Kenya. The mere word just has a certain aura about it, doesn’t it? These mystical images of the African Savanna come into your mind, which simply teem with wild animals in all their majesty. Just mentioning the word “Safari” evokes visions of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But those experiences do not come cheap!
Looking at safaris online before flying off to Nairobi gave me sticker shock. It got so bad that, at one point, I thought US$2,000 for 6 nights of camping in a tent (where you provided your own sleeping bag) would be a good deal! And I was starting to panic. Even the budget Backpacker accommodations that offered safaris had tiered prices depending on the number of people, and the rates for one person were just outrageous!
In a bid for sanity, I started checking travel forums, many of which suggested that if you want a cheap safari, you should wait and book it when you arrive. I had concerns about having enough cash on hand to pay for a safari when I arrived (most cheap places do not take credit cards), but once I got to my senses, I realized I could also save a ton of money by joining an existing group when I got to Nairobi.
In the process, I learned a few things about how this works:
The Bottom of the Barrel Rates Are Roughly US$130 per person per day
In Kenya, the lowest you can reasonably expect to pay is $130 per person per day. This is what I paid and I actually had a pretty decent accommodation in safari-style tents just outside the national park (I visited Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most famous park). I shared with another member of my group, had a real bed and an en suite bathroom, though the camp only had generator power for 3 hours a night. It also included all meals (drinks excluded) and round trip transportation, as well as 4 safari drives.*
Why Are Safaris so Expensive?
The short answer is because they’re touristy. Also, entry fee for the national parks is astronomically high: US$80-90 per person per 24-hour period.
Where you Book Your Safari Matters!
I polled the other people in my group as to how much they paid for the same thing I had and I learned that we paid different prices! They had booked directly with the tour company, where I had booked through a hostel (Milimani Backpackers and Safari Center) and paid a couple of hundred dollars less!
Ask to Join a Group
Joining a group that’s ready to go is the best way to save money. Generally with the 4th person the rates start to go down. I figured out what to ask for and when I called to book, I specially asked if I could join a group for the 3 day Maasai Mara trip (the most popular safari). Low and behold, they had a group leaving the very next day!
Don’t Book Too Many Days
Seeing animals is cool for the first time. Even the second and third time. But it does get old after a while. I’m glad I didn’t book more than my 3 days. It helped that my group was very lucky though… (more on that later)
*You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For…
Note that asterisk up there? My trip was advertised to have 4 game drives, but in fact I only had 2. The schedule included an evening drive on the day we arrived, a morning and evening drive the next day and an early morning drive on the third day. But here’s the thing….we arrived too late on the first day for a drive (the park closes at sundown). The driver told us he would make it up to us by giving us a full day the next day. We entered the park at 9am and left at 6pm. I wouldn’t exactly recommend a full day game drive as most of the animals lay low during the hot afternoon hours and we saw almost nothing between 2pm and 5pm. And driving around gets quite dull after a while. We did have another game drive the third morning at 6am, which turned out to be the best experience!
Another interesting thing happened here. Since the tickets are for 24 hours, the tour company got away with only paying one entry fee for each of rather than two… It wasn’t that big of a deal but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way and made me wonder if they got us there late on purpose.
It’s All About Luck
You aren’t guaranteed to see anything. Sure, you’ll see plenty of gazelles, zebras, giraffes and buffalos as they’re all a dime a dozen. But for the other “Big 5” (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo, Rhinoceros) you really need a bit luck. My group was very lucky and we spotted all of the “Big 5” in the same day! Leopards are by far the hardest animals to spot and one jumped out right in front us!
The Drivers All Talk to Each Other
Our driver had a CB radio and all the drivers are in constant communication about animal movements. If your driver is good, they’ll hightail it over to the location of one of the “Big 5” and, provided your timing and position is good, you’ll see things just fine. Soon enough, there’s a swarm of cars surrounding an animal (they don’t seem to mind). So the company you go with isn’t likely to matter that much. That said, your drivers abilities to respond to calls and have keen eyes will make or break your experience.
The Roads Suck….Really!
Maasai Mara is the single most popular park in Kenya and yet the only way to get there is on a terrible road. And by terrible, I really mean TERRIBLE. It was easy going at first, as we descended into the majestic Great Rift Valley. But soon, our nice paved road turned into a dirt road for the last 50km or so. And soon that dirt road turned into…well, I don’t even know what you would call it. It was a private Ma’asai Road and to say it was unpaved was an understatement. It was, at times, like riding a roller coaster…on an obstacle course. What didn’t help was that the Maasai build in roadblocks so you have to pay a toll, or have to pay them to get you out! That’s why our drive took most of the day.
It Was an EPIC Experience
All that said, the safari was hands down the coolest part of my trip to East Africa. It’s all well and good to see animals in zoos at your home, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them in their natural habitat. Over here, a lioness keeps an eye on a pair of wildebeest on the opposite hill. Over there, a pregnant cheetah doesn’t have a care in the world and rolls around in the sun just like a house cat does. It was all so fascinating!
So if there’s one thing you simply must do in East Africa its go on safari! It may be expensive, but trust me… it’s worth it!