Lay of the Land
“There’s no sky as big as this one anywhere else in the world. It hangs over you, like some kind of gigantic umbrella, and takes your breath away. You are flattened between the immensity of the air above you and the solid ground. It’s all around you, 360 degrees: sky and earth one the aerial reflection of the other.”~Francesca Marciano
Kenya is not only one of Africa’s most fascinating and multi-layered countries, it also offers incredible geographic diversity: within its sprawling borders, you can experience everything from glacial mountains to tropical atolls; from vast savannas to the Great Rift Valley, carved by ancient volcanic activity. This is the Africa of romantic mythology, of golden plains dotted with acacia trees flattened by grazing giraffe; of tall Masai warriors whose red robes and beads blaze like beacons in the monochromatic landscape; of great herds of migrating animals flowing across the Mara. This is the literary Africa of Karen Blixen and Ernest Hemingway and aviator Beryl Markham, who all wrote about the country with a depth of feeling that continues to enchant travelers today.
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city, is the first port of call for most international travelers, whether they’re headed on safari or to the storied Indian Ocean coastline. While the city’s vast slums, pollution and roads snarled with traffic can overwhelm the first-time visitor, Nairobi still contains some treasures. Some of the country’s most acclaimed hotels – like Giraffe Manor – call Nairobi home (along with stylish newcomer Emakoko, set on a ridge overlooking a river in Nairobi National Park), as do up-close-and-personal wildlife experiences at places like the Giraffe Centre and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage. It’s also a great place to shop for authentic African souvenirs and to check out local designers, like Anna Trzebinski, who are bringing a new sophistication and worldliness to Kenyan design. However, crime and car jackings are frequent so we suggest only traveling with a local operator and avoiding unsafe areas.
Most safari enthusiasts will set their compass for the Masai Mara, a 583 square mile national reserve in the country’s southwest. Some of the country’s best safari lodges are found within and around the park, each positioned to take advantage of the tremendous year-round game viewing opportunities. The most famous of these is the annual Great Migration, during which millions of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles make their way from the southern section of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Mara, pursued by hosts of predators, including the big cats. The herds generally cross over from Tanzania into Kenya from June to September. Many tour companies also incorporate visits to local villages with their safaris, a wonderful chance to meet and interact with Masai people, who face unique challenges and opportunities in a fast-changing East Africa.
Southeast of Nairobi and The Mara, bordering Tanzania, is Amboseli, so-called “Land of the Giants” for its large population of elephants. Here you’ll find wide plains, sustainably-minded luxury camps like Kampi ya Kanzi, and sublime views of one of the Africa’s most beautiful landmarks, snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, situated just over the border in Tanzania.
The Laikipia Conservancy, meanwhile, is the gateway to Kenya’s northern frontiers, a land of sprawling private ranches known for vigorous conservation efforts, particularly in the protection of the country’s extremely endangered rhino population. (It’s a great alternate destination for those wanting to escape the crowds of more popular wildlife viewing regions like the Masai Mara.) Further north is Samburu, a sparsely populated and lovely reserve whose lodges revolve around the mighty Ewaso Nyiro river, a magnet for a host of species from elephants to leopards.
While most first-timers to Kenya will gravitate to the interior, with its wildlife and endlessly photo-worthy landscapes, repeat visitors often head to the coast. A highlight is Lamu, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean where traditional wooden dhows, ancient ruins and stunning 14th century old town — whose storied streets have attracted Portuguese explorers, Turkish traders and Omani Arabs — make for an intoxicating side-trip.