Mike MacEacheran | Five-star Kenya without the crowds, Lonely Planet
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Five-star Kenya without the crowds, Lonely Planet

With so many visitors to Kenya’s world famous national parks, safari game drives can often turn into congested traffic jams. On the wide open plains of the Masai Mara or Amboseli National Parks, two of the world’s most beautiful animal habitats and Kenya’s premier safari destinations, it is now more common to see tail-backs of white vans with pop up roofs and goggled-eyed tourists hanging out of them than it is to see a lion, leopard or cheetah.

In the past few years, the rise of the budget safari has led to an influx of visitors and an ever-increasing number of budget flights to the capital Nairobi now make it possible to visit Kenya’s famous wildlife reserves as a viable long weekend from Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, at peak times during the annual wildebeest migration from June to October, nearly 10,000 people can be in the Masai Mara reserve 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, for example), and it has cracked down on unlicensed operators, in a bid to preserve its fragile ecosystems from ruin.

So how do you escape from the crowds? The best bet is to go with an operator that caters to only a handful of individuals and cares more about long-term sustainability than Kenyan shillings. Located on the fringes of Kenya’s national parks, these more discrete safari lodges and tented camps may lack satellite TVs and air-conditioning units but they more than make up for it through seclusion and proximity to their natural surroundings. And after all, isn’t that why you’d go to Kenya in the first place?

Masai Mara National Park: On the banks of the Sand River, in the far southwest corner of the Masai Mara reserve on the border with Tanzania and the Serengeti ecosystem, Sala’s Camp is a true one-off. Here, you won’t see another tourist or vehicle in sight. After flying into Keekorok Airport direct from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (local carrier Safarilink provides regular one-hour flights daily), guests are then escorted to the extremities of the reserve. As the number of white vans thins out the closer to the camp you get, you’ll find yourself alone in one of the greatest wildlife destinations on Earth, with a higher density of animals to view than in other parts of the park.

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 nearby that is – and has only seven luxury canvas tents, ensuring the most exclusive wilderness experience in the Masai Mara. The camp overlooks a prime section of riverfront, the perfect spot for watching the dramatic annual migration when thousands of stampeding wildebeest career through the water on their way to find lusher grasses farther north. By virtue of its remote location, the camp’s 4×4 game drives also mean that if you’re lucky enough to spot Africa’s famous Big Five (lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros), then you’ll have them all to yourself. Underlining its eco-footprint, in the off-season (November to December), the tents are taken down and the camp effectively vanishes into thin air.

Aberdare National Park: Back in 1952, Queen Elizabeth became monarch of the United Kingdom while vacationing in the Aberdare National Park, located in the Central Highlands of Kenya. She was staying at Treetops, the most famous lodge in the park, when she learnt about her succession. It’s 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 this global attention, the Aberdares are much the same as when Princess Elizabeth first visited more than fifty years ago. Treetops Hotel is still in business and the park’s legendary forest elephants continue to hide out in the park’s thick bamboo forests, rare Bongo antelope’s prowl through the park’s deep v-shaped valleys and its heather-dotted moorlands, which rise to 4,300m above sea level, make Kenya look like a little piece of Scotland, with famed trout fishing to boot.

What also makes the Aberdares such a draw is it is almost completely overlooked by the tourist hordes in favour of the parks to the south and the luxury-run camps of the nearby Laikipia plateau. This makes it one of the cheapest ways – entry fees cost from $40 per day – to see the African bush in peace and quiet. Another plus is that despite being near the Equator, mosquitoes, a major pain in the peak of summer, are almost non-existent.

Samburu National Park: 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 that serves as a makeshift airport you can effortlessly pick out roaming herds of elephants, giraffes and packs of wild dogs in the vicinity. To add to its rustic charm, there is no airport terminal and duty free is a group of Samburu women who sell traditional beaded necklaces and hand-made textiles from the local village.

Sasaab a luxury nine-room safari lodge located in the Westgate Community Conservancy, comes highly recommended and is a true wilderness retreat – the nearest stretch of asphalt road is a bumpy two-hour drive away. The lodge by contrast is hardly primitive. Influenced by Moroccan design, each room is built with open air bathrooms and expansive views over the river – and each has a cooling plunge pool to escape the dry desert heat. Hook-nosed Hornbills and dik-diks (small antelopes) are common and regularly drop by to watch proceedings at the on-site spa.

For the ultimate seclusion, opt for a fly-camping trip into the farther reaches of the conservancy with a Samburu warrior as your guide or take a river walk in the company of wild hyenas on the way to one of the local sun-downer rocks.

Diani Beach: Kenya has more to offer than just national parks and wildlife spectacles. For the perfect end to a safari trip, travel to Diani Beach on the southeast coast to experience a very different side to Kenyan life. While most visitors check into one of the ubiquitous chain hotels that are squashed side-by-side along the 25km-long beachfront, opt instead to check in to the boutique Afro Chic hotel, run by Tanzanian company the Elewana Collection. With only ten rooms, it is a world away from its east coast competition at the north end of the town and looks out onto a curved section of the beach, shaded by palm trees. The only company you’ll have here are the resident tree-swinging colobus monkeys.