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1st Time Kenya Safari, 7-8 days where would you go?

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Hi all,

We're planning our first trip to Kenya this summer in July / August. We have been on safari once before spending 5 days doing a self-drive in Kruger a few years back. We plan to now try something a bit different and visit Kenya.

We've done loads of hunting on the internet but thought be best to get some feedback for people who've actually been there. We know we want to spend at least a few days in Masai Mara to see the migration but the question is - if you were us how would you split this time and what parks / reserves would you visit and why?

Some info:
1) fly in and out of Nairobi
2) do a self drive (well with a guide)
3) not spend too much time if possible driving between parks
4) are more into mammals / land animals than birds, they interest us but not so much :)
5) we're on a medium budget - can do luxury tents or lodges but rule out expensive high-end resort type reserves
6) there is 2 of us (husband + wife) in our 30s


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    If the question were "what HAVE you visited and why with" a time frame of about a week and during the months that you are traveling, I can answer, "I remained in the Maasai Mara for the entire time." It made for an outstanding trip, minimizing transportation time and maximizing wildlife viewing.

    However, that was not my first trip to Kenya, as it is yours.

    1) fly in and out of Nairobi
    Typical. There are unique things in NBO if you wanted to devote a day to them. Many people do on a first trip. I did on my first.

    -Karen Blixen Museum
    -National Museum
    -Giraffe Manor (hotel, expensive) or Giraffe Center (visit for an hour or less, not as expensive) where you feed giraffes by hand
    -Sheldrick Ele Orphanage--group viewing of eles bathing midday or private viewing with all the other private "adoptive" parents in late afternoon.
    -Mzuri bead factory, better than just the name suggests
    -Nairobi National Park, the only national park in a city. Cool to see wild in the foreground animals (even rhino) with a backdrop of the city in the background

    If you want to get straight to safari, then skip NBO.

    2) do a self drive (well with a guide)
    So a private vehicle. Easy to arrange and also typical for a couple.

    3) not spend too much time if possible driving between parks
    The Mara only suggestion fits well with this goal. But it is understandable you want to see more than one park. You can spend NO TIME driving between parks and instead fly.

    Here's some suggestions:

    Option A, flying
    1 overnight NBO upon arrival
    2 Day in NBO*
    3 fly (under an hour) to Samburu and o/nt one of the many lodges or camps using the resident guide, requesting private vehicle
    4 Samburu
    5 Fly Samburu - Mara (under 2 hours) and o/nt one of the many lodges or camps using the resident guide, requesting private vehicle
    6-7 Mara
    8 fly back to Wilson (under 90 min) in time for your international flight out

    Option B All driving
    1 overnight NBO upon arrival
    2 Day in NBO*
    3 Drive about 6 hours to Samburu and o/nt one of the many lodges or camps, transport in your private vehicle
    4 Samburu
    5 Drive about 6 hours Samburu to Nakuru and o/nt one of the several lodges or camps, transport in your private vehicle
    6 Drive about 6 hours Nakuru to Mara and o/nt one the many lodges or camps, transport in your private vehicle
    7 Mara
    8 Drive between 5-6 hours, depending on where you are in the Mara, back to NBO in time for your international flight

    *Instead of a day in NBO, cut one day off your trip to spend 7 nights in Africa; or spend 3 nts Samburu which is really worth it the time of year you are going; or add yet another night in the Mara, again really worth it during Aug, especially if you plan to hang out for a day or two at the Mara River in hopes of seeing a crossing.

    4) are more into mammals / land animals than birds, they interest us but not so much
    Mara is Kenya's #1 destination for wildlife (especially mammals) and in Aug, the wilde/zebra migration is there. Samburu is Kenya's #2 destination for wildlife and has unique mammal species not found in Mara or other more southern Kenyan parks. Those Samburu 5 are: Grevy's Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Somali Ostrich, Beisa Oryx, and the fascinating Gerenuk that browse on their hind legs. It is reasonable that you would see all 5 in two to three days, moreso in three days.

    If you opt for driving and the 6 hour drive to Samburu is too much, you can drive to some place in Mt. Kenya or Laikipia and chop off about 2 hours, making it a 4 hour drive. That also chops off about 2 hours when heading to Nakuru.

    Why add in Nakuru? Can't drive Samburu to Mara in one day, or even Laikipia to Mara in one day. Must stop off and Nakuru is best place to stop. In addition to the flocks of flamingos on Lake Nakuru (you're not big birders), Nakuru is a good place to see rhino. Better odds than Mara. It also has a different kind of giraffe (Rothschild's), lions, waterbuck, etc.

    5) we're on a medium budget - can do luxury tents or lodges but rule out expensive high-end resort type reserves
    Great, Aug is high season for both land and your international air. Appears your budget can handle it.

    Without this qualification, I might have suggested

    Option C, flying
    1 overnight NBO upon arrival
    2 Day in NBO*
    3 fly (under an hour) to Lewa Downs or one of the other private concessions in Laikipia and o/nt. A private guide would be really expensive here. Group drives more typical.
    4 Lewa Downs, or similar
    5 Fly from Lewa Downs strip or Nanyuki airstrip - Mara (under 2 hours) and o/nt one of the many lodges or camps using the resident guide, requesting private vehicle
    6-7 Mara
    8 fly back to Wilson (under 90 minutes) in time for your international flight out

    Still think you should check out the cost of this option if it is at all appealing. The info can't hurt.

    *Instead of a day in NBO, cut one day off your trip to spend 7 nights in Africa; or spend 3 nts Lewa Downs which is really worth it the time of year you are going and because there are interesting activities like walks, watching wildlife at a waterhole from a hide/blind, camel safaris, horseback riding which I did not do, authentic cultural visits; or add yet another night in the Mara, again really worth it during Aug, especially if you plan to hang out for a day or two at the Mara River in hopes of seeing a crossing.

    Lewa or surrounding camps are best place for rhino (better than Nakuru) and they have those species mentioned in Samburu, though I have not personally seen gerenuk there.

    6) there is 2 of us (husband + wife) in our 30s
    Hopefully many more safaris ahead for you.

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    For a truly spectacular 5 star safari experience in Kenya, without staying at private conservancies, but rather at National Reserves, I would suggest the following itinerary - for the following reasons:

    1 night in Giraffe Manor in Nairobi:
    Most unusual and beloved hotel with giraffes roaming the grounds and poking their necks into the breakfast room. You get to be 'kissed' by a giraffe if you offer them a bite!

    3 nights in Samburu National Reserve:
    Fly from Wilson airport (Nairobi)and spend three nights at Joy's tented Camp. You will experience Samburu's unique and specific 'northern species' such as reticulated giraffe, beisa Oryx, Grevy's zebra and the graceful log-necked geranuk. In addition you can do guided bush walks, cutural visit to a nomadic Boran settlement, trips to Magador crator singing wells - again all specific experiences associated only with Samburu. Fly to Maasai Mara.

    3 nights in Maasai Mara: at Little Governor's Camp, home to Big 5, cheetah, zebra, giraffe, impalas, gazelles and be in the middle of the Migration. If the funds allow: do the balloon safari, it is a once-in-a-lifetime exprience on safari.

    Fly to Wilson in Nairobi and transfer for your international fight.

    This would be a memorable experience in the short time that you have - you will have experienced most of what Kenya is known for.

    Happy Planning - Cheers!!

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    Atravelynn has some good ideas (one small correction... it's the "Kazuri" bead factory, not "Mzuri"). As Atravelynn notes, you could cut out the full day 2 in Nairobi and add an extra safari day. When you fly back to Nairobi from the Mara, you'll most likely have the afternoon free, as most flights depart NBO in the evening. You could use that afternoon to visit the Giraffe Centre, Kazuri Bead Factory, Utamaduni Crafts Centre and/or the Karen Blixen home.

    One alternative to those itineraries would be Meru NP, instead of Samburu. You'll see some of the same northern subspecies there that you would in Samburu. I'd suggest looking into the specials that Offbeat Safaris is offering at their Offbeat Meru and Offbeat Mara camps (Pay 2, Stay 3 or Pay 5, Stay 6.) I stayed at both camps in July 2012 and thought they were great... well located and excellent guides and camp managers.

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    I might add, there are other companies with camps in both Samburu and the Mara, such as Saruni. They might have deals, as well. Many of these companies do offer a discount when booking multiple locations at their camps.

    You mentioned "self drive" in your original post... wouldn't try that in Kenya or in their national parks. It's nothing like South Africa and Kruger.

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    Your suggestion and my Option A are just about one in the same.

    Do you have the timeline of a trip to the singing wells from Joy's? I thought that to do a visit, you needed to stay in the Matthews Range. Also I was under the impression that Jan-Feb is a better time to visit. Any more info you have on the singing wells with respect to these questions or other info. is much appreciated. Something I'm very interested in.

    ShayTay Thanks for the Kazuri Korrection. I think the self drive comment was meant as a private trip since a guide was mentioned. But a clarification is important.

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    Just a correction, Joys Camp is in Shaba National Reserve, not Samburu and is on the high end of the scale, price wise. Shaba itself is a beautiful reserve, one of the most stunning landscapes in Kenya IMO and has similar species to Samburu.

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    I would highly recommend visiting Masai Mara, Nakuru and Samburu. You can FLY from Nairobi- Samburu- Nairobi, DRIVE from Nairobi - Nakuru then drive back to Nairobi and board Masai Mara bound flight and finally return to Nairobi by air. We stayed at the Ashnil Mara camp and Ashnil Samburu camp, they are luxurious camps with the one in Mara located along the lake. Both parks were amazing, each unique in its own way.

    In Nakuru we stayed at the Nakuru lodge, not very luxurious but comfortable.

    I advise against self drive, i dont know what we would have done without our driver Daniel.

    All the best in your planning.

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    Getting to Samburu from Shaba is a short drive, so it's possible to have a look at both places. The copper cliffs (Shaba means copper) are spectacular in Shaba but wildlife much more scarce than Samburu/Buffalo Springs.

    Patty is right about Joy's being costly. But there are other Shaba options, such as Shaba Sarova, which is lovely.

    But...are the singing wells somehow easier to visit from Shaba? Most interested in info from anyone on that daytrip or overnight excursion.

    PLEASE DON'T GO TO ASHNIL. SOMAK BUILT THE ASHNIL LODGE IN SENSITIVE RHINO HABITAT IN THE MAASAI MARA THAT THREATENS REPRODUCTION OF THIS ENDANGERED SPECIES. The only way to fight against such destructive, greedy practices is for visitors to refuse to patronize places like ASHNIL.

    Even Jonathan Scott of the Big Cat Diary is upset with Somak's reckless decision to decimate crucial habitat for yet another lodge in the Mara.

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    If you stay at Sarova Shaba which is fairly close to the reserve gate, it would be easy to visit Samburu. Joy's Camp would be more of a trek as it's about an hour from the reserve gate but still possible (you may want to make it known in advance that you want to visit Samburu). I'm not sure how far the singing wells are. I was also under the impression that they were easier to visit from Matthews Range.

    My understanding is that there's a great variance in game concentration between wet and dry seasons in both Shaba and Meru. That said, even when they're present in larger numbers, they're still more skittish than game in Samburu/Buffalo Springs as Shaba and Meru receive far less visitors. Game was plenty in Samburu/Buffalo Springs in the wet. The one very noticeable difference was that the elephants moved to higher ground. July/August is typically dry.

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    Hi atravelynn, Thank you for the useful peace of info. Ashnil was so highly recommended online that I insisted we stay there, despite the 5* service and the luxurious tents I don't think I will recommend it to anyone else. The Rhino is one of the endangered species and destroying its habitat is the worst thing you can do to conserving wildlife. I will definitely use another group of hotels when I visit Kenya.

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    I have done many safaris in Kenya and I suggest you think about staying in the Maasia Mara - you could mix and match different camps. Fly into Nairobi and go stright to Wilson for a flight out to the Maara. I leave London on a Friday night and I am watching lions on Saturday morning.

    Unless you are really keen to travel around different parks I would really recommend you stay with the Maassai Mara. The predator action is tremendous at this time of the year.

    In Kenya I would strongly recommend Gamewatchers. They have their own camps on conservancies but can also book you into lodges and other camps. The conservancy concept is explained at

    In essence,vast tracts of land are leased from the Maassai who agree to graze their livestock elsewhere. The local communities are closely involved with the camps and gain additional revenue from working there as guides, camp support etc.

    Some of the key benefit for the tourists are:

    1. excellent wildlife viewing with the ability to get close to the game - real off roading in 4x4's and not mini busses and amazing wildlife. On our trip last year we saw huge herds of elephants (>80) and other herbivores, hyenas making a kill, cheetahs making a kill, lions on a kill, leopards (3)
    2. no mini bus circus with lots of vehicles crowding the animals - the area is exclusive to the camps in the conservancy and number are managed closely. This is really important in July/August as the main park can be really overcrowded in the high season
    3. options to have night drives, game walks and all day drives. this is greta in July / august as the are will be teeming.

    The main Porini camps are great and intimate and good value for what they provide. Most of the packages are all inclusive. You could try Porini Mara and / or Porini Lion - the area will be teeming with game and you can easily drive down to the river crossing points.

    If you wanted you could mix a tended camp with something like the Mara Serena which is in the Mara triangle and very close to the crossing points - personally I prefer to be on the North side of the river at that time of the year as the herds are crossing towards you.

    A much cheaper option in the same conservancies are their adventure camping options. See

    These are stand up height dome tents with attached flushing toilets and hot water camp showers. All the tents are out in the bush in a maassai type kraal. You can hire sleeping bags and towels but best to take your own. Bottled water is free but alcohol is charged for or bring your own.

    The photo gallery shows you the lay out and you will see that it is more basic than the main camps but the game drives and the wildlife are the same.

    Unless you really have to I would stay away from the mass market lodges. You could mix and match, but with the lodges you tend to miss out on the three key benefits noted above.

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    Further to my last post - If you are ready to spend a little more you could try Alex Walker's Serian for a couple of days

    He runs a great camp in the Maara North Conservancy but at this time of the year I would recommend his camp on the Maara River itself - I was there a couple of years ago and could see the wildebeest massing for crossings from my tent See

    I would recommend splitting the time between the Porini camp that I mentioned in my last post and a stay on the river if you can get a booking

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    Peshf -
    Interesting that you only joined today to tout two specific outfitters. While both are well established and responsible, soliciting as such is not permitted on Fodor's.

    Likewise, even the Gamewatcher's Camps do not come cheap, it maybe a few $$$ less than the Serian/Walker camps.

    And, when it comes to Alex Walkers camps - Main Serian or mobile - believe not within the OPs budget.

    Also, for a first safari and even if OP doesn't wish to visit too many areas or long transfers, just staying in the Mara can be a bit much, when there are so many other interesting places to visit. The Gamewatcher's Camps can provide this, but again these don't come cheap and each camp is much the same as the others... having choices often is nicer.

    But nothing realy comes cheap during July/August as it's peak season.

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    I am not "touting" any camps. These are my recommendations and it is disingenuous and rude to imply that I am soliciting any more than you or anyone else does when making a recommendation.

    These two are my favourites - I have no economic connection with either of them apart from being a regular visitor. I have stayed in many camps and lodges in and around the Mara. Ranging from self drive self camp to some of the more high end camps. There are of course many other options and many cheaper ones but the original post said "can do luxury tents or lodges" and I believe both fit in with this.

    I am also a committed conservationist who worked with WWF and now works with many conservation and development NGOs and I much prefer conservancies than the main national parks for the reason I have highlighted in my previous post. July/August is peak tourist season and the joys of being in areas with restricted access are well worth considering.

    In addition, the local communities share in the benefits of eco tourism. this to me is a big plus.

    In my opinion at this time of the year for a first timer wanting to max out the wildlife experience the Mara is the best option. Not a "bit much" as each day is a different experience.

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    Peshf -

    Do accept my apology if I got this wrong, but when a thread pops up from someone new and just that day joined and names specific outfitters, first thought is 'tout.' Sadly, this happens often on Fodor's and other sites as TA.

    And, then when the OP specifically requested mid-priced properties and you name two of those that are not, have to wonder 'did the person replying read the details.'

    As to 'a bit much' - while I could nowadays spend weeks in the Mara only, this is after years of safari. If this was my first safari, the Mara only would have been most disappointing when then thinking I'd never return. And, this is how most first-timers approach safari 'trip of a lifetime' though we've seen that many are already considering a return visit on their homeward flight.

    Kenya has a wealth of amazing areas, so there's no reason for the first-timers not to visit more than the Mara even during 'peak-season' where as of this date there are few properties that have consecutive days available for when OP plans to travel.

    Hopefully the OP read the above comments/suggestions offered from Lynn, Sharon, Natalie and Patty and has already made contact with a few Tour operators/outfitters and their planning is underway.

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    Thanks for your response - your apology is accepted - you certainly did get it wrong - just because someone is new to a forum and recommends their favourite camps for good reasons should not mean that they are touting.

    I really believe that at the time of the migration the Mara does offer the best game viewing. I also believe that rushing between 3 camps all over Kenya in a week detracts from the real bush experience.

    I know that many do it and that many tour operators recommend it and that's what I did on my first safari (have done over 20 since then) and with the benefit of hindsight I believe that to really enjoy a location and to have the maximum game viewing opportunity one needs at least three nights at one place.

    As to "did the person replying really read the details". I did - and focused on the fact that G did not want to spend much time between parks and said "can do luxury tents or lodges".

    All three of my recommendations (Porini, Serian Nkrombo on the Mara river and Serena) fit that requirement well. G has been on safari before and has done the self drive option. That must have entailed moving around quite a bit - this is an option for an alternative experience that focuses on spectacular game viewing rather than other things to do and see.

    "Medium budget" is subjective and means different things to different people. These are not the cheapest options nor are they the most expensive. Also, the Porini Adventure Camp option that I mentioned is great value, all inclusive in a conservancy. Same game viewing and opportunity for night drives and walking at a lower cost than the main Porini Camps.

    If I really wanted to max out on great game viewing with the highest density of mammals (something that was mentioned in the original post) then I would move between a couple of locations in the Mara. This provides the variety and different experiences without the travel down time and incurring the cost of flying between reserves. The transfers between camps are just another great game drive!

    I am not that partial to lodges but the Serena is in a great location to be able to quickly drive down to one of the main crossing points if a crossing looks likely (you can see the wildebeest massing from the lodge).

    I tend to take off at short notice and often go on safari several times a year and I have never had a problem with finding accommodation. I daren't say that I use Gamewatchers lest I am accused of touting!

    Horses for courses - different folk have different opinions but this is what I have recommended to others and no one as been disappointed.

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