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Category Archives: Safari planning

Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

School holidays roll around four times a year and each time you want to keep your kids entertained and once in a while treat them to something really special.  Well here today, I’m presenting the ultimate school holiday treat for the whole family!  Often, family travel focuses on a destination suitable for children but can be a bit of a drag for the parents.  East Africa is NOT such a destination – it offers plenty for everyone from your primary-school-aged son to his grandmother.

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East Africa has so many activities for all ages.  Many people just think of a typical safari, looking at animals from a safari vehicle.  When parents are considering a holiday for their young children, spending days in a car does not sound attractive.  But there’s so much more!  At Lake Naivasha you can go cycling in Hells Gate National Park.  In the Maasai Mara and Serengeti you can go in a hot air balloon.  Many lodges have swimming pools to break up a big day of game drives.  You can head up to a beautiful viewpoint for a sundowner in most places you might be in the region.  Walking safaris are available in Central Kenya, Lake Naivasha and Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.  Or perhaps a boat ride at Lake Baringo, Lake Victoria, Lake Kivu (in Rwanda), or on the Nile River in Uganda.  At the source of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda, the teenagers can go white-water rafting downstream while the elders relax on a lunch cruise upriver!

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I mentioned earlier that parents tend to worry about their young kids spending full days in a car.  What if they get bored?  What if they need a toilet?  Oh it could just be a disaster.  Wrong!  There are ways to make game drives fun and entertaining with games or a scavenger hunt or get them to fill out a field guide if they are a bit older.  That will keep them engaged and interested in finding the next animal.  You could have prizes for the most obscure find for the day.  And anyway, the animals you are seeing are lions and elephants and giraffes!  One family took their two children aged 3 and 5 on a safari and they had prepared their guide that they may have to cut things short if the kids became ratty.  But it never happened.  The children were thrilled with seeing the animals and lasted the whole day!

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Meeting local people and learning how they live is a fantastic experience for all generations.  But in East Africa there is a lot of issues and life is really different to what we are used to in the West.  We have witnessed profound impact on teenagers especially when they have interacted with kids their own age living in the slums or in a Maasai village.  Visiting community-based organisations and seeing their projects can inspire young people to start thinking how they can make a difference in this world.  We have had family groups visit schools and donate books.  Other families have visited traditional villages and it’s so fun to see the children playing together despite a language barrier.

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So if you are starting to think that it might be OK for finding things to do, but now you start thinking about the logistics.  Where will you stay?  How will you travel?  Again, East Africa has you covered.  Many accommodation places have family rooms.  We also understand that travelling with a family can be expensive, so if you are travelling on a budget then consider a camping trip.  It is really exciting camping in the national parks listening to the sounds of the bush around you at night!  As for transport, there are a range of vehicle sizes, depending on how many you are.  A typical safari van or Land Cruiser seats 6-7 passengers but if you are looking to bring the extended family for a multi-generational trip, you might hire an overland truck.

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The biggest concern for families considering coming to East Africa is safety and security.  When you book through a reputable tour operator, you will be fully escorted the whole time by knowledgeable local guides.  By booking a full safari package and paying up front for everything, you do not have to carry so much cash on you.  And remember the national parks have never really been a target for terrorists or criminals – big cities are much more lucrative for them.  On a safari you will be spending most of your time in national parks and minimal time in cities so your risk of encountering these bad guys is reduced.

So what are you waiting for?  It’s time to build amazing memories together.  You might use it to celebrate a special occasion – for example we had a family group reunite in Kenya to celebrate the grandfather’s 70th birthday. Regardless, a family holiday to East Africa is a bucket list event no one will ever forget.

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4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

A safari in Kenya is one of life’s most incredible experiences and the ultimate travel adventure.  However, many travellers share some common doubts about security and any media about Kenya seems to bring only stories of terrorism, ebola and road accidents.  But you have to be unlucky to get caught up in trouble of these sorts.  Kenya has much to offer if you can shake off the media’s negative images, so you should go on safari for the following reasons:

  1. To see the Great Wildebeest Migration
  2. Beach, bush, mountains, desert, savannah – Kenya has many different environments and with them, different cultures, wildlife and birds
  3. Poaching is increasing and gloomy predictions say there won’t be any elephants in 20 years
  4. Kenyan people are ready to welcome visitors – low tourist numbers affect the whole economy and Kenyans want to show travellers their beautiful country

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The Great Wildebeest Migration

Tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to witness the Wildebeest Migration, often touted as the eighth wonder of the natural world.  Each year approximately 120,000 tourists come to see the wildebeest cross the river while crocodiles snap at them.  But even if you miss the river crossing, seeing the massive herds (animals in their millions!) grazing the savannah is a sight to behold.  Cameras cannot do it justice; you have to see it for yourself.

Varied environments

Whether you want a beach holiday, bush retreat, mountain climb or desert experience, Kenya has it all.  And you can put together an itinerary that covers some or all of these environments without having to fly long distances.  The most common Kenyan holiday combines a safari with a few days at the beach at the end to wash the dust off.  And along with these different environments comes different cultures and wildlife – Samburu in northern Kenya has five endemic species you won’t see in the southern parks.  For culture, you can visit a Maasai village, experience 14 different ethnic groups around Lake Turkana and then finish in cosmopolitan Nairobi.  The highlight of the central highlands is Mt Kenya, but you don’t have to hike for a week to enjoy the mountains; there are coffee and tea plantations to visit and the beautiful Thomson’s Falls.  Through the Rift Valley and into western Kenya are lakes with the myriad birdlife, including the famous flamingos.

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Poaching threatens the Kenyan safari

There seems to be a misperception that poaching was a problem in years past, but is not now.  Sadly this is untrue, and in fact it is becoming worse.  One prediction is that there will be no elephants in 20 years if poaching continues at the current rate.  Lions and rhinos are also under significant threat, with rhinos disappearing at a rate that is simply not sustainable.  It’s difficult to be optimistic that humans will be able to turn around the trend with market forces so strong for ivory and rhino horn, so it is perhaps better to come to Kenya now to see these magnificent animals before it’s too late.

Kenyan people

Tourism is Kenya’s biggest industry so when tourism numbers are low the whole country feels the economic impact.  Kenyans are naturally hospitable, keen to welcome visitors and show off their country.  Not everyone is a terrorist or a madman; most are proud of their country and excited to meet travellers.  Moreover, there is a lot of positive work being carried out by Kenyans to develop Kenya that goes unseen and unheard.  Come and see for yourself and be inspired!

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A Kenyan safari will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life.  I came to Kenya in 2010 and have now made it my home.  But a word of caution: you may have heard people who have travelled to Africa talk about the “Africa bug” – it bites!

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What are your perceptions of Kenya?  Do negative news reports impact your decision on where to travel or do you ignore the hype and do your own research on a destination?  Please leave your comments below.

The Canny Traveller’s Guide to Saving Money and Travelling Green

The Canny Traveller’s Guide to Saving Money and Travelling Green

Part of the joy of travelling is being free of our normal routines and habits that we keep at home.  But some of those “at home” practices are good for the world and we want to maintain them on the road.  This article provides the opportunity to see how we can reduce, reuse and recycle our way around the world, saving money, travelling green, and being a responsible tourist.  Water bottles, plastic bags and extra clothes are the biggest culprits in the backpacking world and we are going to tackle these three items here.

Reduce Plastic Water Bottle Waste

My Nalgene bottle is my best friend both at home and on the road.  Coupled with a water purifying “magic wand”, I have no excuse to be dehydrated nor to create excess waste with bottled water.  I do acknowledge that in many parts of the world it is not safe to drink the tap water and it really does suck to get sick from dodgy drinking water while you are travelling.  But I have had no problems topping up my water bottle with boiled water from the tea and coffee table at a breakfast buffet or cleaning the water by filtering it through a scarf or t-shirt then using purification tablets or my Steri-Pen.

In developing countries, recycling facilities and even organised garbage collection is not available.  This results in most people burning their rubbish.  It is bad enough that so many plastic bags (ahem see next point) are disposed in this manner without adding our water bottles to the fire and creating more toxic fumes.  If you do find yourself in a water bottle emergency however, you can often “donate” them to rural communities who can reuse the bottles to carry water, detergent or any other liquids.

Reuse Plastic Bags

In Europe and Australia it has become second nature to take canvas or cloth bags to the supermarket; not so in Africa.  Rwanda is one exception, where it is no longer possible to get a plastic bag, and Uganda is making significant inroads towards the same.  But in other countries you can end up with more bags than products as you leave the supermarket!  And where do these bags end up?  In those toxic flames mentioned above.

On the other hand, there is no denying that a few plastic bags in your backpack can be extremely handy when packing – dirty shoes, dirty laundry, shampoo and other liquids that are liable to explode in transit, all benefit from a plastic bag.  But I do also carry a couple of cloth bags in my backpack as well so that I don’t acquire any additional plastic bags as I travel.  Taking cloth bags to the markets (for food and souvenirs) means that I don’t have to add any more plastic waste to my environment.

Recycle Old Clothes

In 2007 my friend and I travelled overland (and sea) from Tokyo to Helsinki, buying quite a few souvenirs along the way.  Attempts to post our goodies from Russia were thwarted by a difficult postal worker and so we carried our package all the way to London before figuring out the next strategy.  That strategy was to dispose of all my clothes and fill my pack with souvenirs (I was flying home anyway and had plenty more clothes to greet me on my return).  I’ve seen many other travelers who have bought special “safari clothes” for their trip that they don’t want to carry home – for some reason khaki cargo pants seem to be a necessity on safari even though you have never worn such trousers at home and never will again!

Our host was unsurprised when we returned from the post office in Moscow with our package still in our possession

Our host was unsurprised when we returned from the post office in Moscow with our package still in our possession

Charity bins and thrift stores are often the first choice when we are cleansing our wardrobes at home, but what about when we are abroad?  So often I see travelers putting clothing in the bin!  But instead you can ask your tour operator, hotel reception or other friendly local if they know of an organisation or group that would benefit from second-hand clothing.  There will always be someone who can get a second life out of your old clothes, no matter how tatty you might think it is – tailors are akin to magicians in Kenya and combined with a good clean, you wouldn’t recognise your own shirt after their treatment!

It isn’t very difficult to go green on the road with these three basic ideas.  There are of course plenty of other ways to reduce your impact through using accommodation, transport and tour operators that subscribe to sustainable practices for example.  But these three ideas will have a big impact and apply to travel anywhere, anytime, no excuses.  Leave only footprints and travel well!

Please share your other ideas for how we can travel sustainably.  I would love to hear from you!

Covering three of Kenya’s lesser-known game parks, OTA’s six-day Northern Trails Tour in October 2016 heads up to the arid north of Kenya.  Meet Samburu people in their traditional village and experience a variety of environments from the forest of Aberdare to the dry woodland of Meru.  There are limited seats available so contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to reserve yours.

Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

On Valentine’s Day 2015 my friend Kirstin and I met George out the front of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  It wasn’t some kinky Valentines arrangement, but rather a very informative and entertaining walking tour of Nairobi’s CBD.

From the Hilton, we walked to Kimathi Street where a statue of the war hero General Kimathi stands.  When this statue was being erected, there was significant controversy about whether Kimathi was worthy of a statue or not.  After one year of deliberation he got his place.  Kimathi was a leader of the Mau Mau rebellion which has been viewed by some Kenyans as the great rebellion that gave Kenya its independence and by other Kenyans as a group of rogues who caused needless trouble while more formal efforts were taking place.

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Next we headed up to Kenyatta Avenue where the impressive Sarova Stanley Hotel dominates.  Inside the hotel is the Thorn Tree Cafe where an acacia tree used to stand.  The acacia tree held a message board where colonial settlers left messages for one another.  Nowadays, you may have heard of Lonely Planet’s online travel forum dubbed “Thorn Tree” – that’s where the name comes from!

Also at this intersection, a statue of Lord Delamere used to stand.  It marked the division of Nairobi – to the west of Delamere was the side of the city for the white colonialists and to the east was the rough and tumble of Indian merchants and Kenyan vendors.  Still today you can see the difference between the east and west sides of the city.

Along Kenyatta Avenue, we stopped to admire Cameo.  Not because it’s a popular night spot, but because it is the oldest building in Nairobi at over 100 years old.  Ironically Nairobi’s newest store is located inside – Subway, the sandwich chain has made a foray into the Kenyan market.  Next door is the Bank of India which has had quite a history.  It has been the Parliament House, before the current Parliament was built, and also the National Archives before those too were relocated to their current home on Moi Avenue.

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Turning off Kenyatta onto Wabera Street we found the McMillan National Library.  It’s not hard to find anything if it’s address is Wabera Street, as the street is only 100 metres long!  Next to the library is Jamia Mosque and continuing alongside the mosque to the end we arrived at Chai House and the City Market.  The market sells everything from meat and fish to vegetables and souvenirs.  Despite all the shops though, the market was empty of customers.  Outside however, the rose sellers were doing a booming Valentines trade!

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Our last stop was the Kenya International Conference Centre (KICC), the tallest building in Nairobi at 28 floors.  The second floor from the top was a revolving restaurant, but the large empty space was today a place for young couples to hang out.  On the roof is a helicopter landing pad and for a fee you can walk around for 360 degree views of Nairobi.

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On weekends there is an open air market that George offered to take us to for some souvenir shopping.  But it had started to rain and Kirstin and I figured this wouldn’t be our one and only chance to buy souvenirs, so we skipped it and went to a cafe instead.  Over a cup of tea we learnt more about George who had been taken in by Mathare Children’s Fund (MCF) when he was a child and received support from the community organisation to complete school.  MCF also provided him with the training to become a city tour guide, facilitated by the National Museums of Kenya.  George is also attending university, studying economics, and the guiding allows him to earn some money to help him through school.

MCF have trained several young people to be guides on city walking tours.  Even though I have lived in Kenya for over four years, there was a lot we saw on the tour that I had never noticed before (even if I had walked past it a dozen times!).  And things I had noticed, I hadn’t known about.  The tour lasts two hours (not including the cup of tea at the end!) and costs 1000 Kenyan shillings (approximately US$10) per person plus 400KES to go to the top of KICC.

Covering three of Kenya’s lesser-known game parks, OTA’s 6 Day Northern Trails Safari heads up to the arid north of Kenya.  Before the safari, you have the opportunity to explore Nairobi on one of these walking tours.  If you are interested in joining this trip in October, please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

OTA’s Northern Trails Safari – culture and wildlife in Kenya

OTA’s Northern Trails Safari – culture and wildlife in Kenya

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Aberdare and Meru National Parks are two of Kenya’s lesser-known parks, off the well-pounded traditional safari circuit.  In October, OTA is leading a tour to these parks and Samburu National Reserve, giving guests the opportunity to experience the unique wildlife of Kenya’s north.

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Spectacular wildlife in Samburu and Meru National Park is the biggest drawcard of this safari, but the stunning birding in Aberdare is not to be dismissed.  Throughout the safari, we will travel through a variety of environments, each providing incredible scenery.  Guests will also have the opportunity to visit a traditional Samburu village.  Travelling in a comfortable safari vehicle fit for photography, game-viewing and touring and accompanied by an experienced driver-guide, on this trip you will experience a variety of accommodation from a luxury lodge in Aberdare, to bush camping in Samburu and a tented camp in Meru.

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Francis Wamai, Founder and Director of OTA, says: “Samburu is my favourite park in Africa!  You find animal species that you cannot see in the southern parks.  Heading to northern Kenya gets you away from the crowds of the Maasai Mara which gives great opportunities to enjoy the wildlife in peace.”

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OTA’s six-day Northern Trails Tour is designed for those looking for an exceptional and unique safari experience.  The tour cost is US$1295 per person for non-Kenyan residents inclusive of all meals, accommodation, entry fees to Samburu National Reserve, Aberdare and Meru National Parks, and an English-speaking driver and guide.  There are limited seats available so contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to reserve yours.

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OTA offers trips in Kenya where you can experience the local culture, stay in villages, and engage with community development organisations as well as view the amazing wildlife and spectacular natural scenery in this amazing country.  We can cater to groups (large and small) for any budget, offering a range of accommodation from camping to luxury lodges.  Visit http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com for more information.

Recipe for a Successful Safari

Recipe for a Successful Safari

Here’s a safari recipe that will leave you knowing what to expect when you land in Africa, ease your travel preparations, and ensure you have a fantastic holiday.

Safari Ingredients:

  • A willingness to step outside your comfort zone
  • An open mind
  • A sense of adventure

Safari Method:

  1. Get ready. First you need to organise all your logistics – book a tour, book your flights, and get all your documents in order (passports, visas, vaccination certificates, etc). Figure out your travel goals and make sure you communicate them to your tour operator so they can help you plan the perfect safari itinerary.  Check your goals against the above ingredients and try out some activities that push the limits of your comfort.  It might be to include some nights camping, it might be white-water rafting, or it might be volunteering at a community project – it doesn’t matter, so long as it is an adventure to you.
  2. Get set. The next step is to prepare for travel. Research your destination for extra activities, climate information, cuisine recommendations and anything else you can find out.  Ask lots of questions both of your tour operator and from other travellers.  And finally, pack appropriately as you are now armed with all the information that you need.  A decent camera is a good investment for a safari as you will want to take some special pictures of the wildlife.  Read up some travel blogs and look for ways you can engage with locals in your destination – find a tour operator who can facilitate dinner with a family, a visit to a community project or even a home stay.  Open your mind to the possibilities and you will be surprised at the opportunities that come up.
  3. Go! The time has finally come for your holiday. Get to the airport on time, keep your copy of Born Free in your hand luggage to read on the plane, and ensure all the other ingredients listed above are handy. Your adventure is about to begin and now, having followed steps one and two, you are ready for anything.  Travel in Africa is unpredictable, but with the right attitude the unexpected can turn into a fabulous opportunity to experience something a bit different.  Maintain a sense of humour, roll with the punches, and your safari will be one of the greatest memories of your life.

Following this simple recipe will ensure you have a great safari.  You will have everything organised, feel in control, and be ready for anything.  At OTA we guide our guests through this recipe to ensure they fulfil their travel goals, have all the information they need, and feel confident and comfortable as they board the plane.

Recipe for a Successful Safari

What are some of the other ingredients for a successful safari?  If you have travelled to Africa, please share your tips for first time safari-goers in the comments below.  Or if you are planning a safari and have questions, please post them too.

And while you are planning, here’s something to consider: For any safari in the months of March to June each year, we offer a free day tour around Nairobi’s highlights including the Elephant Orphanage and Giraffe Centre.

Tools You Need for Planning a Holiday

Tools You Need for Planning a Holiday

The websites and applications recommended in this article can help you plan your travel, from finding low-cost flights to planning your budget, booking excellent accommodation and, most importantly, having fun on the road.

1. Kayak
Benefit: Allows you to compare flexible dates very easily so you can find the best days to fly.
Description: Kayak is a standard flight search engine where you enter your destination and preferred travel dates. If you tick “Flexible date” it will present an easy-to-understand layout to show the cheapest dates to fly.
Tip: Once you have used Kayak to find the cheapest flight, go to that airline’s site and see if it’s cheaper to book directly. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

2. Hipmunk
Benefit: Their agony scale balances cost with layovers, plane changes, etc so you can weigh up your time versus your money.
Description: Hipmunk is another flight search engine where you enter your destination and travel dates. It present the flights on a time line so you can compare the length of the journey with the prices. It has an algorithm to judge the “agony factor” and ranks the flights accordingly. But it presents the information so you can also decide for yourself the level of agony you are willing to put up with for a lower price.
Tip: You can also choose to rank the flights on price alone or any other factor. But the agony scale puts it all in perspective.

3. Seat Guru
Benefit: Helps you pick the best seat for your flight (or at least avoid the worst!)
Description: Enter the airline and/or flight number and it will present a colour-coded chart showing good seats, bad seats, mixed review seats and ordinary seats. You can use this chart to select seats for your flight when you book or check in.
Tip: Select your seats when you book so you have maximum choice, but keep checking back from time to time in case better seats become available.

4. Trip Advisor
Benefit: Read reviews from other travellers about accommodation and attractions. The site also ranks accommodation and attractions according to category and location to enable easy comparison.
Description: Simply enter your destination and what you are looking for there (i.e. hotel, tour, restaurant, etc) and it will give you a list.
Tip: Check the dates of the reviews. A change of management can make a dramatic difference so if there is an overall four star rating but the reviews from the past six months have been terrible, you might think twice. Of course, it also works the other way – a low star rating might have excellent recent reviews.

5. Universal Packing List
Benefit: UPL puts together a packing list and a preparation list according to the parameters of your trip.
Description: Go to http://upl.codeq.info/ and enter all the details of your trip – dates, climate (it has a handy link to get that information), activities, mode of travel, accommodation style, size of bag, etc. It will give you a packing list and preparation list specific to your journey.
Tip: Don’t do this at the last minute. You will be surprised, especially for an international trip, at all the little things you need to do and get that you might forget. For example, do you have enough sockets to charge all your electronics (and nowadays we seem to travel with more and more!) the night before?

6. Sworkit
Benefit: An app with no-equipment workouts to help you keep fit while you travel.
Description: Choose the type of workout (strength, cardio, yoga, stretching) and the amount of time you want to exercise for. It provides a circuit-style session with exercises that can be done in a small space with no equipment (i.e. a hotel room).
Tip: In a new city sometimes even going for a run can be a bit daunting. But a quick workout in your room is a cost-free way to stay in shape on the road.
Price: A free plan is enough to keep you going, but there are paid options as well.

7. XE.com
Benefit: Provides easy access to foreign exchange rates
Description: The app is easy to use – simply plug in the amount, the currency you have and the currency you want to convert to and it will give you the conversion. You can set up a number of different currencies if you are travelling to several countries and enter the amount of one currency and see the conversion into all the currencies you have in the list. It can be useful when you are crossing a border and need to change money to decide if you want to change at the border or wait for a better rate further down the line. Or if you are carrying say US Dollars and Euros and need to get some Kenyan shillings, you can see which currency will be more beneficial.
Tip: It’s such a handy tool to have on your phone for quickly converting grocery items, accommodation prices, tour quotes, etc on the fly.

8. Foursquare
Benefit: Share hidden gems with fellow travellers and get their secrets as well.
Description: It uses your smart phone’s GPS signal to determine where you are so you can do quick and easy check-ins. You can read other travellers’ tips, leave reviews, photos and your own tips.
Tip: Link Foursquare to your Facebook account so your check-in automatically shows up as a status update to share with friends and family.

These tools will help you get the most out of your journey, from saving you money on the flight, to helping you pack, getting the best seat, finding great accommodation and at last sharing it all with your loved ones back home. What are your favourite apps or websites that you use to plan or enjoy travel?

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