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Hiroyuki’s Safari

Three leopards on the first day of safari, can you believe it?!  That was Hiroyuki’s experience when he came to Kenya in August 2016.  He contacted us because he had seen our commitment to community projects and wanted to spend some time with Amani Kibera in the slums of Nairobi.  Here’s the story of his short time in Kenya and how we helped him see both the real life and the safari life of Kenya.

The Kenyan Life(s)

Hiroyuki arrived in the late afternoon and we arranged for Ben to meet him at the airport.  Ben is the co-founder of Amani Kibera, a community-based organisation working with youth in the Kibera slum.  Hiroyuki was very interested in learning about life in the slum and if possible doing a homestay, so we asked Ben and his wife Mariam to host him.  I think Hiroyuki got more than any of us bargained as Ben took him on a drive through Nairobi’s city centre on the way from the airport to Kibera.  Hiroyuki then got taken for a night out with the boys, experiencing Kenyan life as authentically as one probably could!

When Francis went to pick him up the next morning, he was very tired and possibly just a little hungover.  But he was about to face the five-hour drive to the Maasai Mara – not the hangover cure I would be looking for!  He managed to sleep all the way, which would have made the drive less painful.  Before getting to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Hiroyuki was to spend a night experiencing another side of “typical Kenyan life”, this time in a rural Maasai community.  The contrast was pretty significant to the previous day, but that’s the wonder of travelling – finding these contrasts and realising that a stereotype of “Kenyan” is just not possible, as with all nations.

As I said at the outset, this was a short trip and so his third, and final, night was at last spent in the game reserve.  His accommodation was on the Talek River at Aruba Camp which meant traversing the park to get there.  It must have been a big night with the Kibera boys, because he was still tired and struggling to keep his eyes open on the game drive.  Incredibly, Francis found three leopards that afternoon while Hiroyuki dozed.  Francis tried to rouse him and he did wake up to take a photo before going back to sleep.  Eventually Francis gave up and took him to the camp early.  It seemed a shame that not everyone is lucky to find even one leopard in three days of game driving and here in one afternoon were three leopards and no one to enjoy the sightings.

The next morning was better for everyone and they saw eland, lion, ostrich, hyena, wildebeest, vultures, elephants and a secretary bird.  But that was the end of the trip.  After the morning game drive they headed back to Nairobi and the airport for the flight out.  It seems a long way to come for three days, but he experienced a range of environments giving a real taste of all the facets of Kenyan life.

Jasmin’s Safari

The first week of 2016 saw Francis again heading to the Maasai Mara – it seemed as if he was going every week for those couple of months of Christmas holidays!  This time it was with two Swiss and two Argentineans.  Jasmin had been staying in our spare room (AirBnB) and wanted to visit the Maasai Mara together with her brother who was coming to visit her in Kenya.  We were able to find them some travelling companions, to make their safari more budget-friendly for all four of them.

Jasmin had spent a semester on exchange at Multimedia University, studying journalism.  The university is not far from our place and at the end of her semester her boyfriend came to explore Kenya with her.  They rented our AirBnB room before heading off to the coast where her brother joined them.  She returned to Nairobi with her brother for the next leg to the Maasai Mara.  An Argentinean couple was also looking for a trip to the Maasai Mara at that time so the four of them headed off with Francis.  They stayed at Mara Explorers near Sekanani Gate, owned by our friends Laura and Moses.

On their game drives they saw plenty of animals – as usually happens in the Mara.  Impala, topi, ostrich, giraffe and buffalo were in abundance.  One particular highlight was when a mother elephant and her baby came very close to their vehicle.  Another fun creature is the angama lizard which looks like a lolly with all its bright colours.  But to crown it all, and what most people come to the Mara to see, was the lioness with her cubs.  The mama lion rolled in the grass as her cubs peered out between the blades.  It was grooming time and then lunch time, although mama seemed to get a bit annoyed with the young cubs all vying for time at the milking station.  The cubs were typical toddlers though: being cute but not doing as they were told!

Of course birdlife is also incredible but sometimes overshadowed by the wildlife.  Hamerkop is one distinctive bird that is pretty special to spot.  It is called hamerkop as the Afrikaans word for “hammer head” and indeed when you see this bird you could not call it anything else!  Guinea fowl are usually found in flocks on the ground, but on this trip to the Maasai Mara, Francis found them up in a sausage tree.  Lilac-breasted rollers, the national bird of Kenya, flashed their purple and blue through the bush too.

The group got their obligatory photo at the border point that marks where Kenya ends and Tanzania begins.  It is a simple obelisk-type structure in the middle of the bush but it would just be so great if there were an actual border crossing we could use in this location.

In the end, Jasmine described the safari as an “absolutely relaxed and responsible safari.”  Here’s the review she left on Trip Advisor:

Me and my brother made a safari to Masaai Mara. We already knew Francis and Tracey because we’ve spent some nights at their place in Rongai. They are really nice and helpful people and we had an amazing time with them. The safari to the Mara was one of the highlights of our time in Kenya.

I think Francis is a really good driver and I felt so relaxed in his car. This is important because it is quite a distance to the Mara park from Nairobi. Also in the park we felt that he really knows the area and that he exactly knew when he can drive through a waterhole (this time there were a lot of them) – we never got stuck. He also drove respectfully when animals were around, what I appreciated a lot. He really asked what we wanted and did not just stop at any souvenir shop like I knew it from other safari organizations (and I think can be a bit annoying). Finally, the place where we went for the two nights was also a great spot (The Mara explorer’s camps).

I totally recommend to travel with OTA because it is a small, really personal safari organization of such a nice couple with experience and knowledge.

Auke and Agnes choose an African honeymoon

About 90% of our business comes through word of mouth I reckon.  Auke and Agnes got in touch with us for their honeymoon after our past guest (and friend) Sylvia recommended they do so.  They had just less than two weeks in October 2016 to experience the best of Tanzania and Kenya.  Let’s see what they did so you can get some ideas for your own African adventure.

Seven nights in Tanzania

They were to start in Tanzania so Francis and I drove down to meet them in Arusha.  They arrived late but were able to get a late dinner at Tumaini Cottage where they were staying the night.  Tumaini Cottage is almost like a home stay – run by a husband and wife team who greet guests, cook the food and are ever-present with their warm hospitality.

The next morning, their Tanzanian driver-guide, Laughing Tembo, picked them up and we waved goodbye as they headed off to Tarangire National Park.  Famous for massive herds of elephants and a very different landscape to the plains of the Serengeti, they had two leisurely nights to explore, sleeping in quintessential African-style in a tented camp.  From Tarangire they continued into the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Serengeti National Park for another two nights in another tented camp.  Then to Ngorongoro Crater for one night in a lodge (solid walls around them at last!) before finishing their Tanzanian experience at Lake Eyasi for a night back under canvas.

Five nights in Kenya

And then they headed to Kenya.  Charles met them at the Namanga border crossing and took them straight into Amboseli National Park for a night at Kibo Safari Camp.  Then it was a long drive to Lake Naivasha where they spent the night at Fish Eagle Inn.  There they did a walking safari in Wileli Conservancy with our local guide John.  Finally the grand finale was two nights at Aruba Camp in the Maasai Mara.  Here they saw lions and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the savannah (not at the same time!).

Back in Nairobi, they checked into Wildebeest Eco Camp for an overnight stop.  The next day they returned to Arusha for one more night before their homeward flight the next day.

Would you like to come to Africa for your honeymoon safari?  Get in touch with us at OTA to start planning your own romantic adventure. Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

“Best honeymoon ever”

Two suitcases full of donations!  That’s what Bryan and Jade brought with them when they came to Africa for their month-long honeymoon safari.  As members of Pack for a Purpose, we encourage our guests to put some school supplies or clothes in their luggage if they have a bit of extra room.  But these two flew business class and maxxed out their luggage allowance after taking up a collection around their workplaces, family and friends.  We were able to arrange for them to make some of the donations in person as they travelled through Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya so they could see the positive impact they were making with the mountains of stationary they’d dragged halfway around the world.

Bryan and Jade flew from Melbourne, Australia, to Kigali, Rwanda.  There was to be no messing around – they were to start their safari with a bang: gorilla tracking!  They spent their first night at the Hotel des Mille-Collines which was made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda.  Like much of Kigali, the hotel does not show any scars from its grizzly history and is an up-market city hotel in the heart of Kigali.

Before heading up to the Volcanoes National Park, home to the mountain gorillas, the couple spent the morning in Kigali.  They visited the Genocide Memorial, a sombre museum detailing Rwanda’s history of colonialism and how it led to tribal tensions and ultimately the 1994 genocide.  Although I’ve personally been to Kigali several times and taken guests to the gates of the memorial, I’ve only been able to go inside once – although it is vitally important for people to be aware of how such an event can happen, it is incredibly sad and not a place I could tackle a second time.

Their first full day in Africa was certainly one of contrasts: from the luxury of Hotel des Mille-Collines, to the torrid history at the Genocide Memorial, and then to Nyamirambo Township for a community walk to witness modern Rwandan life.  All this before lunch!  They enjoyed a local lunch at the Women’s Centre in the township which supports women living in the slum by selling their handicrafts and giving them employment in cooking for visitors.

Then they drove two hours north of Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park – another contrast to the city they had experienced in the morning.  Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is located just outside the national park and has spectacular views of the volcanoes.  It is a community-run luxury lodge that was established by the Governor’s Collection based in Kenya but with all proceeds supporting the local community.

After that jam-packed first day, you’d think a rest was in order.  But no, it was an early start into the park to look for a unique and endangered species.  Not the mountain gorilla yet, but the Golden Monkey.  Once found, you can spend an hour watching these playful, lively creatures in their natural habitat.  You do get a bit of a crick in your neck though as they tend to play in the canopy which also makes getting good photos a challenge.

After the Golden Monkey experience, Bryan and Jade visited the Karisoke Research Centre which was founded by Dr Dian Fossey in 1967.  They enjoyed a guided tour where they learnt about the ongoing work of the Centre in protecting the mountain gorillas.

Finally the big day had arrived: day three in Africa was gorilla day.  It’s a very early start as you need to be at the ranger station by 7am for orientation.  The trek can vary in length and difficulty depending on the location of the gorilla family you are visiting.  Once you find them you spend an hour observing these beautiful and endangered creatures.  It is one of life’s most magical experiences being in the presence of a gorilla family.  The startlingly high price for the permit, the toil of hiking in the mountains through dense bush, the inhuman time the alarm woke you in the morning – all these are forgotten as you sit in the foliage metres away from these incredible beings that are so close to us genetically.  You can see the tenderness in the mother’s eyes as she watches her baby learn to swing on the vines, and the massive silverback keeping one watchful eye on his family and an even more watchful eye on the visitors – you know that one sudden move could be your last if he swung his powerful arm at you.

In a daze you head back down the mountain only half-believing what you just experienced.  Over (a usually late) lunch you tend to garble stories with your travel companion(s), still in awe of being in the presence of mountain gorillas.  After lunch, Bryan and Jade visited a local village to catch a glimpse of rural life before heading back to Kigali.

After that whirlwind three days in Rwanda, they flew to Arusha in Tanzania.  They had to fly via Nairobi and at the last minute the schedule changed and they ended up with several hours in Nairobi.  I met them at the airport for lunch as Nairobi’s airport isn’t one that you can easily while away several hours.  It was nice to meet them in person – Bryan was a friend of a friend and we had met a couple of times many years before but I’d never met Jade.  But usually through the process of designing a tailor-made itinerary, I feel like I get to know our guests quite well as emails and phone calls fly back and forth, so it is always lovely to meet in person and put faces to itineraries.  They had left one suitcase of clothing donations with our Rwandan partner and gave me another massive suitcase when we met for lunch, obviously not wanting to cart it all over Tanzania.  It was full of stationary which we could distribute between Amani Kibera and Kiota Children’s Home.  Bryan and Jade had put the call out to friends, family and colleagues that they were going to Africa and had a huge luggage allowance so anyone who wanted to donate items for needy families could give those items to the couple to bring.  And donate they did!

Game drives begin

Bryan and Jade’s first stop in Tanzania was Lake Manyara National Park, described as one of the hidden gems of Tanzania.  It is famous for tree climbing lions and large herds of elephant, which are not shy to come straight up to the vehicle.  They enjoyed an afternoon game drive, their first of many!

The next day they drove to one of the most famous game parks in Africa: the Serengeti.  These huge flat plains are home to millions of wildebeest during the migration meaning you are also likely to find lion, cheetah, leopard, hyena and many other small predators.  Again their afternoon was spent on game drive before enjoying dinner and the experience of sleeping in the middle of the Serengeti at Lemala Ewanjan Camp.

They had another full day in the Serengeti with their guide Grayson finding the best spotting locations.  It’s always good to start early for a better chance of finding the big cats before they retreat from the blazing sun during the day.  The Serengeti has so much to offer: you can spend time at the hippo pool, watching these majestic animals laze about in the cool water alongside the crocodiles, watch a big pride of lions or be in the middle of the migration.  You can journey from the wide open plains to the kopjes, volcanic rocky outcrops that provide protection and shelter for a wide variety of animals.  From the top of a kopje, you can look out across the vast grasslands.  This diverse and interesting landscape provides the ultimate in game viewing.

After a final morning game drive, they continued to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area where they stayed at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge which sits right on the rim of the crater.  The next morning they descended into the Ngorongoro Crater which is a wonderful haven for wildlife.  Ngorongoro is unique in that almost all the wildlife lives within the crater walls hence you have the opportunity to find game easily.  Rhino, in particular, can be seen regularly as well as prides of lion and other predators like cheetah.  After a picnic lunch by the hippo pond, our honeymooners commenced the drive to Lake Eyasi.

Lake Eyasi is home to the hunter-gatherer ethnic group of the Hadzabe Bushmen, who bear similar characteristics to those of Bushmen in Southern Africa.  This indigenous tribe is probably the last that lives in true harmony with nature and are well-known for their communication via clicking rather than speech.  Bryan and Jade enjoyed hunting with them and experiencing their way of life.

Finally it was time for them to come to Kenya.  Francis met them at the Namanga border post and brought them to Nairobi and straight into the Nairobi National Park where they enjoyed a game drive as they found their way to The Emakoko.

Then it was time for their first wedding gift; Matt and Katie had given them an elephant called Maktau!  As a foster parent of an elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, you can visit the elephants in the evening, away from the mass crowds of the morning session, and help put the baby elephants to bed.  Bryan and Jade fell in love with several other elephant orphans during their visit and came away with another three fostered babies.

You might think that a luxury lodge in a national park just 6km from a major capital city would be exciting enough, but their second night in Nairobi trumped the first.  Almost a year before the trip, Bryan and Jade’s friends got in touch with me about giving the newlyweds a really special gift: a night at the Giraffe Manor!  It’s necessary to book a year or more in advance and even though November is a shoulder season, there was still only one night in the window of travel time Bryan and Jade had that had a room available at Giraffe Manor.  We had to design the whole itinerary around this one night.

After checking in and lunching with the giraffes (and watching a self-proclaimed Instagram influencer go through a number of outfit changes as he posed with giraffes) I took Bryan and Jade to Kibera slum with their suitcase of donations to give personally to the Amani Kibera community-based organisation.  They sat down with Ben, one of the founders, to hear more about the projects Amani Kibera does to promote peace in the slum.  Ben was blown away with the pile of stationary and the couple of iPads that Bryan and Jade were donating.  The organisation facilitates sponsorship of students who cannot afford school fees and the additional assistance of the stationary would be a great help to those students.

Breakfast at Giraffe Manor has been photographed and featured as a quintessential African experience, so we gave Bryan and Jade a rare late start before heading out of Nairobi and off to Amboseli National Park.  Nestled at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is another oft-photographed place with the picture of elephants grazing in the shadow of the mountain another quintessential African moment.  On arrival at Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge, they were greeted with rose petals all over their bed – just in case all the adventure had made them forget this was their honeymoon!

From Amboseli, they skirted around the base of Kilimanjaro, close to the Tanzanian border, to get to Tsavo West National Park.  After lunch at the lodge, they got another wedding present: a guided excursion to the Shetani Lava Fields and Caves, which are the results of Mt Kilimanjaro’s last eruption.

Tsavo West is huge and together with Tsavo East National Park, they make up 4% of Kenya’s total land mass.  Bryan and Jade had a few days to explore the vast parks and spent three nights in three lodges in three corners of the park.  First at Kilaguni Serena Lodge, from where there is easy access to the Shetani Lava Fields and also Mzima Springs where there is an underwater viewing room.  Hippos, crocodiles and lots of fish can be observed from this unique vantage point.  Second was Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge which is up on stilts and elephants, zebras, and all the other animals wander around the salt lick below.  Technically, the salt lick is in a sanctuary adjacent to the national park so it is possible to do a night game drive, which our honeymooning couple of course took up.

The third day was back in the national park in Tsavo East at Satao Camp.  Unfortunately their bush breakfast was cancelled due to rain, but that was the least of the problems the rain had caused.  Trucks were bogged on the road and Francis had to detour off road around them.  Then there were David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service trucks bringing elephants to Tsavo East from the orphanage in Nairobi to start their rehabilitation.  But the local elephants were going crazy so they couldn’t release the new elephants from the trailers.  One elephant blocked the road so no one could pass – not Kenya Wildlife Service and not our travelers.

At last they reached Watamu and the Medina Palms where the swimming pool extends all the way from the rooms to the beach.  Now we can say Bryan and Jade were on their honeymoon: five relaxing nights on a honeymoon package washing the safari dust off in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.  Bryan is a diver so we selected this part of the Kenyan coast for the Watamu Marine Park famous for dolphins, turtles and plenty of other spectacular marine life.

The only thing left is their five-star Trip Advisor review which we were pretty chuffed with as it described their trip as the “Best Honeymoon Ever”:

Nothing was too difficult and everything planned to the smallest detail. When there was a long stopover, she came to the airport and bought us lunch! All the hotels on the way were told it was our honeymoon and we got upgrades and champas and great service. The organization was spot on but flexible. Shout out to Grayson in Tanzania who was excellent too. Would thoroughly recommend OTA and their partners! Eagle eye spotting of game so we were often the first!

https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r640285262-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html

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!!

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