The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for East Africa: Linda Friedman of Custom Safaris.
Linda Friedman—who is based in Maryland and has an office in Kenya—has been on more than 100 safaris and travels to Africa four times a year (she even speaks Swahili). Linda specializes in planning personalized, private safaris, including family trips, throughout the continent. Whether you choose to track gorillas in Rwanda or follow the annual Great Migration in the Masai Mara or the Serengeti, Linda will make sure that you optimize your time and resources. She knows which over-the-top camps have antiques and rainfall showers, which tents have the best views, even the names of the tent stewards who see to guests’ needs. Linda’s particular interest is the nomadic traditions of the Maasai; she has been interviewing Maasai elders for over ten years and loves to arrange authentic cultural interactions for clients. Each year, a portion of Custom Safaris’ profit is allocated to educational scholarships for students in East Africa. Linda was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Camps and Lodges
Best-value safari camp
Kichwa Tembo, in a fantastic location in the Masai Mara, reopened on July 1 after a
total renovation—everything but the pool is brand-new. Reasonable rates and the
friendliest staff around make this place a favorite year after year (it doesn’t hurt that
we always book our guests the best tent). We also have projects located in this area
that Custom Safaris’ guests can visit: a school and a health clinic that we support and various
women’s projects, including beekeeping and raising chickens.
Safari camp worth the splurge
Sirikoi, which borders the mammal-rich Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, is a small camp
(four plush tents, a two-bedroom cottage, and a three-bedroom, over-the-top
house—all overlooking an oft-visited water hole) and the owners live on-site, so
you can expect very personalized service, like a surprise dinner in the bush to
celebrate a special occasion. The tents have fireplaces and both bathtubs and
showers, and the house has its own kitchen and living and dining rooms. The food is
out of this world, with vegetables and herbs just picked from the organic garden in back.
Best safari camp for families
In the past few years, numerous camps have added family tents. Rekero’s family
tents can sleep six under one roof. This camp is in the perfect location to see the
migration. An added bonus here is that the staff usually has a soccer game after
lunch with the kids who are in camp (adults are welcome, too).
What to See and Do
Lake Bogoria National Reserve, in the Great Rift Valley, is at times home to over a
million flamingos; you’ll have a good chance of seeing them in these numbers from
June through September. The flamingos feed on the algae in the alkaline lake, which
also has hot springs and very active geysers.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 12 percent
of Kenya’s black rhino population and the largest single population of Grevy zebras
in the world.
Making a special trip to the point where the equator runs through the town of
Nanyuki; if you stop to take a picture by the sign, aggressive salespeople will come
out of the nearby shops to show you how water drains in different directions on
either side—and then try talking you into buying touristy, overpriced souvenirs.
Paying to take a tour of a Maasai village advertised by one of your lodges. Not only is
it more staged than authentic, the lodge usually takes at least 50 percent of the cost.
Ask your guide to take you to visit a local family or school instead.
Most underrated activity
A guided nature walk—you may not spot the Big Five, but you’ll see plants, bugs,
and poop, and likely start to appreciate birding. Nature walks are only available at
camps and lodges in private conservancies, not in the national parks or the reserves.
Richard’s Camp in the Masai Mara is a particularly good place to take a stroll.
Meal worth the splurge
Talisman, which draws a mix of regulars, expats, and a few travelers to the Karen suburb of Nairobi, serves fish from Lamu, pastas, and burgers—much of it Asian-inflected—in a lush, open-air setting with local art lining the walls. Everyone raves about the feta-and-coriander samosas.
Must-have dish—and coffee
Irio (the word simply means “food” in the local Kikuyu language) is a traditional side dish. There are many variations, but it’s typically a mix of mashed potatoes, peas, corn, and spinach, served with nyama choma (grilled meat). Ask the chef at one of your camps to show you how to make it.
Drop by Nairobi Java House, with locations all over the city. Coffee doesn’t get any fresher than this! The Kenyan beans are spicy and rich, the Ethiopian blends lighter with citrus notes. And don’t forget to have a mandazi (doughnut).
Best spot for a sundowner
On the edge of the Oloololo Escarpment, where the final scene from Out of Africa was filmed: Looking down at the Masai Mara, the savanna stretches as far as the eye can see.
Night game drives are great fun—be sure to include a camp that allows them in your itinerary. Kids love to operate the spotlight. With luck, you’ll see hippos grazing near rivers, African hares, and even an elusive leopard. Once again, Richard’s Camp is a fantastic place to take a night drive, especially if Richard himself takes you and shows you how to catch African hares! The lovely Sirikoi camp also has night drives (see “Safari camp worth a splurge,” above).
We can arrange for you to visit a Maasai elder’s home on the escarpment overlooking the Masai Mara; meet his family (three wives and 21 children at last count), and learn about the ceremonies he went through to become a warrior; how he lives today; and the many changes he’s seen in the last 40 years, affecting the culture, the wildlife, even the climate. Depending on the day of the week, he will take you to the local cattle market, where he’s known as a tough negotiator.
Go fishing at Lake Victoria. Hopefully you’ll catch dinner. A 40-minute flight from the Masai Mara by light aircraft takes you to the world’s second largest freshwater lake and the magical source of the Nile (it straddles the borders between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania). Fish for giant Nile perch from a boat, and see the colorful life around the lake, where Luo fishing villages have remained unchanged for centuries.
A necklace from Kazuri Bead Factory in Karen, where ceramic beads in every color of the rainbow are handmade by disadvantaged women, most of them single mothers.
The best time to see the Great Migration—one of the grandest wildlife spectacles on Earth, with more than 2 million wildebeest and zebra on the move and predators lurking nearby—is July through September, and the best place to be is in the Masai Mara National Reserve. There are more than 15 different river crossings in the Masai Mara (bottlenecks along the migration route where the animals must avoid hungry crocodiles and lions), with great names like Smelly Crossing, Rekero Crossing, Football Crossing, Helicopter Crossing, and Double Crossing. You need to be patient, and in the right location at the right time of day. To increase your odds, consider staying at two camps in different locations.
April and May are rainy. Low-season rates may be enticing, but no savings is worth being stuck in the mud.
Though it’s possible to get a visa upon arrival in Kenya, it’ll mean waiting in line longer than if you already have one; get one before you leave by mailing an application to the embassy in Washington, D.C., or the consulate in New York.
Tip in U.S. dollars: Bring bills from 2006 or newer—no marks or tears. Before your safari, put the suggested amounts (which vary by the style, location, and size of the camp) into envelopes and mark them for each camp and/or guide so that you don’t have to do any calculations while you’re on vacation. During the trip, you can add a personal note to each envelope if you like.
An LED headlamp is good for finding the bathroom during the night, when the electricity is turned off at some camps.
Eyedrops, for the dust that your safari vehicle will kick up.