Of course you want to see the animals when you head off on safari in Kenya. There are two basic ways to do that.
The first type of tour heads out to one of the vast government game preserves, such as Masai Mara or Amboseli, where wildlife roams unfettered, attracting tourists from around the world by the busload. Of course, that’s the problem. One van driver spots a lion, gets on the radio and suddenly a dozen more vehicles will converge on the spot.
The second way is to book with a tour company with access to privately-owned game preserves, which often border the government-owned land. Here, the safari operators work with local tribes to manage access. There are no rules forbidding driving off marked roads or looking for game before dawn or after sunset, so you can get even more access to the animals.
On a private preserve, safaris can start before dawn, getting you in place as the animals awaken for the day. You can go back out on the savannah to enjoy cocktails during often spectacular sunsets before heading slowly back to camp, using a spotlight to find animals that only come out after dark.
Each of the two has advantages and drawbacks, and each appeals to a different category of tourist.
The first is more controlled and “safe”. Accommodations are booked at resorts with swimming pools, lavish buffets, gift shops and reliable internet access. There are choices of activities for each day. Professional staff take care of guests’ needs and make sure that the wildlife stays outside the complex.A package like this is perfect for first-timers, those traveling with younger children and those skittish about traveling in the Third World.
The second category is almost as luxurious, but the accommodations are likely to be tents, albeit with indoor plumbing. (Attention shower fanatics: if the water is from a solar heater, it’ll be short.) Neither the meals nor the activities offer a lot of choices because the number of guests is small -- probably a dozen or less.
Visitors are much closer to the animals, which sometimes wander through the campsite at night (a Maasai keeps watch for the lions). The native staff mingle and chat with the guests, giving a glimpse into tribal life. This kind of tour is perfect for the adventurous and those traveling with teens.
Consider tacking a day or two onto whichever safari you choose -- a day to get over jetlag when you arrive and perhaps a day at the end to explore Nairobi before heading back home.