Kenya Safari Safety Guide: Spotting the Big 5

Spotting big game in Africa is a great travel adventure, surrounded by wide-open landscapes, dangerous animals and the continent‘s raw beauty. Check out this guide to seeing it all safely.

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Safari Spots in Kenya

Each place is unique and will provide you with an unforgettable experience.

Masai Mara

Kenya is the end point for the famed Great Migration, the largest annual journey of mammals in the world. An event of epic proportions that it has cemented its place in David Attenborough documentaries.

Each year, at least 2 million wildebeest are joined by zebras, gazelles and other antelope species to migrate from the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, crossing rivers along the way to the rich grasslands in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. In hot pursuit are the predators like lions, crocodiles, hyena and wild dogs taking advantage of the abundant food which gives any safari seeker an opportunity to see a kill in action.

Best time to visit: Wildlife can be seen all year around but June to October is generally the go. Though if you want to catch the best of the Great Migration action, visit during September - October. 

Tsavo National Park

One of the largest protected areas in Kenya, Tsavo is home to the big animals like hippos, rhinos, giraffe, elephants, lions and prolific bird life such as secretary birds, hornbills, ostrich, hoopoe and many more.

Best time to visit: During the drier months: January - February along with July to October.

Amboseli National Park

The second most visited park after Masai Mara, this is where you can get those magnificent shots of Mount Kilimanjaro with elephants hanging out in the foreground. 4 of the Big 5 live here (sorry no rhinos!) and if you love those grey giants, elephants; this is the place to see them.

Best time visit: January - February and June to September.

Tip: If you want that spectacular Kilimanjaro/animal photo, it's best taken in the early morning.

Lake Nakuru National Park

Once famous for its large flocks of flamingos which inhabited Lake Nakuru, things changed in 2014 when water levels rose and increased pollution forced them to flee to other lakes. The good news is, they are back! 100,000's of these flamboyant pink birds now call the lake home again.

This is also the place you can see black and white rhinos, the endangered Rothschild giraffe, hippos wallowing in the water and predators like lions and leopards.

Best time to visit: June to March. 

Safari Rules

No matter where you go in sub-Saharan Africa, there are rules and regulations you must follow when in the bush. Rules designed to keep you and the animals alive. Be aware, most rangers will watch you get eaten before they kill one of their beloved animals. So follow the rules.

  • Always stay in the van, truck or 4WD – Africa is not a zoo and its animals will eat you. There have been too many terrible cases of people getting out to try and grab the perfect photo.
    It always ends badly.
  • Never turn your back – this is more for intrepid folks undertaking a walking or cycling safari (one of the great joys of Africa). The only thing that turns and runs in Africa is prey, so predators like lions may chase you.
  • Listen to your guide – not every situation can be safe for you. If your guide advises you to move on or back away, then do so.
  • Keep your voices down – animals scare easily and you wouldn‘t want to miss a pride of lions because you are chatting too loudly.

These are the simple rules and they will differ. From Botswana to Kenya, South Africa to Uganda, all rules vary. But they are aimed at keeping you safe, keeping the animals safe and keeping the tourist dollars flowing. 

Baboon Business

And watch out for Africa‘s favourite pest – the baboon.

These fellows will be at most tourist places in Africa – they know travellers bring food and aren‘t usually up for a fight.

  • Secure all your food and belongings.
  • Wind up windows in cars and trucks.
  • Don‘t take food into your tent or room.

Baboons and their other monkey buddies are crafty and usually smarter than us, so if you want to see your new camera plus a sandwich disappear, then just leave them out. They will be stolen.

The last thing you want to do is get into a fight against the animals – baboons have giant teeth and will leave you with a nasty injury.

Animal Spotting on Safari

Just because you have paid for a safari doesn‘t mean the animals are getting a cut of the profiit. They are WILD animals which means things run on their time.

If you go to one of the better game parks they don't have fences. Man and beast live side by side. But this doesn't mean seeing a lion, elephant, hyena, leopard and cheetah is always possible.

Here are some ways you can increase your chances:

  • Go with a trusted guide – Someone who knows the terrain, the best areas and the movement of the animals.
  • Don‘t expect to see everything in one safari – You can spend months in the African bush and still see new animals each time.
  • Pick your time of year – If you have limited time, go when the grass is short, the animals are around and viewing is expected. But in saying that, animals don‘t have the same timetable as us.
  • Keep your eyes out – People sometimes wait for the animal to come to them. They aren‘t paid performers, so search yourself. After a few trips, your eyes will become sharp and you spot game everywhere.
  • And finally, listen!! You aren‘t the only ones on the lookout for the animals. Smaller, less aggressive creatures are also watching their backs. Bird calls, animal noises and strange silence can all mean a lion is lurking nearby.

Guides will always have suggestions where to look for the animals. Lions love the shade and leopards love the trees, don‘t expect them to just walk into the middle of the road.

Always remember safari doesn‘t mean animal-spotting, it literally means journey – so take in your surroundings. The environment is just as important as the creatures that fill it.

Safari Photography

Africa is a photographer‘s dream, from its sun-drenched plains, treacherous rivers and unforgiving jungles. Safaris can be some of your most memorable experiences; lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes. You don‘t want to get substandard snaps or miss ‘that shot‘ because your battery has died.

Without getting into the nitty gritty detail of wildlife photography such as filters, settings and other related areas, here's some simple tips to get you started:

  • Do yourself a favour before even considering traveling to Africa, buy a good camera and make sure it's charged before you venture out.
  • Carry some extra batteries as it's likely you will give the camera a good work out.
    Just remember to charge those too!
  • Carry extra SD cards and storage so you can take as many photos as you like.
  • If you are out at night, don't use flash. Sure fire way to scare animals off.
  • Embrace the light and work it to your advantage. Photos are best taken in the early morning or late afternoon. Everyone wants that amazing sunrise/sunset shot of Africa right?! Plus it's much easier to get shots of wildlife without the glare of the midday sun.
  • BE PATIENT. The animals are doing their own thing and aren't there to pose for the safari tours. Spend time observing the animals to understand and appreciate their behaviour.
  • Don't just take photos of the animals. Africa is sensory overload so look for details like animal tracks and the landscapes themselves are pretty spectacular.

But don‘t let you whole trip be seen through the viewfinder; remember to put the camera down sometimes and experience Africa.

Hint: For more tips on capturing great wildlife shots, check out our guide on wildlife photography.

Safari Sleepover

One of the true great experiences of being on a safari is sleeping under the stars. Falling asleep to the roar of a lion, the chattering of hyena or the grunt of a hippo can be awe inspiring.

But don‘t be fooled, along with the joys there are dangers, so go with one of the organized tour operators.

Your guides will run you through each rule.

  • Zip up your tent.
  • Don‘t walk about at night.
  • Don‘t take food to your tent or leave anything outside your tent.

Animals won‘t walk into your tent if it's secure.

If you think these rules are a little bit over-the-top, just wait until you see the footprints around your tent the next morning.

Other Safari Hot Spots

Tanzania

Try the incredible Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater for plentiful animals and breath-taking surroundings. For the more hearty souls, get down to Ruaha NP. Visit Tanzania between June to October but if you are planning to see the wonder of the Great Migration, visit either June - July or January - February.

Botswana

Heaven on Earth. The last great wilderness of Southern Africa. Moremi NP, Chobe NP and Savuti NP make up the Okavango Delta region. Want to live a National Geographic dream? Head into this wetland paradise to canoe the Okavango Delta for a true wilderness experience. Visit Botswana to see large packs of wild dogs and other predators plus your usual African favourites like elephants, hippo and giraffe during the dry season from May to October.

South Africa

South Africa is more private game reserves as opposed to unbordered wilderness. May to September is when to head to South Africa's parks including the well known Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand and Mala Mala National Parks.

Zimbabwe

A great destination for walking safaris, Zimbabwe gives you a chance to see plenty of animal life without the density of tourists that other safari destinations have, with the added bonus of companies competiting with their prices due to the current political instability. Check out Hwange and Mana Pools where you can catch the Big 5 plus plenty of bird life and nearby Victoria Falls. Canoeing the Zambezi River and sleeping under the stars also offers you a different safari experience.

Uganda

Home of those majestic endangered Mountain Gorillas, Uganda is the place for primate viewing. Track troops of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park or watch gorilla families in dense jungle in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The best time to visit is during the dry months of June to August and December to February for good wildlife spotting.

You can also see plenty of bird life across Uganda's many parks and other animals, particularly in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks where you can land safari or go by boat.

Namibia

Namibia is known for its desert landscapes but don't let that deter you from visiting. While the density of animals here is not as high as other locations, it's what you can see is what sets Namibia apart. The country's Skeleton Coast features the Marine Big 5 where you can see seals, dolphins, whales, mola mola (sunfish) and leatherback turtles. Plus there's the land based Big 5 and other critters such as springbooks, dik diks, ostrich, vultures, oryx and more.

This place is a photographer's paradise with rich vibrant colours and dramatic scenery. May to October is the best time to visit.

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2 Comments

  • Angela Clarke said

    I fell in love with elephants in Africa and every magnificant sunset was a hand-painted masterpiece from God.

  • Elle said

    Great summary! Just got back from Limpopo in South Africa and am currently planning a return trip to Southern Africa to see more of this amazing continent! Thanks for the info!!

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