With so many visitors to Kenya’s national parks, safari game drives can often turn into traffic jams. On the wide open plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve or Amboseli National Park, two of the world’s most beautiful animal habitats, it is more common to see queues of jeeps full of goggled-eyed tourists than it is to see a lion, leopard or cheetah.
In the past few years, the rise of cheap safaris has led to an influx of visitors, and along with the ever-increasing number of affordable flights to the capital, Nairobi, it is now possible to visit Kenya’s famous wildlife reserves on a long weekend from Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, during the annual wildebeest migration from June to October, nearly 10,000 people can be in the 1,510sqkm Masai Mara on any given day. In response, the government has tried to curb this figure by raising national park entry fees (it now costs $80 per day to enter the Masai Mara, a price hike from $60 in 2011), and has cracked down on unlicensed operators in all national parks in a bid to preserve its fragile ecosystems.
So how do you escape the crowds? The best bet is to go with a small operator that cares about long-term sustainability. Located on the fringes of Kenya’s national parks, these discreet lodges and tented camps offer the discerning traveller luxury, seclusion and proximity to the natural surroundings.
A remote camp in the Masai Mara
On the banks of the Sand River in the far southwest corner of the Masai Mara National Reserve, near the border with Tanzania and its Serengeti ecosystem, is Sala’s Camp. Here, you will hardly see another tourist or vehicle. After flying into Keekorok Airport from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (local carrier Safarilink has daily one-hour flights), guests are then escorted to the extremities of the reserve. As you get the closer to the camp, you will find yourself alone in one of the greatest wildlife destinations on Earth.
Concealed on all sides by thick lush foliage, Sala’s Camp is hidden from prying eyes – except from the population of curious hippos, baboons and African buffalo that is – and has only seven luxury canvas tents, ensuring the most exclusive wilderness experience in the Masai Mara. The lantern-lit tents come equipped with a lounge that is bigger than most hotel rooms, ensuite toilets and showers (with ever-so-rare piped-in hot water), and goose-down duvets and fake-fur blankets spread across a hand-carved oak king-size bed. The camp overlooks a prime section of riverfront on a high bankside, the perfect spot for watching the dramatic migration when thousands of stampeding wildebeest race through the water on their way to find lusher grasses farther north. By virtue of its remote location, the camp’s 4x4 game drives also mean that if you are lucky enough to spot Africa’s famous Big Five (lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros), then you will have them all to yourself. Underlining its eco-footprint, in the wet off-season (November to December), the tents are taken down and the camp vanishes into thin air.
Kenya’s piece of Scotland
In 1952, Queen Elizabeth became monarch of the United Kingdom while vacationing in Aberdare National Park, located in the Central Highlands of Kenya. She was staying at Treetops, the most famous lodge in the 766sqkm park, when she learnt about her succession. This has become something of a family tradition as Prince William is now drawn back year after year to the nearby Laikipia plateau; it was on the slopes of Mount Kenya that he proposed to Kate Middleton in 2010.
Despite the global attention, the Aberdares are much the same as when Princess Elizabeth visited. Treetops is still in business and the park’s legendary forest elephants – smaller and far rarer than the African elephant – continue to hide out in the park’s thick bamboo forests. Rare bongo antelope roam through the park’s deep v-shaped valleys, and its heather-dotted moorlands, which rise 4,300m above sea level, make this part of Kenya look like a little piece of Scotland, with famed trout fishing to boot.