16 Things To Know Before Your First Visit To Kenya

Kenya is an East African country that straddles the equator and is approximately the size of France. The land has several distinct zones, including semi-desert, savannah, moorland, wetlands, and rainforests. In these habitats live over 25,000 species of animals, 1,000 species of birds, and 7,000 species of plants and trees. As such, Kenya is a popular destination for an African Safari in search of the “Big Five”: Cape buffalo, black rhinos, leopards, lions, and elephants.

Recently, I spent two weeks in Kenya. The first week, I lived with a family in Nairobi, and the second week, I went on a six-day safari.

On your first trip to Kenya, there are some “crucial things to know” and some “nice things to know.” From a ban on single-use plastics to where not to take photos, here are the 11 crucial things to know before your first trip to Kenya followed by the five that are nice to know.

1. Kenya Requires A Visa

Apply for your visa at least 30 days in advance of your trip. The application is available online and is quite detailed. For example, you need addresses, phone numbers, and websites for all your accommodations. You also need to provide a travel itinerary, proof of a return air ticket, and a recent color photograph. Kenya’s visa is valid for 3 months from the date of issue.

Check your passport to be sure it is valid for at least 6 months after your trip. Kenya requires at least one clear page in your passport.

I also registered with the U.S. State Department travel site. While in Kenya, I received a notification of a planned demonstration the next day. We chose to avoid that area.

2. Kenya Has A Ban On Single-Use Plastics

Kenya has been a leader on the environmental issue of banning single-use plastics. Prohibited items include plastic bags, water bottles, and straws. Arriving at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, your luggage is x-rayed and possibly hand-searched. You can be fined if you have any single-use plastics. I recommend you purchase convenient reusable mesh bags for packing.

Two giraffes in the wild (Photo Credit: Jo-Anne Bowen)

2. Carefully Check Your Safari Itinerary

Our 6-day safari included four parks: Amboseli, Aberdare, Lake Nakuru, and Masai Mara. That is far too much driving — there were several days when we were in the vehicle for 6 to 8 hours just to reach one of the parks. I recommend on a 6-day safari to visit two parks and stay at each for 2 to 3 days. Of the four that we visited, I recommend two. These are the places we saw the most animals. My first recommendation is Sarova Mara Game Camp at Masai Mara Game Reserve. The site has 73 tents, a restaurant, a spacious bar and lounge, a swimming pool, and a great gift shop. The food is fabulous! My second recommendation is The Ark at Aberdare National Park, which overlooks a waterhole and salt lick. This location, of course, draws much wildlife to the area. The Ark has four viewing areas and several lounges for supreme viewing opportunities. If you wish, the night guard will announce sightings of unusual animals. 

Pro Tip: Parts of the road from Lake Nakuru to Masai Mara National Reserve are brutal! I would never travel that road again. In places, the road was non-existent, accessible only by four-wheel drive. We were stopped three times by a makeshift roadblock and paid a fee to continue. In other parts, the roadway was under construction, and we traveled on dirt roads alongside. Although the temperature was sweltering in the vehicle, we couldn’t open any windows because of the dust. It was not a pleasant journey! I recommend flying from Nairobi to Masai Mara. 

4. Plan For Your Vaccinations And Anti-Malaria Pills

8 weeks in advance of your departure, check with your health care provider for recommendations for vaccines. My provider recommended six vaccinations based on my age and destination. Three vaccinations were specific to Kenya: typhoid fever, yellow fever, and meningitis.

I was also given a prescription for anti-malaria pills to begin taking a day before entering the country and continue for 2 weeks after leaving.

A sign the Great Rift Valley (Photo Credit: Jo-Anne Bowen)

5. Best Times To Visit Kenya On Safari

Kenya has such a diversity of plants and wildlife partly due to the fact that there are two rainy seasons annually. Although safaris are offered year-round, game viewing is best in the dry winter months from June through August and in the warm months of September through mid-November. “Short rains” begin at the end of November. During the “Long Rains” of March to May, some roads may be impassable.

6. Plan For Protection Against Insects

It would be best if you planned to deal with insects and bugs. Bring insect repellant and use it often. At night, always use the netting around your bed. Several of my friends also purchased mosquito jackets.  

It is also recommended that you wear long sleeves and long pants for protection against mosquitoes.

7. Safety Tip On Safari

One important tip is never to leave the safari vehicle unless you have armed guards. If your hat flies away in the open vehicle, kiss the hat goodbye. For that reason, be sure that your sunhat has an adjustable drawstring to keep it on your head.

8. Where Not To Take Photos

Do not take any photos of government or military buildings. At the least, you may have your camera confiscated, and you could be detained and questioned.

9. You Might Need Portable Power Source For Medical Equipment

One of the safari camps we stayed at shut off all power for 4-6 hours every night. Each tent had a portable flashlight, but power can be critical for medical equipment such as a CPAP machine. You might consider bringing a portable battery.

10. Pack Light & Plan Your Clothing

The safari vehicles have very little space for luggage, and there will probably be six to eight other passengers in the vehicle. Bring a weekend bag or carry-on for the safari. If you are extending your trip, check with the safari company to secure your larger bags for you.

It is best to choose clothing made from natural fibers such as cotton or linen. Avoid clothing made from synthetic fabric as they don’t “breathe,” and you will be uncomfortably hot and sticky. It is also suggested that you wear muted colors or khaki colors as they are less disturbing to the animals. Bring a collapsable large brim hat, sunscreen, and collapsable water bottles. Plan for day-time clothing and night-time clothing. After a long day on safari, once you return to the lodge or camp, it is refreshing to have fresh clothing to change into. Early morning safaris can be chilly, so it is best to dress in layers.

A dusty road in Kenya (Photo Credit: Jo-Anne Bowen)

11. Bring Face Masks For Dust

Bring a supply of face masks. The dusty roads and trails will make a face mask a necessity at times. The dust might be difficult for contact lens wearers, so consider bringing along glasses.

Here are five more suggestions for “nice things to know” before your first trip to Kenya.

12. Bring A Good Pair Of Binoculars

Some safari companies provide a few binoculars for folks to share. There were none on my safari. I also prefer to have my own equipment.

13. Bring An Animal Guidebook For Reference

I recommend Wildlife Of East Africa by M.B. Withers and D. Hosking. It was great fun each evening to track all the animals and birds that we had seen.

14. Arriving By Air

I flew through London and spent 3 days there to break up the long flight. I chose to fly the national carrier Kenya Airways. Although the international airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, is a mere 9 miles from Nairobi, traffic in the city can be backed up for miles. Be sure to leave plenty of time to reach your destination.

Also, note that there is no waiting inside the airport on your arrival. All “paths” lead to one route, which puts you immediately outside. Rather than inconvenience my hosts with my early 5 a.m. arrival, I had planned to go to a restaurant for breakfast. I ended up waiting outside for 2 hours. Luckily, it was not raining!

15. Currency

The currency in Kenya is the Kenyan shilling. One shilling equals 100 Kenyan cents. Banks and bureaux de change are plentiful and easy to locate. Your hotel, lodge, or camp may change money; however, the rate may not be the best. 

A cheetah spotted on safari (Photo Credit: Jo-Anne Bowen)

16. Travel Insurance

I always have insurance whenever I travel. I purchase a yearly plan which is more cost-effective than separate policies for each trip. I look for a policy that covers health requirements and, in case of emergency, medical transportation back home. 

The medical system in Kenya is superb! I had to see a doctor in Nairobi and was surprised to learn that every pharmacy has a doctor on staff. The cost of my doctor consultation and two prescriptions was 650 shillings (approximately $7)!

A wildlife safari in Kenya is an incredible experience. We did see the “Big Five” as well as baboons, monkeys, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, ostriches, hippos, blue monkeys, hyenas, and gazelles. It was a fantastic experience! I hope these suggestions will help to make your experience a wonderful memory.

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