Kenya Road Trip General Characteristics:
Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, providing the potential for endless adventurous and luxurious travel. After living there for three years, I still feel like I have a lifetime of travel I would like to do.
To really get a good feel for the country you will need time, patience, and unfortunately, if you do not live there, some deep pockets. Kenya is an expensive country for travelers, and getting around it is often difficult. However, I highly recommend making the effort, and advise taking your road trip to these six major areas around Kenya.
(1) Nairobi and the Rift Valley. Nairobi is the center of pop culture in East Africa and there are enough trendy restaurants and clubs to keep you busy for a few days (see the Resources section for links). Everyone loves visiting the Elephant Orphanage, and Giraffe Manor. Further, you can safari right in the city, as Nairobi National Park is basically a neighborhood, allowing you to get into the wild very easily.
Just north of Nairobi is Naivasha, which is the easiest place for independent travel in the country. There are houses to rent, nice campsites and boat hires. You can soak in the hot springs, and ride a bicycle through Hells Gate National Park, picnic amongst herds on Crescent Island, take a hike around crater lake, go bird watching on Lake Oloiden, or climb to the peak of Longonot volcano. A couple hours north, Lake Nakuru National Park is wonderful for leopard and rhino sightings. For the adventurous, even further north, the flamingos of Lake Bogoria are amazing when they are there, and Lake Baringo is a wonderful place to relax.
(2) Southern Safari lands. I highly recommend going on safari in Kenya. It is one of the top destinations in the world for a reason. The national parks and reserves are spectacular in the south. If you want to get lost on your own with huge herds of elephants go to Tsavo East National Park, for shots of wildlife with Kilimanjaro looming in the background, Amboseli National Park is amazing. For the best opportunity to see the big five, and for the best vantage point of the great migration, go check out the Mara Triangle (the finest part of the Maasai Mara National Reserve).
(3) Mount Kenya region. This region wins for most underrated region in the country. Starting in the southern part of it, rafting the Tana River is super fun, and going to see the salt licks and waterfalls in the Aberdare National Park offers some of the closest encounters you can have with wildlife, and some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
Laikipia is my favorite area in the region. Specifically, the Lewa Conservancy, which provides the opportunity to see the baby rhinos, but there are a million other things to do there as well. Climbing Mount Kenya is a “must do” for the adventurous. It has the most stunning alpine lakes, and valleys in East Africa. If you can, make it to Meru National Park, where you can watch herds run through the doum palms, and the only other humans you see will be the ones in your car.
(4) The Kenyan coast. Mombasa is the major city, but mainly caters to tourists who want to go clubbing, eat buffet meals, and sit in beach chairs. It also has issues with crime, and occasionally with terrorism, so be aware if this spot is on your list. Otherwise, travelers head south to the much more picturesque beach at Diani, which is also known for its beach party scene and long white sand beaches.
My recommendation is to head north though to Kilifi, which is my favorite spot on the coast. It has a tranquil beach vibe, great swimming and delicious seafood. There are also some remote beach spots just north of Malindi, which are highly regarded, and would also get you off the beaten track (Check out: Barefoot Beach Camp, Che Shale, and Delta Dunes). Lamu is an unique coastal destination certainly worth visiting, but I would fly there from Nairobi as driving is currently not safe.
(5) Northern Deserts. The gateway to the desert is through the epic reserves of Samburu National Reserve, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba. They are teaming with wildlife that come to the Ewaso River. Almost nobody goes further north, but it is super rewarding for those that do. Highlights are the sky islands of the Matthew’s Range, Lake Paradise in Marsabit National Park, and of course Lake Turkana. If you make it to Lake Turkana, go fishing and camping out on Central Island National Park. I would avoid north-eastern Kenya near the Somalia border though, as I do not consider it safe.
(6) Lake Victoria region. This is one of the areas I have explored the least, but it is important as it is the home of the Luhya and Luo tribes, two of the most powerful in Kenya. The land is characterized by beautiful rolling plots of corn, potatoes, and vegetable gardens. The lake shore fishermen land monster Nile perch from little dug-out canoes, and women fry them up. You will not see a lot of travelers here, or tourism infrastructure. However, you can fish giant Nile perch, and there are a number of islands you can go and relax on like Mfangano Island and Takawiri Island.
Further, you can go train with the marathon runners of Iten, climb Mount Mtelo up to Marich Pass, search for Sitatunga antelope in the Saiwa Swamp, or go birding at the Rondo Retreat. Lastly, you would do well to relax in the tea fields of Kericho or Nandi. I am told Kweisos House is the place to stay.
Kenya Road Trip Recommended Timing:
I would recommend about one week per region so you can see two or three spots in it. However, you will easily find yourself wanting to go beyond the highlights here and there, so maybe plan another couple weeks as well. To really experience Kenya, I would recommend a two-month trip.
With the diversity of ecosystems in Kenya, there is not a bad time to visit. Traditionally there has been a long rainy season from about late March through mid-June and then a short rainy season in November and December. Going on safari can be hard in these seasons because the roads are muddy, the bugs are out, and the grass is tall and hard to see through. However, national parks will be less crowded, and lodging prices will be lower. Also note that rain means traffic in Kenya’s urban areas.
However, these weather patterns seem to be changing, and any Kenyan farmer will tell you they cannot be trusted anymore. So it is best to get in touch with people/companies in the country before you go, especially if you are trying to see the great migration, as its dates can with the rainfall.
After the December rains subside, usually around the beginning of the year, skies are clear, and January and February are the best time for climbing Mount Kenya, but August/September are also popular climbing months.
On the coast, the waters are calm and the skies are clear from late December until around March. This is the best time for snorkeling. Fishing season for marlin is best December through April, and then August to October for yellow fin tuna. Note that some coastal resorts shut down in May/June/July because it can be rainy there.
I recommend coming in July through October because that is when the great migration is in the Maasai Mara. It is probably the most spectacular wildlife experience in the world, so I would try and plan to see it.
For more in-depth information on Kenya’s weather and climate: Expert Africa Kenya Weather and Climate.
Kenya Road Trip Driving:
The highways in Kenya are still the worst in East Africa, but major improvements are now being made. The infamous route from Isiolo north to Moyale (the major Ethiopian border crossing) is now paved except for about 10 kilometers near Marsibit. However, the Mombasa Highway from Mombasa to Nairobi is still one of my least favorite roads in the world — mostly for the maniac truck drivers.
Mombasa is the only major port north of Dar es Salaam and Kenya’s railroad system has been decrepit for years (it is also now being upgraded), which means trucks fill the roads from Mombasa to deliver goods throughout Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Many trucks are not road worthy, and drivers will commonly use their size to muscle you around on the road. Further, the local transport vans (matatus) are notoriously bad drivers. Expect to be run-off the road by on-coming traffic, cut-off, and constantly high-beamed at night. Be very aware when driving. The best rule of thumb, is there are not really any rules on the road, so expect that anything can happen at any time.
Traffic is a major problem in most urban centers, and can be ridiculous in both Nairobi and Mombasa. While generally it is worst during rush hours on weekdays, police check points, rallies and accidents can slow it down at any time. The Kenyan policy for a car crash is that neither vehicle should be moved until the police arrive to collect evidence, but that can easily take hours, so crashes become road blocks.
Also be aware of the plethora of speed bumps in the country as they often seem hidden. Many times there are big rocks or branches on the side of the road to mark them, but otherwise you will likely feel them before you see them. Further, most vehicles do not stop at stop signs. If you are going to, make sure to look behind you as you slow down, as the vehicle behind you may not expect you to stop. There are really only a couple traffic lights in the country, situated in the Central Business District of Nairobi. Generally, people obey them during the day, but not at night for security reasons.
Corrupt police are a major issue in Kenya. Police check points are common, so expect to be stopped. Be respectful and calm, and consistently firm with your position. You are supposed to carry a fire extinguisher and emergency triangles in your car, so get them to avoid hassles. If you feel like you are being harassed unfairly it can sometimes be helpful to politely ask to see their identification. They are required to carry it, and if they are trying to do something unlawful, they will be tentative to show it. It gives you a card in the game.
Kenya Road Trip Resources:
- The Kenyan Wildlife Authority (KWS) for information on Kenya’s national parks
- The Kenyan Camper for a wealth of knowledge on the best hiking and camping spots around Kenya
- Herdtracker for the most up-to-date location of the great migration
- Bonfire Adventures is a reputable tour operator that offers safaris for those on a budget
- Living in Nairobi has a lot of great “how to” articles for exploring off the beaten track places
- Join the Nairobi Expats Travel group on Facebook to ask travel questions to local experts
- Expat-to-Expat offers support services to expats, and can recommend a trusted mechanic in Nairobi and they also rent cars
- Trek Mount Kenya for great local guides for Mount Kenya, but also for general travel in Kenya
- Mount Suswa Guided Tours Reuben can host you in a traditional Maasai manyatta, and take you hiking around Suswa Crater and to the caves
- Kilifi Konnection to splurge and rent a holiday house on the Kenyan coast, just do it!
- James Saitoti is an excellent local guide for the Maasai Mara if you have your own vehicle. You can reach him at (+254 7064 90563)
- John Kanaiya from the Maasai Enkereri village just outside of the Oloololo Gate of the Mara Triangle can arrange for you to stay there in a traditional house. He can be reached at: KanaiyaJohn@gmail.com but I would recommend calling him at (+254 7126 16919)
Websites for Kenyan pop culture, events around Nairobi:
Kenya Road Trip Favorites Experiences:
Wilderness: The Mara Triangle during the great migration might be the best wildlife experience in the world. My favorite campsite is on Central Island National Park, and hanging out with baby rhinos in Lewa or baby elephants in Umani Springs is something you will tell your grandchildren about.
Adventure: Climb Mount Kenya! I recommend taking the Sirimon route up and descending through the scenic Mackinder Valley on the Chogoria route. Plan three to four days depending on your fitness.
Relaxing: If you can splurge, Elsa’s Kopje in Meru National Park is exceptional. If you can get a group together, rent Pehoni House in Kilifi, or if you like trout fishing go to Rutundu log cabins.
Local Culture: Go stay in the Enkereri Maasai village just outside the Oloololo Gate of the Mara Triangle, or go hiking and stay in a traditional Maasai manyatta with Reuben in Mount Suswa.
Culinary: Barefoot Beach Camp, or the gourmet seafood meals the chefs at the Lamu Holiday Homes prepare.
Kenya Road Trip Travel Difficulties:
English and Swahili are spoken commonly around the country. You can get around without difficulty just speaking English, and learning some simple phrases in Swahili will make your experience a little better, and can help with bargaining. Internet is the best in East Africa, and it is common for lodges to have wifi (although often with slow connections). You can also get a local SIM (Safaricom is the best) easily in most towns (bring your passport), and have data service through most of the country, but generally not in the national parks.
Crime is an issue in Kenya, especially in Nairobi and Mombasa. I would recommend taking Uber at night in these places, unless you are already familiar with the area you are planning to go, as it is easy to get lost in places you do not want to be after dark. Limit the valuables you are carry with you when you are walking, even during the day in these areas, and watch out for the beach boys on the coast.
Kenya has gotten a lot of bad press for the ongoing terrorist attacks that have happened there over the past years. However, the danger of driving on the roads, and robbery/theft, are much more salient risks than the occasional attack. If terrorism does concern you, you can limit your risk by staying away from the malls on the weekends, and the nightclubs around Mombasa at night as those have been targeted in the past. You can also sign-up for the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings email list, which will alert you if warnings are heightened. However, the information they give is usually very general, and the best strategy is to consistently keep asking people where ever you are if there are any security issues you should be aware of.
ATMs are common in most mid-sized towns, so cash should not be a problem. However, besides upscale tourism outfits and supermarkets, people seldom use cards, and fees are generally very high, so be prepared.
Kenya Road Trip Wish List:
While I was lucky to experience a lot in Kenya, I still left with many items on my wish list.
- Hike through the Sky Islands of the Matthew’s Range (Lenkiyio Hills)
- Explore around Mike’s Camp in Kiwayu on the remote coast bordering Somalia
- Swim with the dolphins and snorkel the reefs at Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park
- Explore the sand dunes where the Tana River meets the Indian Ocean at Delta Dunes
- Count the stars in the Loisaba Star Beds
- Take Kite Surfing Lessons at Che Shale
- Go check out the cave elephants in Mount Elgon National Park
- Take an aerial safari over the sand dunes of the Suguta Valley, and the Nabiyotum Volcano at the southern end of Lake Turkana.
- Watch orphaned baby elephants reintegrate into the wild at Ithumba Camp
- Rent Tandala House with a group of friends
Have I missed anything? Email me (Mike@nomadicnature.com) and I will review it for inclusion!
My Series of Articles on Kenya:
Other African Road Trip Tips Articles:
Nomadic by Nature African Road Trip Tips