Everything You Need to Know About Planning a Safari in Kenya
For the uninitiated, the process of booking a safari can be daunting. Which is why, when it came time to plan my own trip earlier this year, I decided to enlist the help of experts—but only after wasting hours on research that ultimately left me even more confused. The logistics are understandably complicated: Which airport do you fly into? What time of year is best for each destination? How many days should you go for? Which camp should you book?
Thankfully, once I reached out to the luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (they have a team that specializes in Africa, and Kenya more specifically) everything started to make a bit more sense. I told my travel planner what my husband and I were looking to do, what our safari experience level was (zero), how much time we had, and when we planned on traveling. Within 24 hours of our initial call, A&K had a loose itinerary sorted out for us, and the wheels were officially in motion.
US citizens will need to get a Kenyan visa prior to visiting, and you can do so online without having to visit a consulate. Be sure to have a copy of your hotel confirmation and flight info ready, as you’ll need to attach the documents to the online e-visa form. The cost (including a processing fee) is $51 per person. It’s also possible to apply for a visa at the airport when you arrive in Nairobi (and the cost is only $21) but most people prefer to avoid the headache by doing it in advance.
One of the things people find most confusing is vaccinations: which are required, and when you’re supposed to get them. Passport Health is a fantastic resource for travel immunization information—the site breaks down every vaccination that’s needed for each country, and can even assist with booking appointments in your area. Best of all, they’ll create an itemized print-out for you to submit to your insurance company for reimbursement.
Check out my full packing guide here.
OVERNIGHT IN NAIROBI
Depending on when you arrive, you’ll typically fly into Nairobi and spend the night before heading to your destination first thing the next morning.
Close to the city center and not far from Nairobi airport is Fairmont Norfolk, a historic British colonial hotel that feels like a journey to a bygone era. The accommodations are perfect—rooms are centered around a quaint courtyard, there are Le Labo amenities, and a phenomenal morning breakfast spread. At the bar, musicians play live music, while locals and businesspeople have wine, cocktails, and (surprisingly delicious) tapas.
If you choose to spend extra time in Nairobi, I would also recommend checking out Hemingways, or you might consider extending your stay by booking a room at Instagram favorite Giraffe Manor, where you can have breakfast alongside the property’s 12 friendly giraffes.
TRANSFERRING TO YOUR FLIGHT
After your overnight, you’ll be transferred to Wilson Airport, where most of the shorter, regional flights depart from. Bear in mind that the planes are small, so you’ll likely be told to bring only one duffel bag per person that weighs no more than 15 pounds. (Most camps and luxury lodges provide daily laundry service, which helps when you’re forced to pack minimally.) Flight times vary depending on where you’re headed and how many drop-offs the plane makes, but they can be anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour.
CHOOSING A CAMP
One of the most difficult aspects of planning a safari is choosing which camp to stay at. They truly run the gamut—from posh five-star lodges to rugged tented retreats. Those looking for complete seclusion and privacy should consider Solio Lodge, which is located on a private 45,000-acre game reserve just north of Nairobi. The property is known as one of the preeminent breeding areas for rhinoceros, so it’s not uncommon for visitors to see dozens of the often-elusive species during their stay.
I’d also heard incredible things about Sanctuary Retreats Olonana, which is where we chose to stay, and it truly exceeded expectations. The resort was completely redone in July so everything is brand new, making it perfect for those who want an authentic safari experience paired with the comforts of a five-star resort. Daily meals take place during specific times and there are set menus, but the property was totally willing to make adjustments according to your personal preferences. Rooms are stunning and have every amenity luxury travelers expect, like Wifi, filtered water bottles, french press coffee, bathrobes, toiletries, and a minibar. The 14 rooms are situated on the Mara River, so you’re able to see some pretty crazy things right outside of your window—we watched hippos splash around in the water from the comfort of our bed.
Upon arrival at the airstrip, we met our guide who would be with us throughout the trip, and did our first game drive for a few hours before sundown that day. The next morning, we went out from 7am – 10am, and then again from 4pm – 7pm. Since it tends to get extremely hot during the day, drives often take place in the morning and before sunset, but full-day drives are also an option for those who prefer it.
During our downtime, we rested, had leisurely lunches and cocktails, and visited a local school and Masai village nearby, which, to be honest, was possibly my favorite part of the entire trip. (You can learn more about the charity efforts that help support local Masai communities here.) Of course, each camp is different, but the staff at Sanctuary Olonana worked with us to set up activities according to what we were interested in. They also took special requests, like having coffee carafes in the van for the morning drives, beer and wine in a cooler for sunset cocktails, and even a picnic lunch for our last day.
If you visit during The Great Migration (which descends upon the Mara in July and lasts until October), you can expect to see thousands upon thousands of zebra and wildebeest en route to the Serengeti. Lions, giraffes, hippopotamus, and impalas are also fairly common, while rhinoceros and cheetahs are decidedly more rare to spot. Though the Migration period is considered the most in-demand, our guide put it best: “There’s no such thing a bad time of year for a Kenyan safari. The action here never stops.”
Lindsay Silberman is Town & Country’s jetsetting Contributing Editor. She chronicles her travels on her blog and on Instagram, where she’s created a community of more than 136,000 followers. Have a travel question? Send her a DM!