Top outfitters share safari planning tips to help you focus on the best opportunities for the trip of a lifetime

Lion, Masai Mara National Reserve.

Cut To The Chase
With good reason, early settlers and subsequent big-game hunters found present-day Kenya to be the best environment in East Africa. Straddling the equator with generally high elevations, this land enjoys pleasant temperatures and climate for most of the year. Vast grass plains and numerous rivers feed and water great populations of wildlife and birds. Travel magazines continually try to promote the new and undiscovered, but in the case of Kenya, the best is still the best.

To cut to the chase for choosing your ultimate trip, we asked three highly experienced tour operators with a specialty in photo safaris to share their top picks for locations, subjects and lodgings.

David Anderson is a safari specialist and photographer. He has planned and organized safaris professionally since 1985.

Joe McDonald is a full-time professional wildlife and nature photographer. He has written six books on wildlife photography and another on African wildlife.

Elly Gathungu is a photographer and expert guide for Wild Images Africa, a Kenyan company owned and operated by experienced travel professionals.

Crowned plover, Tsavo National Park

Top 5 Favorite Parks Or Locations
David Anderson
1. The Masai Mara: Wildlife is used to vehicles, so you can get very close. There still are parts where off-road driving is allowed. Outside the reserve, off-road driving is permitted. The Mara is not only the best in Kenya, but in Africa.
2. Laikipia: There are a number of private game reserves in northern Kenya with good wildlife and off-road driving. There are much fewer tourists than in the national parks and reserves.
3. Samburu Game Reserve: Though no off-road driving is allowed, there are plenty of roads, so it’s not a problem. The evening “desert” light is great.
4. Lake Nakuru National Park: The variety of wildlife includes both white and black rhino. It’s also good for birds.
5. Tsavo: Best place to get photos of elephants with the red dust on them.

Joe McDonald
1. Upper Masai Mara Game Reserve: This area has the greatest diversity and abundance of big cats. Off-road driving is prohibited, but there are plenty of tracks, so getting close to the cats and other wildlife isn’t a problem.
2. Samburu Game Reserve: Most of the game is found at the Ewaso Nyiro River. Samburu can be crowded during summer. Off-roading is prohibited, but an abundance of tracks makes photography easy. Bird photography is especially productive, with shrubs no higher than vehicle level, so eye-level shots are easy.
3. Lake Nakuru National Park: It’s famous for its flamingos, which congregate by the hundreds of thousands. Birdlife is varied and easily accessible. Nakuru has been productive for leopards in the past, but today is the best spot in Kenya for black and white rhinos outside of private sanctuaries.
4. The Mara Triangle: Although part of the Masai Mara, the triangle is administered separately. Off-road driving is permitted once game is spotted. Some of the best gnu/wildebeest crossings are within view of the Mara Serena Lodge.
5. Shimba Hills National Reserve: Near the coast, Shimba Hills offers several species of mammals and many bird species you won’t find elsewhere, or as abundant, in Kenya. Off-road driving is prohibited.

Elly Gathungu
I love these parks and reserves because of the abundance of both wildlife and birdlife. As a photographer, I find virtually all of what I come to Africa for.
1. Masai Mara 2. Lake Nakuru National Park 3. Samburu Game Reserve 4. Mount Kenya National Park

Elephants, Amboseli National Reser

Favorite Lodges & Camps
David Anderson
I’ve stayed in over 100 camps in Africa and visited over 100 more. In Kenya, these stand out in no particular order.
1. Kichwa Tembo Camp, Masai Mara: Because I’ve spent so much time there and am friends with many of the staff.
2. Bateleur Camp: Next to Kichwa Tembo Camp.
3. Ol Malo, Laikipia: Because the hosts are so outstanding.
4. Karen Blixen Camp, Masai Mara: This is the newest camp in the Masai Mara, and it has a great location.
5. Olonana, Masai Mara: Because of the big tents and convenient location.
6. Tortilis Camp, Amboseli: Small, just outside the park. Great Italian food.
7. Campi ya Kanzi, Chyulu Hills: Very private on a Masai group ranch.
8. Ol Pejeta House: On a private game ranch in Laikipia. I like this one so much I got married there in 1993.

Joe McDonald
1. Samburu Intrepids: Great game viewing is literally right outside the camp gates. Our groups usually rate the food the best of all the places we visit.
2. Mara Intrepids: For the big cats, there’s no better location, and we’ve made some of our best shots within one-half mile of the lodge. The food is great and all of the camp tents—really, a room under canvas—are being upgraded.
3. Keekorok Lodge: One of the first lodges, but it has been renovated and updated. The lower Mara has the greatest diversity of game, and it’s possible to see the Big Five on a single game drive.
4. Larsen’s Tented Camp, Samburu. It has been recently renovated. Right on the river, it’s in the heart of some of Samburu’s prime leopard habitat.
5. Mara Serena Lodge: It offers the best views in the Mara, overlooking the Mara River and Paradise Plains. From the lodge, you can see several gnu river crossing points. It’s easy to get to these in time to catch a crossing. The food is excellent.
6. Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, Nakuru: The most centrally located lodge in the park, with black and white rhinos, leopards, buffalo and lions sometimes just outside the gates. Meals are buffet, so you can eat well and fast should you desire.

Elly Gathungu
1. Olonana, The Mara: For its comfort and the hippos right outside your tent.
2. Kichwa Tembo Camp, The Mara: For its birdlife, the rare coppertail monkey and its proximity to the wildlife.
3. Mara Intrepids: The leopards are generally close to the camp.
4. Governors Camp, The Mara: The lion pride that’s famous in the Big Cat Diary is right out of the camp; the marsh area near the camp is rich with birds.
5. Samburu Serena Lodge: For the northern species (ibex, reticulated giraffe, etc.). The nearby forest has amazing birds.
6. Mara Serena Lodge: The closest camp to all of the best river crossing points for the migrating herds.
7. Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, Nakuru: Great food; near the millions of flamingos.
8. Sweet Waters Tented Camp, Laikipia: For the watering hole in front of camp. On my last safari, I photographed three black rhinos right from the tent.
9. Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge: For the view of Mount Kilimanjaro and the elephants.
10. Ol Tukai Lodge, Amboseli: I love when the elephants come near the camp in the morning.

Reticulated giraffe, Samburu Game Reserve

Top 5 Favorite Or Secret Spots
David Anderson
1. Leopard Gorge, Masai Mara: A must when staying on the western side of the Mara.
2. The Chyulu Hills: The tallest hill at Campi ya Kanzi at sundown.
3. Kichwa Tembo, Masai Mara: The “saddle” on the escarpment that overlooks the Mara plains.
4. The Ewaso Nyiro River, Samburu: Sitting on the deck in front of my tent downloading images and listening to the many bird sounds.
5. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy: It’s private and therefore has fewer tourists.

Joe McDonald
1. Leopard Gorge And Fig Tree Ridge, Masai Mara: This rocky outcrop outside the game reserve’s northern boundary has been home to some of the Mara’s most famous leopards. The area is rich with other mammals and great birds.
2. Cormorant Point, Lake Nakuru: Photograph outside your vehicle along the shoreline. At this point, you’re within frame-filling distance of lesser flamingos, African white pelicans, various storks and water birds. In late afternoon, white pelicans glide in to bathe at the inlet; the possibility of flight shots is unsurpassed.
3. Riverine Forest, Ewaso Nyiro River, Samburu: Leopards are as common as you’ll ever find them, resting in acacia trees or on fallen logs. The open forest provides bird photography at very close range. Elephants visit around noon, playing and bathing within easy camera range.
4. Gnu River Crossings, The Mara Triangle: The best locations are located upriver from Mara Serena Lodge and just east of the Olooloo Game Escarpment.
5. Baboon Cliffs, Lake Nakuru: When the water level is right and the flamingos are in, this overlook gives an aerial perspective of the pink-lined shoreline. The forest at the base of the access road is one of the better areas for seeing leopards and several species of eagles.

Elly Gathungu
1. Masai Mara: Overall, watching lions and the gnu crossing on the Mara River.
2. Lake Nakuru: For flamingos, rhinos and leopards.
3. Musiara Swamp, The Mara: For its variety of water animals and birds.
4. Talek River: This river a major reason that the Mara has so much wildlife.
5. Mara-Serengeti Border: Driving along the Mara side.

Lion Pale chanting goshawk, Masai Mara National Reserve

Name Your Big 5
The big five was originally identified as the most dangerous by hunters—lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard—but what are other big five camera favorites?

David Anderson
1. Cheetah: The fastest land animal, the cheetah hunts by day, providing a variety of photo opportunities. Photographing a cheetah running toward you at 60 mph can be a challenge for the most skilled photographer.
2. Wild Dogs: Although rare, they’ve been seen in the last few years in Lake Nakuru National Park and the Masai Mara Game Reserve. They’re the most successful of the predators and live in packs with clearly defined roles.
3. Leopard: They’re usually found in heavily wooded brush, and can be uncannily silent and appear without warning.
4. Elephant: They’re large, but graceful. We could learn much from observing their social structure.
5. Bat-Eared Fox: Who couldn’t love those ears! They live in dens and mostly come out at night, so when you find one during the day, it’s a special treat.

Joe McDonald
1. Leopard: There’s a magic to this spotted cat that’s unique; even lying on a branch, a cheetah is a compelling subject.
2. African Elephant: They’re rarely static and quite playful, especially if you find them at a mud hole or bathing.
3. African Birds Of Prey: You’re likely to see at least four different species of eagles on a safari. Their accessibility always comes as a surprise. The martial eagle is the most dynamic, capable of taking small antelopes and monkeys.
4. Cheetah: Everyone hopes to witness a hunt or kill, and that’s most easily accomplished by spending time with cheetahs that often feed daily. Since they frequent open areas, it’s possible to witness an entire hunt, from the stalk to the chase and knockdown. Keep your distance so as to not interfere.
5. African Lion: They typically spend 20 hours of every day sleeping, but when they’re active, generally in the early-morning hours, they can be dynamic subjects. Patience is required. Put in the time, and you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of interactions with this, the only social cat.

Elly Gathungu
1. Tribal cultures 2. Elephant 3. Cheetah 4. Lion 5. Birdlife

Top 5 “Surprise” Wildlife
Tourists come to see and photograph the major animals, but what animals are an unexpected surprise?

Joe McDonald
1. Spotted Hyena: While hyenas have a vile and unjustified reputation, photographers often are surprised at the opportunities they present, especially around a den site or at a kill.
2. Bat-Eared Fox: With its huge ears and otherwise dainty proportions, the bat-eared fox quickly becomes a favorite. While most foxes are shy, some at den sites are very habituated; the interactions between adults and pups are precious.
3. Vulture: Another animal with a maligned reputation, vultures in flight are graceful and enticing. You can shoot multiple gigabytes as dozens of vultures swoop down to a kill. Capturing the ultimate flight shot is always a challenge.
4. Pied Kingfisher: The pied kingfisher is the only one to hover in one spot before diving for a fish or frog. You can locate favorite fishing spots, which the birds will routinely visit.
5. Impala: This is not only the most abundant antelope, but also the one to offer the most opportunity for action shots. Males congregate in bachelor groups where individuals test one another in play fights that can appear quite violent.

David Anderson
1. Ground hornbill 2. Dung beetle 3. Lilac-breasted roller 4. Rock hyrax 5. Secretary bird

Elly Gathungu
1. Secretary bird 2. Lilac-breasted roller 3. Sunrise and sundown 4. Serval cat 5. Flowers

Just Can’t Miss
You haven’t been to Kenya if you don’t see or photograph this…

David Anderson
The proud Masai people, but tourist visits to villages need to be handled with appropriate sensitivity and arrangements. A knowledgeable outfitter can negotiate a monetary compensation and set the ground rules for interaction and the possible purchase of trinkets.

Joe McDonald
The one event that everyone hopes to see is a wildebeest river crossing. This is seasonal, but we’ve had crossings along the Mara River from July through December. They don’t happen daily, and hours may be required in waiting, as even the gnus can be fickle, waffling until they finally decide to cross.

Elly Gathungu
The Mara and its lions
The flamingos at Lake Nakuru

David Anderson Safari Consultants
(800) 927-4647
McDonald Wildlife Photography
(717) 543-6423
Wild Images Africa
(+254) 722-385248
Large Scarf (Kanga Or Kikoi): On my first trip to East Africa, our guide passed out kangas or kikois—African sarongs—which are large squares of cotton cloth that are handy for a multiple of uses: shielding dust from a camera lying at the ready in your lap, hung over a vehicle window to block the sun, held over your face in dusty conditions, etc. About as versatile as the cowboy bandanna.

ACCO Clips: These binder clips, used in offices, can perform a variety of tasks—to pin open or hold together a tent door, window flap or mosquito netting or to hang a flashlight, etc. On safari, there’s always something that needs mending, pinning or binding.

Headlamp: Morning game drives start early and end late. You’ll often find yourself dressing and gathering gear in the dark (morning) or returning to a dark tent (evening). A small headlight allows you to see while both hands are free. Also useful for peering into a camera bag or seeing camera settings in the predawn.

Electric Inverter: Useful for plugging into a safari vehicle’s cigarette lighter to charge a camera battery or power a laptop. Many camps and lodges turn off their power at night, so it’s not always convenient to get a full charge when you need one. Some very small inverters are available (try Xantrex Technologies XPower Micro 175-Watt Inverter, available on

Binoculars: This should be obvious, but it’s essential to spot before you shoot. Much of the fun of game drives is spotting game, and the odds are increased if all eyes are outfitted (8X is good, 10X is better).

Ziploc® Bags: Handy as see-through containers to carry, separate and store items in your suitcase or camera bag.

Avon Ski So Soft: For some reason, it’s a tse tse fly repellent in a way that mosquito repellent is not.

Lens Caps: Carry at least an extra complete set. They’re easy to lose, but important for protection.

Synthetic Shirts, Pants, Socks: This pertains to photography because they’re easy to wash and dry overnight, making it possible to carry less clothing and more photo gear.

Graduated Neutral-Density Filter: Spectacular skies are a big part of the experience, and these will help you to balance exposures between sunset skies and landscape foregrounds.