When following the central northern Kenya circuit, you start and end in Nairobi and you'll visit Meru National Park, Samburu, Ol Pajeeta Conservancy, Laikipia, Nakuru, Naivasha & Hells Gate and the Masai Mara.
This circuit offers an exciting combination of game viewing and culture and includes the premier parks of Kenya as well as true hidden gems, that we really like to share with you. We are fond of including private conservancies, as more activities are on offer and allowed, and they receive fewer visitors than the parks managed by the Kenya Wildlife Services - so safaris in private conservancies are really rewarding.
This route is also great for families, because of the variation of activities and modest driving hours per day. You'll get to visit Meru National Park, Samburu, Ol Pajeeta Conservancy, Laikipia, Nakuru, Naivasha & Hells Gate and the Masai Mara. This route is among our favourite!
Scroll down below to see the day-to-day route. Starting September this year, it shall also be possible to book this tour with pre-booked accommodation and detailed travel notes included.
Check the day to day itinerary
Day 1 of 16
Drive: 25km | 60-90 minutes.
Welcome to Kenya, or in Swahili: Karibu Kenya! Today you will arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. We can either deliver the car to the airport so you can start your road trip straight away. Or you shall be picked up from the airport and taken to your lodge, and you start your road trip fresh the next morning. The lodges we select in Nairobi are based in Karen or Lang'ata, both green and affluent suburbs, boasting many good restaurants and shopping malls to stock up on supplies.
Top attractions in Nairobi are Nairobi National Park (a safari park with all the main predators enclosed by the city!), the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the Giraffe Centre, Karen Blixen Museum or shopping for souvenirs at the Masaai Market. Alternatively, you can go up to the International Conference Centre Tower for a 360 view of the city.
Day 2 of 16
Destination: Meru National Park
Drive: 310 km | appr. 7-8 hours
It's advisable to start early, as you have a long driving day ahead. It's a very scenic drive on good asphalt roads with few other road users. Meru lies in the Eastern Highlands, which is a fertile and attractive region, known for its dense oak forests and farming. You pass Embu village and lively Meru town.
Day 3 of 16
Meru National Park is a lot less busy than some of Kenya’s more well-known parks and has an unspoiled feel. All of the Big Five are present. Elephants and buffalo are very common, and there is an enclosed rhino sanctuary containing both black rhino and white rhino. The park is extremely scenic with tall doum palms growing along its many watercourses.
Day 4 of 16
Start: Meru National Park
Drive: 120 km | appr. 3.5 -4 hours.
From the lush and fertile grounds of Mount Meru, you'll descend to Samburu, with an utterly different landscape and feel. This semi-desert, wildly beautiful and mountainous region is home to the Samburu people. These are traditional, pastoral communities that live under harsh conditions. The lifeblood of the region is the Ewaso Nyiro River. If you don't feel like going on game drives, it's still interesting to visit this area, for its different landscapes and cultural experience. We recommend visiting a local community.
Day 5 of 16
The protected area consists of three compact National Reserves and Parks: Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba. There is not much wildlife in Shaba, you'll go there for the landscapes, walking trail to Lava and hot springs, and the wilderness feel. Game driving is best in Samburu. Of the Big Five, only the Rhino is absent. There are big herds of elephants and leopards sightings can be rewarding with some habituated individuals. Interesting northern Kenya specials are the Beisa oryx, lesser kudu, reticulated giraffe, Grevy's zebra and the gerenuk.
Day 6 of 16
Optionally, spend a third day in Samburu region.You can summit Mount Ololokwe ( 1754, this can be done in a day trip), visit a community-run elephant orphanage, or visit a Samburu community.
We visited Umoja Womens Village on our own (on the outskirts of Archers Post town), and were highly touched and impressed by the stories of these brave women. The village was founded in 1990 by a group of 15 women who were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. Umoja’s population has now expanded to include any women escaping child marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence and rape - all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu where women have a subordinate position. The women survive on the small entrance fee paid by visitors. You can read more about the Umoja Womens Group in this Guardian article.
Day 7 of 16
Start: Archers Post (Samburu)
Destination: Nanyuki town, via Ngare Ndare Forest
Drive: 130 km | 2.5 hours, add 45 min going and return if you visit Ngare Ndare Forest.
Ngare Ndare is an ancient, lush indigenous forest at the foothills of Mount Kenya. It’s little visited by tourists and a true hidden gem. Branch off the A2 at Timau. From there it's a 15 km detour on a rough road ( 45 mins). Highly recommended!
You can hike to waterfalls, swim in blue azure pools and do a canopy walk, the longest in East Africa. There is a big chance of seeing elephants, which is a special sight in the forest. The entrance fee is 4000 Ksh pp + 1000 for the ranger. Do call in advance, to make sure there is a ranger available to guide you to the pools. Very friendly and knowledgeable rangers. We had Gregory, please say hi from Roadtrip Africa if you meet him :)
For those that go camping, there is a public campsite at Ngare Ndare. Otherwise, continue to Nanyuki (90 mins), the gateway town to Ol Pajeta Conservancy. Nanyuki has a well-stocked supermarket, a few nice restaurants and hotels.
Day 8 of 16
Destination: Ol Pajeeta -Rongai Gate
Drive: 15 km | 45 min
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 90,000-acre wildlife area between the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. The conservancy is home to a variety of animals including the Big Five. It is the largest sanctuary in East Africa for the endangered Black Rhino and is also a sanctuary for rescued chimpanzees. In addition, Ol Pejeta has one of the highest predator densities in Kenya. The game-viewing tracks are well-marked and year-round accessible. Visitors can participate in various exciting conservation experiences, such as lion tracking, night game drives, horse riding amongst the rhinos, or running in the wild - making this a fun family-friendly safari destination. You can book all activities online, through the excellent conservancy website.
Entrance fees are $ 110 / 24 hours
Camping needs to be pre-booked, this can no longer be arranged on arrival at the gate. When you have booked a Combo tour with accommodation, this is taken care of by Roadtrip Africa.
Day 9 of 16
Destination: Cattle farm, Laikipia plateau
Drive: 100 km | 3 hours
The game viewing circuit in Ol Pajeeta is very rewarding but small. If you don't participate in additional experiences, we think 1 day / 1 night in Ol Pajeta is enough. So time to move on to your next safari destination.
Dominated by livestock ranches in the colonial era, the vast Laikipia Plateau has since been transformed into one of East Africa’s finest wildlife destinations, where cattle farming, wildlife conservation and hospitality go hand in hand.
For our accommodation tours, we selected a lovely managed ranch, where visitors can camp right in the bush. You'll sleep in a comfortable canvas tent with bed and linnen, and there is a mesh tent to enjoy your dinner, hot water bucket shower and fire pit. All the wildlife is present, yet no other tourist vehicles!
Day 10 of 16
A stray at the ranch is inclusive of activities. I went for a morning run with some crew from the farm, walked to their dam for a swim ( there re no crocs...) and enjoyed an excellent guided walking safari. And yes, buffaloes, elephants, giraffes and lions are all present here. It's fascinating to be among workers from the ranch and get to see how at ease they are in the wilderness.
The ranch holds camels for meat and some of these camels are trained so you can go on came ride. An extraordinary and peaceful experience to get so close to other animals. In the afternoon, we joined training with their tracking dogs which they use to combat wildlife poaching.
Day 11 of 16
Destination: Lake Nakuru ( game safari) or Naivasha & Hells Gate (5 hours) for relaxing and outdoor activities.
Drive: 140 km | 3.5 hours - 190 km | 4,5 hours.
It's a scenic and smooth drive on tarmac roads to either Nakuru or Naivasha. Go to Nakuru., if you can't get enough of safari and game drives. Most big safari animals are present in Lake Nakuru, with the exception of elephants, and varied habitats support an excellent range of wildlife. The park is known for its populations of black and white rhinos, the rare Rothschild's giraffe and great bird life.
Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate are two small national parks bordering each other. Foremost, Lake Naivasha is a scenic place to relax and unwind by the lake. Visit Hells Gate national park can be visited on a day trip. You go there for the dramatic scenery and the ability to get active. You can go mountain biking amidst the giraffe's, zebra's and gazelles - you can do rock climbing or go on a scenic hike through the gorge.
Day 13 of 16
Start: Lake Nakuru or Naivasha
Destination: Maji Moto
Drive: 4 hours (from Nakuru) to 5 hours ( from Naivasha)
If you have the time, we recommend staying a night at a Masai Camp in Maji Moto, on your way to the Masai Mara.
Maji Moto is a natural hot spring and the lifeline for the cattle and Masai communities that have settled in the vicinity. Over and over again, roadtrippers mention that the stay at this Masai camp, was a highlight of their trip.
Note: After Narok, you need to follow the C12, leading to Sekanani gate. Google Maps leads you to the C11. DON’T take that road. It’s a very rough road, bad for the car, and will take much longer. Follow the C12 to Sekanani gate, and branch left where you see the signpost to our camp. Then it’s a short ride on a rough road.
Day 14 of 16
Start: Majio Moto
Destination: Masai Mara
Drive: 1 hour from Sekanani gate, from there it's a game driving to your lodge inside the Mara
The Maasai Mara and the Serengeti in Tanzania are probably the most rewarding game parks in the world. Imagine fields of waving grass in various shades of yellow to green as far as the eye can see, intersected by rivers and other water sources, and a prolific wildlife, even off-season. For a first-timer, it can be quite complicated to understand where to go and where to stay in the Maasai Mara as the tracks are not marked, so you easily get lost. When booking a car rental tour with accommodation, we make sure the routing is logical and doable for self-drivers.
Day 16 of 16
Start: Masai Mara
Drive: 200 km | appr. 6-8 hours
Allow a full travel day for returning from the Mara to Nairobi. Don't plan a morning game drive in the Mara, drive back to Nairobi and catch an evening flight all on the same day - especially not on a self-drive rental. First, it's tiresome. Second, the Mara is huge and the tracks can be challenging after rain. Third, the road to Nairobi can be congested due to traffic at Mai Mahiu (slow-moving trucks driving up the escarpment). If something delays your travels or you get a breakdown and need rescue, it's instant stress because you have an international flight to catch.
Central North - what to expect on this 17 day Kenya Tour
Travel time and road conditions
13-18 days / 12-17 car rental days are recommended to follow the central northern circuit.
We recommend 2 nights in Meru, 2-3 nights in Samburu, 4 nights in Laikipia County (Ngare Ndare Forest, Ol Pajeeta Conservancy and a stay at private cattle and wildlife conservation ranch), 2 nights Naivasha, 2 nights Maji Moto, 2-3 nights Masai Mara.
If time is not on your side, you can consider skipping Samburu and/or Maji Moto. The bare minimum time needed to follow the circuit is 11 days.
Good tarmac roads connect the national parks and the drives are scenic with a lot of changing scenery. Some offroad driving is involved to Ngare Ndare forest and the cattle farm. The road conditions inside the national park vary from time to time, depending on whether there has been heavy rainfall.
Offline navigation is easy if you download Maps.me on your smartphone before you go, and combine it with Google Maps and the roadmap included with your car rental. On the complicated bits, we provide route directions. Consult our Driving in Kenya blog, for more tips.
Starting from September this year, we shall also offer this route with accommodation in three price categories. Every guesthouse, hotel, and lodge that we select is carefully hand-picked. We favor eco-conscious boutique hotels that offer delicious cuisine, a pleasant ambiance in breathtaking surroundings, and good value for your money.
In the course of September, we shall update our website and also include the price tables, and we start taking in request for tours with pre-booked accommodation and detailed travel notes included. Stay tuned!
Create & book
Book this tour with stays in budget, mid-range or deluxe lodges - or adjust it to your liking.Make this roadtrip yours
Included in the Central-Northern Circuit
- Comprehensive car insurance
- Car delivery to your hotel or airport
- Roadmap and Lonely Planet
- 24/7 Road assistance
- Unlimited mileage
- Electrical fridge
- Camping gear