Masai Mara is “The” park of parks in Kenya. Its grass-carpeted smooth hills, the chocolate Mara river waters with frolicking hippos, as well as the rich faunal diversity, fulfill the expectations of any visitor searching the African landscapes portraited in motion pictures such as “Out of Africa” or “Mogambo”. Save particular tastes or special requirements, this is the park on top of the “must” list in the country: no trip to Kenya would be complete without a visit to Masai Mara. True that it’s not the best park for birdwatching, and true that some species are not easily found. However, leopards and rhinos abound, and with more than 450 bird species, the reserve should not be envious of Samburu or the great Kenyan bird sanctuaries. Albeit, in an area only slightly smaller than the State of Rhode Island and with a diverse and complex geography, getting lost is far easier than finding a leopard or sighting a given bird species in its multiple woods.
The reserve, gazetted in 1961, is located west of the Rift Valley and is a natural extension of the Serengeti plains, in Tanzania. The Mara river, the reserve’s backbone, traverses north to south heading for its westbound way unto lake Victoria, through the Tanzanian park. This course is the natural barrier crossed every year by the large migratory herds of wildebeests and zebras which march across the two parks. As explained below, more than one million wildebeests and 200,000 zebras move in a quest for the best pastures, finding along the way the crocodile-crowded river. When the herds ford the stream, many animals die flattened or drowned and leave their bones by the Mara banks. From July to October, Masai Mara is at its peak, with the seasonal visitors populating the vast grasslands.
Masai Mara is located 270 km west of Nairobi, at a remote southwestern corner of the country, right at the edge of the Tanzanian border. The fact that there is no major road to the reserve, joined to Masai Mara’s geography itself, split into two by the river, makes it advisable to study the route for each particular situation. The optimal way for each case will depend not only on the place of departure, but on the destination as well, whether it lies outside or inside the reserve, and in the latter case, whether at the eastern or western sector.
LAKE NAKURU NP
Nakuru is one of the alkaline Rift Valley lakes and a fantastic bird sanctuary, its shores populated at times by more than one million flamingoes. The famous ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson defined it as “the greatest bird spectacle on earth”. The fortunate sentence has now become a cliché and is used up to fed-up-ism for promotional purposes. Sadly, along the past years flamingoes have vanished sporadically to reappear later in a similarly weird way, but flocks are now greatly reduced.
The park was gazetted in 1968, but since 1961 there was a bird sanctuary at the lake’s south sector. With the support of the World Wildlife Fund, Kenyan government started a plan to purchase the adjacent grounds in order to widen the protected area. In 1964 the sanctuary yet included the whole lake, whose surface varies from 5 to 40 km², in addition to a shore strip. Since its gazetting as a national park, both authorities and conservation organisations have kept on winning the battle to private property and human settlings, further broadening the park limits in 1968 and 1974 to its current extension of 188 km².
The lake and the city of Nakuru are located on the bed of the Rift Valley, 156 km northwest of Nairobi. The road connecting the two cities, the A104, is a tarred and busy route, since it is the main communication artery other than railroad between the country’s capital and the valley. The heavy traffic makes it also a dangerous route with a high accident rate, so if you drive, drive safely.
The Nairobi-Nakuru road is the starting route for many safaris. Therefore, plenty of visitors get their first sight of the Kenyan landscape from here. Not a bad place. Suddenly, at the turn of a bend at the highlands’ rim, the earth opens up to the huge Rift Valley emptiness. Beside the stands offering their curios, a wooden lookout with a weak look displays a breathtaking view. The visitor obtains here a first impression of the primary role of the Rift Valley in East Africa’s physical geography. Some hundreds of meters below, the acacia-scattered Kedong Valley bed conveys a neat and archetypical snapshot of the African landscape. Farther away, you get a glimpse of Mount Longonot, Hell’s Gate national park and Lake Naivasha.
Lake Baringo is part of the Great Rift Valley, the Earth’s great scar, which in Kenya is fringed by a string of lakes. After the huge Turkana, Baringo is the northernmost and the largest, with 130 km². Together with Naivasha, Baringo offers the only freshwater shallow in the Kenyan Rift.
The lake is not officially ranked as a protected area, but it is the shelter for more than 400 bird species that give the area its main attractive. The lake is -or used to be- a quiet and solitary oasis embedded in the abrupt and arid land that foresees the northern deserts. Until the end of the 19th century, Baringo and Bogoria were only visited by the slaves caravans; the remains of Fort Baringo, dating back to these years, are still visible there. The lake was first described by Joseph Thomson in 1883. Nine years later, in 1892, the English geologist J.W. Gregory explained the Rift Valley creation from his observations at Baringo.
Tourism in the area has increased over the past years, hence Baringo is no longer a place off the beaten track. Still, at the lake’s shores you can enjoy a peaceful mood very different from the most crowded parks. Its chocolate waters, stained with the region’s soil, change in tonality along the day and depending on the sky’s colour. After the sunset, the visitor can watch the hippos emerging from the water to graze in noisy groups at the moonlit pastures.
The lake is also populated with crocodiles, considered harmless by the local Njemps people, paranilotic fishers and shepherds related with the Maasai that speak a dialect of the Maa language. The Njemps sail the lake in small boats and dip into the water for fishing, while crocodiles wander about with the same purpose. The locals state that fish abundance has supported the croc population in such a way that the reptiles have forgotten the taste for mammal’s meat. In fact, the high fish concentration has accustomed the Njemps themselves to this kind of food, which is not very frequent among the pastoral tribes.
Accessing Baringo from Nairobi, 307 km away, in a single daytime is not the wisest choice. The easiest daytrip is from Nakuru, only 125 km away and with a good tarred road. Eldoret is 138 km off the lake, but the road is much worse. If you make it from Samburu, the 300 km of rough to terrible roads bind you to a midway overnight stop, for instance at Maralal reserve. Obviously, a comfortable journey is from Bogoria, but the lack of accommodation here advices right the opposite, make Bogoria as a daytrip from Baringo.
Driving from Nairobi, take the A104 heading for Naivasha, Gilgil and Nakuru. Some 30 km past Nakuru you will turn right to the B4, toward Kampi Ya Moto, Bogoria, Marigat and Kampi Ya Samaki, the latter town being at the lakeshore 2 km away from the main road. The road is tarmac up to the north tip of the lake.
Lake Bogoria is a saline water shallow located at the northern region of the Kenyan Rift, 25 km south of Baringo. The reserve covers the lake and adjacent lands, with 107 km². In the Colony days the lake was known by the name of its discoverer, the Kampala bishop James Hannington, who in 1885 was the first European to sight this place while he was heading for his diocese following Thomson’s route. This would be the glory day for the priest, but also his last journey, since upon reaching Lake Victoria he was murdered by order of the cruel king of Buganda, Mwanga II.
If Baringo is increasingly attracting more visitors because of its plentiful birdlife, Bogoria is, or at least it was until few years ago, a place where the visitor can enjoy the spectacular African scenery in full solitude. Except for ornithology lovers, who don’t forgive the pilgrimage to Baringo, this region is quite off the most common itineraries, specially the one-weekers. The reason is that Bogoria is far from outstanding for its mammals’ wildlife, the paramount objective for most tourists. Albeit, whether I had to choose a single park for which just the beauty of the landscape is worth a visit, it would probably be this one.
J.W. Gregory, the English geologist who travelled the region in 1892, blessed the site as “the most beautiful view in Africa”. He wasn’t off track. The lake displays a superb scenery of bluish hills populated with dry bush, grasslands and riverine forests, framing the calm water shallow pinned with flamingoes. Beyond the eastern shore, the soil rises abruptly to 600 m in the Laikipia Escarpment. At the opposite edge, the earth forms strangely coloured swampy crusts, which break up in deep gaps spitting stinky sulphur waters and steam jets. The close-up geysers, the pink brushstrokes of the flamingoes on the lake and farther the dramatic backdrop of the Laikipia Escarpment, convey a hardly beatable aesthetical composition. But watch out, don’t get too close, the signposts warning “Stop – danger zone – go back” are serious: the earth collapses under your feet and beneath there is boiling water.
Lake Naivasha is a beautiful freshwater lake, fringed by thick papyrus. The lake is almost 13kms across, but its waters are shallow with an average depth of five metres. Lake area varies greatly according to rainfall, with an average range between 114 and 991 sq kms. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Naivasha completely dried up and effectively disappeared. The resulting open land was farmed, until heavy rains a few years later caused the lake to return to existence, swallowing up the newly established estates.
The lake and its surrounds are rich in natural bounty, and the fertile soils and water supply have made this one of Kenya’s prime agricultural regions.
Much of the lake is surrounded by forests of the yellow barked Acacia Xanthophlea, known as the yellow fever tree. These forests abound with bird life, and Naivasha is known as a world class birding destination.
The waters of the lake draw a great range of game to these shores. Giraffes wander among the acacia, Buffalo wallow in the swamps and Colobus monkeys call from the treetops while the Lakes large hippo population sleep the day out in the shallows.The region surrounding the Lake is well worth exploring. There are two more smaller lakes nearby, Oloidien, and Sonachi, a bright green cater lake.
Hell’s Gate National Park lies beside the lake. This Park was named for its pair of massive red tinged cliffs framing a geothermically active interior of steam vents and bubbling springs. The park is home to a profusion of plains game and birdlife. Walking is permitted, making it ideal for hiking, biking, and rock climbing.
Main road access to Naivasha is directly from Nairobi by bus/Matatu or private transport. The main highway continues from Naivasha to Nakuru. Naivasha is just over an hour from Nairobi. There is an airstrip in Naivasha, with charter flights available. Some lodges and guesthouses here have private airstrips. Many hotels and lodges here can organize transfers from Nairobi to Naivasha. See the Accommodation section for details.
Although the Kakamega has been a protected area for a long time, it was declared a national reserve in May, 1985. It is the only natural tropical rainforest left in Kenya today – quite a change from the olden times when dense rainforest covered West Africa and Central Africa, extending to the walls of the Great Rift Valley. The Kakamega Forest National Reserve covers an area of about 240 square kilometers. The terrain includes hardwood forest, swamps and rivers, glades and shallow forests around the edges. It is located about 418 kilometers from Nairobi. The rainforest is old and impressive – some of the trees are easily over a hundred years old. Some of the trees in the region include Elgon teak, red and white stink woods, varieties of Croton, Aniageria Altisima and orchids. There are about 380 species of plants in the reserve.
For visitors, the best time to visit the park is during the rainy season (April-July) when the flowers are blooming. Accommodation is provided at the park in the form of a guesthouse, self-help bandas and two campsites. Also, the Rondo Retreat has recently been opened, and there are hotels available outside the reserve. Visitors can enjoy the beauty of the park by walking on its nature trails, camping, picnicking and even going out on night-time game walks. The trails cover about 7 km and visitors are accompanied by guides. The highest point in the forest – Buyango Hill – is recommended for hikers.
Aberdare national park is located in the range of the same name, described by Joseph Thomson in 1883 during his journey through the Maasai Land. Kikuyu people still use the range’s traditional name, Nyandarua. From 1947 to 1956, the misty and rainy forests in the range served as a hide for the Mau-Mau guerrilla. The park was gazetted in 1950 with an extension of 584 km², but was afterwards enlarged to 770 km², making it the third largest park in the country.
The Aberdare range, 160 km long, is located in the Central Highlands, Central Province, west of Mount Kenya and north of Nairobi, serving as the Kenyan Rift Valley’s east wall. The national park comprises a longitudinal strip from south to north, with a projection toward the east denominated The Salient, that runs down to an altitude of 2,130 m, near the town of Nyeri. The Salient has its origin in an ancient migratory route of elephants between the range and Mount Kenya.
The park is the highest in all Africa, since most of the plateau is located above an altitude of 3,000 m. The highest peaks in the park are the Kinangop, with 3,906 m, and the Oldonyo Lesatima, “the mountain of the young bull” in the Maa language of the Maasai, with 4,001 m. The landscape is dominated by deeply foggy rain forest, which confers the park a fairyland atmosphere. Trouts breed in the mountain streams, that burst down spectacular waterfalls, like the Keruru Kahuru of 270 m and the Gura of 240 m in the South area, or the Chania Falls in the central sector of the park. Due to the high humidity, the tracks crossing the park are muddy for a large part of the year.
Aberdare contains a rich botanic wealth, a mixture of equatorial exuberance and alpine vegetation. Above the 2,000 m level, the rain forest gives way to the bamboo jungles, that at 3,000 m become mountain prairies in which groundsel and giant lobelias grow high.
Formerly, visits to Aberdare national park were arranged only in organised groups escorted by a park ranger, or either appointing the visit in advance by contacting the Park Warden, Aberdare National Park, P.O. Box 22, Nyeri. Private access is granted nowadays, but only 4WD vehicles are authorised into the park.
The park is 100 km from Nairobi and 17 km northwest of Nyeri. From Nairobi there are several buses to Nyeri, but there is no public transport from this town to the park gates.
SAMBURU AND SHABA NP
The complex formed by Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba reserves is one of the most interesting places in Kenya and can be ranked as unique for several reasons. They are the most accessible and visited of the protected areas in the country’s rough north, right at the edge of what was formerly called NFD or Northern Frontier District. Or, in other words, they are the most remote and unaccessible among the most popular reserves. It is also the place to see some species which are rare in Kenya or difficult to spot in other parks, since they only dwell above the Equator. Among them are Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and Beisa Oryx.
Unfortunately, these three reserves are also the most flagrant example of a practice I personally find excessive, even for such a good cause as nature conservation. Samburu and Buffalo Springs are adjacent reserves, separated solely by a river. Since this stream sets the border between two different districts and reserves are run by district authorities, in principle you are bound to pay the entrance fee to both reserves separately, when they are in fact a single natural unit. Funny enough, the chance to cross from one to another without paying the double fee seems to rely exclusively on the rangers’ whims, obviously leaving aside that other counterpractice of “tipping”, which I personally reject. There is a bridge across the river some 3 km upstream Samburu Lodge.
Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba are located some 300 km north of Nairobi, 325 km in the case of Samburu. Due to the roads’ conditions, it is a mad task to cover the distance in a single journey, therefore it is a good idea to stay overnight somewhere along the way, for example in Mount Kenya. From here there are 70 km to Shaba, 85 km to Buffalo Springs and 90 km to Samburu.
HELL’S GATE NP
Hell’s Gate National Park is located 90 km from Nairobi, and covers an area of about 68 square kilometers. Opened in 1984, the park is suitable for a day trip from Nairobi, or as a stopover en route to the Masai Mara Reserve. The park is located at an altitude of about 5,000-7,000 ft above sea level. Visitors to this park are offered a wide range of activities, ranging from driving, walking, camping, rock climbing and even horseback safaris. There are three camping sites. Hell’s Gate is well known for its hot geysers. Popular tourist spots within the park include Fisher’s Tower, Central Tower and Njorowa Gorges. There are extinct volcanoes such as Olkaria and Hobley’s. Moreover, a black glassy rock called Obsidian forms from the cool molten lava. Visitors can observe animals like the buffalo, Masai giraffe, eland, Coke’s hartebeest, lion, leopard, and cheetah. Moreover, there are over 103 species of birds in the park, including vultures, Verreaux’s Eagles, augur buzzard and swifts. Finally, there is also a Masai Cultural Center for educating visitors about the culture and traditions of the Masai tribe.
Meru National Park lies about 80 kms east of Meru town and can be reached by a farily good road passing through green farmland and the rolling Nyambene Hills. Of all of Kenya’s national parks and reserves, Meru likely has the greatest variety of habitats and landscapes within its bounds.
Savannah, forest and swamp can all be found in the reserve which is dissected by at least 15 seasonal rivers, including the Tana River. Meru’s proximity to Mount Kenya and the Nyambene’s contribute to the Park’s good rainfall, particularly in its western sections. The eastern section of the park is generally more arid. There is a great variety of wildlife at Meru, including elephant, cheetah, leopard.
Meru National Park is perhaps most famous as the place where Elsa, the lioness, was returned to the wild in Joy Adamson’s famous book Born Free.
The main route into the park is from Meru along the C91 to Murera Gate. It is also possible to enter the Park via the Ura Gate, from the C92 Meru – Tunya road and a small track from C92 to Gatunga. Once within the park, the western section is well marked and accessible by tracks throughout, while the eastern sections require good four wheel drive vehicles.
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