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Walking With the Maasai and Other Adventures

Walking With the Maasai and Other Adventures

As they bumped along the road to the Maasai Mara, they heard a helicopter flying low.  This was the first day of Di and Leonie’s safari and a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) chopper was ushering an elephant back into the park.  What an exciting way to begin their week in Kenya!  This post tells of their June safari through Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Amboseli.

On their arrival they spent the first night at Wildebeest Eco Camp nestled in the quiet, green suburb of Karen in Nairobi’s south-west.  Rested and refreshed, they headed to the Maasai Mara the next day.  It was on this drive to Kenya’s premier game reserve that they watched the KWS helicopter herding a stray elephant back to within the park boundaries.  Human-wildlife conflict is a constant challenge for conservationists in Kenya and elephants can be particularly destructive in a field of crops, which can result in retaliation from the community whose crops have been destroyed.  So it’s imperative to keep the elephants in the safety of the park to avoid such conflict.

They entered the park and enjoyed a game drive as they made their way to Aruba Camp where they would spend the next two nights.  During their time in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve they saw a leopard with its dinner – a Thomson’s gazelle – that it had dragged up into the tree.  They also saw a leopard tortoise, a Marshall Eagle, buffalo herds, Lilac-breasted Roller (Kenya’s national bird), giraffes, elephants, topis, hyena, lions, ostrich and a puff adder.  On their full day game drive, they enjoyed a picnic lunch in the middle of the savannah.  Before leaving the Maasai Mara, they visited a Maasai village, which was a longer walk than anticipated, demonstrating that the Maasai definition of “not far” might be a bit different to an Australian definition!

Lake Nakuru National Park

The next stop was Lake Nakuru National Park.  They stayed two nights a few kilometres outside the park at a camp called Punda Milias (“Zebra” in KiSwahili).  More buffalos here and also rhinos!  Makalia Falls at the south end of the park was gushing down as June brings an end to the rainy season.

A short drive took them to Lake Naivasha where they spent a night at Camp Carnelleys.  The excitement here was a break in!  Monkeys got in their room while they were out.

Finally, they went to Kibo Camp, for two nights at Amboseli National Park.  Flamingoes were plenty in Lake Amboseli – which doesn’t look much like a lake in the dry season so seeing flamingos here is quite special.

Being the admin gal, I don’t often get to meet our guests, despite usually spending many months emailing each other planning their safari.  So if there’s an excuse to do an airport pick up or drop off or something similar then I don’t mind.  This time it was a camera case and battery left behind in the vehicle.  Di and Leonie had gone on to Tanzania and were flying back to Nairobi and then on home.  So during their transit, I went to the airport to try to deliver the items.  It was a bit of a mission and it was good that they had several hours to kill.  I was passed from pillar to post until one immigration official told me that Di and Leonie would have to talk nicely to the immigration officers inside to allow them to come out to meet me.  I almost gave up hope, but then Leonie found me wandering outside the terminal!  Amazingly it had worked.  Battery delivered, we made our ways home….one journey significantly different to the other, no doubt reflecting the significant differences in adventure each had just had.

16 Iranian Conservationists on a Kenyan Safari

Sometimes it’s crazy weird how people come and go in your life.  In 2012 Aboo and his friend came to Kenya and got in touch with me through the CouchSurfing website as they wanted to meet people in Nairobi to hang out with.  I was happy for a distraction for a day.  Four years later, Aboo had undergone a massive career change into Eco-Tourism and was organising a study tour to Kenya for Iranians working in conservation.  He got back in touch with me to facilitate it.

The group’s first stop was Ol Pejeta Conservancy, home to some spectacular wildlife.  On their arrival at the airport, Francis and Letaloi met them and took them to Safari Park Hotel for brunch.  They then headed north to the central highlands and majestic Mt Kenya where they stopped on the equator.  At Ol Pejeta they had the opportunity to do a night game drive after dinner.  Most of the group camped at the public campsite within the conservancy while some stayed at Sweet Waters Serena Camp.

The next day they visited the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the Endangered Species Enclosure and the hippo pool.  Safari cooks John and his assistant prepared all the group’s meals in the bush.

Lake Naivasha provides an opportunity to get out of the vehicle in between the national parks, where you are confined to game drives.  There is plenty of unique bird-life to experience at the lake and after a morning game drive in Ol Pejeta, Lake Naivasha was the next destination.  They stayed on the lake shore at Fisherman’s Camp and enjoyed the delicious (albeit slow) dining at the camp’s restaurant.

They had two full days to explore the area.  Some went on a walking safari, some chose to cycle in Hells Gate National Park and others went out on the lake in a boat to get up close and personal with some hippos.

After stretching their legs  walking and biking at Lake Naivasha, where there are very few predators, the group headed to the Maasai Mara which holds one of the highest lion densities in the world as well as being home to leopard and cheetah.  It is Kenya’s greatest wildlife reserve and, for most people, the highlight of a Kenyan safari.  This is where more than two million wildebeest and zebra migrate annually.  John prepared dinner in the campsite at Aruba Camp while the group enjoyed a game drive.

The abundance of game in the Maasai Mara is amazing.  Nearly every mammal found in Kenya can be seen there – spotting a leopard needs a lot of luck though!  The hippo pool is a popular spot.  The group enjoyed a picnic lunch under a tree in the savannah and, as they continued their game drive in the afternoon, they saw elephants, buffalo and giraffes.

Between Maasai Mara and Amboseli, it’s necessary to make an overnight stop if travelling by road, so the group found themselves in Nairobi for an evening.  They had a meeting with representatives from African Wildlife Society to discuss conservation issues and exchange ideas on how to do conservation better in their respective countries.

They visited the AFEW Giraffe Centre and the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi before heading to Amboseli.  Amboseli is nestled at the foothills of Kilimanjaro and is another of Kenya’s top wildlife destinations – this is where you can get that classic photo of a herd of elephant with Mt Kilimanjaro as the backdrop.  The elephants are the main drawcard for visitors to Amboseli as well as the perfect views of Africa’s tallest mountain.  Again John was in the campsite slaving over the hot coals to feed the group at the We4Kenya Camp.  The group spent two nights at Amboseli watching elephants wallowing in this swamp in the middle of a very arid area and visiting Maasai in their traditional village.

After a final morning game drive to see the sunrise over Mt Kilimanjaro, they returned to Nairobi.  They had time to do some final souvenir shopping before their departing flight.

Join us in September 2020 for a two-week safari through Kenya.  At only US$3000 per person this is the safari adventure of your life! Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com for more information.

Suswa Caves

Kenya is full of hidden gems that we keep discovering and we want to show our visitors all of them!  We recently camped at Suswa Caves, one such hidden gem.  Sometimes you just need to get off the beaten track, and although the road through Suswa is the well-beaten track to the Maasai Mara, the diversion to Suswa Caves is very unbeaten.  So, at the risk of making Suswa Caves Kenya’s hottest destination, I’m going to tell you about our weekend there and how you can enjoy your own adventure.

Eight of us headed to Suswa loaded up with camping gear, food and water.  Laura and Moses came from their camp in the Maasai Mara with their friend Helen who was visiting from the UK.  Kip, Leonie and their daughter Fleur came from Nairobi, like us.  We arrived at the turnoff to Mt Suswa Conservancy at the same time as Moses and Laura so we set off together into the conservancy.  The road was so dusty!  We had to keep almost a kilometre between our vehicles so the ones behind didn’t get lost in the cloud.  On their way in, Kip and Leonie got stuck in a dust drift – that’s how bad it was!

After we entered the conservancy we had to find the campsite and set up camp.  It wasn’t the easiest to find, but some of the local Maasai who take care of the conservancy found us, waved us down and gave us directions.  We were pleasantly surprised to find something resembling a toilet block – a hole in the ground surrounded by a structure with the doorway facing away from the campsite.  There are two campsites in Mt Suswa Conservancy: one is on the rim of the crater (I forgot to mention that Mt Suswa is an extinct volcano) and the other is next to the caves.  We were at the one near the caves.   Apart from the crumbling buildings around long drop toilets, there is no other infrastructure at the campsites so you must bring everything.  Fortunately we are all ex-overlanders so we are used to spending a couple of nights in the bush and had all the requisite supplies for such an adventure.  For a fee the Maasai brought us firewood, but it most likely wasn’t environmentally sustainable firewood.

Maasai water harvesting

The next morning we hiked.  We found a guide to take us up to the crater rim of Mt Suswa.  On the way he showed us the ingenious method the Maasai have been using to harvest water.  Mt Suswa sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of several volcanoes that caused the Rift Valley to exist; Mt Kilimanjaro and nearby Mt Longonot being two others.  This volcanic activity means there are hot springs and geysers throughout the area.  In fact this activity has resulted in Kenya Power building a massive geothermal power plant in Hells Gate National Park, which is spitting distance from Mt Suswa.  Anyway, the Maasai have put pipes over steam vents in the mountainside in a way that directs the steam down the mountain.  By the time the steam has travelled down the pipe, it has condensed to water and drips into a large jerry can.  Anyone can come and take water from this source.  On our way back to camp after visiting the crater rim, we stopped by the main water collection point and our guide doused each of us in cold water harvested from the steam vents.  It seemed a bit extravagant given the dryness of the landscape, but it was also very welcome as it was so hot.

On our hike we saw rabbits and shy vervet monkeys, a rare species as most vervet monkeys are very cheeky and not at all shy.  We also saw plenty of birds which Kip was thrilled about as he is an avid birder.

In the afternoon, our guide took us to (and through) the caves.  I would never have guessed how extensive they were and how large.  Some were just massive holes in the ground, which might prove a hazard if you weren’t looking where you were going!  Others were narrow passages which weren’t so much my cup of tea.  There were a lot of bats, and I didn’t fancy coming across one trying to get out while I was trying to get in!  We were shown one chamber that was known as the leopard’s eating cave.  I’m not sure if it was true or not, I preferred not to think too hard about it as our campsite was quite close.  One large cave was called the baboon parliament as it is a favourite gathering place for troupes of baboons.  The rocks were shiny and smooth from the baboons sitting on them so much.

Next time we go, I think the campsite on the crater rim is preferable to the one near the caves, if only for the view.  Hikes need to happen in early morning and late afternoon with a siesta to pass the heat of the day.  Conservancy and camping fees are quite reasonable and the man who collects them is very good at knowing that you are in the conservancy – so even if the entrance gate is unmanned, you will still have to pay as he comes to the campsite to check on you.  Keep your receipts though, so you can prove payment in case another administrator comes around to check/collect.

Would you like to visit Mt Suswa and its caves?  Get in touch with tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we’ll help you get there.

Ellies and Giraffes with Linda and Amy

Ellies and Giraffes with Linda and Amy

One of Nairobi’s best-kept secrets is a beautiful nature park opposite the AFEW Giraffe Centre.  It’s where Linda, Amy and I had a picnic to the soundtrack of birdsong in March 2016.  Volunteers at the Sunrise of Africa School in Kitengela, Linda and Amy booked a day trip with us to see some of Nairobi highlights.  So we visited the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the AFEW Giraffe Centre – two fantastic places where you can get up close to the animals and support conservation efforts carried out by these two organisations.

Kitengela is Kenya’s fastest-growing town and each time we visit Sunrise of Africa School it feels like we have to re-learn the way as buildings go up, roads are built and/or moved and landmarks change.  Eventually I found Linda and Amy early in the morning and we headed straight to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

My opinion is that the Elephant Orphanage is THE best place to visit in Nairobi; if you only have time to visit one attraction here, make it the baby elephants!  They spend most of their day out in the Nairobi National Park, under the supervision of the keepers, learning to forage and live in the wild.  The intention is for their rehabilitation back to the wild when they are old enough.  But for one hour each day they run down to the centre for a milk feed and a play in front of the large number of visitors who come every day.  They are fed formula milk from huge bottles – the younger ones need their bottles held by their keeper, but the older ones twirl their trunks around the bottle and hold it high, emptying the milk straight down their throats.  The keepers give a talk about the orphanage and introduce each elephant, telling the story of how each orphan came to be here.

Nearby is the Giraffe Centre and opposite the Giraffe Centre is a park with walking trails and hundreds of birds.  It is a serene place to spend some time out from the hustle of Kenya’s capital.  Linda, Amy and I found some rocks to perch on and enjoy our picnic lunch in the peace of the bush.  Only one other group came by as we feasted on salad sandwiches, fruit, yoghurt, and cakes.  It sounds a simple lunch for our visitors, but after spending a month eating traditional Kenyan food (beans, lentils, spinach, everything stewed to death, and then the carbs…..), a fresh salad was a welcome change for Linda and Amy.

After lunch, we rejoined the crowds at the Giraffe Centre.  Here is where you stand on platform at eye-level with the giraffes and feed them.  And get a kiss if you’re really game!  The centre is home to several Rothschild Giraffes, one of the most endangered species of giraffe in the world (did you know there are seven species of giraffe, three of which can be found in Kenya?).  The staff give a talk about giraffes in Kenya and about the work of African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the organisation that founded the Giraffe Centre.

Linda left this review on our Trip Advisor page:

“Tracey met us and and took us to the elephant centre, she was warm, friendly and efficient and provided an excellent picnic between the first and second visit. A very relaxed and happy day.”

Would you like to visit the elephant orphanage and giraffe centre in Nairobi?  Get this free day trip with your safari when you come to Kenya between February and June!  Send an email to tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com so we can start planning your holiday today.

John’s Trip

Have you ever been so dehydrated you’ve seen green elephants, green hippos or a giant weevil about the size of a cow?  On his descent of Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania, John had these hallucinations, but that didn’t stop him from continuing up three more mountains in a two month East African adventure!  A solo traveller on a mission to climb the peaks and visit the mountain gorillas in Uganda, John was looking for pocket-friendly ways to see the region.  Joining group tours is always a gamble, and he regaled us with tales of the fellow travellers he met on the tours we organised for him.

Before John came to Kenya, he had spent a lot of time in Tanzania climbing three mountains (Ol Doinyo Lengai, Meru and Kilimanjaro), hanging out in the Serengeti and visiting a Maasai village.  His other African goals included scaling Mount Kenya and tracking the gorillas in Uganda.  So we helped him find a tour to Uganda which had the added bonus of travelling via the Maasai Mara, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru National Park and Jinja.  As with all group tours there is a chance that your travel mates might not be compatible, but it is certainly a convenient and affordable way for a soloist.  He visited Elsamere, the home of Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame, took a cruise at the source of the Nile River, and visited orphanages at Lake Bunyonyi and Nakuru.

While he was in Nairobi between trips, John stayed in our spare room, which we have on AirBnB.  We were regaled with tales of his travels (he has travelled all over the world!) and he got to experience a very “local” life in Ongata Rongai.  We took him for dinner a couple of times to our favourite local for nyama choma, as well as the more touristy sites of the elephant orphanage and the giraffe centre.  He also went into town to visit the National Museum, which gives an excellent history of Kenya from pre-history to present.  We took him to Kibera to visit the community projects of Amani Kibera and a day hiking in the Ngong Hills.

Mt Kenya was the big climax though for his Kenyan experience.  Again being a soloist, the climb can be prohibitively expensive, but our colleague in Nanyuki was taking a group up and said John could join.  It was a school group, as it turns out – so John hiked up the mountain with 40 teenagers!

After leaving John to hike up the mountain, Francis and I decided to take our own adventure.  We spent some days exploring the area, checking out different accommodation, and having a break from the bustle of Nairobi.  We ended up at Naro Moru gate for the night where we camped at the public campsite.  We drove up the mountain as far as we could and then continued walking….for about 20 minutes!  I don’t think I can say that I’ve hiked Mt Kenya!  With rain clouds on one side and clear blue sky on the other, the weather on the mountain is unpredictable and can change suddenly.  Francis wasn’t keen on lingering as there was a high chance of getting stuck if the road turned muddy.

In the morning we wandered up to Batian Guest House about a kilometre from the campsite.  It is a self-catering house that sleeps eight.  Stunning views of the mountain would greet you in the morning as you ate breakfast on the balcony.  On our return to the campsite, baboons were running amok!  Our food was safely locked up, but the creatures were everywhere!  As Francis approached, they scattered but not before one broke the side mirror as he slid off the roof to the ground!

Our next stop was Aberdare National Park – a new one for me!  We had a bit of a challenge finding the campsite but finally we slid down an embankment into a clearing.  It was beautiful!  Surrounded by trees with a river running by, we had the forest to ourselves.  The next day we went for a drive around the forested Salient where we saw plenty of buffalo and bushbuck, before we headed to the moorland.  Aberdare is not a big park but it is divided fairly definitely into two sections – the salient and the moorland.  We thought that our chances of spotting animals would disappear on the moorland, but we were wrong.  We saw elephants and then the elusive bongo!  Bongos are incredibly shy and notoriously difficult to spot, so I held no hope of seeing one.  But we saw two!

We visited Fishing Lodge, a self-catering guesthouse that sleeps 14 people (seven in each cottage).  It is in a great location from where you can fish in the river and walk a few kilometres to the waterfalls.  Aberdare has landscape one doesn’t normally associate with Africa: waterfalls, forest, and babbling brooks.  So it is quite an interesting addition to the typical safari itinerary if you are looking to experience Kenya in all her diversity.

If you are looking for some (or all) of the experiences described here, please get in touch.  We love planning interesting itineraries tailored to your interests and budget, and as you can see there is much more to Kenya than savannah plains.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to start planning your safari today.

Hippos after all!

We met Corinne in 2014 through an introduction from my old school principal.  She started a school in Kitengela, near Nairobi, which Huntingtower (that’s my old school in Melbourne) supports.  Sunrise of Africa School is founded on Christian Science principles, with over 300 students from pre-school to Class 8.  Corinne and her husband George live in Kenya while their children Christoph and Michelle live abroad with their families.  Every few years they all come together at the old house in Nairobi for Christmas.  And in 2016 we were privileged to be part of their celebrations as they planned a safari to the Maasai Mara.

After booking in February, it was a long time coming, but finally we were gathered out the front of the house ready to go.  But unfortunately, it was not to be.  The road to the Maasai Mara is notoriously horrible, for inexplicable reasons given how much tourists pay the local county government to visit Kenya’s greatest game reserve!  While we carried equipment, Michelle and George drove their own vehicles full of passengers.  But when a suspension bush gave way, and some passengers were going a little green from the bumpy road, it was decided that the Maasai Mara was not to be the amazing Christmas safari after all.  With long faces we parted ways – we continued as we had another family coming to join us the following day (stay tuned for the story of the Fink family trip!) while the Corvins returned to Nairobi.

Nairobi National Park

But all was not lost!  On our return to Nairobi, we organised a day trip to Nairobi National Park.  Administered by Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), the roads are in a much better state of repair, not to mention that it is located a mere 8km from the CBD!  We met early in the morning and after battling our way through the ticket-buying bureaucracy (only took 20 minutes to buy 10 tickets!) we were on our game drive at last.

One of the first places we stopped was a waterhole where there are always a lot of water birds squawking around.  Mattias said he thought he saw a hippo, but his dad wasn’t sure and when he asked Francis and I if there were hippos here we both said no …. Well we had never seen any there!  But Mattias was right!  And not just one hippo, but a few.  His sister, Zoe, had been dying to see a hippo, so she was very happy with her big brother.

Despite this sighting, we still headed to the river where more hippos generally hang out.  Lucky that we had seen the hippos in the first pool however – there were none where they were supposed to be.  That’s why it’s called a “game” drive – it’s a like a game of hide-and-seek between humans and animals!  We had brunch at the river and then they went for a walk with Humphrey the ranger to spot some crocs.

As we continued the game drive, we were rewarded with two rhinos, a lion and then a black-backed jackal right alongside the cars!  The jackal simply trotted along unperturbed by our presence, at one point looking directly at James and Michelle’s car, so they got some great photos.  We also got pretty close to some giraffes and watched as some impalas in a bachelor herd knocked horns as they fought for alpha status.

On 18 July 1989, President Moi and Dr Leakey (then head of KWS) sent a strong message to the world about poaching elephants for ivory.  They burned 12 tonnes of the stuff, worth about US$1 million, in the Nairobi National Park.  Today the Ivory Burning Site still remains with the ashes of those tusks as a reminder of Kenya’s stance on poaching.  Although I had been to Nairobi National Park several times before, finally I visited this site for the first time with the Corvins.  It was such an impressive move by Moi and Leakey, I only wish more governments today had the same courage.

And that was the day.  We are still sorry we didn’t get the opportunity to show them the Maasai Mara, but we already have some great ideas for their next visit!  Karibuni tena!!

Jared’s Graduation in Uganda

Jared’s Graduation in Uganda

Here is the result of one woman’s amazing generosity: Jared Opio, a Ugandan student of Public Health graduated in December 2015!  If you have been following us for a few years, you might remember Jared’s initial request that I posted on this blog at the end of 2012.  He was looking for a sponsor so he could transform his life by gaining a university education.  Bev answered his request and, after three years, Jared invited us all to his graduation in Kampala.

Road trip!  We packed up two of Francis’ kids, Mathew and Miriam, and the four of us headed west.  We were only ten minutes on the road when a crazy bus caused our first halt.  It was passing us on the verge and was rocking wildly as it fell in and out of holes until one lurch made the bus rock so far as to bump us and shatter a  back window!  Fortunately no one was sitting there, but I was furious.  Kenyan buses think they are kings of the road and have little regard for other users, just as long as they can get where they are going as quickly as possible.  It seems they had caused such damage before however, as the conductor gave some cash to Francis and they continued their journey.  When we found somewhere later in the day to replace the window, we found the amount he had given us was exactly right!

The rest of the trip to Kampala was event-free.  We spent a night at Lelin Camp near Iten overlooking the Kerio Valley.  The training centre for Kenyan athletes is at Iten and indeed as we drove through early the next morning we saw several running along the mountain roads.

We arrived a day early and so we spent the day catching up with Jared.  We were pleasantly surprised when he handed us gifts – OTA t-shirts!!  He had got our logo from the internet and had it embroidered on shirts for Francis and I.  This is something we had been talking about doing for years now, and here Jared had shown us up!  We are immensely grateful for the shirts and wear them with pride.

In the evening, we went to see the Ndere Troupe, a dancing and drumming show.  The host was very entertaining and one of his sets involved getting an American member of the audience to demonstrate to the Ugandans how all the vowels actually have different pronunciations.  He used the examples “hat”, “hut”, ‘hurt” and “hot” which can all sound very similar when a Ugandan (or a Kenyan) say them.  Similarly, I’m never quite sure if Francis is asking me if I’m “hungry” or “angry” and the evolution of “hangry” in English has made things a bit easier for both of us.

The Burundian drummers had to be the highlight however.  Their drums were massive and so the logical place to carry huge drums is of course on one’s head.  They walked onto the stage beating the drums that sat horizontally on their heads.  They then lowered the drums to the ground and you could tell how heavy they were from the way they heaved them down.  It was incredible!

Graduation Day

The next day was the graduation.  Unfortunately, Bev had fallen ill a week before she was due to travel and so I was even more anxious to be there to report back to her about it.  But when I arrived at the gate they told me I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera inside.  It was very confusing – this is a big day for families to see their loved ones graduate from university and we can’t bring cameras in?!  Meanwhile, everyone inside was taking photos with their phones and iPads!  I’m still not sure about the reason for banning cameras but we got around the situation and I was able to attend.

Jared was beaming with pride in his cloak and hat amongst his fellow students.  The Bachelors of Public Health were the second biggest group after the Nursing graduates and they let out a loud whoop once all their names had been called.  The restrictions of the space meant that the students just stood up when their name was called rather than negotiating their way to the front to doff and shake hands.  It was a much more efficient way to do it and the ceremony finished a bit early as a result.

Jared and his aunt invited us to lunch afterwards where we ate some delicious food and took photos in the garden….in between downpours!  It was a short but sweet visit as the next day we headed back to Kenya.  We are very proud of Jared’s achievement and of course we thank Bev so very much for affording him this opportunity.  Jared has since secured employment in his field, working in refugee camps on the Uganda-South Sudan border administering vaccinations and improving maternal and child health.

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