16 things to know before your first visit to Kenya

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Kenya is an East African country that straddles the equator and is approximately the size of France. The land has several distinct areas, including semi-desert, savannah, heathland, wetlands, and tropical forests. In these habitats live more than 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 buffaloes, 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 “crucial things to know” and “good things to know”. From a ban on single-use plastics to do not to take photos, here are the 11 crucial things to know before your first trip to Kenya followed by the five that are good to know.

1. Kenya needs a visa

Apply for your visa at least 30 days before your trip. The application is available online and is quite detailed. For example, you need addresses, phone numbers, and websites for all of your accommodations. You must also provide a travel itinerary, proof of a round-trip airline ticket and a recent color photo. The Kenya visa is valid for 3 months from the date of issue.

Check your passport to make 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 on the US State Department travel site. While in Kenya, I received notification of a protest scheduled for the next day. We chose to avoid this area.

2. Kenya bans 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. Upon arriving at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, your luggage is x-rayed and possibly hand searched. You can be fined if you have single-use plastics. I recommend that you buy practical reusable mesh bags for packaging.

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. It’s way too much driving – there were several days where we were in the vehicle for 6-8 hours just to reach one of the parks. I recommend on a 6 day safari to visit two parks and stay in each for 2-3 days. Of the four we visited, I recommend two. These are the places where 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 lounge bar, a swimming pool and a superb gift shop. The food is fabulous! My second recommendation is The Ark at Aberdare National Park, which overlooks a waterhole and salt lick. This place, of course, attracts a lot of wildlife to the area. L’Arche has four viewing areas and several lounges for supreme viewing opportunities. If you wish, the night watchman will tell you about unusual animal sightings.

Pro tip: Some parts of the road from Lake Nakuru to the Masai Mara National Reserve are brutal! I would never take this road again. In places, the road was non-existent, accessible only by four-wheel drive. We were stopped three times by an improvised roadblock and paid a fee to continue. In other parts, the causeway was under construction, and we traveled on dirt roads alongside. Even though the temperature in the vehicle was stifling, we couldn’t open any windows because of the dust. It was not a pleasant trip! I recommend flying from Nairobi to Masai Mara.

4. Plan your vaccines and antimalarial pills

8 weeks before your departure, check with your health care provider for vaccine recommendations. 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 antimalarial pills to take one day before entering the country and to continue for 2 weeks after my departure.

A sign of 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 fauna in part due to the fact that there are two rainy seasons per year. Although game drives are offered year-round, game viewing is best during the dry winter months from June to August and during the warmer months from September to mid-November. The “little rains” start at the end of November. During the “long rains” from March to May, some roads may be impassable.

6. Insect protection plan

It would be best if you planned to deal with bugs and bugs. Bring bug spray and use it often. At night, always use the mosquito net around your bed. Several of my friends also bought mosquito vests.

It is also recommended to wear long sleeves and long pants to protect yourself from mosquitoes.

7. Safety advice on Safari

An important tip is to never leave the safari vehicle unless you have armed guards. If your hat flies in the open vehicle, say goodbye to it. For this reason, make sure your sun hat has an adjustable drawstring to keep it on your head.

8. Where Not Take photos

Do do not take pictures of government or military buildings. At the very least, you could have your camera confiscated, and you could be detained and questioned.

9. You might need a portable power source for medical equipment.

One of the safari camps we stayed at shut off all power for 4-6 hours each 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 the light and plan your clothes

Safari vehicles have very little luggage space, and there will likely 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 better to choose clothes made of natural fibers like cotton or linen. Avoid clothing made of synthetic fabrics as they will not “breathe” and you will be uncomfortably hot and sticky. It is also suggested to wear soft colors or khaki colors as they are less disturbing to the animals. Bring a foldable wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and foldable water bottles. Plan for day clothes and night clothes. After a long day of safari, once back at the lodge or camp, it is refreshing to have cool clothes to change into. Early morning game drives can be cold, so it’s 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. Dusty roads and trails will sometimes make a face mask a necessity. Dust can be difficult for contact lens wearers, so be sure to bring glasses.

Here are five other “good things to know” suggestions before your first trip to Kenya.

12. Bring a good pair of binoculars

Some safari companies provide a few binoculars to share. There was none on my safari. I also prefer to have my own material.

13. Bring an animal guide for reference

I recommend Fauna of East Africa by MB Withers and D. Hosking. It was great fun every evening to follow all the animals and birds that we had seen.

14. Arrival by plane

I flew over London and spent 3 days there to interrupt the long flight. I chose to fly on the national carrier Kenya Airways. Although the international airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, is only 15 kilometers from Nairobi, traffic in the city can be slowed down for miles. Make sure you leave enough 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 immediately puts you outside. Rather than annoying my hosts with my early arrival at 5 am, I had planned to go to the restaurant for breakfast. I ended up waiting outside for 2 hours. Fortunately, it was not raining!

15. Currency

The currency in Kenya is the Kenyan Shilling. One shilling is equivalent to 100 Kenyan cents. Banks and foreign exchange bureaus are plentiful and easy to locate. Your hotel, lodge or camp can change money; however, the rate may not be the best.

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

16. Travel insurance

I always have insurance every time I travel. I buy an annual plan which is more profitable than separate policies for each trip. I am looking for a policy that covers health requirements and, in the event of an 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 their staff. The cost of my visit to the doctor and two prescriptions was 650 shillings (about $ 7)!

An animal safari in Kenya is an amazing experience. We saw 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 make your experience a wonderful memory.


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