Into (the Inexpensive) Africa
|THE UBIQUITOS ACADIA TREE: The oft-seen silhouette in Masai Mara Game Reserve (Corbis)|
Unlike some African countries, where a three-week tour serves merely as an introduction, Kenya's highlights (40 national parks and game reserves, including Masai Mara-arguably the continent's best) are far more readily accessible-you can cover a lot of ground in ten days without feeling that you barely scratched the acacia-treed surface, and save the cost of an international flight, you can do it for relatively cheap. Sure, there are plenty of tour companies that will give your wallet the workout of a lifetime. But you can avoid this by looking past the Abercombie and Kent luxe safaris and focus in on smaller reputable companies. Then head during the shoulder season (April through June); if you can endure the occasional rain shower, you'll have the wildlife mostly to yourself, along with a few extra bills to spend while you're there. For example, African Horizons (www.africanhorizons.com) offers safaris for under $1,500, but in April to June safaris go for as low as $1,250.
If you go for a guided tour, Masai Mara Game Reserve will be part of your itinerary. If you brave the whole trip on your own, plan to start or end your journey with the Masai Mara. The most popular wildlife park in Kenya, 650-square-mile Mara is the northern extension of Tanzania's Serengeti. Due to its smaller size and tourism draw, the park feels more crowded than the Serengeti, but this is just another reason to travel in the shoulder season, when prices and tourism are at a minimum.
The below offers options for the DIY set-if you've secured a place on an outfitted safari, most details will be outlined in their custom itinerary. But feel free to mix and match what's below with a shorter-day outfitted safari, where you benefit from an expert's knowledge of how to find the animals and avoid the tourists.
Fly into Nairobi. Swiss Air, American Airlines, Emirates, Kenya Airlines, and KLM all offer flights from JFK for under $1,300. From Nairobi, a full ten-day trip can be totally land-based. If you've secured a tour, the operator will likely arrange for airport-to-hotel transport, but if going solo, opt for either a taxi or a 4x4 rental. Nairobi's notorious for petty street crime. If staying around the city, get a hotel on the outskirtsÂ—it'll be less expensive and offer easy exit the following day.
Drive 200 miles north of Nairobi to Samburu Game Reserve for your first glimpse of where the wild things are. Samburu's environment is ideal for wildlife; the reserve abuts the lower slopes of Mount Kenya and lies on the Uaaso Nyiro River (home to 20-foot crocodiles). The park protects several species not seen elsewhere in Kenya, including Grevy's zebra, the reticulated giraffe, and the Beisa oryx. Samburu has lodges and tented campsites for overnight stays (several are especially luxurious), along with less-expensive public camp sites (though the facilities are pretty lacking). There are also two camp sites further west of the public sites, though they're difficult to locateÂ—ask a park ranger when entering to direct you to the best available camping option.
Head through the Great Rift Valley to Lake Nakuru National Park. This park is a popular day trip from Nairobi, and is especially famous for its population of pink flamingos. Leopards are another common sight on game drives, and drive you must; walking is not permitted in the park, so rent a vehicle or join a tour group. Overnight at the Lake Nakuru Lodge (www.lakenakurulodge.com) for exceptional views of the lake and special off-season rates.
Time for the Africa of your mind. The Masai Mara Game Reserve has over 450 bird species and abundant populations of the Big Five (lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant, and leopard). The Mara is mainly savannah with some acacia woodland, and every July with the coming of the wet season, the most massive animal migration makes its way up from Tanzania's Serengeti, including the world-famous wildebeest migration during July and August. This reserve is also one of only a few where visitors may catch sight of the nearly extinct black rhino, a species that fell to poaching in the 1980s. Accommodations range from luxury campsites to stone lodges, while most safari operators will set up their own private camps for small groups of travelers. If you can justify the expense, opt for an early morning hot air balloon ride over the park and get the aerial view of the park's animals as they come to life under the morning sun.
Return to Nairobi.
As a day (or several-days) trip, head to Amboseli National Park, 150 miles southeast of Nairobi. The 150-square-mile park protects one of the continent's most staggering landscapes, with elephants, lions, leopards, cheetahs, buffalos, and the rest of the African zoo standing in the foreground of the continents largest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication