Kenya’s Top Off-The-Beaten-Track Safari and Wildlife Destinations
By Philip Briggs | Updated January 23, 2022
Kenya is home to some of Africa’s most famous parks and reserves, as detailed in our blog last month. But this legendary East African destination is also studded with lesser known reserves, parks, and conservancies that offer something a bit different. Here we detail a dozen of our favorite off-the-beaten-track wildlife destinations in Kenya.
Lake Bogoria National Reserve
Protecting an ultra-saline lake at the base of the sheer Rift Valley escarpment, Bogoria is now where you’re most likely to encounter the large flocks of lesser flamingo formerly resident on Lake Nakuru. On a good day, the fringes of this algae-dense lake night are tinged pink by a million or more flamingos. And even when bird count is low, the trio of geysers that erupt in a steaming sulphuric haze on Bogoria’s western shore more than justify a visit.
Ruma National Park
Among the least visited of Kenya’s national parks, Ruma protects a small but scenic tract of rolling savannah and riparian woodland flanking the Lambwe River as it flows towards Lake Victoria. Originally set aside to protect Kenya’s last population of roan antelope, it also hosts a good variety of other naturally occurring and reintroduced wildlife, including leopard, black rhino, white rhino, buffalo, zebra, Rothschild’s giraffe, Jackson’s hartebeest, and oribi. Once notoriously inaccessible, Ruma now has a guesthouse and campsite to accommodate visitors.
Kakamega Forest National Reserve
My favorite birdwatching destination in Kenya, Kakamega protects a tract of the equatorial rainforest with strong faunal affiliations to central Africa. Roughly 10 percent of the 360 bird species recorded here are rainforest dwellers found nowhere else in Kenya, among them the spectacular great blue turaco, blue-headed bee-eater, and yellow-billed barbet. This forest also offers some of the country’s best monkey viewing: look out for black-and-white colobus, blue monkey, red-tailed monkey, and – if you have a spotlight – the odd, sloth-like potto, which is most active at night.
Saiwa Swamp National Park
Kenya’s smallest national park, forest-fringed Saiwa Swamp is another destination suited to birdwatchers and primate enthusiasts. It’s the only place in Kenya where I’ve seen the spectacular Ross’s turaco and double-toothed barbet, and probably offers your best chance of locating the striking white-bearded DeBrazza’s monkey anywhere in Africa. The star attraction of Saiwa, however, is the sitatunga, a handsome semi-aquatic antelope that is easily observed from a series of rickety viewing platforms overlooking the swamp.
Marsabit National Park
One of Kenya’s most beautiful national parks protects the fertile slopes of Mount Marsabit, a dormant 5,600ft-high shield volcano that rises in bizarre isolation from the dry northern badlands. Studded with beautiful crater lakes, the forested park is home to elephants, buffalos, greater kudus, bushbucks, black-and-white colobus, Sykes’s monkeys, leopards, and isolated populations of many forest birds. The arid plains around Marsabit are renowned for their so-called ‘singing wells’, whose name alludes to the local Borena custom of singing while several dozen people queue on the steep walls to pass up buckets of water.
Shimba Hills National Reserve
Protecting a verdant landscape of grassy hills and forest inland of Mombasa, Shimba is the last Kenyan stronghold of the sable antelope. Other wildlife includes elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, warthog, and forest dwellers such as Angola colobus monkey, blue duiker, suni antelope, and the lovely green-headed oriole. It’s a great goal for a day or overnight safari out of the beach resorts around Mombasa.
Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary
An unfenced extension of Shimba Hills, Kenya’s oldest community-owned wildlife sanctuary extends across 95 square miles of land donated by 300 local Mijikenda families who each earn a share of tourist proceeds. Elephants are more likely to be seen here than in Shimba, and the cycad- and baobab-studded hills are also roamed by leopard, buffalo, waterbuck, sable antelope, zebra and warthog. As with Shimba, Mwaluganje is ideal for a day or overnight safari from the nearby beaches.
Green Crater Lake Sanctuary
Once the estate of Lady Delamere, this small private sanctuary near Lake Naivasha is focused on Songasoi Crater Lake, whose Maasai name (literally ‘Sterile Bull’) refers to the inability of its hypersaline water (PH 11.5) to support fish or other sub-aquatic creatures. Tinged green by a dense concentration of Spirulina algae, the lake often attracts large flocks of flamingo, while the forested crater is also home to black-and-white colobus, buffalo, eland, waterbuck, and bushbuck. The sanctuary can be explored on guided walks and horseback excursions.
Hell’s Gate National Park
Named after a pair of imposing basaltic cliffs that hem in its northern entrance, Hell’s Gate protects a dramatic volcanic landscape of tall lava plugs, steaming hot springs, and glossy black obsidian outcrops. For most visitors, the main attraction here is the opportunity to walk or cycle unguided through big game country. Buffalo, giraffe, zebra, baboon, and half-a-dozen antelope species are regular, while residents carnivores include leopard, cheetah, and spotted hyena. Birders should look out for cliff-nesting raptors such as Verreaux’s eagle, Egyptian vulture, Rüppell’s griffon vulture, and augur buzzard.
The remote and pristine northern sector of the vast Laikipia Plateau supports several low-key communities and private conservancies fronting the spectacular Ewaso Nyiro Gorge. The bush here is thicker than in southern Laikipia, and the focus is mainly on walking safaris. All the Big Five are present, but densities are lower than in other reserves, and walks tend to focus mostly on small mammals and exceptional birdlife. Northern Laikipia is probably the most reliable place in Kenya for the majestic greater kudu
Shaba National Reserve
Effectively an eastern extension of Samburu-Buffalo Springs, Shaba protects a tract of semi-arid scrub extending southward from the Ewaso Nyiro River. Animal numbers are relatively low, but so too are tourist volumes, given the main game-viewing loop a thrillingly untrammeled feel. Here, lava-strewn plains, sparse grassland, and dry acacia woodland offer occasional glimpses to the river and pass several hot springs. Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx, Grant’s gazelle, and gerenuk are all quite common, while other wildlife includes elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and reticulated giraffe. It’s a good place to look for birds associated with very dry habitats, for instance, rosy-patched shrike, golden-breasted starling, and masked lark.