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Male Lion in Masai Mara National Reserve.
  More about Kenya
Size: 582,000 km2/224,700 sq mi.
Population: Approx. 32 million.
Capital: Nairobi.
Highest peak: 5,199 m/17,057 ft (Mount Kenya).
Neighbouring countries: Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Languages: (official:) Swahili, English, (others spoken:) tribal languages.
Kenya map
Kenya map.
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Background note: Kenya
By US Department of State.
Yellow pages Kenya
Nairobi map
Safari glossary
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Kenya is, together with its East African neighbour Tanzania, the classic African safari destination, home to the vast savannas and the rich wildlife living there. The nature and the wildlife are the country's main tourist attractions – most foreign visitors come for safaris. Others are attracted by the nice beaches, or by the thrill of attempting to climb the high mountains. Many good golf courses can be found around the capital Nairobi and along the coast, and the conditions for fishing, diving, horse riding and other outdoor activities are good. Map of Africa Namibia Botswana South Africa Zambia Mozambique Malawi Rwanda Tanzania Kenya Uganda
Kenya is also a country of many cultures. Its population is made out of some 40 tribes, each one with its own traditions, dress, language, ways of subsistence and looks.

The choice of a tour to Kenya is not necessarily a safari tour only. And a safari tour is not necessarily a tour to see the animals only. Touring Kenya, you may see a lot of landscapes, tribes, cultures, countryside and cities, too.

Sunrise in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

Visiting Kenya
Visiting Kenya is not very complicated or adventurous. The tourist industry is well developed, and as tourism is a major source of income to the country, you will find yourself a welcome guest.

The infrastructure and tourist industry is most developed in the main cities and in those areas that receive most visitors, i.e. in the safari regions in southern Kenya and along the coast.

The main roads in these areas are dependable, and scheduled domestic flights, coaches and trains make travelling fairly uncomplicated. Technical development during the last few years has brought mobile phones, internet cafés and ATM's to the major cities. Things may work slower and less dependable than you are used to from home, though.

Local tour operators
Most safari-goers don't travel Kenya on their own, but on an arrangement managed by a local tour operator, either as a private party or as part of a larger group. Travelling this way is easy, as all practical matters are handled by the tour operator's representatives and guides.

A network of tarmac roads connects most of the points of interest to safari-goers, including cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, and the main parks. The quality of these roads ranges from fairly good to poor.

The main road between the Nairobi area and Masai Mara is surprisingly poor, considering the amount of tourism and money this park generates, and considering that road construction work has been going on for years and years. The road is poor enough to be avoided by those who can't, or don't want to, travel bumpy or corrugated roads.

Another poor stretch of road travelled by many safari-goers is the last hour on the route (road A2) to Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Springs national reserves. That last stretch, once north of Isiolo Town, is heavily corrugated bush road. However, an ambitious road construction project has started (2008) to upgrade this road (all the way north to the Ethiopian border) to tarmac. The new road will also eventually allow better access to for example Losai National Reserve and Marsabit National Park even further north.

More about safaris by road

Kenya's international airports are Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO/HKJK) in Nairobi and Moi International Airport (MBA/HKMO). Other towns and cities have airports accessible by domestic flights.

Most main parks can be accessed by safari flights, usually in smaller aircraft. In Nairobi, these operate from Wilson Airport (WIL/HKNW), which is a 20+ minute (highly variable depending on road traffic) transfer from Jomo Kenyatta International.

More about flying to Africa
More about safaris by air

Going off the beaten track
Kenya is a developing country, which you will notice if travelling off the beaten track. The infrastructure in less visited or less populated parts of the country can be very poor. Roads may be just passable, or non-passable during heavy rains. Fuel stations marked on your map may not have any fuel for sale. Staff at remote and sparsely visited parks and tourist attractions may speak nothing but Swahili. Few areas are impossible to visit, but off the beaten track you'll need more own initiatives, patience and time.

The northern half of Kenya is considered less safe to visit than the southern, because of bandits. It is also harder to access, as the road infrastructure is poor.

Safari destinations
The safari tourism is focused on the best wildlife areas, found in the southern and central parts of the country. Virtually all safari tours sold locally and abroad visit parks in these parts, such as Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Samburu, Mount Kenya, Amboseli and Tsavo. These parks, together with Tanzanian parks such as Serengeti and Ngorongoro on the far side of the southern border, are the homes to the East African wildlife that you have probably seen on television many times. This is where the concept of safaris was born.

The equator divides Kenya in one southern and one northern half. With few exceptions (mainly Samburu/Shaba), the best wildlife areas are found in the southern half.

Less visited parks
Parks of interest are found also in other and less visited parts of Kenya, but have the disadvantage of long distances to transport hubs such as Nairobi and Mombasa. Solitary parks far away are difficult to combine with other parks, and may not fit into most tour itineraries.

Some visitors have special interests, though, and may be willing to travel far to enjoy the specialities of distant parks. Birders, for example, may have a very good time travelling from Arabuko-Sokoke on the coast to Lake Baringo and on to Kakamega Forest in the far west, a route by far too far for most normal wildlife safaris.

Coastal holidays
The Indian Ocean coast and beaches also attract many visitors. Mombasa and Malindi are classic coastal destinations, and Lamu Island on the northern part of the coast is an interesting option, where fewer visitors go.

Packaged tours to Kenya
Most packaged tours to Kenya are focused on safaris. Most such tours sold by established travel companies are well arranged, and offer a good safari experience. You don't need special skills or an adventurous mind to join such a tour. The local guides mainly speak English, which is the main language of the tourist industry, but tours guided in your own language may also be offered.

Looking around, you may find not only safari tours, but also tours to the coast or even to Zanzibar in Tanzania, climbing tours to Mount Kenya, or tours focusing on other activities.

Tailored tours to Kenya
If you prefer not to join a group, or if you can't find the itinerary you want among the packaged tours on offer, you can have an itinerary tailored for you. Travel companies specialized in doing this are found in most countries. Local tour operators in Kenya can also tailor tours, and may be found on the web.

A tailored safari doesn't necessarily cost more than a packaged tour. If you, on the other hand, want to spend more, tailoring may be the best way to ensure that you get the level of comfort, service and quality you desire.

Unrest in Kenya 2008
Kenya was hit by unrest early 2008, when political-ethnical conflicts following an election led to the death of more than a thousand people. The violence was not aimed at tourism or tourists. The unrest ceased in a few months, and now (end of 2008) business is back to normal.

Hilly landscape in central Kenya.

The country Kenya
Kenya is situated on the equator in East Africa, bordering the Indian Ocean in the east, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan in the north, Uganda in the west and Tanzania in the south.

Most parts of Kenya are found on an inland plateau, where the best safari areas and the vast savannas are found. Lowlands are found along the coast, scattered mountains and mountain ranges throughout the country. Africa's second highest mountain, Mount Kenya (5,199 m/17,057 ft), and the Aberdares rise in central Kenya, some two hours' drive north of Nairobi, and Mount Elgon borders Uganda in the west. The largest lake of Africa, Lake Victoria, borders western Kenya and is shared with Tanzania and Uganda.

The Great Rift Valley, cutting through the country from north to south, is a result from the same plate tectonics that have created many of Kenya's mountains and soda lakes such as Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Lake Turkana and Lake Magadi.

The landscape is heterogeneous, varying from deserts and semi-deserts in the north to forested mountains, open undulating savannas and grass plains, farmlands, shrub- and woodlands, and coastal beaches and mangroves. There are both freshwater lakes and soda lakes, and rivers intersect the country, many of them, if not all, drying out in dry seasons. Each such biotope has its own type of wildlife, birdlife and flora.

In comparison to Europe, America and other developed parts of the world, Kenya is poor. A majority of the population is self-supporting farmers.

Kenya has some 40 tribes, which vary in size from a few hundred up to some million members. There is a degree of antagonism between some tribes, although it has rarely been expressed through violence. The December elections in 2007 triggered political/ethnical violence, though, resulting in the loss of more than a thousand lives.

Most people see themselves as Kenyans, but in remote areas, and especially where education is poor or non-existing, you may find many who consider themselves tribe members rather than citizens of a state.

Most tribes have their own tribal language, but close to all Kenyans also speak Swahili, a language originating from Bantu and Arabic, and today the lingua franca of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Many urban Kenyans, and virtually the whole tourist industry, also speak English.

More about languages in Kenya

The largest tribes of Kenya:
· Kikuyo Central highlands.
· Luhya North of Lake Victoria.
· Luo Lake Victoria.
· Kalenjin Great Rift Valley. (These are a number of tribes speaking the same language.)
· Kamba East of Nairobi.
· Gusii Lake Victoria.

Maasai men.

The Maasai
Upon arrival in Kenya, most safari-goers have already heard of the Maasai tribe, as it is featured or at least mentioned in most travel brochures and safari itineraries. The Maasai are not dominating the population, though, but make up a 1 % minority. They live in the popular safari regions of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, where the vast areas of grasslands and savannas are favoured by both the Maasai cattle and the herds of grazing wildlife.

The Maasai, formerly known as a war-faring tribe, originally came from areas along the Nile River north of Kenya, and settled in the Masai Mara and other parts of southern Kenya some 200 years ago.

Many safari-goers meet the Maasai when staying in tented camps and lodges, or when visiting Maasai villages in the Masai Mara region. Such visits are usually done to villages used to receiving foreign tourists, and the arrangements and presentations may be quite touristy, but they do give you some understanding of Maasai life. Visiting a village is also the best opportunity you will get to take pictures of the Maasai.

Still today, many regard the Maasai culture as proud and dignified, and the Maasai themselves as awe-inspiring and good-looking, adorned and handsomely dressed, mainly in reds. It is a men's culture, though, and much of its ideals are remains from the past, when wars were fought and lions could be killed freely. Today's Maasai live as pastoralists in dry and often over-grazed areas, lagging behind in education and development, and harassed by diseases, including HIV/AIDS. The tribe is still practicing polygamy and female circumcision, and girls are married in their early teens, or even earlier. Maasai women lead hard lives with few or no options, much work and a life expectancy of around 45 years.

The Samburu
Should you visit the area of Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in the northern part of central Kenya, you may see or meet Kenyans that by the look seem to be Maasai. They are not, but belong to the local Samburu tribe. The Samburu and the Maasai have a similar origin, and thus also have similar looks, language and traditions.

Kenyans cheering their national cricket team beating Sri Lanka in Nairobi.

Cities and towns
The Kenyan cities aren't known as tourist destinations in themselves. Mombasa has some remains from its former Portuguese rule, while Nairobi is little more than 100 years old and lacks historical sights altogether. Some historical sites are found outside the cities, for example Gede on the coast.

You're likely to drive through Nairobi or Mombasa on your way from or to airports, and will get a brief look at the busy urban atmosphere of these cities. You may also pass through towns or villages when travelling to and between parks on a safari.

Accommodation, ranging from hostels to quality hotels, can be found in cities and larger towns, and lodges may be found in more natural environments around these. For information on accommodation, see Lodges in Kenya.

The Kenyan capital Nairobi is populated by two to three million people, and has a compact city centre with restaurants, shops, hotels, offices, markets etc. Even if it's not a great tourist attraction, you may enjoy seeing Nairobi's busy urban activity. Away from the city centre, there are less attractive areas, including slums.

Kenya's largest airport, Jomo Kenyatta International (NBO/HKJK), is situated just outside Nairobi, and is the point of entry for most foreign visitors to the country. If you're going on an airborne safari, you don't start from there, but from Wilson Airport (WIL/HKNW), a 30-minute drive from Jomo Kenyatta.

Safari-goers rarely spend much time in Nairobi, more than the odd night in connection with flights. Should you have some time to spare in town, you may visit Karen Blixen Museum outside Nairobi, or the Giraffe Centre, where you can get to know the giraffes. Nairobi National Park, just a half-hour drive from the city centre, is home to many of the African safari species (although not elephants). The Carnivore restaurant, included in many safari tour itineraries, serves zebra, impala and giraffe for dinner.

Nairobi is known for crime, and you should be careful when moving about in town, especially when doing so on your own. Don't explore Nairobi by night on foot, but take a taxi.

Some hotels used by many travel companies are Hilton, Landmark, Fairview, Norfolk, Mayfair, Stanley, Intercontinental, Safari Park and Windsor Golf and Country Club, which all offer high to very high standard. A cheaper option in central Nairobi is Hotel 680, which isn't very classy, but will do if you only want a place to stay. There is also YMCA and other budget options.

Parts of Nairobi are modern, offering shopping, entertainment and a pleasant stay. There are huge contrasts, though. Shantytowns and poverty is another part of Nairobi, if not seen as often by safari-goers.

The traffic density is an increasing problem in Nairobi, and travelling in or through the city during rush hours can be very slow.

Nairobi by night.

Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya. It is situated on the Kenyan coast, and has the largest harbour in East Africa. You don't see much of the city if travelling from Moi International Airport (MBA/HKMO) to some beach resort north or south of Mombasa, but excursions to town are easy to arrange.

Mombasa's main attractions are its Old Town and Fort Jesus from the late 1600th century. There are also mosques, markets and many small shops where you may go shopping for spices, fabrics, carpets etc. There are boat tours around Mombasa, which lies on an island.

More about the Kenyan coast

Namanga is a small town on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, on the main road from Nairobi to Arusha. Apart from the international airports (Nairobi and Mombasa), Namanga is the only point of entry into Kenya where you can obtain a visa. Apart from that, Namanga offers nothing of interest to most tourists.

Further reading
For more information about Kenya, we suggest that you get one of the many extensive guidebooks that have been written about the country. Much general information about Kenya can also be found on the web.

More about guidebooks

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Page updated 18 February 2009