Where to travel with kids in Kenya, for a safari, a beach holiday, or a combination of both.
Safari. If ever there was a word to inspire wanderlust in a child this is the one. Not only does it conjure images of lions, elephants, zebras and all the other childhood animal favourites, but it simply oozes with the promise of adventure. Safaris are the ultimate I-Spy. Yes, there will be dust, heat, pre-dawn wake-up calls and even the occasional frustrating game drive when all you see is the retreating posterior of a lone warthog, its tail held aloft like a defiant flag of victory. But Kenyans have been refining the safari for long enough to ensure that the needs of families are well catered for – this was, after all, where safaris were invented (the word means ‘journey’ in Swahili). Combine animal magic with beach bliss by dividing your holiday between a safari and a sojourn on Kenya’s reef-fringed coastline.
Great Rift Valley
Choosing a Kenyan safari can leave you wallowing in logistics like a proverbial hippo. Operators offer everything from specialist birdwatching tours to budget camping expeditions to Lake Turkana. When it comes to family safaris, however, there is one circuit that’s hard to beat. It combines the country’s best wildlife-watching areas with child-friendly lodges and as few long days on the road as possible.
Few capitals have national parks right on their doorstep, but Nairobi is one of them. Check into your hotel, dump your luggage and, ten minutes later, you could be watching lions or black rhinos in the wonderful, underrated Nairobi National Park. Be sure to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Sanctuary where orphaned elephants and rhinos are cared for.
Nestled in forest on the western slopes of 5,200m Mount Kenya, Naro Moru makes a relaxing base for walks, horse riding and fishing. Nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy is unique in being the only place in Africa where you can see the big five as well as chimpanzees. Although the chimps are not indigenous to Kenya (orphans are brought here from other countries), Ol Pejeta’s Chimpanzee Sanctuary offers a privileged insight into the plight of these endearing primates.
From Mount Kenya it’s a five-hour drive to this alkaline lake renowned for its flamingos. Changes in water levels mean you’re unlikely to see the concentrations of up to two million birds that were common in past decades. However, this is still a world-class spectacle – and when you tire of gawking at the flamingos there are buffaloes and rhinos to be spotted in the woodland surrounding the lake.
This beautiful lake to the south of Nakuru is an altogether different kettle of fish – and birds. Freshwater Naivasha is fringed with papyrus bursting with over 350 species of birds, including herons, kingfishers and ducks – but not a single flamingo. Find out about the lake’s ecology at the Elsamere Conservation Centre, once the home of the late Joy Adamson of Born Free fame. Older children who need to burn off energy might be tempted by the two-hour hike up nearby Mount Longonot.
Time your trip right (Jul-Oct) and your arrival in Kenya’s finest wildlife reserve may coincide with the Great Migration when some 1.5 million wildebeest and several hundred thousand zebra and Thompson’s gazelle head north from their breeding grounds in Tanzania’s Serengeti. Even without the migration, however, the Mara offers superb game viewing, excellent accommodation and a chance to mingle with the Maasai.
Beach Break on the Kenyan Coast
The perfect place to unwind after a safari and wash the dust from your ears, Kenya’s Indian Ocean shoreline is a beguiling blend of coral sand beaches and turquoise lagoons. It’s also within easy striking distance of some excellent wildlife reserves which means that families short on time can base themselves at the coast and still get a safari fix.
South of Mombasa
Diani and Tiwi beaches have every imaginable watersport available, from scuba diving and snorkelling to kitesurfing and banana boat rides. There’s also no shortage of accommodation. With their swimming pools and children’s facilities, the large seafront resorts are an obvious choice for families, but also consider the wide range of more intimate beach cottages. Just inland is Shimba Hills National Reserve – a protected fragment of coastal forest that is home to sable antelope and colobus monkey. Adjoining the reserve is the community-run Mwalugange Elephant Sanctuary where you can not only see jumbos, but also buy postcards made from their recycled dung!
North of Mombasa
Head to Watamu where the Local Ocean Trust has set up a turtle conservation project. Several species lay their eggs on the beaches here between January and April. Malindi is the most popular resort along this stretch of coast and offers snorkelling and glass-bottom boat tours in Malindi Marine National Park. Inland, you can take a guided walk to spot some of the several hundred bird and butterfly species in Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve and visit Gedi – the remains of a 13th-century Swahili trading centre. It is well worth making the effort to continue north to the charming and friendly Lamu archipelago. Lose yourself in the winding alleyways that riddle the World Heritage Site of Lamu Town, spend a day cruising the islands on a traditional sailing dhow, then kick back on Shela Beach.
Best of the rest
Amboseli National Park
Amboseli’s 1,500 elephants (studied by Cynthia Moss and her team since 1972) are the highlight of this iconic park. Matriarchal herds and lone ‘big tusker’ bulls roam its typically dry plains where dust-devils swirl against the hazy backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. Far outnumbering lions, spotted hyenas are the dominant hunters in Amboseli. Climb Observation Hill for panoramic views across Amboseli Lake where closer inspection (by vehicle) reveals hippo, mud-wallowing buffalo and elephant, plus numerous waterbirds. Tsavo National Park
A vast arid wilderness, Tsavo supports at least 6,000 elephant. Stake out a waterhole and you will see an almost endless procession of red-dust-coated herds arriving to drink. Lion thrive in the reserve and there are also two black rhino sanctuaries. Drought-tolerant species include gerenuk and oryx. Samburu National Reserve
Acacia scrub studded with rust-coloured termite mounds and rocky ridges sprouting spears of euphorbia and aloe characterize this trio of reserves. Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, beisa oryx and Somali ostrich are indicators of their semi-arid environments, but more widespread species are also found here, such as lion, cheetah and elephant. The Ewaso Nyiro River is a favourite spot for drinking – and springing an ambush.
Family Travel Tips: Kenya
Choose from budget camping safaris to more up-market trips staying in lodges and luxury tented camps.
Some lodges impose a minimum age limit of around eight.
Allow at least a week for a safari circuit which includes Mount Kenya, Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha and the Masai Mara National Reserve.
The overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa is a fun way to reach the coast.