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Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

If you are a backpacker, independent traveller or more experienced safari-goer you might be considering your accommodation options for your next visit to Kenya.  This article offers advice about the different types of accommodation and whether it is better to stay in a nearby town when visiting the national parks.  The answer does somewhat depend on your definition of “better” – in terms of quality usually it is not better, but in terms of cost it usually is.  My recommendation is to stay outside the park but close to the gate where you can usually find campsites and cheaper lodges than inside the park, but still enjoy the convenience of being at the park.

For many backpackers and independent travellers, “better” can often mean “cheaper” so let’s start with that as a definition to decide the best place to stay.  Although the cost of the accommodation in the towns will be lower than accommodation inside the parks, you also need to factor in the cost of transport between the town accommodation and the park.  Sometimes camping is preferable to dingy local guesthouses and can be the same price. Camping inside the parks is expensive, but at most parks in Kenya there are campsites close to the park gates that have good amenities (including cold beer) for around US$6-10 per person per night.

Aside from cost, there are more experiential definitions of “better” to decide where to stay.  Guesthouses in towns can offer a deeper insight into local culture and if you get lucky with your fellow guests it can be a very good experience.  You have more freedom to explore when you are close to the action.  You can go out to find a local restaurant and again have a more local experience with your meals.  Public transport to towns in Kenya is readily available so getting to your accommodation in a town is easier.

To counter these positive aspects, there are some things to consider.  Local guesthouses are often co-located with a restaurant and bar so it can be quite noisy at night, especially if there is a big football game on.  They also may not have the quality of facilities that we might expect at home.  While the overall cleanliness might look OK, the attention to detail is often lacking.  Many local establishments have squat toilets or even just a hole in the ground.  If there is a toilet, there is often not a toilet seat.  On the coast you will be hard-pressed to find a hot water shower and inland the hot water showers are electric (so you have to remember to flick the switch to get hot water).  If mosquito nets are provided, they often have holes in them.  Because most travellers do stay closer to the park, you also need to be prepared to be stared at as you will be a novelty (especially women).

If your priority for visiting that area is to see the wildlife in the park, then it is far more convenient to stay inside the park or just outside the gate, rather than in a nearby town.  Realistically, the closest towns are just not that close – for Maasai Mara you would be staying in Narok which is two hours away on a corrugated road, and for Samburu you would be looking for somewhere to stay in Isiolo which is over half an hour away.

If you do want to stay in a local guesthouse then I suggest doing as much research as you can.  Sites like Trip Advisor may not be so useful for small local places, so you are probably better asking people who have been before – perhaps expats or Kenyans in Nairobi who have to travel to that area for work.  It will help to find out the types of people who frequent the accommodation (is it geared towards business travellers or bus/truck drivers) and if there is anything to be especially aware of (i.e. some guesthouses act as the local brothel, which is only known to locals, not unwitting tourists).

Even if you prefer travelling independently, when visiting national parks in Kenya it is often easier to go with a tour operator who can cater to your budget and needs.  Your safety and security is much higher with an operator and their knowledge of the accommodation options means you have more choices available to you.  But if you still prefer to go it alone, then hopefully this article has provided you with more awareness about the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodation options.

Have you stayed in local guesthouses in Kenya? What has been your experience?  And what is your recommendation for fellow travelers in choosing their accommodation?

Four Brilliant Ideas for a Kenyan Long Weekend

Four Brilliant Ideas for a Kenyan Long Weekend

Easter holidays, Eid, May Day, Kenyatta Day – there are plenty of long weekends throughout the year and if you live in Nairobi you might be wondering how to spend a four-day weekend.  This article will give you four ideas of how to spend a long weekend and explore Kenya beyond Nairobi’s city limits.

1. Lumo and Amboseli

Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary lies adjacent to Tsavo West National Park and offers stunning sunset views of Mt Kilimanjaro.  It’s about a seven-hour drive from Nairobi so you can arrive in time for a late afternoon game drive on your way to your accommodation.  The next day, spend the full day searching for leopards around the rocky outcrops and wonder at the red elephants that inhabit the sanctuary.  The shy Lesser Kudu is prevalent and many birds can be seen.  Depart early the following morning for Amboseli National Park where you can again enjoy a late afternoon game drive to your accommodation in the middle of the park.  Wake up to sunrise views of Mt Kilimanjaro as you head out for a morning game drive before making your way back to Nairobi.  Alternatively you could swap Lumo for Tsavo West.

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2. Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru

Depart Nairobi early for the famous Maasai Mara, where you can go for an afternoon game drive after lunch.  Spend the whole next day game driving including a visit to the hippo pool and seeking out the lions that became famous through the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.  There are opportunities to go for a hot air balloon flight at dawn, visit a Maasai village or walk with the Maasai up to the escarpment for stunning views over the reserve.  On the third day drive to Lake Nakuru National Park, where you can find accommodation inside the park.  Evening and morning game drives provide opportunities to see rhinos and Rothschild giraffes before returning to Nairobi.  This itinerary could be just as enjoyable going to Nakuru first and then to Maasai Mara.

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3. Lake Naivasha and Maasai Mara
It’s a short two-hour drive to Lake Naivasha leaving you most of the day to enjoy the activities available there. You might want to cycle through Hell’s Gate National Park, hike up Mt Longonot or take a boat ride on the lake. Early the next morning you might opt to go for a walking safari at Green Crater Lake or Wileli Conservancy before heading to the Maasai Mara.  An afternoon game drive can be enjoyed, followed by a full day in the park the next day.  Before heading back to Nairobi on the last day, there is time for a final morning game drive and perhaps a visit to the neighbouring Maasai village.  Again, this itinerary could be done in reverse – heading to Maasai Mara for two nights first and then enjoying the final night at Lake Naivasha and doing the activities on the day you return to Nairobi.

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4. Lake Magadi

If you are interested in heading off the beaten track a bit and not spending so many hours driving from place to place, Lake Magadi and the surrounding area offer a different experience.  This is also a fantastic trip to see the migratory birds that visit Kenya at this time of year.  On the way you can hike Ngong Hills, stop at Olepolos for lunch and then stay at the Olorgesailie Pre-Historic Site for the first night.  The next day continue to Magadi town and into the Lake Magadi Conservation Area where you set up camp for the second night.  The hot springs are very hot if you are brave enough for a swim, otherwise you can take a walk, do some bird watching or just chill out.  From Lake Magadi head to the cooler Nguruman Escarpment where you can camp not far from the town at a campsite in the wildlife corridor between Maasai Mara and Amboseli.  In the morning go for a walk with the camp staff to see the wildlife and birds of the area before driving back to Nairobi.

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On the first three trips, there are options to stay in lodges or to camp, while the Lake Magadi trip is camping only.  You are welcome to contact OTA to discuss your weekend plans further.

Five Fresh Ideas to Experience Kenya

Five Fresh Ideas to Experience Kenya

There are so many hidden treasures within a few hours’ drive of Nairobi, Kenya, that are often overlooked when Nairobians set about planning their weekend getaways.  The trouble is that the big game parks, which are often favoured, are further away and usually require a three-day trip from Nairobi.  So where can you go if you want to leave on Saturday morning and return on Sunday evening?

other weekends

  1. Lake Magadi

This vast salt pan attracts myriad water birds, especially flamingos.  Nearby are Shompole Conservancy and Ngurumann Escarpment which are part of a wildlife corridor between the Maasai Mara and Amboseli.  Departing Nairobi on a Saturday, stop at Olorgaisailie Pre-Historic Site about half way between Nairobi and Magadi before continuing to Magadi town for lunch.  After lunch, enter the Lake Magadi Conservation Area where you can walk, do some bird-watching, swim in the very hot springs or just relax.  On the Sunday you can enjoy a lazy morning of swimming, walking or birding before leaving the conservation area to head back to Nairobi.  On the way, stop at the famous Olepolos restaurant for nyama choma overlooking part of the Great Rift Valley.  OTA offers this tour for 23,000KES per person including meals, accommodation, transport and conservancy fees.

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  1. Ol Pejeta

Home to a rhino sanctuary and Kenya’s only chimpanzee sanctuary, Ol Pejeta is located just south of Nanyuki in central Kenya.  You want to leave Nairobi as early as possible on the Saturday to arrive at Sweetwaters Tented Camp inside Ol Pejeta in time for lunch.  Stop at the equator just before turning off the highway for the obligatory photo as you cross into the northern hemisphere.  In the afternoon, go for a game drive in the conservancy.  On the Sunday, go for a morning game drive and return to Sweetwaters for a hearty brunch before heading back to Nairobi.  OTA offers this tour for 28,700KES per person including meals, accommodation, transport and conservancy fees. 

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  1. Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is one of the most popular destinations for Nairobians looking for a weekend escape.  However it still bears mentioning as its proximity to Nairobi makes it a perfect candidate for this list.  You can leave Nairobi early on Saturday morning and get dropped at the entrance to Hell’s Gate National Park for a cycling safari.  Once your energy is spent on the bicycle, you can relax with a late afternoon boat cruise on Lake Oloiden to see the spectacular birdlife of the area.  On Sunday morning, go for a walking safari in one of the conservancies next to the lake to see giraffes, zebras, eland, impala, and gazelles up close.

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  1. Lake Baringo

A little bit further afield, but so beautiful it is definitely worth a visit. With over 450 species of birds, Lake Baringo is a paradise for bird-watchers. Leave Nairobi early on Saturday morning to reach Lake Baringo in time for lunch.  In the afternoon you can go for a nature walk up to the escarpment overlooking the lake.  On Sunday morning take a cruise on the lake to see the water birds and hippos waking up for the day.  Fishermen are also out on the lake in their dugout canoes.  Enjoy a relaxing breakfast after the boat cruise (it is best to get out on the lake around 7am for the best bird-watching opportunity) before driving back to Nairobi, stopping for lunch in Nakuru.  OTA offers this trip for 24,850KES per person including meals, accommodation (camping), transport and a two-hour boat cruise.

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  1. Suswa Caves

On the way to the Maasai Mara as you enter Maasai-land is the small town of Suswa and Mt Suswa rises to your left as you travel towards Narok.  It’s a very dusty road as you turn off the highway and head into the Suswa Conservancy.  There are two campsites, one right above the caves and another on the rim of Mt Suswa’s crater.  Local Maasai guides can take you for hikes to the crater rim and through the caves – it is recommended to do one hike on the Saturday afternoon and the other on the Sunday morning.  Neither is very strenuous but it can get very hot with little shade.

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If you are an expat or Kenyan citizen living in Nairobi these five ideas for two-day weekend trips should help you explore more of Kenya.  If you would like further information, advice or assistance in planning your weekend escape please contact OTA via tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

Holiday Stress Be Gone!

Holiday Stress Be Gone!

Holidays are fast approaching and you are met with a blank canvas – you could go anywhere!  You are spoilt for choice, but inundated with information.  And by the time you have sorted through the information and made a decision, is there even any time left to actually go for the holiday?  And that’s without considering the time needed for work commitments or things to be done around the home (spring cleaning, renovations, etc).

Holidays are not supposed to be stressful, but somehow the planning and preparation can leave us frazzled and wondering if it’s really worth it.  This article offers step-by-step guidance for smooth travel planning and you will be sipping cocktails on the beach before you know it.

  1. Start thinking about where to go at least five months in advance

Leaving things to the last-minute always results in higher stress levels so start planning early.  Choosing a destination can be tough but having this window of time can help you decide.  You can set up flight alerts and look out for other special offers to help you get the best deals.  If you have a short-list of destinations, set up flight alerts for each of them and the best prices might help you with the final decision.

  1. Use a travel agent

There are rumours that these professionals are going out of fashion, but do not underestimate their value.  If you have some ideas about the types of activities you want to do on your holiday (i.e. mountain climbing, safari, water sports) but cannot figure out where to do it, then your travel agent is the person who can match you to your ideal destination.  But the real value of the travel agent is that they take all the stress out of the planning – they are the one to wait on hold to make bookings, to do the research for the best hotel and flight deals, and to look for the activities.  And if something goes wrong on your holiday, it’s the travel agent who deals with it.  You only have to make one phone call to your agent and the rest is sorted out for you.  Booking on-line may be cheaper but it can also leave you stranded when things don’t work out.

  1. Set mini-deadlines for travel planning

In another article I’ve set out a preparing for travel timeline outlining a checklist for the eight weeks before you depart (http://ezinearticles.com/?Seven-Easy-Steps-to-Planning-Your-Dream-Holiday&id=7206060).  Some vaccinations require a series of doses over several weeks, so it is recommended you visit a travel doctor at least six weeks before departure.  Visas can take time to obtain so check with the relevant embassy and put that time into your calendar.  Pet care, house sitting and letterbox collection are also things you want to have time for – you need time to vet the house sitters for example.  Put these deadlines in your diary or calendar and stick to them to avoid the last-minute panic.

  1. Keep a packing list

As you think of things you will need on your holiday jot them down somewhere so that when you are packing (at the last minute!) you don’t have to think too much.  You might read some travel blogs of people who have been to the same place and advise to take certain items – you can add that to your list without worrying that you might forget in a couple of months.  Also your travel agent or tour operator may give you a suggested packing list for your specific activities so add that to your personal list as well.

  1. Sort out your work commitments

Pretend your last day at work before your holiday is one week before your actual last day.  That way, you can ensure you get your work finished in plenty of time (even if you don’t make that deadline, you still have time to complete it in the final week).  There have been studies showing that it takes people a few days to wind down from work and half your holiday might be wasted by the time you relax into it.  So why not start the wind-down process before you leave?  You can also spend the last week handing over to your co-workers, giving plenty of time to ensure all loose ends are tied up before you go.

Starting early and writing out a plan (and sticking to it!) will ensure your holiday is stress-free both in the preparation stage and enjoying it while you are there.  And if a safari is on your holiday list, OTA provides clear step-by-step guidance to assist you with preparing for travel to Africa (www.ota-responsibletravel.com).

OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Travelling in Kenya for People with a Physical Disability

Travelling in Kenya for People with a Physical Disability

Travelling in Africa can provide many challenges for people without a disability, but is it a complete no-go zone for people with physical impairment or other special needs?  Harun Hassan of NONDO (Northern Nomadic Disabled Persons Organisation) says definitely not and encourages travellers to “experience the excitement of getting through the hardship”.

While facilities in Kenya for people with disabilities have been slower to come to the fore, there is legislation in place to ensure that all buildings are accessible.  Moreover, there are several community-based and non-governmental organisations that advocate the rights of people with disabilities and the results of their work are becoming increasingly evident.  Shopping centres are very accessible and there are several hotels including Sarova Stanley, PanAfric and The Boma (all in Nairobi) that have excellent amenities.

The 2010 constitution has specified a certain number of people with disabilities must be elected to parliament to represent the needs of the community.  In Kenya, there is not so much discrimination against people with disabilities as a lack of awareness.  Having members of parliament with disabilities is one step to increase awareness as they speak about their impairment and how their lives have been growing up and now as a public figure.

A result of the lack of awareness is that when travellers with disabilities approach a safari operator, often their enquiry is ignored because the operator puts them in the “too hard basket”.  In Kenya, there are hardly any wheelchair-accessible vehicles – those Kenyans with physical impairments must be able to transfer themselves into taxis.  But that should not be a reason to dismiss Kenya as a holiday destination.  Rather, have a good conversation with your tour operator about your needs and find one that is prepared to work with you to plan your safari.  It will be up to you to inform the tour operator very specifically what you require, and it is probably not realistic to expect all the smooth mechanics you might be used to at home such as chair lifts, but the great thing about Kenya is that anything is possible!

If you are thinking about a Kenyan safari, you may contemplate including the Desert Wheel Race in your travel plans.  Held every August in Isiolo, the race is designed to give people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in sports and raise funds for children with disabilities to attend school.  NONDO works in partnership with the county governments from the seven counties participating in the event and willing partners and sponsors such as CBM in ensuring the event is well organized. In northern Kenya most communities are nomadic pastoralists and many people with physical impairment have never even seen a wheelchair.  Inter-tribal conflict has caused disabilities (for example one of the founding members of NONDO was stabbed in the spine with a spear as a child by a raiding tribe) resulting in the further marginalisation of people living in an already marginalised community.

Desert Wheel Race, Isiolo, Kenya Photo courtesy of the CBM database

In 2015, the Desert Wheel Race will be held on 22 August and OTA is organising a safari from Nairobi to participate in the event.  Please contact Tracey and Francis for more information: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com

Desert Wheel Race, Isiolo, Kenya Photo courtesy of the CBM database

All photos courtesy of CBM picture database

Beginner’s Guide to Planning a Kenyan Safari

Beginner’s Guide to Planning a Kenyan Safari

Many travellers plan to spend two weeks in Kenya – one week for safari and one week on the coast.  The week on the coast is fairly straightforward with water sports and lounging on the beach in Diani, Tiwi, Malindi or Watamu.  Less straightforward is the decision of how to spend the week on safari.  This article will provide some one-week itinerary suggestions to give you confidence in planning your Kenyan safari.  Most people arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and that will be the premise for the itineraries proposed here.

If you want to travel overland to the coast, then Amboseli National Park followed by Tsavo East, Tsavo West or Lumo Sanctuary make two nice stops between Nairobi and Mombasa.  From Amboseli you can get stunning views of Mt Kilimanjaro – this is where you get that quintessential photo of elephants crossing the plain in front of the majestic mountain.  Tsavo East and West National Parks together make up the largest park in Kenya.  Next door is Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary and Taita Hills; animals can roam freely between all four parks.

If you prefer to fly from Nairobi to the coast, then Maasai Mara, Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru are the typical trio for a week-long safari.  To experience the top three parks of Kenya a circuit visiting Amboseli, Lake Nakuru and Maasai Mara fills a week very nicely.  If your budget does not extend to all three parks (entry fees are US$80 per day) or if you prefer to stretch your legs in between long days of game driving, swap Lake Nakuru with Lake Naivasha.  There you can do walking safaris, cycling safaris, hiking and boating as different ways to experience Kenya’s wildlife.

For something a bit different you could head north to Samburu, passing Mt Kenya on the way and stopping at Ol Pejeta where Kenya’s only chimpanzee sanctuary is located.  From Samburu, travel west to Thomson’s Falls and Lake Baringo, before heading south to Lake Nakuru National Park and then finish in Nairobi.

To get the most out of the week the following itinerary travels up to northern Kenya and returns to the more popular southern parks.  This itinerary involves a lot of travelling however and you would definitely feel like you deserve a week of lounging on the beach after this!

Day 1: Depart Nairobi early in the morning and travel to Samburu National Reserve, arriving in time for an afternoon game drive.
Day 2: Spend a full game driving in Samburu.
Day 3: In the morning depart Samburu for Lake Nakuru National Park where you take an afternoon game drive.
Day 4: Travel from Nakuru to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in the morning, then go on an afternoon game drive.
Day 5: Spend a full day in the Maasai Mara.
Day 6: After an optional early morning balloon flight and/or visit to a Maasai village, travel from the Maasai Mara to Lake Naivasha.
Day 7: A morning boat ride amongst the flamingos and hippos on Lake Oloiden, a hidden gem just next to Lake Naivasha, before travelling back to Nairobi in the afternoon.

There are plenty of other places in Kenya and a week is a very short time to experience all of Kenya’s highlights.  But hopefully this has given you some ideas for your first Kenyan safari which will then whet your appetite for coming back again and again to the world’s premier safari destination.

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