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7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Going on Safari in Kenya

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The best way to go on safari? Get out of the car. 

Photo by Jennifer Flowers; design by Emily Blevins

The best way to go on safari? Get out of the car. 

What to wear, what not to pack, and how to go beyond the typical safari—here’s what you need to know before visiting Kenya.

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Kenya offers a vast array of experiences, from wildlife-filled savannas and remote cultural encounters to dynamic urban centers. But the diversity of offerings is exactly why a trip to Kenya can be a logistical nightmare—unless you plan ahead. On my recent trip, a 12-day trip focused on cultural encounters organized by Nairobi-based Micato Safaris, there were a few things I learned along the way that helped me to maximize my time on the ground, including how to pack smart, how to choose from the myriad types of experiences on offer, and how to navigate the exhilarating capital of Nairobi. If you’re planning a trip to Kenya soon, read on for the seven things any traveler should consider before they go.

A trip to Kenya can be about much more than going on safari—it's an opportunity to connect with locals.
Pack light
Getting out into the wilderness in Africa requires transfers by bush plane, and weight restrictions are no joke. In Kenya, your limit is 33 pounds, and that includes both your checked bag and your hand luggage. The ideal checked bag is a soft-sided duffel that can fit into the luggage hold of the bush plane and be transported in open safari vehicles on the ground. And don’t forget that most camps offer free laundry service (confirm with your outfitter in advance), so it’s likely that you can re-wear some items. Another note: Plastic bags, such as Ziploc and grocery bags, are prohibited in Kenya. If a luggage search reveals any, you could be looking at a fine. A good alternative for your carry-on liquids and checked bag: nylon stuff sacks, such as these Osprey ones.
Yes, you'll want to pack a safari shirt.

The “safari look” has nothing to do with fashion
That khaki-on-brown-on-tan look isn’t just for movie sets. When you’re on safari, there are a few good reasons to blend in. First off, you want to maximize your animal sightings. Colors such as white and red may alarm some animals and drive them away from you. (Caveat: Avoid camouflage prints. They’re prohibited if you’re non-military.) Secondly, it’ll protect you from getting eaten alive. In southern Kenya’s Masai Mara, tsetse flies are attracted to blue and black, and the bugs will gladly take a bite out of you if you’re exposing skin or wearing the wrong colors. Also consider loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts—such as REI's Sahara shirt—and long pants, along with a hat and sunglasses, to protect you from the intense sun (the Equator passes through the country). And if you’re planning on a walking safari, bring sturdy hiking shoes: flip-flops or light tennis shoes won’t protect you from uneven terrain, acacia tree thorns, or the occasional snake.

Allow your senses to guide your time in Kenya.

Put down your camera and engage your other senses
We all want that amazing shot of the maned lion roaring over his kill. But it’s worth putting down the camera for a little while and seeing what you observe with all five of your senses. When I decided to do that, I became more present in the pristine wilderness. I picked up on sounds, smells, and subtle animal behavior that I wouldn’t have noticed had I been hiding behind my viewfinder. If you want a true perspective shift on how to interact with nature on safari, check out this story by AFAR contributing writer Ryan Knighton, who explored the wilderness of Zimbabwe as a blind man.

Turn to your guide for help connecting with local communities.

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Your safari guide is a gateway into local cultures
There are 42 distinct communities in Kenya today, and it’s likely that your safari guide belongs to one of them. He or she can help you to interpret local cultures and traditions. My Micato Safaris safari director, Peter Githaka, a member of the Kikuyu community, traveled with me throughout the country and helped me connect the dots on the cultural experiences I had along the way. He was able to contextualize his culture and how it differs from others, including the Samburu and the Masai. Remember that you’ll get out what you put in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll find that most locals will open up and be happy to share who they are.

There's nothing like a walking safari, which gets you out of the car and into Kenya's wild landscapes.
Get out of the car
A safari by vehicle will allow you to get closer to large mammals and predators. But there are benefits to exploring Kenya’s wild landscapes on foot. To me, the most exciting part of the walking safari is the feeling that you’re no longer safely at the top of the food chain. There’s nothing quite like treading the same path that a lioness may have passed just hours before. (Your guide might show you how to determine the freshness of an animal track or droppings.) On my walking safaris, I fell in love with the plants and trees, which hold ancient medicinal secrets and have their own relationships with the resident wildlife that relies on them for food.

Sleep under the stars
I spent some of my most memorable nights around the fire at camping sites organized by Ol Malo on the Laikipia Plateau and at Kicheche Bush Camp in the Masai Mara. On one occasion, I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and the night guard shone his flashlight on a group of giraffes munching on leaves near my tent. If that seems too close for comfort and you aren’t quite ready to do a full campout, try the Loisaba Star Beds in the Laikipia region’s Loisaba Conservancy. Your room sits on an elevated platform with half a ceiling, and you can fall asleep beneath the African sky in a large, comfortable bed. 

Make sure to spend time in Nairobi, where you can shop for jewelry by local designers like Adele Dejak.
Take an urban safari
I came to Kenya for the wildlife and landscapes, but I found myself wanting more time in Nairobi, an exciting city with a lot to see and eat. I had a hearty meal inspired by local staples at Nyama Mama and spent an entire afternoon browsing the jewelry collection of local designer Adele Dejak. At the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, I immersed myself in the work of noted artists Peterson Kamwathi and Beatrice Wanjiku. And I left my heart at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a rehabilitation center for orphaned elephants. Visitors can interact with the elephants and support the program by adopting one; sponsors receive updates as the trust slowly reintroduces them into the wild.

Travel courtesy of Micato Safaris.

>>Next: The African Cities You Should Visit Now

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