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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.

“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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Recipe for a Successful Safari

Recipe for a Successful Safari

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

Safari Ingredients:

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

Safari Method:

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

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

Recipe for a Successful Safari

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

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

Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux is the story of the author’s overland travel from Cairo to Cape Town with all the adventures, people and places he encounters throughout the continent.

Paul Theroux travelled Africa from north to south in the first half of 2001.  Beginning in Cairo, he travelled down the Nile in Egypt, through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland.  He travelled mostly by public transport including trains, boats, bush taxi, buses, cattle truck, rented Land Rover, canoe and hitch-hiking.  As a young 20-something-year-old, Theroux had come to Africa to teach in rural Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer and so this trip 40 years later was partly a sentimental journey but also to see how much has changed since.

The book starts in Egypt’s capital Cairo and heads south into the land of the Nubians, Sudan.  Theroux travels all the way down into Kenya and then heads west to Uganda.  He catches up with friends in Kampala where he had lived several years earlier.  He takes a ferry across Lake Victoria to Mwanza in Tanzania and then the train to Dar es Salaam.  Another train gets him to Mbeya in southern Tanzania before entering Malawi where he visits the school where he taught as a young man.  This is probably the most demoralising point of the whole trip as he assesses the impact of foreign aid over the 40 years since he was there.  After the treatise on development (or lack thereof), he travels via the Zambezi River into Mozambique.  The next country is Zimbabwe where he experiences the effects of Mugabe’s regime on white farmers.  Finally he reaches South Africa and the luxury of the Blue Train between Johannesburg and Cape Town.  Theroux’s summary after this journey reveals a disappointment in the “help” foreigners have thrown at the continent but also the joy he experienced in meeting people as he travelled:

Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it, hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch doctors. Not that Africa is one place. It is an assortment of motley republics and seedy chiefdoms. I got sick, I got stranded, but I was never bored. In fact, my trip was a delight and a revelation.”

Dark Star Safari is an interesting account of Theroux’s travels, especially as he travels in Africa by means not dared by most.  He is very negative about the work of foreign development organisations, which is not entirely unfair I will agree.  Throughout the book however, Theroux’s style remains witty and entertaining.

Paul Theroux’s account of his overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town in Dark Star Safari follows his other stories of epic overland trips such as Riding the Iron Rooster in China and two books about the Silk Road.  You may enjoy contrasting Theroux’s wit and insight with Sihle Khumalo’s Dark Continent My Black Arse.  Khumalo also travelled the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo by public transport, but he has quite a different perspective being a native of the continent and focuses more on the travelling than the impact of foreign intervention.

Looking Back: Tourism in Kenya

Looking Back: Tourism in Kenya

Mzungu!”  This oft-heard cry directed at travellers comes from colonial times when the British were travelling from Mombasa port to Nairobi and back.  To the Kenyans at the time, all the British looked the same and so they thought it was the same person going around in circles. Mzungu means something that rotates!  Tourism in Kenya has come a long way since then and this article will look at its development from early traders to the growing industry of today.

Foreign invasions

Around 800AD, Arab traders arrived under the command of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Mostly slave traders, these visitors were not the most welcome in Kenya’s history.  The Portuguese took control of the coastal area in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Arabs soon took it back.

In 1895, Kenya became a British protectorate.  Tourism began with the colonial settlers in the early 1900s.  The settlers enjoyed going “on safari” to hunt The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo).  Luxury camping with numerous servants was the standard, and they either travelled by motor car or on horseback.  The movie Out of Africa has some excellent scenes of a typical safari during this time.

Independence
In the 1960s and 70s tourism throughout the continent was hit by independence struggles, but the hunting safari remained popular.

Shortly after independence, the Kenyan government realised the tourism potential of the country and the impact on the nation’s economy if the industry were to be developed.  The main obstacle however was the lack of qualified people.  So the government, together with the Swiss Confederation, established a training program which produced the first Hotel Management students at Kenya Polytechnic in 1969.  In 1975, the Kenya Utalii College was founded as a dedicated hospitality and tourism training institute.

Promotion Abroad

Also in 1975, the Africa Travel Association (ATA) was established to assist the new African nations develop their tourism infrastructure.  In 1980, the Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa (APTA) was born out of the ATA.  It seems to have much the same objectives, namely to promote education of tourism to African business and to promote Africa as a destination to the rest of the world.

Election Disaster

In the wake of the 2007 elections, inter-tribal violence caused upheaval in Kenya.  Although none of the violence was directed towards foreigners (it was tribes fighting to have their man in the presidency) it impacted the industry significantly.  Tourism slumped by about 50%.

Onward and Upward

Despite the violence early in the year, April 2008 saw Kenya win the Best Leisure Destination award at the World Travel Fair in Shanghai.  In 2010 Kenya received over one million arrivals, a record number to that time.

Last year, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto pledged their commitment to growing Kenya’s tourism industry during their inauguration speeches.  Currently Kenya is receiving approximately 1.5 million tourists a year.  But Ruto stated that this government is committed to growing that number to 3-5 million in order to turn around the economy and increase jobs for young people.

At the 2013 World Travel Awards (Africa), Kenya was well-represented among the winners.  The Kenya Tourist Board won Africa’s leading tourist board award.  Nine accommodation categories were taken by Kenyan lodgings in categories such as eco, green, meetings and conferences, spa, and tented safari camp.  The Maasai Mara was named Africa’s leading national park.

On the world stage, Kenya was also well-represented in the nominations in the categories: golf destination, tourist board, eco-lodge, green hotel, new hotel, resort, spa resort, and private game reserve.  Kenya won the World’s Leading Safari Destination.

Kenyan tourism is growing from strength to strength.  Long gone are the hunting safaris; now the only shots taken are with a camera.  Despite the terror attack and airport fire last year, Kenya has been recognised globally as a leading destination.  Security remains an issue for many travellers coming to Kenya but, with the government’s renewed commitment to developing the industry, it is a safe place to holiday.  And as the general population recognises and profits from the economic benefits of tourism, the support of the nation will only increase Kenya’s attractiveness as a destination.

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