Kenya’s beauty attracts almost one a half million foreign visitors every year looking to spot the Big Five during The Great Migration or to relax on the beaches of Lamu and Malindi. Additionally, 2 million people visit national parks and game reserves every year, including local Kenyans traveling within their own country.

The majority of visitors will stay in all-inclusive and fully catered lodges and camps, the range of which has increased dramatically in recent years, despite that the number of visitors to Kenya has suffered as a result of travel advisories against visiting the country. These advisories were issued by the US and UK because of terrorist threats on the border with Somalia and coastal regions.

Elephants on Amboseli park

Elephants on Amboseli park

Currently, the average cost of a safari is between $800 and $1,000 a night. The remoteness of the locations, the hardship to get provisions delivered, the need for camps and lodges to be self-sufficient in water and electricity, the high maintenance costs of upkeep of such structures in the wild and the amount of staff needed to run them are some of the reason why nightly rates are so high. Additionally, poaching prevention and wildlife conservation teams are financed through the park fees paid by visitors and that also ads to the cost. Finally, there is also the exclusivity of a safari trip and the luxurious amenities provided in the bush which have established high expectations while on safari.

Given the difficulty to reach Kenya and its parks, most visitors will spend more than a week in the country and so the investment required given the high nightly rates is enough to amount to a family’s annual income. It is no surprise that choosing the right accommodation is a stressful decision: you want to make sure to pick the right one. It is a similar problem one has in the Maldives, where choice is large and honest information about each resort is hard to come by.

Elsa's Kopje

Elsa’s Kopje

The difference between a lodge, a luxury tented camp and a mobile tented safari camp

When choosing your safari accommodation in Kenya or any other African country, there are three options: lodges, luxury tented camps or mobile tented safari camps.

Lodges are permanent fixed structures that resemble a hotel. They have proper rooms built with bricks and resistant materials and remain there for years. Many of them will have formal dining halls, lounges and even swimming pools. Lodges can sleep several dozen guests. Prices here can vary, as do sizes, but you can find lodges to cater to pretty much all pockets.

Tent at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp

Tent at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp

A luxury tented camp is not usually a fixed structure but rather made of resilient canvas. They tend to be located in great viewing locations because of their semi-permanent and much smaller nature. Luxury tented camps can sometimes have less than 10 rooms. Swimming pools and other facilities are not usually available but the beds and furniture are of a more permanent nature. Everything here will be luxuriously appointed and you will surely get hot water, flush toilets, fine dining, and freshly cooked meals accompanied with imported wines and liquor. Luxury tented camps can be more expensive than some lodges and often come with incredible finishings and are set in exclusive locations. They should be set-up to be dismantled and demolished in 24h even if they remain in their location year-round.

Lastly, mobile tented safari camps are set up just for your group and so are significantly smaller. They tend to be located closer to wildlife and are packed up and moved to a new location as per your itinerary. This is the way the first safari goers viewed wildlife and explored the bush, where the tented camp would travel with the guests and be set up every night. Today, mobile tented safari camps are used in combination with luxury tented camps or lodges and dismantled and moved to the next location while you enjoy a few days at a permanent location.

Ker & Downey Mobile tented camp in Amboseli

Ker & Downey Mobile tented camp in Amboseli

Mobile tented safari camps do not have any of the fixed structures of a lodge but you will be sleeping in proper framed beds, enjoying fabulously cooked food, hot showers, flush toilets and solar-powered electricity. The camps are self-sufficient without any permanent structures and some parts may be human-powered and happen with some incredible organisation skills. Your meals will be cooked on wood fire or a makeshift oven powered with coals; your shower will work with the basic laws of physics and the water being heated on the coals. Drinking water is transported in large vehicles able to purify river water. Once packed up, the area will be completely clean and look like the wild savannah it was, without any impact on nature. From the point of view of a guest, mobile tented safaris may look exactly like a luxury tented camp, but a lot goes on behind the scenes to provide such comforts in what is a feat. Ask your guide to show you!

Why you should book a private tented camp for you safari experience

Mobile tented camp common tent

Mobile tented camp common tent

I have stayed at lodges, luxury tented camps and, on my recent Great Migration safari in Kenya, in a mobile tented camp. Here is why you should consider a mobile tented safari for your next African safari adventure.

1. Being one with nature

There is no denying that safaris are the rawest way to see Africa. A tented safari gives you the chance to be even closer to nature. When I was in Uganda, staying at a luxury tented camp on the banks of a river at the Queen Elisabeth National Park, a large monitor lizard rubbed himself against the side of the tent one morning. We would not have got that close to nature at a lodge. As there is only a thick canvas between you and the wildlife, luxury tented camps are the ones bringing you closest to the feeling those first explorers and safari goers had.

2. Personalised experience with complete flexibility

Sundowners at the Maasai Mara

Sundowners at the Maasai Mara

Private mobile tented safari camps offer the possibility to tailor your experience right to what you are looking for. As the camp is set up just for you, you can choose to organise the daily schedule and the activities to suit your needs. Traveling with children who may be too young for extended time out in the bush? No problem, your guide can organise two cars so that one returns to camp when the kids get tired while you can continue to track lions or have sundowners in the bush. Would you like to spend more time observing certain types of wildlife because you are an avid photographer and would prefer to wait in front of a tree for the leopard to descend – even if that means an entire afternoon in the car without moving? Perfectly fine. Your choice.

In Amboseli, as we were on our private mobile tented safari camp we went out one night to chase spring hares with the Maasai. After dinner, we jumped on the car and, in the complete darkness of the African night, we looked for and chased, spring hares, an animal that looks exactly like a combination of a kangaroo and a hare. When we spotted them, one of the three Maasai would jump off the car and run after them. It was hilarious and exhilarating. Because I wanted to get some aerial drone footage of the conservancy, we spent some time getting it right. I would have not been able to do that with other guests who would not have appreciated wasting time recording footage they were not interested in.

Mobile tented safaris are the only way to travel on safari with complete freedom of choice. You could do that in some of the very luxurious lodges, but you would probably have to pay for a private guide and car which could significantly increase the prices, as most lodges will have groups of guests sharing a car together.

3. Intimate and private

Flying the drone with the Maasai in Amboseli

Flying the drone with the Maasai in Amboseli

If you are traveling on a multi-generational trip with the grandparents and the grandchildren, mobile tented camps offer you just the right amount of privacy to enjoy the camp all to yourselves.

Not only will you have the chance of organising the day’s schedule to your preferences, but you will also have the whole camp to yourself, giving you maximum privacy. There will not be other guests around interfering and you will not interfere with them either. Fancy an evening of board games around the camp fire? Sure, go ahead, nobody will say no. Are you celebrating a special occasion and would you like to give a surprise to one of the members of your group? There will be nobody else participating in that. Are you on your honeymoon and would you like the most private and romantic time together? A mobile tented camp safari is, by definition, a private accommodation and so it is set up for your party and your party only.

How to organise a mobile tented camp safari

Elephant herd in Amboseli while on a Mobile tented safari

Elephant herd in Amboseli

Mobile tented safaris are best organised directly with the owners and guides that will be taking you around. I traveled with Howard Saunders (howard@howardsaunders.com), one of the partners of Ker & Downey, the longest running safari company in Africa. They are also founders of the Shackleton & Selous Society, a group of private guides all around the world taking guests on incredible and unique experiences around their areas of expertise. Howard has been running safaris for the best part of 20 years, taking guests across East Africa. I enjoyed chatting with Howard’s right hand man, Solomon Ole Lenkaja, a Maasai elder from Amboseli who has been working with him for 20 years and is invaluable at spotting wildlife and liaising with the local communities.