This is the classic safari region in Kenya, the type of landscape you picture when you close your eyes and think of the African countryside. Vast savannas, tall grass, and the flat colors of green, beige, and yellow stretch out 583 square miles as far as the eye can see, and the area is absolutely loaded with all types of African game.
One of the biggest reasons why the Mara is so great for game viewing is that it's relatively flat with little tree coverage, and the sprawling landscape allows guides to spot animal activity from a great distance. Once an animal is located, the fact that vehicles are permitted to drive off road allows for up close and personal encounters. And when I say close, I mean close. I’m talking 10-20 yards from a pride of lions, as pictured above.
It is this type of intimate interaction along with the encompassing range of game that makes the Mara the place to safari in Kenya. There's simply no substitution for it, and regardless of where else you go during your visit, you absolutely must spend at least two or three days here to take it all in. If you're wondering when you should go, we break it down for you here.
The lesser-visited Laikipia region is known for its rolling hills and dry, desert terrain. The hillsides are more densely covered than in the Mara, the majority of the vegetation being the acacia tree, a favorite food of the elephants in the area. The hilly terrain means no lions, cheetahs, ostriches, or any other big animal that relies on speed for survival, but there’s still plenty of exciting game to spot, including elephants, zebras, gazelles, leopards, and impalas. You can off road here as well, but keep in mind the bush is much thicker, which blocks your view and your vehicle at times. The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular with the hills, trees, and Mount Kenya as backdrops against the sky.
Something the Laikipia region has that the Mara lacks is a strong cultural aspect. A large community of Maasai Tribes makes its home in Laikipia and is just as much a part of the experience as the animals. Visits to a village and the local schools and hospital can be arranged and offer invaluable perspective on the way these cultures continue to survive as they fight to provide themselves better access to basic needs. The ability to learn about the Maasai lifestyle in addition to the game drives was something I really appreciated. Laikipia was my first stop on my trip, and while I had come for the animals, they became the last thing on my mind once I started interacting with the Maasai community. You can see a photo of one such Maasai village above.
Nairobi National Park
One of the first things my guide said to me on our first game drive through the 45-square mile Nairobi National Park was that luck would play a large part in what we saw that day. At first, I rolled my eyes, and thought I might soon be in the market for another guide, maybe one who knew a little bit more about the animals and their usual whereabouts. In the Masai Mara, for example, our guide made his own luck, predicting the presense and location of animals based on a number of factors, including the time of day, the behavior of other animals, and the previous day’s activity (for example, he knew whether an animal would need to make a kill that day or not). But here I was with someone who claimed that luck would be our guide?
Well, after a day in the park, it was definitely obvious that my guide in the Mara was more knowledgable, but I also began to understand a major difference between the two regions, one that adds some context to the guide’s comments. Unlike in the Mara, you cannot drive off road in NNP, and thus, you are in a lot of ways at the mercy of lady luck. For example, about an hour into the drive we spotted a rhino, however it was almost 200-yards off the road. Had we been in the Mara, we could have driven up closer, but there in NNP we had to settle for seeing it through binoculars. This is definitely something to keep in mind and something that, in my opinion, really puts the NNP in the Mara’s shadow.
Still, NNP shouldn’t be overlooked entirely. For those staying a night or two in Nairobi on either end of the trip, it is a serviceable game drive, one where you can spot all the usual suspects with the exception of the elephant, which does not live in NNP. The park is unique in that you can see Nairobi’s skyline from within it, and the fact that you can see a large amount of game in such close proximity to the city should not be overlook or undervalued.
[Photos: First Three: Will McGough; Last: Sleepout]