Whether it’s your first safari or your tenth, embarking on a mission to find the famous Big 5 is often the highlight of a trip to the wilds of Africa. From the thrill of tracking elusive leopards and black rhino to the sheer splendour of gazing upon herds of bathing elephants and watching grumpy Cape buffalo seeing off a pride of hungry lions, there’s nothing quite like an African safari.
Safari in Kenya, is one of the best opportunities to spot the Big Five, and the experienced guides and world-class game reserves make for a holiday of a lifetime.
Here's a quick recap of what makes up the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino (technically black but many count both black and white) and buffalo. The Big Five were originally named such as they were considered by hunters the biggest and most dangerous animals to kill - luckily for these animals, shooting has now been replaced with photography safaris, but the allure to see these 'big five' animals remains.
Proudly situated in the Rift Valley in southwest Kenya, the Masai Mara is home to the Big 5, as well as large families of hippos, hyenas, and topi. The list goes on. There are no fences in the Mara which allows the animals to roam free between the Masai Mara National Reserve and the private conservancies which also form part of the Masai Mara.
The far-reaching views across the open savannah make it easy to spot the big cats. The Masai Mara is famous for its high concentration of cats and you can see lions, leopards and cheetahs here. You might see them resting in the shade of a lone tree or out stalking the millions of wildebeest and zebra that arrive with the migration between July and October.
Whilst rhinos are found in the Masai Mara, the sheer size of the park can mean that these are a little harder to come across as their numbers are still relatively low (keep reading for our rhino hot spots).
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the enormous scale of the migration is by air. This is a perfect location for hot air balloon flights, and an excellent excuse to drink champagne far earlier than is normally socially acceptable. What’s not to love?
Where to stay
If you want to stay in the main Masai Mara National Reserve, Governors Camp is always a popular favourite. One of the oldest camps in Kenya and located in the Mara Triangle near the Mara river, this tented camp offers a traditional safari experience with the chance to see wildlife straight from your tent.
The Masai Mara also has wonderful private conservancies which allow safari-goers some extra freedom such as the chance to go off-road or do night drives. Saruni Mara in the Mara North conservancy offers a luxury lodge experience where guests can enjoy bush breakfasts, sundowners, guided walks and massages. Whilst Saruni Mara can offer romance, it is also popular for a Kenyan family holiday thanks to its bush school and warrior academy.
2. Amboseli National Park
Amboseli is another popular park, and the place to go for those picture postcard views of elephants trundling across the plains with the magnificent backdrop of a snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. Don’t forget your camera!
Home to over 50 animal species, Amboseli is known as the ‘Land of the Giants’ thanks to the large herds of elephants who roam the sun-baked savannah. It’s quite a rare spectacle, especially if you’re lucky enough to encounter some of the famous large tuskers.
These unobstructed views allow for superb game viewing, and there’s a good chance of seeing lions, leopards and even cheetahs. It’s great for bird watching too with over 400 species to keep an eye out for.
Where to stay
Porini Amboseli is a small, intimate camp with 10 tents. It offers a charming, traditional safari experience with friendly, warm staff.
3. Tsavo National Parks
Tsavo has come a long way since the infamous man-eating lions of 1898. Today, Tsavo East and Tsavo West are vast, wild and perfectly safe for safaris. It’s not always easy to spot the Big 5 here, but they are there, and the difficultly just makes it even more exciting. The fun of safaris is in the anticipation as much as the sighting. Those who persevere will be rewarded with rhinos, leopards, buffalo and yes, lions.
Tsavo West is also a popular place to watch elephants sand bathing in the red dust, rolling about and creating quite a spectacle. You’ll also find hippos bathing here too (although this time in water!) and well as the ever-present crocodiles lurking in the shallows.
4. Lake Nakuru National Park
It’s not often you get to see black and white rhinos against a backdrop of pink flamingos, but here at Lake Nakuru it’s a common sight. The lake is famous for its enormous flamingo flocks who enjoy the shallow alkaline waters, and there are often more than a million of the birds nesting there. That’s a lot of pink!
Whilst it doesn’t feel as wild or untamed as many of the other game reserves and parks in Kenya, Lake Nakuru is good for year-round visits, and the chances of spotting giraffe, lion, hippo, warthog and ostrich are high.
Where to stay
Loldia House is a charming private farm, situated on its own private 6,000-acre ranch on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The staff are warm and welcoming, tea is served every afternoon on the terrace and wild animals roam free on the farm. A wonderful, traditional home from home to relax in.
5. Lewa Conservancy
The Lewa Conservancy is a private wildlife reserve which was established to protect the endangered black rhino and also the rare Grevy’s zebra. There are now over 60 mammal species so visitors can enjoy a well-rounded safari experience here. As well as vehicle safaris and bush walks, it’s also a fabulous location to indulge in a bit of wildlife viewing with a difference – by horse or even camel. As well as discovering gazelles, lions and leopards, there are also reticulated giraffes, Beisa oryx and the huge eland living here at Lewa.
As the day heats up many of these animals gather at the swamp areas to drink, and this is where you’ll come across large herds of elephants, sometimes over a hundred at the same time.
Where to stay
If you are looking for a little bit of luxury, Lewa Wilderness is a real treat. Beautifully designed thatched cottages which overlook the Lewa plains, a relaxed feel where you can help yourself to tea and coffee in the lounge, or something stronger from the bar and a myriad of activities on offer to guests from horse riding to walking safaris.
Combine multiple areas
If you want to maximise your chances of seeing the Big Five, we'd highly recommend combining two safari areas. This has the added benefit that you get to experience two different landscapes and lodges, as well as increasing the wildlife you see. The Masai Mara is particularly known for its high volume of cats, Lewa and Samburu for rhinos, Amboseli for elephants etc so by covering a couple of areas, you're more likely to tick more animals off your list.
A 'beach and bush' holiday remains an enduring classic with Diani beach and Lamu popular spots to relax after the early morning rises during your safari.