Essential East Africa

The Safari Circuit: Nairobi & Masai Mara
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East Africa Travel
An Animal's Paradise: The sun sets over the Serengeti Desert. (PhotoDisc)
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Forget the arbitrary common border concocted by European expansionists when they "created" Kenya and Tanzania. The two countries are inseparable in their culture and wildlife, a sort of twofer deal embodying the essence of the safari experience. The word safari is Swahili for "a journey," and Kenya is where it all started. Game viewing here is five-star. It's one of the only places where you can watch a lion-kill in the morning then snorkel over coral reefs near Mombasa in the afternoon. Kenya also has one of the most incredibly diverse, dramatic landscapes on the African continent: arid plains, endless savanna, 17,057-foot Mount Kenya, the steep-walled Great Rift Valley, the lush shore along Lake Victoria, and the balmy beaches fronting the Indian Ocean.

Quite naturally, neighboring Tanzania has its own enticements. Boasting reserves covering over 95,000 square miles, Tanzania is home to the continent's most iconic symbols: Africa's highest mountain (Kilimanjaro), its largest lake (Victoria), the world's largest unflooded intact volcanic caldera (Ngorongoro), its star-studded wildlife park (Serengeti), and the storied Spice Island (Zanzibar).

The region's primary portal is Kenya's capital, Nairobi, a Masai word for "place of cool waters" (word of warning: locals aptly call it "Nairobbery"). Most safarigoers meet their guides at Nairobi-Wilson Airport and take chaperoned tours of the city (typically on the safari's return leg). However you do it, Nairobi has some must-sees. A visit to the Karen Blixen Museum is an eye-opener to life in the early 1900s, when the celebrated author built a 6,000-acre coffee plantation and later recounted her experience in her most famous book, Out of Africa. You want your heartstrings yanked good and hard, head to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org) on Nairobi’s outskirts. The facility has raised and rehabilitated more than 50 newborn elephants and a number of rhinos orphaned by poaching and other tragedies. Another gratifying conservation endeavor to see is the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Centre (www.gcci.org), where visitors stand on elevated platforms eye-to-eye with endangered Rothschild giraffes.

The standard-but-still-stellar safari circuit takes aim at a handful of parks where safarigoers have the best chances to score sightings of Africa's Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhino. So a reconnoiter in Masai Mara National Reserve—Safari Central—is a given. It's the finest wildlife area in Kenya, a sprawling 590-square-mile extension of Tanzania's Serengeti Plains brimming with the Big Five, cheetah, zebra, and a multitude of savanna animals. Go during the July-to-October Great Migration, culminated by massive herds of wildebeest totaling 1.4 million, and you could witness a dramatic struggle filmed by so many African documentaries: lurking 12-foot crocodiles snatching wildebeests as they cross the Mara River.

If you're intrigued by African culture, make a point of scheduling a visit to one of the fortress-like "boma" communities inhabited by Masai villagers. You'll be amazed at how these elegant, proud people survive in the unforgiving landscape. My visit to a brambly boma near the Masai Mara was a highlight of a two-week safari circuit I went on with African Travel, Inc. (800.421.8907; www.africantravelinc.com). The heat was stifling, the tsetse flies voracious, but the experience of being graciously invited into their huts, offered a traditional cow blood cocktail, of sharing smiles with scrappy saucer-eyed children playing in the arid dirt... touching, poignant, indescribable.


Published: 15 Aug 2005 | Last Updated: 30 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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