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Seeing the African Big 5 (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard) in around an hour takes some doing. We were fortunate to see these creatures and many more besides while on a number of game drives from our lodge in South Africa. We've also seen them at zoos and wild animal parks of varying standards across the world. So if you want to get up close and personal with wildlife, what is the best way to do it - and is there is a right or wrong way?
Of course there are different types of zoo. In the old days, before we became 'enlightened' in our care for animals, the exhibits of a zoo were managed and acquired in much the same way as paintings or statues in a gallery. Little regard was given for animal welfare and conservation, with most animals having to live in cramped spaces and having little to stimulate them from one mundane day to the next. I visited a zoo in China in the 1990s and more recently Dubai Zoo (an absolute disgrace) and imagined that these were probably reflective of how most zoos around the world would have been forty or fifty years ago.
Illustrious modern zoos (or wild animal parks as they often prefer to be branded) include the famous Singapore Night Safari and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, both of which I have enjoyed visiting. Animals here have far more space and their enclosures are not solely designed as pits with unobstructed public viewpoints. These places manage breeding programmes and place a strong emphasis on promoting awareness of conservation issues, positioning their operations as more educational than entertainment.
A real safari on the other hand is about seeing the animals in an entirely natural habitat. Well, almost. An experienced ranger will know where specific animals are likely to be at a certain time and will often leave 'treats' out so that beast and tourist can cross paths conveniently. As far as is possible the young are conditioned to be comfortable with a jeep being alongside them while they nap, eat or play.
A big part of the safari experience is the opportunity for photography. Most safari-goers will pack a good camera with a big lens, hoping to capture that ultimate close-up photo of a lion eating a zebra with an elephant in the background (or something like it). But safaris are unpredictable and it's quite possible to come away from a game drive having seen little or nothing. It's harder still if you chosen prey is the tiger; visitors to Indian game parks can spend a week on the hunt for even the briefest glimpses of one of these elusive cats.
So is it all about getting the best photo? If so then perhaps a modern zoo may provide the guarantee of animal sightings, and usually in a habitat that vaguely resembles the animal's natural environment. Where a safari wins out for me is that very element of uncertainty, of being in the hands of fate as to whether you catch a sighting of whatever crosses your path that day or whether you come back having seen nothing.
And there's also something humbling about being enclosed on a vehicle while the animals stroll around and observe you with curiosity; as if they are visiting a zoo where you are the exhibit. As a naturally curious person I enjoy observing animals in any environment; but I don't think that the excitement of seeing something unexpected run across your path can ever be recreated, even in a modern zoo.
Read on for the nitty gritty about travelling in Kenya. Includes information on getting to Kenya, vaccination requirements, visas and all importantly the weather and when to go.
Kenya has international airports in Nairobi (Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta NBO) and Mombassa (Mombasa Moi International MBA) which are around 8 hours flying time from the UK. British Airways and Kenya Airways fly regular direct services to Nairobi. Return tickets usually range from £550 to £850 depending on when you are travelling. If you are willing to put up with the inconvenience then cheaper tickets can usually be purchased with a stop from Qatar Airways, Ethiopian and Emirates. Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta airport is a ½ hr 16km drive from Nairobi City Centre, but traffic is often very bad.
There is a good internal flight network whose hub is at Nairobi Wilson Airport. The network mainly serves destinations on the coast and the main national parks. Most safaris and treks include transport in a minibus or 4wd vehicle.
Kenya is subject to 2 rainy seasons, and a busy peak tourist season, but in reality is a year round destination. Most people visit during the summer months of July and August, when the weather is dry and the Maasai Mara is teeming with the Wildebeest migration.
-July and August are peak season with Europeans and Americans making the most of their summer holidays, so expect crowds. However they also fall right after the long rains, so expect lots of lush green.
-September and October play host to the short rains. Rain tends to fall for only a couple of hours in the afternoon or morning, so you shouldn’t let it stop you.
-November, December, January, February and the first half of March are the dry season. Expect hot weather and quiet parks.
-Second half of March, April, May and June plays host to the long rains. During this period it tends to rain through the night and into the morning. It is usually possible to get a dry spell between 10am and 2pm for getting out on safari.
Visas are required for most nationalities (including UK citizens, Americans, Canadians, Austalians and Europeans) and are purchased on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi for £20 (single entry).
Kenyan currency is the Kenyan Shilling. There are ATMs at the airport and in most major Cities.
Vaccinations normally recommended for a trip to Kenya are: diphtheria; tetanus; poliomyelitis; typhoid; hepatitis A; yellow fever. Vaccinations sometimes recommended are: meningococcal meningitis, hepatitis B, rabies, tuberculosis, and cholera. Malaria is present through most of the country and precautions are essential. Check with your doctor or nurse for suitable antimalarial tablets. A good website to check for travel health advice is http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/destinations/africa/kenya.aspx
The Tambopata river, snaking it's way through the jungle is all you could hope from a rainforest waterway; brown, murky and mysterious. With a two and a half hour boat ride up to our jungle lodge, there was plenty of time to sit back, relax and watch the scenery. The week before I went there had been a sighting of a jaguar on the banks of the mighty river. We were not quite so lucky, but were still thrilled with what we did manage to see.
The white and black bird you can see is a King Vulture, a pretty rare spot in the Rainforest. The other birds are common vultures, they have been grazing on a decaying carcass.
We saw quite a few caimans as we motored upstream, basking in the sun.
This is a capivari, a common mammal in the rainforest that looks like an over-sized guinea pig.
And the murkier side to jungle life. Illegal loggers taking wood down river to sell at the markets.
My recent trip to the Tambopata Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon Jungle was an eye opener to me. I have always shied away from trying to take photographs of wildlife and flora, being more of a snap happy photographer, trying to capture people in front of a sight, rather than focussing on non-posed photos. I think I definitely owe myself a photography course, but in the meantime I am really happy with the way these have turned out. These shots were all taken of flora and fauna of the rainforest during an early morning walk through the jungle.
This looks like a flower, but is actually a leaf that has evolved to change colour and take on the form of a flower. It is known as hot lips, although I am sure there is a more serious Latin name.
This mound is a burrow for a cicada nymph, built vertically so they can survive the rising water during the rainy season.
This tree is known as a 'walking tree.' Comptition is so fierce for trees to reach the leaf canopy, that this tree grows elongated roots that allow it to bend and grow in impractical angles to find a space above.
This beautiful insect is an owl butterfly, given the name, presumably, due to the owl-like eye pattern on its wing.
I would like to claim credit for this as a really wild spot, but actually this monkey was hanging out really near to where we staying, in the trees by our lodge.
And finally, for all the arachnid fans out there, a giant spider.
So how does travel work in Kenya? What is a safari and how do you avoid being eaten by lions or squashed by an enraged elephant?. This is part of our introduction to Kenya by the Rough Guide to Kenya author Richard Trillo.
Think of the country, in one sense, like any other: you can travel without restriction all over Kenya, with the exception of parts of the northeast where travel is limited by Somalia’s insecurity and local banditry. Public transport or car hire will do the trick (and you can choose to have a driver/guide rather than doing the driving yourself, but either way you should hire a 4x4). In towns, you can stay overnight in hotels (there are very few campsites outside the parks), which don’t normally need to be booked ahead. If you’re driving a private vehicle, the parks are open to you, though you’ll need to book lodge or tented camp accommodation in advance. A tented camp is a permanent encampment of large tents, usually with floors, furniture, plumbed-in bathrooms and a separate roof for when the heavens open. Don’t forget park fees, which are payable per 24 hours, and usually range from $40 to $75 per day.
Rather than travelling independently, many visitors go on an organised safari – which just means journey in Swahili, so a safari is simply a tour. Most safaris concentrate on the national parks and will include “game drives” for several hours twice a day – after dawn and before dusk – when you leave your lodge or tented camp and set off in search of wildlife. In most of the parks, you can’t leave your vehicle – except of course in the camps, where spear-carrying watchmen look out for inquisitive wildlife – but some parks allow game walks, which gives you the chance to really absorb the natural environment in the company of trained rangers or local Maasai guides.
Kenya’s busiest tourist seasons are July and August and Christmas and New Year, when many lodges and camps are sold out and prices are highest. The best deals are to be had from April to June, during the so-called “long rains” (often a bit of a misnomer), when it sometimes feels as if you have half the country to yourself.
And the question of wildlife danger? The facts are: the wildlife is wild; most parks, and many lodges and camps, are unfenced; and wild animals and people don’t mix well, as a glance at virtually any daily paper will show, with marauding elephants, unseen crocodiles, surfacing hippos and goat-nabbing lions all regularly featured. You need to take care, as accidents do happen, but that’s what Kenya is all about. Guides and other staff will invariably protect you with great skill and devotion, but you can’t make a safari one hundred percent safe. And that’s why travelling here retains its emotional allure: the word exciting might apply to a theme park ride, but it doesn’t come close to describing the experience of travel in Kenya.
On the coast – your entry point if you fly to Kenya by charter flight – it’s the smell that grabs you first, announcing you’ve arrived in the tropics... read more
The first part of Kenya you’ll experience is the urban, where the rich-poor divide is starkest and you can expect a sense of culture shock... read more
Next, the highlands, and Kenya’s western and central highlands rise high enough to escape the climate... you would normally associate with a country sitting astride the equator... read more
Cutting through the middle of the highlands, the Kenyan portion of the Great Rift Valley (which stretches from Jordan to Mozambique) is a giant gash in the earth’s surface... read more
The part of Kenya that receives the most visitors is the southern savanna region. It’s a huge area, dominated culturally by Maasai herders and vast herds of migratory wildlife... read more
The last part in the story of Kenya’s landscapes is the coast. In many ways a separate country, separated from the interior by a hundred-kilometre band of thorny desert... read more