Conventional wisdom dictates that the best time to visit Kenya on safari is during the long dry season, when the climate is at its mildest and the animal action at its wildest. Don’t discount the rest of the year, however, as it offers benefits of its own, like reduced prices and unique seasonal adventures.
Immediately following the long April and May rains, much of Kenya is lush and green. Visibility improves as drier conditions and intense grazing make inroads, and this, combined with the cooler weather, makes mid June to late October indisputably the best time to visit Kenya. There’s also of course the immense drawcard of the Great Wildebeest Migration, and especially the Mara River crossing in August or September.
This unmissable wildlife spectacle does tend to push up prices, and you’ll be in good company as lodges will generally be full of safari lovers. The rewards, however, are unforgettable moments of drama, excitement and occasional tenderness as the unstoppable force of the wildebeest meets the immovable objects of river, crocodile and lion.
Elsewhere in Kenya, as water becomes scarcer, game begins to concentrate, as witnessed around the springs and rivers of Chyulu Hills and northern Kenya. Further south, limpid skies mean that the iconic views of Mount Kilimanjaro from Amboseli are crystal clear.
Away from the safari hotspots (or better yet, in combination with them), this is also a wonderful time to be on Kenya’s south coast beaches. Humidity is lower, and visibility over the reefs is superb.
BEST VALUE FOR MONEY
Except for Christmas and New Year, when demand for escapes from the Northern Hemisphere winter peaks, the shorter dry season between December and March tends to offer exceptional value. Many lodges offer reduced rates, and there are fewer people about to share the experience with.
The cycle of the seasons continues with a green flush following the short November rains, and then a progressive drying out and dying back of vegetation. Water reserves soon run low, forcing game to converge on water sources.
Amboseli again offers majestic mountain views, while the springs of the well-watered Chyulu Hills draw in game from the dusty surrounding plains. The drier that northern Kenya becomes (and areas like Samburu are always dehydrated to some extent), the more concentrated the wildlife. Some species, like the Samburu Special Five, long ago mastered these conditions and are worth the price of admission on their own.
In the Masai Mara you’ll find that you have fewer fellow travellers, both human and antelope, as the herds of the Great Wildebeest Migration are in the southeastern Serengeti, where they calve around February. That said, there’s resident game in abundance, and a so-called out-of-season game drive here will rival game drives anywhere in Africa.
An additional attraction just off Kenya’s south coast during this time is the arrival of whale sharks. Swimming with these bus-sized but harmless fish is a mesmerising study in serenity.
It could reasonably be claimed that any trip to Kenya is an adventure, and in comparison to the commute-office-sleep routine, even the tamest safari is off the charts.
If, however, you want a more ‘extreme’ Kenyan safari, you might consider dropping in as the rains fall. That is, in either April and May, or November. You’ll have the parks and reserves practically to yourself, and amateur nepholologists (those with a passion for clouds) will be in heaven – or should that be the heavens?
The longer April–May rains are steadier; November’s, briefer and more dramatic. If you don’t mind getting mud on your new safari boots, you’ll dig it. Perhaps literally, if your safari vehicle gets stuck and you want to participate in its liberation. Ponchos and pop-down roofs will keep you dry though, and you’ll never forget seeing forked lightning seek a lone Masai Mara acacia.
April sees the migration of elephant from the Kilimanjaro forests back to Amboseli. Much as we hate to say it, however, the coast is probably best avoided at this time of the year, due to high humidity levels. In November, however, these are offset by wonderful diving and snorkelling, so why not take the plunge?