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Our Self-Drive Safari in Kenya

Masai Mara elephant 1

Upon seeing a $211 mistake fare for a roundtrip to Kenya we and a few friends, flew to Nairobi, and rented a small 4×4 for a week, and drove out to Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru.

Now that we’ve finally made a video from our trip to Kenya a couple years ago, I realize I never posted about the fantastic safaris on the blog.

In this post I’ll talk about:

  • Safari Tips
  • Show pictures
  • Discuss where to stay / best areas etc…
  • More pictures

 

Safari Tips

Being in the Masai Mara National Reserve a few days, we really had the ability to roam around, covering a lot of the area near our lodge.

But after a few days we were looking to spot some of the more rare animals, and we called upon someone who grew up in the area to help.

Actually, most of the hotel staff were local Maasai people. Talking and making friends with them is a fantastic experience in its own. They are super friendly, and the culture is so different and interesting.

 

Hire a Joshua

In this case, we asked someone who is not only local but has been a safari guide there for years.

Joshua Lepapa Loonkushu

Joshua was not only super friendly (like all those we met who grew up in the area), but also:

1) Had incredible eyes. Like from forever away he’d spot something in a bush and head that way. After waiting, where I only saw a bush, an animal would pop out.

and 2) He knew where all the animals hangout, nap, birth, etc… Same way you know where the popular spots are in your town, Joshua knows the wildlife spots.

He was willing to drive our 4×4, and thus we were just paying for his time on a day when he had nothing scheduled. It was a win-win.

Joshua LePaPa and Drew and Carrie

Carrie wrote about Joshua once, and many people wanted his contact info. I highly recommend hiring Joshua, even if only for a day.

He could give you more of his contact info from there.

 

Why I Love Self-Drive

My personality is one that highly values both autonomy and optionality.

I love having freedom/control and the ability to change plans. I hate the idea of waiting around until our scheduled drive.

Some people get bored, but I could spend a week straight in Masai Mara, and go on three drives a day. Given that, it would be super expensive.

 

Self-drive tips

It’s easier than you think, and the roads in the park are better than you think… plus, you’re going slow.

  • Get out very early (like sunrise) and stay out for sunset. It’s coolest and often the best time for cats to be hunting.
  • Go slow. I mean, that’s just the rules of the park… you’re not trying to get a flat tire or run over a lion.
  • Animals hang around animals. So stop and be patient. Especially at a watering hole or something.
  • Unfortunately or fortunately, in popular parks the guides communicate with each other via radio and if one is close, you can see them race off to join in.
    This is bad in that you’re in a crowd, and good for seeing something like a big cat… at least momentarily.
  • Ask someone at the lodge what the hot spots are. Pick a few and plan a route around that.

 

Maasai Mara Pictures

Masai Mara cheetah 1

 

Masai Mara elephant 2

 

Masai Mara elephant 3

 

Masai Mara elephant 4

 

Masai Mara gazelle

 

Masai Mara giraffe 1

 

Masai Mara hyena 2

 

Masai Mara lion 1

 

Masai Mara view

 

Where to stay in Maasai Mara

We stayed at the Keekoroke Lodge, and I honestly think it was the best lodge in terms of location and price.

I couldn’t believe we got it for a little over $100 a night, and it came with 3 meals a day… and the food was actually good, and the rooms were great. I’m pretty sure I stacked some promo codes / deals to get it close to $100 but, it was still a lot cheaper than other lodges.

Keekoroke during peak times, (like during the great migration happening currently), can be well over $300. In which case you could consider using Choice Points if you have them, as it is part of Preferred Hotel Group.

See the Best Use Of Choice Points.

Keekoroke Lodge cabin

 

Keekoroke Lodge room

Inside the park vs outside.

The Fairmont which people have used free nights for (from the old credit card) is an hour away from the park entrance. I’m not sure I get the appeal. If you want to glamp, why do it outside the park?

On the other hand there are a number of parks right outside the park entrance. I could understand staying here if you think you’ll need a day off from driving around and lounging in a hotel, then at least you could avoid the $75 per person per day park fee.

But the big benefit I could see is going to the Conservancies outside the park.

The two right above Maasai Mara and with fantastic reviews (some people on TA say better than Maasai Mara) are:

  • Olare Orok Conservancy
  • Naboisho Conservancy

Unfortunately I’m unclear about the fee structure for a Conservancy vs Reserve and if you have to pay when you stay in the park.

Either way I always like staying in a park and maximizing time efficiency.

 

East vs west

The Mara Triangle area in the western third of the park is much smaller but has a few look-out peaks with stunning views (like where the Mara Serena Lodge is).

However, if you’re spending multiple days, like we did, Keekorok in the middle of the eastern side is perfect. Every day we could try a new area.

Otherwise, my assumption (with only half a day in the Mara Triangle) was that wildlife could be seen equally in both sides of the park.

 

Lake Nakuru & Lake Navisha

We stayed on (/over) Lake Naivasha, but spent our time exploring Lake Nakuru.

I just want to comment that these areas are really small. So is it worth adding the drive? Well, the good news is that there is a nice paved road all the way from Lake Nakuru to Nairobi (although it’s not as nice near Nairobi). So it doesn’t add but a few hours of driving to get there, coming back from Maasai Mara.

But this is a day trip (we spent two nights and one day).

 

Still, Nakuru had a very different lake and forest feel, compared to Mara’s giant open plains and rivers feel.

Also, we did not have the luck of seeing a rhino at all in Maasai Mara and saw multiple in our one day at Nakuru. In fact, we got a picture with four together.

 

Lake Nakuru rhinos 1

 

Lake Nakuru rhino 2

 

Lake Nakuru flamingos

 

zebras in nakuru

 

Lake Nakuru zebras 2

 

Conclusion & Compared to other Safari’s

In terms of African Safari’s this was fantastic and the area is beautiful. Note the only other African safaris we’ve done are Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa, and Etosha National Park in Namibia.

They all have their pros and cons.

  • Etosha was an experience in that I saw more “hunts” in a small period of time than normal. We saw rhinos fighting, and saw a lion chase after a giaraffe.  An active day, but saw much fewer animals.
  • Pilanesberg was like a stocked pond. Lots of animals in a relatively small park.

But Maasai Mara is an enormous park with tons of animals.

I’d love to time a visit during the great migration too, or do so in the even larger neighboring Serengeti (which is Tanzania’s side of the park).

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16 Comments

  1. Your pictures are beautiful. I was interested in staying at the Keekorok, and I have Choice points, but it shows no availability for the next year. And for the dates I’ll be there, late August, it’s over $300/night. Any tips on getting a lower price? Or using points there?

    Reply
  2. Thanks for posting – very helpful! I am dong a self crime in Addo National Park near Port Elizabeth SA and a reserve near a Kruger in September. Any recommendations on a camera? I have a point and shoot with a nice zoom lens but not great for moving animals. What did you use? Suggestions?

    Reply
    • Correction: meant “self drive” of course.

      Reply
    • Hey, this is “Mrs. Travel is Free” :). I don’t remember the specs but I do remember that we used a pretty serious zoom lens that had a motorized stabilization. We bought it used so it wasn’t too pricey. Like I said, I don’t remember the specific specs but I do remember the motorized stabilization making a huge difference.

      Reply
    • Addo terrain is much more open compared to Kruger Park area, large areas of open savanna, so easier to spot/photograph animals. For moving objects you want to have faster shutter speeds and/or lower F number for lens. F2.8 should be good for sunny/overcast days, F1.8 is better but typically much more expensive.
      Use a monopod, car window camera holder or at least a bean bag to stabilize your shot while on safari. Cameras with optical image stabilizers are more preferable for that reason. One of our cameras was small Canon G15 and still got many nice shots with it. It does not have much zoom power, but better than average F number.

      Reply
  3. Thanks Drew, good review as usual. I was reading your African posts last year – helped me to prepare for our South African vacation: we did self-drive safaris at Kruger and Addo National Parks.
    I thought that Kruger has a steep daily visitor’s fee ($25pp), but compared to $75pp in Maasai Mara, it seems very reasonable. We had really good time in Kruger for 4 days, staying right at the entrance at Marriott’s Protea Kruger Gate Hotel for mere 7.5K/nt. Turned out to be a nice place with unique settings, lots of animal viewing in and out.
    Self-driving in Kruger was easy, and even easier in Addo Park. Kruger is very bushy in main areas, best game viewing around Sabi river. Saw tons of elephants, many giraffes, antelopes, one rhino, few lions, and leopards + birds, turtles, beetles, … so pretty much Big 5 + Extras!
    One morning we went on semi-private guided safari (around $100 for 2 for 6 hours) and it was a nice experience as well. Just mind it’s gonna be windy and chillier as you are in open-top vehicle at 30-40mph. Good thing the driver/guide gave us blankets to cover :)
    Self-driving has an actual safari feel, especially if you are on a side road without other people/cars – opens up your primal senses and hunter’s instincts – super good experience.
    Tip 1: Avis rents cars right at the Kruger Park airport, so one can fly directly to Skukuza from JNB/Capetown and start a journey there (as we did) avoiding big cities.
    Tip 2: Allow at least 3 days in Kruger as park is large, weather change, and animal viewing varies daily.
    Tip 3: Spring (Autumn in S.Africa) is a good time to visit Kruger and other parks as it’s still green after winter rains but day/night temperatures are very comfortable, so no need for warm cloth. We’ve seem a lot of animal babies in April, so must be a good timing for that type of game-viewing as well. Rivers are not dry, and elephants take bath in them daily.
    Tip 4: After flying 4 different airlines in S.Africa (SAA, Airlink, Mango, Comair (BA)), the SAA had the best service/food overall. And SAA airport lounges are really good.

    Reply
    • Cool. The next cheap airfare to get to SA now I’ll keep in mind the Marriott place. I just looked and tons of cat 1 in SA. Thanks.

      Reply
  4. We also did a self drive in Kruger and we did not have to hire a guide as we had my South African born and bred daughter-in-law with us. She would, with her family, take between 4-6 safaris a year. Like your guide, she could spot animals where we would only see vegetation. She told us the stories of the animals (why a hyena’s poop is white for instance), and how she knew favorite resting spots of certain animals and how they till go there decade after decade.

    We followed her family tradition and rented a 2 bedroom cabin in Satara – like renting a cabin in Yellowstone. Such a great experience and we had a braai every night with her family that came with us and her extended family – almost 20.

    Being able to go around freely never knowing what you were going to see, find the bird blinds and observe hidden away, watch lions devour a Cape Buffalo were all such amazing experiences. We did compare and contrast it to a guided safari that we took and self drive was heads and tails better in my opinion.

    Thank you for letting me relive our memories of a few years ago.

    Your neighbor over Afton Mountain – Jane

    Reply
  5. Wow, you guys were brave self-driving in Kenya! I was worried about driving conditions in East Africa for all the times we went there and hired a car with driver. Looks like you guys had an awesome safari barring the flat tires! I’ve self-driven in South Africa and just recently Namibia and the road conditions were fine in both cases with occasional rough patches. Have you been to Zambia yet? I haven’t blogged this section yet but we were there in May and South Luangwa NP is mind-blowing! You can get there by bus and there are a few lodges with backpacker packages including pre-set tent, all meals and 2 game drives a day. Trust me, I have been all over Africa and Zambia was the most amazing safari experience out of them all!

    Reply
  6. Problem with self-drives is you are mostly limited to parks and staying on roads, where there is significant amount of traffic compared to private reserves – and don’t get benefit of guides who are in contact with each other about game sightings (and who can drive thru the bush to get much closer). In some rivate reserves, you might not see another vehicle – just you, your guide and the wildlife. But if you can’t afford a private game reserve, don’t hesitate to go on self-drive.

    Reply
  7. Hi there, seems awesome what you did! We (4 people) also would like to rent a 4×4 in Nairobi and do a 10 day self drive safari, but we’re having trouble finding a suitable and trustworthy 4×4 rental company. Any recommendations? Kind regards, Meinhard

    Reply
    • We landed in Nairobi and asked a guy on the street selling something else if he knew anyone… surely he’d take a commission for a truck rental.
      The unfortunate thing was they were eager to rip us off, and while we negotiated a bit, we ultimately were looking to get out of town that day.. so it left us limited in options – basically to the guy we found.

      We also decided to do a regular modern SUV, with good AC and what not. The roads in the parks were fine… but the smaller tires may have been more prone to flats.

      Reply
    • Hi Drew, thanks for your answer. Good to know that did get a car in that way haha… May I ask what you paid in the end? Online prices seem to be in the range of KSH 8’000-12’000 per day. Regards

      Reply
    • Don’t know if I’d recommend it, but I couldn’t find a better way, and assumed I could just find someone on the ground.
      Can’t remember the price. $40 – $75 USD / day? Idk, but I remember feeling ripped off but in a hurry, so I’m guessing the higher end.

      I’d find a random way to message random people. People know people. Like airbnb or something… Although they block messages. But something tourism related. Just like message B&Bs or hotels. idk…

      Reply
    • Hi Meinhard,
      I’m heading to Nairobi as well and also looking into renting a vehicle and plan to hire Joshua as a guide like Drew did. I have a good friend there checking some things out for me. Let me know how you make out with things and I can do the same. When are you going?

      Reply
  8. Hello Marlene,

    Sorry for my late reply, we actually just returned a few days ago! So I hope you either managed or haven’t left yet 😉 We ended up using Roadtrip Kenya and they were great! We got ourselves a 4×4 Land Cruiser which managed any terrain that was thrown at us, all over Kenya. Camping equipment was included and we left the car in Mombasa for them to pick up, then we took the train back to Nairobi. I would highly recommend them!

    Kind regards,
    Meinhard

    Reply

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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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