Kenya: How to do an African Safari on a budget
By Elizabeth Sharma
Watching majestic wild animals roaming African plains on TV left me itching to escape my living room and go on a real-life safari adventure. But, like many people, I have always been put off by the astronomical prices I saw when browsing options online. There is a perception that a great African safari on a budget doesn’t exist but I managed to piece together an unforgettable weekend safari for the palatable price of £200. Small disclaimer – I planned this trip while remote working in Nairobi, so unfortunately that price doesn’t include flights from the UK. As a guide, direct scheduled flights on Kenya Airways and British Airways from London Heathrow start at £490 return. If you’re headed to Kenya in search of an amazing experience, here’s how to see some of the most stunning beasts on the planet, on a semi-shoestring.
HOW TO FIND AN AMAZING AFRICAN SAFARI ON A BUDGET
We’d decided to go to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, best known for its captivating view of Mount Kilimanjaro. With plenty of 5* resorts dominating our internet searches, it was difficult to find a respected African safari on a budget. I wanted an amazing experience but I just didn’t have cash to splash. After a lot of research, I settled on the Amboseli Lodge for my hotel, around five hours from Nairobi. I had heard good things about the lodge and it seemed to be the best quality for my budget – and I wasn’t disappointed. The hotel arranged for a driver to stay with us for the entire weekend and Yasin was waiting to collect us from the airport. We set off at 7.30am for a long & dusty ride to the lodge and my excitement was at an all-time high. Nairobi quickly evaporated as we sped through bustling market towns and tranquil farmland into the heart of Masaailand.
Around four hours later we arrived at the lodge, a maze of luxury tents and cabins nestled among blossoming gardens with a bar, campfire and inviting pool. After a hearty three-course lunch, I took advantage of the spa alongside the pool which was basic but comfortable and a 30-minute back massage was $12 (£8.50). I discovered most lodges and hotels in Africa take American dollars as currency, which is handy as we were more familiar with the exchange rate in dollars.
Our accommodation for the weekend was a wood hut with a tented front. Inside, we had double beds (proper ones!), private bathroom, shower and flushing toilet. I was really impressed. We’d been advised to bring layers in case the weather turned cold but also to protect from biting insects. The lodge even had wifi in public areas – which was a bonus.
SETTING OFF ON SAFARI
The £200 (per person) price tag for our stay included our personal driver, accommodation, two game drives out on the reserve and all food. We had travelled in low season and so were the only couple staying! In high season there would be a small group of you on the same drive. At 3pm that day we headed out on our first game drive and it wasn’t long before we were rewarded with seeing scores of zebra, wildebeest and giraffe, grazing while their babies frolicked beside them.
Fun fact: Wildebeest have a very bad sense of hearing. That’s why they tend to hang out with zebra, as they detect predators sooner and the wildebeest can make a dash for it when they see their stripy pals doing the same.
As we continued to rumble through the stunning scrubland, a majestic herd of elephants slowly came into sight in the distance. We crept closer until around 20 elephants were surrounding our van, devouring chunks of grass and flapping their giant ears.
Fun fact: Elephants are among the most emotional animals in the kingdom and are known to return to the site where they have lost a loved one to mourn.
I’ve always been in love with elephants – there is something so human about their faces and their movements are so languid and calm. They seem so loving and docile, but if you upset them they won’t hesitate to step on your car so, be careful!
Not long after our elephant encounter, Yasin got a tip off on his radio. Cheetahs had been spotted! We raced to the place and pulled up alongside a few other jeeps containing awestruck adventurers peering through binoculars and cameras in perfect silence. Yasin produced his binoculars for us (these are a real must on safari – make sure your guide or your tour included them) and we stifled squeals as we watched three cheetahs reclined under a tree, napping and nuzzling each other in the shade.
CAMPING UNDER THE STARS
Drunk on nature, we chattered like excited children all the way back to the lodge, and regaled the barman with all we had seen over a cold beer. Once we’d washed the red dust off ourselves and sat down to enjoy another three-course meal, a group of Masaai men came to the camp to sing, dance and sell their wares. Sat under the stars I couldn’t believe I’d found such an incredible African safari on a budget of only £200. I felt completely relaxed and incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such beautiful nature and friendly people. After dinner we retired to our tents and soundly slept, drifting off to the sound of the myriad creatures rustling in the bushes.
The next morning, of course we couldn’t wait to return to the park. This time we drove by the swamps to catch another of the big five: buffalo. We stopped for a while and watched them wallowing in the muddy water to escape the heat. Just before we set off an array of colourful birds fluttered by. Every safari is a gamble, and big cats are the jackpot. Thoroughly pleased with our luck, we reluctantly resolved to start the journey back to the lodge for lunch. On our way back, we passed another cluster of jeeps and joined them. I gasped when I saw what they had spotted – a lioness perched nonchalantly on top of a sign stone. This time, no binoculars were needed, she was just metres away with her gaze fixed on a group of wildebeest across the road.
In the afternoon we set off on foot, taking an easy trek to a lookout point. From there, we could see the crazy expanse of the park in all its glory. There were even a few elephants plodding along in the far distance, to help make it one of the most instagrammable spots of the weekend.
As the late afternoon rolled around, we had to bid Amboseli and its wild occupants farewell. We arrived back in Nairobi in the evening, dusty and exhausted. We had achieved what we’d set out to do and found a fantastic African safari on a budget and left feeling a million times richer.
Read more from Liz Sharma here
Header photo: Jacob Torrey