Five-star Kenya without the crowds

Discreet lodges and tented camps from the Masai Mara to Samburu National Park offer luxury, seclusion and excellent wildlife watching for the discerning traveller.

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.

The Aberdares are also almost completely overlooked by most tourists, who usually head to the southern parks of the Masai Mara and Amboseli or the luxury camps of the nearby Laikipia plateau, including the Lewa Safari Camp and Borana Ranch and Safari Lodge. And entry fees start at $40 per day, making it one of the most affordable ways to see the African bush in peace and quiet.

The best place to stay is at the nearby Solio Lodge, a 35km drive east at the base of snow-capped Mount Kenya, which organises regular day trips to the park as well as activities including horseback rides, helicopter trips and spa treatments. Situated in the exclusive Solio Private Reserve, the lodge has just six rooms, each with a private lounge warmed by a corner fire, and guests are spoilt with more than 17,500 acres of private wildlife viewing. Which works out at nearly 3,000 acres each.

A true wilderness retreat in Samburu
Travelling by light aircraft across the arid landscape of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District is like flying into the opening shot of a David Attenborough documentary. The wild, rugged expanse of Samburu National Park and the Ewaso Nyiro River spread out as far as the eye can see, and as the plane descends to land on the bare strip of russet-red gravel, you can effortlessly pick out roaming herds of elephants, giraffes and packs of wild dogs. To add to its rustic charm, there is no airport terminal and duty free is a group of local Samburu women who sell traditional beaded necklaces and hand-made textiles .

Saasab, a nine-room luxury safari lodge located in the Westgate Community Conservancy, a short drive from the park, is a true wilderness retreat – the nearest stretch of asphalt road is a bumpy two-hour drive away. Influenced by Moroccan design, each room is built with open air bathrooms and expansive views over the Ewaso Nyiro River, and each has a cooling plunge pool to escape the dry desert heat. Hook-nosed hornbill birds (Zazu from the Disney film The Lion King) and dik-diks (small antelopes) are common and regularly drop by to watch proceedings at the on-site spa. The lodge organises game drives (on which you can spot leopards, wild dogs, hyenas and herds of rampant elephants), bush walks in the company of Samburu warrior guides and village visits where you can immerse yourself in traditional community life.

For the ultimate seclusion, opt for a two-night fly-camping trip (open-air camping with a makeshift tent) into the farther reaches of the conservancy with a Samburu warrior as your guide, or take an organised river walk to one of the local rocky viewpoints where you can stop for a thirst-quenching sun-downer with a pre-packed cold beer or soda

Kenyan beach life
Kenya has more to offer than just national parks and wildlife spectacles. For the perfect end to a safari trip, head to Diani Beach on the southeast coast to experience a very different side to Kenyan life.

While most travellers check into one of the ubiquitous chain hotels that are squashed along the 25km-long beachfront, opt instead to check into the boutique Afro Chic hotel, run by Tanzanian company The Elewana Collection. With only 10 rooms, it is a world away from the rival  hotels at the north end of Diani town and looks out onto a curved section of the beach, shaded by palm trees.

Guests are spoilt with three-course a la carte meals for lunch and dinner, butler service, swimming pool and the best cocktail bar on the east coast. Thankfully, the only company you’ll have here is the resident tree-swinging colobus monkeys.