Kenya sits at the centre of the African safari experience, with an outstanding variety of wild animals and Big Five viewing opportunities. Although safaris are its greatest attraction, it is a country of great diversity with much more to offer.
Essentially, it is a place for outdoor living - the coast offers beaches and water-based activities, the mountains present a challenge to hikers and climbers, and the rolling savannahs are a game-viewer's paradise.
The country sits astride the equator, offering fabulous scenery and a variety of tribal cultures. From its central location, the sacred peaks of Mt Kenya reign over a landscape primarily covered by grasslands and thorn trees, much of it enclosed within its many national parks and reserves.
To the west, the spectacular Great Rift Valley is sprinkled with lakes teeming with a variety of birdlife, whose shores and surrounds are traversed by agricultural farmlands. To the east lies the promise of an idyllic beach holiday with the requisite white palm-fringed beaches and pristine coral reefs.
Inhabiting the highlands and Rift Valley are two of the most well-known of the numerous African tribal cultures, the Kikuyu farmers and the tall, red-clad Maasai cattle herders. The coast is home to ancient Swahili civilisations and old port towns that are rich in a history of exotic spice trading and fighting.
Kenya has a sophisticated tourism infrastructure, with two major cities controlling the majority of the tourism trade. Nairobi, the capital, is the safari and hiking hub, situated in the cool Central Highlands, while on the east coast the hot and humid trading port of Mombasa functions as the gateway to the resorts and pristine beaches of the area.
Sadly the heavy influence of tourism has meant excessive prices for safaris, souvenirs, and most activities of interest to foreigners, as well as the constant hassle by touts, guides, and sellers to part with as much money as they can dupe the guilty traveller into spending.
There is an abundance of things to see and do in Kenya, a country which boasts some of the Africa's most famous and sought-after tourist attractions. Kenya is essentially a dream destination for African wildlife safaris and most of its attractions revolve around the incredible game reserves and the famous naturalists and wildlife professionals who have worked in the country.
Game viewing is a must, with quintessential destinations near Nairobi, like the Masai Mara National Reserve (where Out of Africa was filmed), while Hell's Gate National Park is located in the Great Rift Valley. Visit Elsamere Conservation Centre, where Joy Adamson of lived, and take in the natural splendour of Lake Naivasha. Visit the Karen Blixen Museum and enjoy the Giraffe Centre and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.
Another draw card for Kenyan tourism is the wonderful coastline and paradise beaches. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean are ideal for swimming and watersports, and there are some well-preserved coral reefs to explore beneath the surface. There are a number of popular resorts along the Kenyan coast and Mombasa is an interesting port city. Kenya has pleasant weather throughout the year, making this a great beach holiday destination.
Nairobi National Park was established in 1945 and is Kenya's first national park. Uniquely situated on the capital's doorstep it is a well-kept, compact and beautiful area of plains and wild bush containing a large number of Africa's best-known animals. Large herds of zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and giraffe roam the plains and black rhino, ostrich, baboons, cheetah, leopard and lions are some of the other photogenic inhabitants.
In the park is the Animal Orphanage where sick, wounded and abandoned animals are cared for and rehabilitated into the park, as well as an Educational Centre featuring a Safari Walk. Other attractions include the Ivory burning site Monument and some wonderful picnic areas popular for corporate functions, weddings and the like.
Close by is the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where infant elephant and rhino (orphaned because of poaching activities) are cared for and eventually returned to the wild in Tsavo National Park. The centre is open every morning and visitors can watch the calves bathing in the mud hole and being bottle fed by their human surrogate mothers. Seeing these baby animals playing and interacting with them is a special experience and the Elephant Orphanage is one of the top attractions in Kenya for many visitors.
Along the southern shore of Lake Naivasha is the former home of naturalist and painter Joy Adamson, author of 'Born Free', which is now the Elsamere Conservation Centre, incorporating a guesthouse and a small museum. Visitors are invited to join the guests daily at 4pm for a sumptuous tea on the lawns of the beautifully peaceful lakeside setting, occasionally joined by the mischievous Colobus monkeys with a taste for cheesecake. The museum has displays portraying the true story of Joy and the lioness Elsa that she raised from birth, and her attempts to return her to the wild, as well as her paintings and personal artefacts. There is also a video shown about the story of Elsa the lioness.
Lake Naivasha is a shimmering waterscape of floating hyacinth surrounded by mountains, and the skies above are pierced by the distinctive cries of the fish eagle. Brightly coloured kingfishers dart into the waters from their papyrus perches and ugly Marabou storks strut along the shoreline like cantankerous sergeant majors. The trees are home to Colobus monkeys and at night the earth shudders with the movement of grazing hippos. The southern shore of the lake is lined with hotels, campsites and guesthouses, prettily situated either on the shore or higher up on the slopes of the mountain with fantastic views over the lake. Boat trips are a popular way to explore the lake and also the private Crescent Island Game Sanctuary.
Named for the pair of massive red cliffs of the Njorowa Gorge that encloses a geothermic area of hot springs and steam vents, Hell's Gate is one of the two parks in Kenya that allows visitors to explore on foot, making it an ideal place for hiking, cycling, camping and rock climbing. It is famous for its natural steaming geysers, and the towering cliffs provide an eagle and vulture breeding ground. The wide plains are home to numerous animals, such as zebra, buffalo, eland, gazelle, hartebeest, warthog and baboon and the experience of walking alongside a giraffe or past a herd of zebra is a memorable one.
One of the most popular ways to explore the park is to hire bicycles at the park gate and ride unaccompanied down to the gorge. The bikes are not always in the best condition but they are cheap and the journey is a wonderful experience; if you do get tired or stuck with a bad bike the route is patrolled regularly by rangers who give stragglers lifts. Upon reaching the gorge it is best to hire a guide to help you along the hike route: the guides help you traverse the route through the canyon and explain the interesting geological origins and features of the landscape, as well as explaining the local mythology and Masai names given to the features. After the tour you can ride back to the gate or get a lift. It is also possible to camp in the park.
Although tiny, this park has a high concentration of game with everything wildlife enthusiasts could wish for (except elephant). Lake Nakuru is one of Kenya's most important rhino sanctuaries. Apart from the rhino, there are several prides of lion and it is the best place to spot leopard. The surface of the shallow alkaline lake covers about a third of the park and the saline concentration supports a blue-green algae that attracts thousands of flamingos. This pulsating pink carpet covering the fringes of the lake is a breathtaking sight and at any disturbance the air above becomes a noisy confusion of long pink legs and reddish wings in flight. The flamingos, and generally rich birdlife, make the park extremely popular with bird watchers, although some ornithologists have complained that the lake is sustaining fewer and fewer birds. Large flocks of pelicans are also attracted to the rich food source in the lake and waterbuck and the rare Rothschild Giraffe are common sights along the shores. The park has several high points with good lookouts and waterfalls, and monkeys and baboon frequent the rocky cliffs. Watching the sun rise over Lake Nakuru is a special experience. As the park is so small, it is easy to explore it in a day.
The vast Tsavo National Park is only an hour's drive from Mombasa along the main highway to Nairobi, and for administrative purposes is divided into the East and West. Covering 8,422 sq miles (21,812 sq km), the park is home to giraffe, buffalo, antelopes, monkeys, many exotic birds and Kenya's largest herds of elephant. The elephant often look startlingly red, covered in the dust and mud of the region's ruddy soil. Visitors are also likely to see rhinos - after being virtually wiped out by poachers in the 1980s their population now numbers almost 200; most are found in the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary. Poaching has now practically been eliminated and the elephant population is also increasing; there are now around 5,000 animals, up from 3,000 in 1985, but still short of the 25,000 that are estimated to have roamed the park in the 1960s. Another exciting attractions is an observation tank in one of the park's pools from which visitors can get a close-up view of hippos, crocodiles and tropical fish in their natural habitat. Some of the roads in the park are in bad condition and it can be difficult driving but if you head out on organised game drives there'll be no problem.
Experience giraffes up close and personal at this wonderful centre dedicated to the preservation of the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Not only can you watch them from very close but visitors can experience the rare pleasure of hand-feeding these graceful and gentle creatures from a platform at eye-level with the animals: you can touch them, have them take food out of your hands, or even put a pellet in your mouth and enjoy a sloppy giraffe kiss! The photo opportunities are simply superb. You can also enjoy the nature walk in a lovely area with 160 species of bird and some amazing trees. There are warthogs and giant tortoises to meet as well. This is the single best attraction for children in Nairobi and there are often groups of school kids that come for tours. Guides at the centre give educational talks and answer any questions you may have. Betty and Jock Leslie Melville founded the Giraffe Centre in 1979 to preserve the Rothschild giraffe of which only 120 remained in existence; it is a non-profit organisation and all fees go towards the conservation of these wonderful animals. The manor house on the estate is very charming and a popular venue for weddings and other events.
This hugely diverse museum contains some world-class attractions among its dusty relics and stuffed animals. The facility is home to the great pre-historic finds from the Leakey family, including relics from mankind's earliest ancestors. The most famous fossil in the museum is the skeleton of Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, at 1.5 million years old (Turkana Boy is officially classified as either homo erectus or homo ergaster). There are also fascinating sections on art, geology, wildlife and local history. The Nairobi National Museum is a nice looking building with lots to offer visitors. In many ways it is a bit old-fashioned, but it is a great place to learn about Kenya's culture and history and a worthwhile attraction for visitors to the city. Local guides are available at the museum and hiring one is a good idea because their knowledge enriches the exhibits and fills in any gaps there may be in information.
Apart from the wealth of artefacts and information in the museum, there are some wonderful sculptures and a herb garden in the grounds, and there is an attached snake park where some of the world's largest and also most venomous snakes are displayed, in addition to other animals like tortoises and crocodiles.
Karen Blixen was a notable Kenyan personality who lived and farmed on the outskirts of Nairobi from 1917 to 1931 when she returned to Denmark bankrupt and heartbroken at being forced to leave Africa. Writing under the name Isak Dinesen she authored acclaimed books including Out of Africa which inspired an Oscar winning film of the same name. The main building of the original farmhouse, M'Bogani House, now houses the Karen Blixen Museum and retains much of its original furniture and other photographs and items of interest. The museum is situated in the suburb of Karen, a short drive from the city centre.
Those who have seen the much-loved movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, may also be curious about the Muthaiga Country Club featured in the film: tourists can visit the original clubhouse, which is still active, but women won't be allowed in the members' bar - Karen Blixen is, to this day, the only woman who has been allowed to drink there. Fans of the movie should also note that although it was designed to look like it, the house in the film is not M'Bogani House. The stunning landscapes of the area, however, will be instantly recognisable.
One of Africa's greatest natural spectacles is the annual wildebeest migration between Kenya's Masai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti national parks happening sometime between June to October each year. Up to two million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and Thomson's gazelles make this ancient journey, seeking greener grasses as the seasons change. The quest for new life is closely linked with death as predators stalk the enormous, ever-moving herds, from lions in the grasslands to crocodiles during the dramatic, frenetic river crossings.
The river crossings at the Grumeti River and Mara River are the most popular part of the migration to witness and there are many great camps set up near the rivers in the Mara. A thrilling way to experience the migration is on a riding safari, when your horses can actually wander among the animals, or in a hot air balloon, which gives you breathtaking views. The exact timing of the migration varies each year and is difficult to predict, although generally June to October is the best time to plan your visit. The herds usually migrate back to the Serengeti in December and January and some visitors like to try and catch the spectacle in reverse, as the animals return to Tanzania.
A gentle and relaxed holiday destination, Lamu is Kenya's oldest inhabited town and the unhurried way of life has changed little over the centuries. Part of the Lamu Archipelago, Lamu town (on Lamu Island) is reached by boat from the mainland. The narrow, winding streets are crowded with pedestrians, markets, vendors and donkeys. Lamu's lovely old Arab houses feature intricately carved doors and lintels, and mosques decorate the streets of one of the last remaining Swahili towns from a civilisation that used to be the cultural force along the coast.
A dhow trip is a mandatory holiday outing and sailing around the little islands or to the beautiful beaches is a memorable experience. There are plenty of tour guides ready to show tourists around the archipelago by dhow, and visitors can find them along the seafront by looking for the bright blue shirts of the Promise/Ahadi organisation. The Takwa ruins on Manda Island and ancient settlements on Pate are great attractions to visit. Shela Beach, on the north end of Lamu island, is a beautiful white sand beach popular for sunbathing and watersports. For a sense of local history and Swahili culture, visitors can explore the Lamu Museum, the Swahili House Museum, or Lamu Fort.
Situated on the beach 60 miles (40km) north of Mombasa is the lazy, unashamedly hedonistic holiday resort of Malindi. For most the main attraction is the dazzling white sandy beaches that line the shore. However, for the more adventurous, there is also excellent fishing to be done while on holiday in Malindi. Trips leave early in search of barracuda, tuna and marlin, before the heat of the day sets in.
One of the few authentic Portuguese relics left on the coast can be found on the cliffs at the southern end of Malindi harbour - the cross of Vasco da Gama bears the Portuguese coat of arms and commemorates his arrival here in 1498, definitely worth seeing on any Malindi holiday.
South of Malindi are the Watamu and Malindi Marine National Parks. These protected areas of white coral beaches and stunning blue lagoons are a major holiday attraction for snorkellers and scuba divers. Malindi holidaymakers are also drawn here as the sea is crystal clear in contrast with the Malindi holiday resorts' waters, which are muddied by the Sabaki River. Between the two marine parks is the abandoned 15th century Swahili town of Gedi, where visitors can wander around the ruins of the palace, market place, houses, mosques and pillared tombs.
The hot and humid holiday destination of Mombasa is the biggest port on the east coast of Africa, serving five different countries and located at the beginning of the only railway that crosses the Kenyan interior, built by the British in 1901. Mombasa is situated on an island linked to the mainland by bridges and surrounded by a natural harbour where commercial shipping mixes with traditional sailing dhows.
The main Mombasa holiday attraction is the commanding 16th-century fort protecting the entrance of the harbour, Fort Jesus, whose remnants relay the story of a historic struggle for control of the coast between the Portuguese and Arabs. Behind this, on Treasury Square, is the Government Game Department's Ivory Room, exhibiting elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, hippopotamus teeth and other animal trophies confiscated from poachers or taken from dead animals on the reserve.
Mombasa's Old Town retains a strong Arab flavour and is the true heart of the city, with an intricate pattern of winding streets alive with the colours of the traditional wrap-around clothing, crammed with faded houses and street sellers, and filled with the heavy scent of spices. It is best to visit the Old Town with an official guide when on holiday, as mugging is not uncommon.
As a large city, Mombasa operates as the holiday hub of the coastal tourism trade, despite its lack of attractive beaches, so most visitors stay long enough to look around before heading either north or south to one the beautiful beach resorts nearby.
The climate of Kenya ranges from tropical on the coast, where the weather is hot and humid, to the temperate nature of the inland regions. It is cool and wet in the highlands, and dry in the northern areas.
The capital, Nairobi, experiences cool winters and mild, pleasant summer temperatures. The best time to visit Kenya is probably during the dry season from January to March, and July to October. The rainy seasons in Kenya are April to June and October to early December.
The dry season is the best time for safaris in Kenya as it is easier to see the animals when the grass is shorter and they congregate around the water holes. The annual migration in the Masai Mara is best seen from July to October although the precise timing of this natural phenomenon varies each year.
The weather on the coast is pleasant year round but generally hot and humid conditions prevail, tempered by strong onshore breezes. The best time to holiday on the coast is from December to March, while April to May are the wettest months; there is also a short rainy season from October to November. The lowlands are hot and dry and the highlands (including Nairobi) are more temperate and cool at night.
The unit of currency is the Kenyan Shilling (KES), which is divided into 100 cents. It is not advisable to take Kenyan Shillings out of the country, as they are difficult to exchange elsewhere. Foreign currency can be changed at banks, bureaux de change and hotels. It's easiest to exchange US Dollars, Pounds Sterling or Euros. Street exchange merchants should be avoided as they are operating illegally. Opening hours vary according to bank, but generally banks in Kenya are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm and on the first and last Saturday of the month. Banks and bureaux de change at the international airport stay open 24 hours. International credit cards are accepted in the larger hotels and stores, and some camps and lodges. ATMs are widely available in Nairobi and other major towns.
English is the official language but Swahili is the national language, with 42 ethnic languages spoken.
Electrical current is 240 volts, 50Hz. UK-style square three-pin plugs are used.
US citizens must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months, which in turn can be extended by three months.
British citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa can be obtained for a maximum stay of 3 months. Passports must contain at least one unused visa page.
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum stay of three months. Extensions of an additional three months are possible.
Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months. Extensions of an additional three months are possible.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is not required for stays of up to 30 days.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and obtainable on arrival for up to a maximum of three months. Extentions up to an additional three months are possible.
US citizens must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months, which in turn can be extended by three months.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Kenya. A visa is required and can be obtained on arrival for up to a maximum of three months. Extensions of up to three months are possible.
All foreign passengers to Kenya must hold proof of sufficient funds (at least USD 500) to cover their stay in the country, return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Most foreign nationals require a visa, and some foreign nationals can obtain visas on arrival in Kenya, provided that (i) their passport is in good condition, and (ii) they have at least one blank page in their passport for the visa endorsement. The visa fee is payable in USD, GBP or EUR, cash only. On-arrival visas are valid for three months. It is also possible to obtain an e-visa prior to departure for Kenya. A valid, 90 day, multiple entry/re-entry "East African Tourist Visa" issued by Rwanda or Uganda will suffice, provided the passanger in posession of the document has previously entered the country that first issued the visa. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Kenya, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers should get the latest medical advice on inoculations and malaria prevention at least three weeks prior to departure. A malaria risk exists all year round in Kenya, but more so around Mombasa and the lower coastal areas than in Nairobi and on the high central plateau. Immunisation against yellow fever, polio, and typhoid are usually recommended. A yellow fever certificate is required by anyone arriving from an infected area. Other risks include diarrheal diseases. Protection against bites from sandflies, mosquitoes, and tsetse flies is the best prevention against malaria and dengue fever, as well as other insect-borne diseases, including Rift Valley fever, sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis, and Chikungunya fever. Water is of variable quality and visitors are advised to drink bottled water. There are good medical facilities in Nairobi and Mombasa but health insurance is always advised.
Tipping is not customary in Kenya. However, a 10 percent service charge may be added to the bill in more upmarket restaurants. Otherwise, small change in local currency may be offered to taxi drivers, porters, and waiters. Note that on safari the drivers, guides and cooks often rely heavily on tips to get by, but these are discretionary.
There is a threat from Somali terrorist groups in Kenya and visitors should be vigilant in public places and tourist sites. Several bombings have targeted Mombasa, Nairobi, and other cities in recent years, most blamed on the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab group. Several governments have instituted travel warnings and alerts for parts of Kenya and travellers are advised to read up on the situation and which areas should be avoided before visiting the country.
Nairobi is notorious for robberies and muggings, and visitors should be alert at all times, but particularly at night. Visitors should also be vigilant in Mombasa, especially in the main south coast tourist areas of Diani and Ukunda.
There is a serious threat of banditry in the northern areas and travel is only advisable with an armed escort. Recent armed attacks in resort areas of northern Kenya near the border of Somalia (especially Lamu Island) have occurred, including the kidnapping of foreign tourists. Several governments have advised against all but essential travel to coastal areas within 150km of the Somalian border, and inland areas within 60km of the border.
Piracy has also been a concern off the coast of Kenya. There have previously been incidents of attacks and hijackings of private vessels, though there have been no recent reports. Visitors should also take sensible precautions when driving. In particular, landmines have been used in attacks around Moyale, close to the main A2 road south. Vehicles crossing the border at this point should stay on the A2.
The taking of photographs of official buildings and embassies is not advised and could lead to detention. The coastal towns are predominantly Muslim and religious customs and sensitivities should be respected, particularly during Ramadan. Dress should be conservative away from the beaches and resorts, particularly for women. Homosexuality is against the law. Smoking in public places is illegal, other than in designated smoking areas, and violators will be fined or imprisoned.
Business in Kenya tends to be conducted formally and conservatively, with the appropriate formal attire of a jacket and tie. Patience, cultural sensitivity, tolerance for uncertainty, and the ability to build personal relationships with business associates are all central to successfully doing business in Kenya.
Ethnic division and corruption undermine the Kenyan economy, but they are realities in the business world of Kenya. Despite red tape and numerous pitfalls, Kenya is a land of business opportunity and the IT and telecoms sectors are rapidly expanding.
The concept of harambee is important in business culture in Kenya: it involves a sense of community, responsibility, and mutual assistance. Deference to seniority is important, as is social standing. Use of official titles is key during introductions and greetings.
Terse statements should be avoided and controlling one's emotions is vitally important. While punctuality is key and meetings should begin on time, they often don't end on time. When introducing a new deal, it is important to illustrate respect for tradition and history. Deals generally only close when it is clear that all the possible information has been considered and deliberated upon.
Interpersonal relationships add to business success, and understanding Kenyan culture and history is a great way of building business contacts. Building a solid business relationship is prioritised over meeting deadlines and closing deals.
English is the language of business. Business hours run from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and dress style should be formal with suits or smart-casual wear. Gifts are important and generally expected. Taking time to greet everyone and enquire about the health of their family will ensure a smooth business meeting.
Respect for elders is important and if you are invited to dinner, never begin eating until the eldest member has started. Also, refrain from leaving food on your plate. In introductions, clasping an elder or key business associate's wrist with your other hand while shaking hands conveys respect.
The international access code for Kenya is +254. Area codes are also in use. Purchasing a local SIM card is simple and most hotels, restaurants, and cafes in tourist areas offer free wifi access.
Travellers to Kenya over 16 years do not have to pay duty on 250g tobacco products; 1 bottle of alcohol; and 500ml perfume. Prohibited items include fruit, imitation firearms, and children's toys pistols. No plants may be brought into the country without a Plant Import Permit (PIP).
Kenyan Tourist Board: +254 (0)20 271 1262 or www.magicalkenya.com
Kenyan Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 387 6101.
Kenyan High Commission, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7636 2371.
Kenyan High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 563 1773.
Kenyan High Commission, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 362 2249.
Kenyan High Commission, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 (0)2 6247 4788.
United States Embassy, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 712 3304.
British High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 284 4000.
Canadian High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 366 3000.
South African High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 282 7236.
Australian High Commission, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 427 7100.
Honorary Consul of Ireland, Nairobi: +254 (0)20 235 7242.
New Zealand Consulate, Nairobi: +254 0(20) 804 5100.
Amboseli is a park of giants, renowned for its herds of mighty tusked elephants presided over by the magnificent backdrop of Africa's highest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro. One of Africa's most unforgettable images is the picture of these large creatures standing in silent tribute before the gigantic snow-covered mountain just over the border in neighbouring Tanzania. It is a relatively small park with wide plains merging with the distant skyline, affording good visibility in all directions.
Observation Hill rises from the centre for breathtaking views over the park and towards Mt Kilimanjaro, especially in the pink light of dawn. Meaning 'Place of Water' in the Masai language, it has a continuous supply from Kilimanjaro's snowmelt, forming underground springs that feed the marshy patches and swamps home to hippos and a great variety of bird life. Predators are relatively scarce apart from jackal and hyena, but there are large numbers of grazers such as wildebeest, zebra and gazelles on the grassy plains and giraffe among the thorn trees. A popular way to take in the scenery is by way of a noiseless microlight flight, either from Nairobi or the Amboseli airstrip. There is a wide range of accommodation in and around the outskirts of the park for those wanting to extend the experience.
This national park encompasses Africa's second highest mountain, Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano with a series of jagged snow-covered peaks. The local Kikuyu people revere the mountain they call Kirinvaga or 'Place of Light' as the home of their Supreme Being, Ngai, and traditionally Kikuyu homes are built to face the sacred summit. Part of the attraction is the incredible variation in flora and fauna found on the mountain due to the changes in altitude and its position on the equator. The slopes are covered in thick forest, home to a variety of animals including the black leopard. Bamboo, moorland and alpine vegetation give way to rock, ice and one of the world's rarest sights - equatorial snow. The summit is a technical climb, but Point Lenana is a popular trekkers' objective; it is the third highest peak and can be reached by a number of different scenic routes, lasting from three to five days. The Mount Kenya National Park is a paradise for climbers who come to summit the various peaks and test themselves against the mountain. For those not wishing to climb the park offers a pristine wilderness, lakes and glaciers, and is good for game viewing and hiking.
Kenya's most visited park, commonly known as the Mara, is a wildly beautiful place with rolling savannah grasslands. It is an extension of the Serengeti Plains in neighbouring Tanzania. Much of the film Out of Africa was filmed here and it offers wonderful views and an extraordinary concentration of wildlife, including the 'Big Five'. It has the largest population of lion in Kenya, and large herds of grazers also attract many other predators such as cheetah, leopard and hyena.
The annual highlight is the Great Wildebeest Migration, creating one of the world's supreme natural spectacles, when an estimated two million animals form one large herd and leave the dry plains of Tanzania to seek greener pastures in the north, arriving in the Mara from late June onwards and returning again in October. Their entrance into the Mara makes a breathtaking spectacle, as they cross the crocodile infested waters of the Mara River. A once in a lifetime way to experience the magic of an African dawn over such a wilderness is by hot air balloon, drifting silently over the herds below. These can be booked through any safari company and operate daily from several of the lodges in the reserve.
Also within the reserve is a Masai village that holds demonstrations of traditional dances and music as a source of tourist income for the local communities of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Traditionally the lands were used by the Masai for their herds of cattle and the settlement programs set up to compensate for their displacement have only recently been accepted, albeit reluctantly. The proud warriors have become a symbol of tribal Kenya with their beadwork, feathers, spears, decorated gourds and red blankets. Today the Masai communities are allowed to hunt and graze their animals in the reserve, and the occasional flash of red glimpsed between the thorn trees and bush on the fringes of the Mara has become a natural part of the Mara's character.