canvas, 5-star canvas, but still under canvas. I also, for the reasons mentioned above, definitely prefer to be right on the river.
In Samburu I use Elephant Bedroom a great deal and it has never, ever disappointed me or my guests.
In Meru Naitonal Park I either put up a private luxury camp for my guests or use Elsa’s Kopje.
Lewa Downs is 65,000 acres of amazing wildlife country and is privately owned and run. I’ve been using Lewa, on virtually a monthly basis, since l986, and still love going there. And its phenomenal all year around!
I suppose there are four main things that attract me to Lewa Downs time after time; 1) Lewa Downs is the largest rhino reserve in the world right now, with over one hundred and fifteen rhinos, of both African species.
Lewa has a tremendous diversity of habitat, from high rolling hills that reach over 7,000 feet, to large swamps and rivers, to big tracts of cedar foreset, as well as woodlands of acacias. Large natural springs dot Lewa, and are wildlife “hot spots” as well. So, all in all, this diversity of habitat naturally makes for a huge diversity of wildlife.
The “Big Five” are fairly common on Lewa (rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion), and I have, on any number of occasions, seen all five during the course of one game drive. On one spectacular afternoon we were sitting along a river edge, watching a leopard and cub being taunted by three lions, and, surrounding us, were elephants and buffalo and then four white rhinos lumbered past. We saw The Big Five TOGETHER!
The grasslands are the richest mammal habitat in Africa and Lewa is predominantly grassland. Herds of gazelle, eland, waterbuck, impala, reticulated giraffe are constantly roaming across the plains. And fully 20% of the world’s population of Grevy’s zebra are on Lewa as well. Add to that herds of elephants and all the predators and it becomes easy to see why Lewa offers such terrific wildlife viewing.
Lewa Downs is a private wildlife refuge. Because Lewa is private land we have complete freedom here, a valuable commodity in a wildlife-rich area. We are free to get out of the vehicle and examine a carcass, study a track, have a glass of wine on a hill and watch the sun go down, have breakfast on the edge of vast plain, in the shade of an umbrella acacia, walk, horseback ride, stay out till midnight, go for night game drives, stalk rhinos on foot, or just walk home from a game drive instead of staying confined in the vehicle.
Lewa is “handcrafted”. Virtually everything on Lewa is hand made. The cottages where you’ll be staying (called Wilderness Trails) are individual, unique, handmade, and different from one another. Even the furniture and carpets in the rooms are hand made right on Lewa.
The dining table is further proof of this uniqueness and attention to detail. All the vegetables on that table are grown right on Lewa, as are the meats, the cheeses, butter, milk, hot sauces, jams, bread, pastries(best cinnamon rolls in the whole world), and so forth. The South African wines are the only foreigners on the table.
The Maasai Mara
Everyone has that classic image of “Africa”, one of wide open plains cut by bands of trees along a river, a distant high rocky hill or mountain, vast herds wandering aimlessly while predators watch over it all. This is, quite accurately, what the Maasai Mara truly is.
The Mara has the space to hold all of this as its almost two thousands square miles of wildlife land. It is to the Mara that the wildebeest return each year; almost one and a half million of them come each July/August, and stay until late October or November.
Alongside the wildebeest are marching over half a million zebra and just under a quarter of a million Thomson’s gazelle. And that is only three species! That is testament to how rich this grassland is.
Herds of four or five hundred buffalo are common, and unending clusters of impala, topi, waterbuck, Maasai giraffe and elephants dot these never-ending plains.
Tanzania is a superb wildlife country, and has the greatest percentage of land, per capita, in national parks than any other African country. Tanzania is also one of the very few places on the continent that is actually ADDING acreage to the National Park system.
Tanzania is, however, far more season than is Kenya, so when you come will determine, to some extent, whether or not you want to spend much time Tanzania. But at the right time of the year Tanzania is absolutely unbeatable. Let me explain…
- The almost mythical Serengeti is every bit as good as you could possibly imagine. Getting to this park was my childhood dream, my goal. I’ve been there a million times now and come every January, February and March there is no where else in the world I would prefer to be than losing myself in the vastness of the Serengeti Plains.
This park is made up of huge woodlands, high hills, deep valleys and rivers, and, over and above all, the plains of the central and south. With its surrounding wildlife areas of Maswa, Loliondo, Ikoma, and Macao, the Serengeti covers and area of almost 14,000 square miles; making it larger than the state of Connecticut.
The wildebeest are the seasonal driving force here, though the non-migrating lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffe, elephant and buffalo certainly are major players on this stage.
The stage is full beyond all belief during the first four months of each year, for this is when the wildebeest congregate in astronomical numbers on the southeastern plains. They are here to calve out; and there will be some 300,000 calves born, all in one three week period, 96% of them born between 8:00am and 10:00am. I know this, and so do all the predators. This is why I am here every year at this time.
- Ngorongoro Crater: This crater is a World Heritage site, and is the largest intact caldera in the world. It is over 2,000 feet deep, has a perfectly flat grassland floor that covers more than 110 square miles, and supports the highest density of both lions and hyenas on the face of the earth.
The Crater Lodge, which sits right on the rim looking down into the depths, is a stunning place from which to base while exploring the concentrated wildlife of Ngorongoro Crater.>
- Tarangire, Selous, Ruaha, Katavi Plains; Farther afield lie a number of lesser well known parks, such as Katavi, Selous and Ruaha. Their very remoteness, alone, makes then worthwhile destinations of untouched beauty.
Game in these more “wilderness” parks is generally shyer than in the more heavily traveled places, but you are virtually guaranteed to have the entire wilderness to yourself because folks just can’t get to these lovely destinations. But since we have our own plane these parks are readily accessible to just us.
- Zanzibar Island: The sheer sound of the name “Zanzibar” brings up romantic images of history and splendor. Today, however, most of Zanzibar is very heavily developed and quite often crowded. The eastern and north eastern sides of the island are still beautiful and relatively untouched. The scuba diving here is phenomenal, and Zanzibar town, the fish market and Stone Town are worth some time. But I don’t think Zanzibar compares in any way to either Lamu or Pemba Islands.
- Pemba Island. Pemba, north of Zanzibar, has remained truly rural and unaffected by the massive influx of tourism that has swept over Zanzibar. The island is still farm country, lovely coves, small and stunning getaway spots, great diving and wonderful sailing as well. It is Pemba, not Zanzibar, that was and still is “the spice island”. Even today there are over 3 million clove trees here.
Flying to Zanzibar for two or three days after a wildlife safari is a great compliment to any trip.
Botswana and Zimbabwe
I have “lumped” these two countries together because they are geographically close to one another and its so easy to visit both of them when you are in this part of Africa. The two countries, and the way that you go on safari here, could not be more different.
- Botswana is seasonal, and very dependent on the waters flowing down from Angola. It is these waters that form the river that floods the Okavango Delta. This delta, without a shadow of a doubt, is why you come to Botswana. The Okavango Delta is some 15,000 square kilometers of crystal clear flowing water that winds it way down the channels and between the islands that comprise “the delta”.
The Okavango is not a swamp at all, but is a flowing delta of flawless water, water that is surrounded by desert or semi-desert, on all sides. This fresh water and abundant vegetation, encompassed by desert on all sides, explains why the delta is such amazingly rich wildlife country.
Vast herds of red lechwe, elephant, and buffalo are daily sightings here. Giraffe, eland, lion, leopard, and impala are common sites. The delta is also home to some extremely rare (critically endangered) species, such as the wild dog and brown hyena.
- Lodging and accommodation. Botswana has, wisely, taken a different approach to tourism than many countries in Africa. The country has opted to have small camps, well spaced across the vast delta and its surrounding environments, instead of having huge lodges and mass tourism.
This makes Botswana more expensive but also more “real” and unspoiled. The camps themselves are exquisite, no two alike, and every single one is stunningly located on an island, water way, or on the very edge of the unending delta.
But “the delta” is not all that Botswana has to offer. Chobe National Park, in the far northeast of the country, has the largest population of elephants in the world. It does have more tourism, yes, but is still worth a day or so to see these herds, as well as to see Sable antelope and greater kudu. The Chobe River, which forms the north border of this park, is an absolutely incredible place for birding, with flocks of bee-eaters a common sight amongst the winged chaos of the avifauna that crowds the river.
At the other end, literally and figuratively, are the “pans’ of the far south. These dry alkali lake beds, vast in size, also offer unique wildlife viewing and total solitude. One of my most memorable nights in Africa was spent miles out in such a pan, on the night of the new moon. The blackness was so complete, the stars so intense and numerous, that I felt (quite happily) like the tiniest of specks in the blue-black night. What peace!
Over all the years I’ve stayed in virtually every camp and lodge in the Okavango Delta, Chobe and “the pans” and, though I am not one for “over the top luxury”, I find them, right across the board, stunning places to stay. They are all five star, with incredible and unique food, but it is the devotion to the guest and the unspoken elegance that I find so attractive here.
Even though Kenya is my home I would rate the Botswana’s Okavango as the best honeymoon destination in all of Africa, hands down.
- Zimbabwe. Perhaps contrary to what one might think, Zimbabwe is a very safe place for visitors, and I don’t say that flippantly. You, as a tourist, have nothing to do with the politics of the country and you are treated almost as a savior that is bringing much needed business (and foreign exchange) to a country very much in need.
I come to Zimbabwe because it offers me such a great opportunity to go walking. You can spend, literally, weeks on foot in Chizarira National Park, a park of over 1,000 square miles specifically set up for walking safaris.
One can also walk in Hwange, Kazumu Depression, and even the areas right around Victoria Falls. For the right person, spending hours stalking down elephant, rhino or lion, and bumping into all the other wildlife along the way, is an experience unparalleled in today’s modern world.
Victoria Falls can certainly not be forgotten. Yes, it has become a bit more “touristy” in the last fifteen years or so, but it is still well, well worth just a day to see, hear, and feel this 1.6 kilometer wide crashing of the Zambezi River.
Ethiopia is a odd combination of wildlife and “living bible”. The wildlife is not generally plentiful here but you do have some beautiful parks that are unique within Africa.
To sit with the Gelada baboons, at 13,000 feet, on the edge of a vertical escarpment that drops off over 5,000 feet is something seriously different. Ethiopia is also home to the Mountain Nyala and the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf. Both of these rare species are actually quite easy to see, and easy to see very well.
Africa’s Great Rift Valley also cuts right through Ethiopia and the lakes in this monstrous valley are incredibly for birding and scenery, but it is really the ancient and “living” history that is so astounding about Ethiopia.
Regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs, the early Christian and pre-Christian history of this country is awe inspiring. What also makes it unique is that it is also Ethiopia’s current history. The underground churches of more than one thousand years ago are still being used daily, the methods of threshing wheat and tef have not changed in hundreds of years. And all of this, and the astounding art and culture that surrounds it, is readily accessible for you today.
On my first trip to Ethiopia I was struck dumb when I was casually handed a twenty pound solid gold cross to examine, when I could turn the pages of a hand painted bible that was over nine hundred years old!
We stopped along the road and chatted with a family that was using their oxen to thresh out their wheat. And we photographed them as they tossed this wheat into the wind to separate out the chaff. After sharing a meal with them, while we sat in the straw and the animals rested, we were on our way to the next experience of “living history”.
I know, I know. Mongolia has absolutely nothing at all to do with Africa, couldn’t be more different or father away. So what is it doing here? The simple and true answer is merely that I just love Mongolia and guide at least one horseback safari a year in this “over the edge and off the map” location.
During my years of high school and university I practiced falconry and the Mongolians, not the Europeans, were the original falconers.
Genghis Khan, or Chinngis Khan, as the Mongolians say, ruled more of the world than any human ever has or ever will. His armies, lightening fast and ruthless, roamed the earth from Java to Hungary. It was Genghis Khan who came up with the idea of a Pony Express, Diplomatic Immunity and religious freedom for all. He was perhaps brutal, but not at all like we are lead to believe. He was fair, honest, straightforward, took great care of his own, and was unstoppable in his conquests. Very much my kind of guy!
Not surprisingly at all, Mongolia was a destination that always held me spellbound. Years ago I started going there, but not to the Gobi Desert or to the (slightly) traveled areas around Ulaan Baatar (the capital). I wanted to be in the most remote part of Mongolia, even by Mongolian standards. It took me over a year to find a local company that was willing to outfit me for where I wanted to go, but we did it. Certainly we got lost, and even the local horsemen that we used didn’t know the routes or where I wanted to go, but its be pure heaven ever since.
Now, yearly, I lead horseback safaris on Mongolia’s far western border, where the country butts up against Russia, China and Kazakhstan. Its is a achingly beautiful part of the world, remote beyond all expectation, and so beautiful with its endless mountains, flowers, rivers and lakes that I am there at every chance I get.
Last year, for the first time, I was able to lead a group in another, equally beautiful, part of Mongolia. The Zhavkhan area, always a holy and sacred to the Mongolians, has just been opened up to westerners. Zhavkhan has also been made a national park, and I led a group in there last year (2010) for the first time. We only got lost once, and then only for an afternoon. I’ve since slightly modified this pioneering route and can’t wait to get back there soon.
To ride a stunning little horse (we’ve never, ever, not even once, had a Mongolian horse buck, bite, kick, or stumble; ever) through miles of flowers, over high mountain passes, past glaciers and ice fields is like no other experience. Imagine the beauty, simplicity and deep peace you’ll feel when you wake at dawn, look out of your tent over the lush green meadow spattered with waist-deep flowers, and see your horses peacefully grazing. You saddle is over by the camp fire, which is already going. You amble over, half dressed and barefoot, nod good morning, take a hot mug of offered coffee, and walk off a few hundreds yards to sit on a tamarac log and drink in both the coffee and your Mongolian morning.
This is the “trip of a lifetime” for the right sort of person. Look at a map of all of Asia, and put a pin almost dead center in that map. That is where we go on safari in Mongolia!