For most safari-seeking travelers, arriving amidst the chaos of Kenya’s urban metropolises can come as a shock.
Take Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. As East Africa’s most cosmopolitan city it certainly has a lot going for it, but there’s no doubt the sweltering air and congested roads are a world away from the serenity of the African savannah that many imagine the region is all about.
After living in Kenya for several months, it’s fair to say that I found the country’s rural regions to be particularly captivating. Getting out of the sprawling cities lets you really discover the country’s beauty and its diverse cultures.
Here, the culture is rich, the wildlife wild, and the landscapes simply breathtaking. For starters, you can travel to remote villages where locals are so welcoming your heart will be captured before you’ve had time to say “Jambo!”.
What else? Well, I’ll tell you exactly what Kenya’s rural regions have in store…
Kenya’s cultural immersion
Away from the cosmopolitanism of Nairobi, Kenyan tribal cultures become more distinct. Some of the largest tribes – Maasai, Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin – have fascinating ancient traditions that have been practiced and preserved for hundreds of years.
Head south from Nairobi and you’ll enter Maasai land and the world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve. Traditionally, Maasai people are semi-nomadic, moving their animals from pasture to pasture and living in the bush in mud and grass houses known as inkajijiks.
I recommend going on a local-led tour of a Maasai boma to better understand how traditional Maasai communities live, sleep, hunt, eat and dress. On my trip to Kenya last year, a Maasai community in Southern Kenya greeted me with a celebratory welcome song and dance, performed by men dressed in red and black checked shukas and women heavily laden with brightly-coloured, beaded jewellery.
Exposure to this kind of culture is unique to the rural regions of East Africa (check out the Samburu, Turkana and Swahili communities too) so it’s well worth travelling into the bush for an educational, unforgettable experience.
It’s worth noting that if you visit with Intrepid, a local elder will deliver a fascinating talk about the Maasai and their history and culture. You’ll also be shown around a traditional Maasai home and can see where the resident cattle are kept.
Kenya’s spectacular safari
No matter how many David Attenborough documentaries you’ve watched, nothing quite prepares you for the thrill of seeing real, untamed beasts in the wild.
The best way to discover Kenya’s incredibly diverse wildlife is to take a safari – not only is it the safest and most responsible way of seeing wild animals, it also allows you to travel across vast savannah plains without boundaries or fences between you and the animals. Take it from me, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported into a magical scene of The Lion King as you ride alongside herds of majestic elephants and graceful giraffes.
For any keen explorer wanting to spot the Big Five – lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino and African elephant – in their natural habitat, Kenya’s world-class national parks are a must-visit.
I advise travelling south to Amboseli National Park which promises sightings of elephants and lions against the striking backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Alternatively, head to Lake Nakuru National Park for your chance to see the critically endangered, Jurassic-like white and black rhino, as well as the lake’s iconic flamingos. If you’re in the area, check out nearby Lake Naivasha, where you’ll notice a thriving hippo population, as well as an abundance of exotic bird species such as kingfishers, herons and jacanas that live in the papyrus swamps. (You can visit both lakes on this trip.)
If you’re looking to witness a truly spectacular natural phenomenon, I recommend catching the annual great migration of wildebeest as they travel clockwise around the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem each year. Here, your senses will be bombarded by the stomping, bellowing herds of an one million or so wildebeest as they seek greener pastures in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve.
Undoubtedly, veering off the beaten track allows for the rawest encounters with wildlife. So, go ditch that wifi and power shower and head out on safari – you’re guaranteed an experience that will stay with you forever.
Kenya’s diverse landscapes
Perhaps less synonymous with Kenya’s typical image is its diversity of stunning rural landscapes. Leaving behind the melange of Nairobi’s concrete jungle, you’ll find breathtaking views of the Great Rift Valley which gives way to some of the country’s finest mountains, lakes and open plains.
From the snow-capped peak and leafy green slopes of Mount Kenya to the glistening waters of Lake Victoria, the variety of panoramic pictures you can snap in Kenya might surprise you!
On top of this, Kenya’s coastline is a haven of tropical, white sandy beaches. I’d recommend heading to Lamu Island for a blissful, rustic, car-free retreat. Expect to be welcomed like an old friend by the locals with “Karibu Lamu!” and offered hot chai and chapatti in one of the thatched-roof cafes.
Lamu boasts charming Swahili architecture, winding streets and rounded houses. With a vista defined by cobalt blue sea and palm trees all over, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were in Kenya at all.
Whatever your reason for visiting – whether it be to meet a Maasai warrior or spot a mighty African elephant – to experience the best of Kenya I advise you dodge the jam-packed cities and embrace the delights of the rural regions.
Tempted? Check out our range of small group adventures in Kenya.
(All images c/o Intrepid Travel, except Lamu Island c/o iStock)