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4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

You don’t need to be scared to go on safari.  When CNN described Kenya last year as “a hotbed of terrorism” it called attention to some crazy myths that must be prevailing to prevent travellers coming to Kenya.  I want to address some of these myths to help put your mind at ease and feel confident to experience that bucket list safari you’ve always wanted.  This won’t be a marketing spiel; I live in Kenya so I know the good, the bad and the ugly and will share all of it with you.

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Myth 1: Kenya is full of terrorists

CNN’s description of Kenya was outlandish to say the least.  Kenya suffered several terrorism incidents throughout 2013 and 2014, the most notable of which was the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre.  Most of the activities were much smaller scale however – grenades thrown into bus stations, churches and nightclubs.  In April 2015 the Garissa University was attacked and since then Kenya has not had another attack (time of writing is August 2016, I hope I don’t jinx it!).  Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from Somalia, are reported to be the key offenders.

Unfortunately today, terrorism occurs everywhere and anywhere.  In the last year we have seen attacks in Paris, Sydney, Brussels and Istanbul.  But travellers still flock to these places.

Fifty million people survive every day in Kenya, so your chances are pretty good that you will come out alive.  Like saying “all Muslims are terrorists”, Kenyans want peace as much as the next person.  Moreover, the parts of Kenya you, as a traveller, would be frequenting are not terrorist targets – there have been no attacks on any national parks or game reserves to date.   There is a terrorist risk near the Somali border and in parts of Nairobi.

The current travel advisory from the Australian government is that only some areas are dangerous, not the whole country.  And the dangerous areas don’t have much of interest to the average safari-goer.

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Myth 2:  Nairobi is “Nai-robbery”

A decade ago carjackings, armed robbery, and muggings were relatively common in Nairobi, earning the city the nickname “Nai-robbery”.  But one mayor did a lot of work with the street boys and nowadays Nairobi is just as safe (or risky) as any other big city in the world.  Expatarrivals.com says that crime in Nairobi is “opportunistic, unsophisticated, comparable to other world capitals.”  The crime rate has decreased each year since 2012 according to Standard Digital.

I have lived in Nairobi for five years now and I have never been physically attacked.  One evening, my phone was snatched – but who walks in the city centre in the evening alone talking on their phone; it was totally my fault.  However, everyone who saw the thief chased him and I got my phone back!  Nairobians themselves are tired of crime in their city, especially towards foreigners because they don’t want travellers to have a bad experience of Kenya.

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Myth 3: Corruption is rife and foreigners are targeted because they are thought to have more money

I cannot say that corruption is not rife.  It is, but as a tourist you are unlikely to encounter it.  If you book a full package safari, there will be little opportunity for police or any other official to ask you for a bribe.  Tourists are rarely targeted.  Foreigners are not an easy target because we tend to ask too many questions and don’t always understand what’s really happening.  It’s not in our habit to slip some money in the door handle for the traffic policeman for example.  Expatriates who participate in corruption means crime continues unpunished and Kenya’s development remains stymied.  The phrase “When in Rome…” should not apply to bribery and corruption.

President Kenyatta says the right things about cleaning up Kenya’s corruption, but it’s going to take a huge shift.  However it’s certainly not a reason to avoid a Kenyan safari!

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Myth 4: Tour operators are dishonest and you will lose your money if you pay in advance.

Yes, there are some briefcase businesses, but in this age of the internet you can certainly do you own due diligence and avoid being scammed.  There are plenty of review sites online and many allow you to contact reviewers directly to ask about their experience.  Use Trip Advisor, do your research, check the prices.

The tourism industry has suffered greatly the past four years (due to the myths I’m writing about here!) and tour operators are getting increasingly desperate just to make a sale.  But if park fees are included in your package, check that the total price can cover those fees.  For example, it is $80 for a 24-hour ticket to the Maasai Mara.  So if you are booking a two-night safari to Maasai Mara for $200, you can do some simple maths and calculate that $160 is for park fees, leaving only $40 for transport, accommodation and food.  Park fees are public information so you can do some rough calculations.  If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is!  Either your operator is paying bribes at the park gate, or your vehicle hasn’t been maintained, or your food will be substandard.  Or you could get the trifecta!  Please, it does not help Kenya’s fight against corruption to encourage your tour operator to pay bribes at the gate so you can get into the park cheaply.

The Kenyan Association of Tour Operators and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism are also working hard to introduce measures to curb cheats.

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Sensational media is destroying Kenya’s main industry and the economy is suffering as a result.  So if an African safari is on your bucket list, look beyond the headlines and see Kenya for the amazing country it really is.

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OTA’s Wildlife Wonder – East Africa’s best game parks in two weeks

OTA’s Wildlife Wonder – East Africa’s best game parks in two weeks

The Maasai Mara and Serengeti form a cross-border eco-system that supports millions of animals and is the scene for the Great Wildebeest Migration.  In January, OTA is leading a tour to these parks as well as Lake Naivasha, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, giving guests the opportunity to experience a variety of landscapes throughout their safari.

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Spectacular wildlife in Maasai Mara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater is the biggest draw-card of this safari, but the stunning birding in Lakes Naivasha and Natron is not to be dismissed.  Throughout the safari, we will travel through several different environments, each providing incredible scenery.  Guests will also have the opportunity to visit a traditional Maasai village.  Travelling in a comfortable safari vehicle fit for photography, game-viewing and touring and accompanied by an experienced driver-guide, on this trip you will stay in three-star tented camps and lodges.

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Francis Wamai, Founder and Director of OTA, says: “Lake Naivasha is the biggest of the Rift Valley lakes and Lake Natron has an alga that makes it look red; both are home to millions of flamingos.  Maasai Mara is famous for the Great Wildebeest Migration that arrives in July and returns to Serengeti in November – that’s where you’ll see the herds on this trip.  Ngorongoro Crater is the caldera of an extinct volcano and local people believe it is the Garden of Eden, especially as nearby Oldepai Gorge is where some of the earliest human remains have been found.”

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OTA’s 13-day Wildlife Wonder Tour is designed for those looking for an exceptional and unique safari experience.  The tour cost is US$3460 per person inclusive of all meals, accommodation, entry fees to Maasai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, and an English-speaking driver-guide.  There are limited seats available so contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to reserve yours.

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Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 10 Day Safari with 16 Photographers

A 10 Day Safari with 16 Photographers

The message came the evening before that their flight was delayed by seven hours.  Initially I felt relief at not having to be at the airport at 5am.  But as I considered the impact to the whole itinerary, 5am became a much better proposition.  However, there wasn’t much to do but succumb to the whim of the airlines and so at lunchtime on 31 August 2016, I met 16 photographers from Hong Kong at Nairobi’s International Airport.

Breakfast booked at Safari Park Hotel turned into lunch, which turned into lunch boxes scoffed the car by the time the group bought sim cards, we found our vehicles in the mess of a carpark currently at JKIA, and then we delayed another hour by two trucks who decided to collide head on in the middle of the bypass.  That day, bypassing Nairobi was not quicker!

We arrived at Ol Pejeta finally after dark – not an ideal situation to say the least.  We checked into our tents at Sweet Waters Serena Camp and enjoyed the spectacle of several black rhino at the water hole just outside the dining room as we ate dinner.  OK, now the safari has started.

The next morning the group went out early for a game drive.  No sooner out of the gate then they saw a couple of lions.  This was the theme of the whole trip – this group had a good luck charm for animals (not for vehicles, but that’s another story!).  After breakfast, we stopped at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary before departing Ol Pejeta for Lake Bogoria.

The road to Lake Bogoria was quite a bit longer than we had remembered, or perhaps it became longer the more I wished we were there already!  A couple of the vehicles made it to the lake for sunset, but unfortunately one of the vehicles had a problem and was delayed.  Lake Bogoria Spa Resort, I’ll be honest, is not worth the money you pay.  They have the fortunate position of being the only hotel there so they can charge what they want without bothering about crazy things like customer service.  Which was a shame as the guests had had a long day and probably could have used some customer care from lodge staff when notifying them about the scorpions they found in their rooms.

Watching the sun rise over a lake full of flamingos redeemed Lake Bogoria however and the group spend a few hours taking photographs.  Sadly, the local children have somehow been “trained” to run into the water, scaring the flamingos so tourists can get a photo of the flock taking off.  But this disturbs the birds and they don’t return for several hours after such an event, so that is the end of any photography session.  It took some convincing of a few different groups of youths that our guests certainly did not want them scaring the flamingos!  One kid almost got through our watch, but got shouted down by 16 angry photographers!  I’m not sure how they learnt this behaviour, but I see it as a definite negative impact of tourism on the environment.

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After a late breakfast, we headed to Lake Naivasha, arriving at Enashipai in time for lunch.  Finally we were back on schedule after the flight delay.  In the afternoon we headed out on boats to Crescent Island.  We saw many many different species of water birds and the boatmen fed the Fish Eagles – another contrived tourist experience designed for good photos, but spectacular I’ll admit.  On Crescent Island we enjoyed a walking safari where we saw zebras, waterbucks, impalas, gazelles and wildebeest.

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And then the main event: the Maasai Mara!  We battled the road all the way to Governors Camp, arriving at the Private Camp in time for a BBQ lunch by the river.  This was to be our home for the next four nights, with no one but the hippos for neighbours.  The days were spent on game drives – some of the group opted to take picnic lunches to go further afield on a full day game drive, while others chose to go for shorter game drives and come back to the camp for lunch and siesta.  Six of them went hot air ballooning one morning.

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Again the group were blessed with incredible wildlife sightings, with wildebeest herds crossing the river almost every day.  We even saw a crocodile slyly take one down…. although to be honest I didn’t actually spot this event until I reviewed my video back in my tent that evening!  We also saw two lionesses try to get a young wildebeest.  But the wildebeest suddenly started fighting back, bucking it’s little horns at the lions and generally dancing around.  It must have become confused or disoriented as it emerged from the long grass because it started headbutting its own reflection on one of the vehicles!  The lionesses gave up on the little fighter and stalked off, probably in search of an easier meal.

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We returned to Nairobi for a night, where we stayed at Nairobi Serena Hotel.  In the morning it was a convenient stop to pause at a lookout for a view over the city centre before heading back out of the town to Amboseli National Park.  My highlight for the afternoon game drive was watching a Goliath Heron defend its catch against a greedy Fish Eagle.  The Fish Eagle got its come-uppance however when a plover took offence to it and dive-bombed the bigger bird.  The Fish Eagle still eyed off the Heron’s fish dinner while ducking from the aggressive plover.

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Mt Kilimanjaro revealed itself on the early morning game drive on the last day – a spectacular end to a packed ten-day safari.  We returned to Nairobi for dinner at the famous Carnivore restaurant before heading to the airport for a rather late flight home.

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The safari was not without it’s challenges, not least of which were several mechanical issues which can always be expected on Kenya’s poorly-maintained roads unfortunately.  The importance of an international guest reviewing ALL the information a tour operator sends was highlighted a few times when expectations were much higher than anyone could deliver (if you want to go to a national park please don’t expect a perfectly tarred road all the way!).  However, the wildlife sightings and scenery the group encountered over their ten days was about as good as it gets and they were incredibly lucky!  And we hope to welcome them again someday to experience some of Kenya’s lesser-known parks.

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“Absolutely relaxed and responsible safari!”

“Absolutely relaxed and responsible safari!”

In January, Jasmin and Josh became our first ever AirBnB guests.  Jasmin had been studying on exchange here in Kenya and her boyfriend Josh came to visit her at the end of semester so they could travel together.  After a week in Kenya, Jasmin’s brother Fabio also joined them and Jasmin and Fabio decided they wanted to go the Maasai Mara after Josh returned home.

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We were able to find them two other travel buddies from Argentina so the four of them set off from Nairobi early one morning for a three day trip to Kenya’s top tourist destination.  They stayed at Mara Explorers and headed into the park almost immediately.  They spend the afternoon and all the next day in the game park watching wildlife.  Some of the group also went in for a final game drive on the last morning before returning to Nairobi.  That was the best game drive, because that was the time they saw lions on a hunt!

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Jasmin and Fabio came back and stayed a few more nights in our spare room before they went home, saying goodbye to the friends Jasmin had made during her semester here.  It was a pleasure to host Jasmin, Josh and Fabio both in our home and on safari and we hope they will return to Kenya again someday!

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Jasmin left us a lovely review on Trip Advisor: “Absolutely relaxed and responsible safari!”

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.

https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r369153929-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html#
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4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

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

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

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The Great Wildebeest Migration

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

Varied environments

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

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Poaching threatens the Kenyan safari

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

Kenyan people

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

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

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

Entering Hells Gate

So I’m on a bicycle and there’s an annoyed-looking buffalo not so far away.  This is Hells Gate National Park, famous in Kenya for its largely predator-free environment (apparently aggressive buffalos don’t count), and hence providing the unique opportunity to cycle or walk amongst the wildlife.  Often on safari, you find yourself either on a game drive or driving to the next park – either way, you tend to spend a lot of time in a vehicle.  Hells Gate gives you a chance to stretch your legs and here you are going to find everything you need to plan your experience.

Hells Gate National Park is located in the South Rift Region near the town of Naivasha, 90km from Nairobi.  Dubbed “A Walk on the Wild Side” by the Kenya Wildlife Service, the park is 68km² of savannah where you can cycle and walk amongst the animals.

This week, Francis and I took two of his children for a bike ride through the park.  We saw zebras, elands, gazelles (both Thomson’s and Grant’s), baboons, buffalos, warthogs and giraffes.  It was super-exciting for the kids – despite their father being a safari guide, they have not had much opportunity to go on safari themselves.  Matthew has inherited his dad’s keen spotting eyes and, with the energy of an eight-year-old, zoomed ahead to report the buffalos and warthogs that we were about to see.  Leopards and hyenas also live in the park, but they are rarely seen.

The most common trail is eight kilometres from Elsa’s gate to the Ol Njorowa Gorge.  At Elsa’s gate, the main entry point for Hells Gate, bicycles are available for hire.  There are other places to hire bicycles from local guides, which is perfect if you want to also take a guide into the park.  Don’t expect top quality bicycles, but the brakes worked, the wheels went round and, for the most part, we could change gears (but the park is pretty flat so you can get by without too many gears).

About one kilometre from the gate is Fischer’s Tower, where rock climbing equipment is set up.  Hells Gate is more famous for its geological formations than it’s animals, and Fischer’s Tower is a rocky pinnacle that pokes up from the ground in the middle of otherwise flat land.  The tower is only 25m hight, so it is very manageable to scale.

Ol Njorowa Gorge is the highlight of the park.  Guides are stationed at the gateway to the gorge where there is also a picnic site and car park.  There are two walks to choose from – the shorter walk takes 45 minutes to one hour and the longer one is two to three hours.  On the longer walk you will see where Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie was filmed.

A further 5.5km on (and only 500m from Ol Karia gate) is the Geo Spa.  Hells Gate was named for the steam coming out of the rocks creating a likeness to what the gateway to hell might look like.  The whole Rift Valley was created through volcanic activity and many mountains throughout the valley are extinct volcanos.  There is still a lot of geo-thermal activity occurring in the area, with Hells Gate being the most active (Mt Suswa also has steam coming from the ground, which local Maasai have tapped to collect water).  The Kenyan government is working with foreign experts to create a massive geo-thermal plant which will ultimately provide 40% of Kenya’s electricity.  The Spa is where you can get close to the geo-thermal activity and take a bath in the hot springs.

If you feel like you need more than a day to enjoy all these activities, there are two campsites in the park.  The facilities are basic, but when you are camping inside a national park in Kenya, that is enough excitement to overcome not having a hot shower.  The Ol Dubai Campsite sits on a ledge overlooking the grazing animals and Fischer’s Tower.

I hope this has piqued your interest in taking a cycling safari in Hells Gate!  We love including a day trip to Hells Gate into our safari packages, giving our guests a chance to stretch their legs between game drives.  If you would like to plan your safari to Hells Gate and other Kenyan parks, contact us on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today!

Or you can join our Wildlife Wonder Safari in January 2019.  Covering three of East Africa’s premier game parks, this trip circuits southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.  Watching wildlife and visiting communities of different cultures, this trip shows all sides of life in East Africa!  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com for more information.

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