Discover the best of Kenya | The North-Central Circuit
Experience the freedom of a roadtrip with the ease of a well-planned itinerary. The North-Central Circuit is our most popular self-drive route in Kenya and with good reason! This itinerary offers an exciting combination of game viewing and culture, with visits to Kenya's premier safari parks and true hidden gems.
- Experience first-class game drives and visits to private conservancies
- Explore Meru National Park, Sambura and the Masai Mara
- Enjoy beautiful cultural encounters and a memorable ranch stay
We greatly recommend this self-drive route to families, because of the variation of activities and modest driving hours per day.
Scroll below to see our day-to-day itinerary with realistic driving times, route directions, and travel tips for Kenya.
Day-to-day itinerary | Kenya North-Central Circuit
Day 1 of 15
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 scenic drive on good asphalt roads with few other road users. Meru National Park lies in the Eastern Highlands, a fertile and attractive region known for its dense oak forests and farming. You pass Embu village, a lively Meru town.
Day 2 of 15
Meru National Park is much 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 an enclosed rhino sanctuary contains both black and white rhinos. The park is extremely scenic, with tall doum palms growing along its many watercourses.
Day 3 of 15
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 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, visiting this area is still interesting for its different landscapes and cultural experiences.
Day 4 of 15
The protected area comprises 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, the walking trail to Lava and hot springs, and the wilderness feel. Game driving is best in Samburu.
Day 5 of 15
We recommend staying two or three nights in this region. Besides game drives in Samburu, you can summit Mount Ololokwe ( 1754 metre, this can be done in a day trip), visit a community-run elephant orphanage, or visit a Samburu community.
We visited Umoja Women's Village on our own (on the outskirts of Archers Post town) and were highly touched and impressed by the stories of these brave women. Check our Travel Blog about Samburu.
Day 6 of 15
Start: Archers Post (Samburu)
Destination: Nanyuki town, via Ngare Ndare Forest
Drive: 130 km | 2.5 hours. Add 1.5 hours 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-kilometre detour on a rough road ( 45 minutes going and returning). You can hike to waterfalls, swim in blue azure pools and do a canopy walk, the longest in East Africa. A day trip to Ngare Ndare Forest is highly recommended!
For more information about Ngare Ndare Forest, check our Travel Blog on off-the-beaten-track destinations in Kenya.
After Ngare Ndare, 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 7 of 15
Destination: Ol Pejeta - Rongai Gate
Drive: 15 km | 45 min
Back in the colonial days, Ol Pejeta was a cattle ranch. Nowadays, Ol Pejeta is praised for being one of the most successful private conservancies. The conservancy is home to a variety of animals including the Big Five. The game-viewing tracks are well-marked, easy and year-round accessible.
Visitors can participate in various conservation experiences, such as lion tracking, night game drives, horse riding amongst the rhinos, or running in the wild - making this a fun and family-friendly safari destination. You can book all activities online through the excellent conservancy website.
Day 8 of 15
Destination: Cattle farm, Laikipia plateau
Drive: 100 km | 3 hours
The game viewing circuit in Ol Pajeeta is rewarding but small. If you don't participate in additional experiences, we think 1 day / 1 night in Ol Pajeta is enough. So, it's 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 9 of 15
A stray at the ranch is inclusive of activities. We went for a morning run with some crew from the farm, walked to their dam for a swim ( there are 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 camel safari. Getting so close to other animals was an extraordinary and peaceful experience. In the afternoon, we joined training with their tracking dogs, which they use to combat wildlife poaching.
Day 10 of 15
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. Most big safari animals are present in Lake Nakuru, except elephants. The park is known for its populations of black and white rhinos, the rare Rothschild's giraffe and excellent 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. Hells Gate National Park can be visited on a day trip. You go there for the scenery and the ability to get active. You can go mountain biking amidst the giraffes, zebras, and gazelles and do a scenic hike through the gorge.
Day 12 of 15
Start: Lake Nakuru or Naivasha
Destination: Maji Moto
Drive: 4 hours (from Nakuru) to 5 hours (from Naivasha)
Maji Moto is a natural hot spring about 1-hour drive from Masai Mara's Sekenani gate. The hot springs provide the lifeline for the Masai communities and their cattle. Over and over again, road trippers mention that the stay at Maji Moto Eco Camp was a highlight of their trip.
Note: After Narok, you must follow the C12 leading to Sekanani gate and branch left where you'll see the signpost to Maji Moto Ecocamp. Google Maps will lead you to the C11 but don't take that road. It’s a very rough road, bad for the car, and will take much longer.
Day 14 of 15
It's great fun to keep track of all the wildlife you have spotted and note it in your journal. We also recommend doing a bush breakfast or bush picnic. Turn off that engine and 'hear'' the silence.
Roadtrippers sometimes ask us - how do we spot wildlife? We don't have a walky-talky to communicate with other drivers like the drivers from tour companies do. Well, what Peter will say, and we genuinely agree - the word game drive, derives from hide and seek. It's a game between you and the animal. It's so rewarding and fun if you're not surrounded by other safari vehicles and have spotted an animal yourself. And don't worry; on a self-drive safari, you will see plenty of wildlife in the Mara.
Day 15 of 15
Start: Masai Mara
Drive: 200 km | appr. 6-8 hours
Allow a full travel day to return from the Mara to Nairobi. Don't plan a morning game drive in the Mara, if you need to catch an evening flight 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).
Two weeks in Kenya | This is what you need to know
Travel time and road conditions
We recommend 15 car rental days for this North-Central itinerary.
Is time not on your side? You can skip a stay at Maji Moto and continue straight from Nakuru to Masai Mara. Still, it would be a shame to miss out on this cultural experience.
Road conditions between the national parks are good - you'll find smooth tarmac here all the way. The roads inside the parks vary, depending on weather and heavy rainfall. Want to know more? Check out our Driving in Kenya blog for more tips and advice.
Kenya's North Central self-drive itinerary is possible to travel year-round.
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