Humans, when released into the wild, behave much like any other previously caged creature: initially over-awed, they soon shed their timidity in the wild rush of excitement, exploration and discovery. They dash about gasping, wide-eyed and marvelling. Then comes a moment of mystic realisation: which is that the wilderness is our birthright, where we came from: where we belong. As with most realisations, however, it’s fleeting. All too soon the siren-call of the wild is drowned in the carping of the wallet and the cacophony of social media.
And back we tumble into the cage of reality.
Since our encounter with the primordial plains is so brief, however, it makes sense to select our escape venue with care. In Kenya, this poses a problem, because the choice of escapes is almost as overwhelming as the experience they promise.
Kenya hosts over 60 national parks and reserves. Many are world-famous, such as the Masai Mara and Amboseli National Reserves. Others are UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Mount Kenya, Lake Turkana and the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. Others are so far-flung, vast and unexplored that they are visited by no more than a handful of determined intrepids every year. And then, to further complicate matters, there’s the rapidly growing band of community-owned conservancies to choose from. And they shelter a startling 65% of Kenya’s wildlife.
Which to choose? Here follows just a few of the considerations.
Hunting for the big beasts
If it’s the big beasts you’re after: head to the Masai Mara: it’s world-famous with good reason. Here you can see a lion-kill in the morning, be ring-fenced by elephants in the afternoon, catch carousing rhinos over tea and spot a leopard at play with her cubs at dusk. You can also, if you time it right, catch the quite extraordinary spectacle of millions of wildebeest careering madly across the plains to plunge headlong into the crocodile snapping waters of the Mara River. Scenes don’t get much wilder, or more popular, than this.
Treading the road less-travelled
For those who like their wilderness raw, vehicle-free and human-unencumbered, the conservancies win hands down. Occupying land once owned by the Maasai or the last of the colonial landowners, these are virgin lands, pristine and largely undiscovered. They also promise unrivalled intimacy of game viewing, a uniqueness of accommodation and an infinitely more sustainable model for the preservation of community and heritage alike.
Top choices include those of Laikipia, the vast tract of land that lies below Mount Kenya; or those that border the Masai Mara National Reserve. The more unsociable escapists will also enjoy Kenya’s national lone giants: Marsabit with its montane lakes and great herds of elephants, Mount Elgon with its salt-mining elephant caves or Sibiloi with its three-million-year-old, Koobi Fora paleontological site.
Lured by the lens
If ‘photo-ops’ tempt there are a number of ‘must shoots’. Latter-day elephant hunters should head for Amboseli National Park where great droves of elephants pose obligingly against Mount Kilimanjaro. Scenery buffs should consider heading north to the ethereal landscapes and elusive creatures of the Samburu. They might also dive into the rolling volcanic reaches of Tsavos East and West, which combined remain one of the largest national parks in the world. Those with a penchant for drama, meanwhile, should seek out Lakes Bogoria and Nakuru where the blue-green waters are often sugar-pink encrusted with millions of flamingoes.
Boots (or bikes) on the ground
For ultimate wilderness engagement, boots have to hit ground. Only two national parks allow unescorted walking: Saiwa Swamp, last bastion of the sitatunga aquatic antelope, and the aptly named Hells Gate, land of whirling canyons, towering cliffs and spouting geysers. If walking seems tame, the vast breadth of conservancies offers hiking, trekking, rock-climbing, riding and more. And for the truly intrepid there’s always the high-octane haul up to the glaciers and ice spires of Kenya’s highest mountain, Mount Kenya.
Finally, in the wake of the 2001 BBC block-buster documentary, The Blue Planet, which prompted the world to fall in love with the underwater wilderness, Kenya offers a lustrous selection of marine parks. Some lie just off the famous beaches of Watamu, Diani and Mombasa; others, such as the Kiunga National Reserve, enclose the lyrical archipelago of Lamu. All promise dolphins, whales, turtles, rainbow curtains of fish and shimmering coral gardens: some even echo with the ultimate siren call of all – that of the dugong, the mythical mermaid of old.