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3 Smart Tips for Experiencing Your First Safari

3 Smart Tips for Experiencing Your First Safari

Africa is becoming an increasingly popular destination for travellers, as people find it easier to tick off that “Safari” bucket-list item.  Flights are getting cheaper, tour operators are plentiful and travel agents in countries far from the African continent are becoming well-versed in the myriad options available under the Safari concept.  But Africa can also be a daunting destination.  The media is plagued with stories of civil strife, political tension and personal security issues.  This article offers three smart tips for those wanting to embark on their first safari.

  1. Personal Security

Listening to foreign news about Kenya, one would think the whole country was at war.  Reading government travel warnings about South Africa gives a similar impression.  While it is prudent to heed travel warnings and other information about the safety of your destination, it is also advisable to connect with people living there to find out how they are experiencing daily life.  In general, people want to get on with their lives and the majority of citizens are not throwing grenades or robbing tourists.  As with anywhere (including your home town!) you should keep your wits about you, but there is no reason to cancel your safari because the media has hyped up a situation.

  1. Know what you have booked

Tour operators are a dime a dozen in many countries of Africa as tourism becomes increasingly lucrative.  In Kenya, tourism accounts for approximately 13% of GDP, making it the largest industry of the country.  So it is important that you thoroughly research your selected tour operator and ensure they are the real deal.  There are plenty of review sites on the internet, and a tour operator should be prepared to connect you with previous guests (if those guests give permission of course!) so you can check them out.  Ask plenty of questions about the mode of transport, the standard of accommodation, what activities are included in the price, which meals are included, whether you will be picked up at the airport, etc.  If you are clear on what to expect then the chance of nasty surprises spoiling your holiday will be minimised.  And don’t take anything for granted – if you assume something, then it is almost guaranteed that your assumption will be wrong.  Africa behaves differently to other places in the world so it is vital to ensure everything is explicit.

  1. Interact with locals

There are a lot of “flying packages” where you fly into the capital city, transfer immediately to a charter plane to fly to a game reserve, spend a few days looking at wildlife and then fly back to the capital and home.  You might have a chat with your safari driver or the staff at your lodge, but that would be the only chance you have to interact with a local.  While this suits many people, my opinion is that there is no point in travelling if you don’t meet the people and see the culture.  The safari experience is enriched when you take some time to visit communities and talk to people about their lives.  There are a lot of kitsch tourist villages to visit, but there are opportunities to engage with people in a meaningful way, if you use a tour operator committed to sustainable and responsible tourism.

Africa is the ultimate safari destination with opportunities for the most sublime wildlife encounters and eye-opening cultural encounters.  Sadly, much of the wildlife is in grave danger from poaching and shrinking habitat.  Tourism provides an income stream that encourages the protection of the wildlife which is crucial right now.  If a safari is on your bucket list, start your research, find a reputable tour operator and come to Africa!  You won’t ever regret it…. and perhaps it will just be the beginning of a love affair with this amazing continent.

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The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage

The crowd gathers at the barrier from around 10am.  It’s a mixed bag – foreign tourists, Kenyan families bringing visiting relatives and friends, and several dozen small school children.  At 11 o’clock the rope barrier is dropped and everyone enters the Elephant Orphanage.  The crowd scuttles past the stables where the baby elephants sleep at night and down a narrow path to pay the entrance fee and continue down to a large clearing with another rope barrier.  As the visitors find their place for the best views of the elephant orphans there is a sense of excitement and anticipation.  At last everyone is in and suddenly from the bushes in the Nairobi National Park appears the first group of baby elephants.  They scamper down to the clearing where massive bottles of milk wait for them.  Some of the elephants can hold the bottle with their trunks and feed themselves, while the smaller ones need assistance from the keepers.  They guzzle down the milk; those who are feeding themselves throw the first bottle down and nudge the keepers for a second.  Cameras are snapping wildly and the school children are a bit nervous and a bit excited all at the same time.

In 1948, David Sheldrick became the founding Warden of Tsavo National Park, the largest park in Kenya, where he was forced to deal with the problem of armed poachers.  After his untimely death in 1977, his wife Daphne established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  Among other activities, the elephant orphanage is one of the projects of the Trust.  It supports baby elephants that have lost their mothers due to death from injuries, natural causes or poaching, or the orphan has gotten lost in the wild.  Baby elephants (like human babies) cannot survive without care and the dedicated team at the orphanage provide both the physical and emotional care required.  When the elephants come of age, they are released back into the wild after an extensive rehabilitation process.

Elephant Orphanage, OTA - Kenya Safaris, www.ota-responsibletravel.com

During visiting hours, the elephants are fed and the keepers introduce each orphan and tell their story.  It’s a rare opportunity to see these young elephants play together and interact with their keepers and potentially you!

The Elephant Orphanage is a great activity for children, conservationists and anyone who loves elephants.  It is located adjacent to Nairobi National Park, not far outside Nairobi’s city centre.  The entry fee is 500 Kenyan Shillings (approximately US$6) and the feeding and talks last for about one hour.

Are you keen to visit the baby elephants in Nairobi?  Contact OTA on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to find out how.

The Best Location to See Giraffes

The Best Location to See Giraffes

The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) in Kenya conducts conservation work throughout the country.  But, by far, their most famous project is the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi.  One of the most popular tourist attractions in Kenya’s capital, the Giraffe Centre gives us the opportunity to come eye-to-eye with these gentle, graceful creatures.

Giraffe Centre, Nairobi; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

As you mount the stairs, a ranger issues you with a handful of pellets.  Now that you are at eye (and mouth) level with these giants, you can see up close their beautiful long eyelashes and long blue tongue.  They hungrily eye off the pellets and if you are a bit slow in feeding them, you may receive a gently head-butt as a reminder.  And if you are super-keen to get personal with them, simply pop a pellet between your teeth and get a big sloppy giraffe kiss!

The centre is home to Rothschild Giraffes and the AFEW has a breeding program to prevent this endangered species from becoming extinct.  They also conduct conservation education for Kenyan youth and teachers.  Your entry fee as a tourist goes towards this work and helps the AFEW offer free entry to Kenyan children.  The staff also present information sessions at various times throughout the day for visitors, so while you are there be sure to ask them to let you know when the next session is.

The giraffes have a large acreage on which to roam and at the other end of the land is the Giraffe Manor.  This high-end accommodation offers a unique experience for a city stay, with the Manor lawns extending out to the acreage.  There are no fences, giving the giraffes free reign over the space.  And they take advantage of it!  It is not uncommon to have a giraffe pop its head through the window while you are enjoying breakfast or afternoon tea.  You think that only happens for the promotional photos, but believe me, it happens when the camera isn’t there as well!

Do you fancy sharing afternoon tea with a giraffe, or perhaps getting a kiss from one?  OTA can help you plan your Kenyan adventure, so contact us today: www.ota-responsibletravel.com.

Giraffe Centre, Nairobi; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Kenya and Tanzania – Where to Travel First?

Kenya and Tanzania – Where to Travel First?

Many travellers visiting East Africa come to see the Wildebeest Migration, climb a mountain, and relax on the beach.  Kenya and Tanzania offer all these experiences and the quintessential safari combines the three experiences across the two countries.  But where to start?  Planning any holiday is fraught with challenges as you want to make it perfect, so here’s a short guide to help you plan your East African safari.

OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya is the biggest transport hub for international flights, so the chances are you will arrive there.  Therefore it makes sense to start your safari in Kenya.  You can take a shower and rest in Nairobi after your long flight or set off immediately to the game reserves.  After an international flight, do you really want to transfer onto another flight to Tanzania or spend your first day in Africa driving along a highway from one city to another?

Working backwards in planning your trip also gives some clues about the order of the itinerary.  The majority of travellers like to finish their safari on the coast where they can spend a few days washing the dust off in the Indian Ocean.  Both Kenya and Tanzania have beautiful coastlines, but it’s mythical Zanzibar, off the Tanzanian coast, that attracts most people.  Especially with the recent spate of attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, the Tanzanian coast is increasingly popular.  There are regular flights from Zanzibar back to Nairobi to catch your departing flight home, so finishing here is a relaxing end to your holiday.

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania or Mt Kenya is another popular pursuit that travellers to East Africa often include in their itineraries.  So surely it’s better start with the climb and then you can relax for the rest of the safari?  Not really.  It is better to start with the safari and climb after you have enjoyed the animals and sights.  Despite the numbers of people tackling Kilimanjaro’s summit, it is not a walk in the park and the altitude and physical exertion can knock a person around.  You don’t want to be sick or flaked out in the back of the safari vehicle while your fellow passengers are watching a lion hunt.

So in planning your East African safari holiday, start in Kenya with the famous Maasai Mara or other game reserves before heading south to Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro or enjoy the beaches of Zanzibar.

OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Are you planning a safari in East Africa?  What experiences are on your bucket list for the trip?  OTA offers tailor-made itineraries for individuals and small groups with a focus on excellent customer care, safety and responsible travel.  We work closely with our clients to design their ideal itinerary according to their objectives, budget and time, incorporating both sightseeing highlights and visits to local NGOs and community projects.  

OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Have you met the Samburu Five?

Have you met the Samburu Five?

Situated at the southern corner of the Samburu district in the Rift Valley province, the Samburu ecosystem comprises three national reserves: Shaba, Buffalo Springs and Samburu.  These parks are not as famous as others in Kenya, but within this ecosystem are species found nowhere else in the country, including the Grevy’s Zebra, Somali Ostrich, Beisa Oryx, Reticulated Giraffe and Gerenuk.

OTA Turkana Festival Tour, Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

The landscape offers amazing variety from open savannah to scrub desert to lush river foliage, offering fantastic opportunities for excellent wildlife encounters.  Steep-sided gullies and rounded hills formed on the lava plain describe the terrain.  Vegetation in the reserve area is dominated by umbrella acacia woodland with intermittent bush-, grass- and scrub-land. Near the river, Doum Palm dominates the landscape. The fruits of the Doum are eaten by monkey, baboon and elephant.

The climate in this area is typically dry and hot.  Temperatures can reach 40°C in the day with an average low of 20°C at night.  The rainy season occurs during the hotter months between April and June and also November and December, with November usually being the wettest month.  Between January and March it is very hot and dry; July to October is also dry.  The elevation in the park ranges from 800 to 1,230 metres.

Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves are separated by 32 km of the Uaso Nyiro River, which winds its way through Kenya from the Aberdare Mountains to the Loriam Swamp near the Somali border.  The river is the lifeline of this arid region, drawing the water-dependent animals to it during the dry season.  In the Samburu language, “Uaso Nyiro” means “River of Brown Water”.

Located 345km north of Nairobi is Archer’s Gate, the main entrance to Samburu National Reserve.  Established in 1948, the Reserve is relatively small at 170 square kilometres, making animals a bit easier to find than in other parks.  Entry fees for foreigners are currently US$70 per day (2014).

OTA Turkana Festival Tour, Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Monkey, olive baboon, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, monitor lizard and Nile crocodile are the most commonly seen residents of Samburu.  Lodges in the reserve have attracted the normally reclusive leopards with bait for several years, so the chances of seeing one are greater than in other parks.  As well as these mammals and reptiles, there are over 300 species of birds, including large flocks of Helmeted and Vulturine Guineafowl.  The five endemic species to the area are: Gerenuk, also known as the “giraffe-necked antelope” as it has a stretched neck adapted for browsing high into the bushes; Grevy’s Zebra, with wide black stripes and a completely white belly; Beisa Oryx; Reticulated Giraffe; and the blue-legged Somali Ostrich.

Accommodation in and around Samburu National Reserve varies in luxury and budget.

Umoja Women’s Campsite is our favourite budget option just outside the park gate at Archer’s Post.  It is a community campsite with bandas (small huts) and simple meals.  It is attached to a women’s village that provides refuge for Samburu women fleeing domestic violence.  Proceeds from the campsite support the women, and you can visit the village to learn more about Samburu culture.  Meet the Chairwoman and Founder, Rebecca Lolosoli, in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1zuCNemmPo.

Samburu Intrepids is an eco-friendly option inside the reserve.  They have financed the development of a school, a bee-keeping project and medical services in the community.

Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Lodge, Saruni Samburu, Sasaab Samburu and Elephant Bedroom Camp are other lodges in the area.

The town of Archer’s Post has simple, budget guesthouses and restaurants.

OTA Turkana Festival Tour, Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

OTA is running a eight-day safari from Nairobi, Kenya to the Lake Turkana Festival via Samburu National Reserve in June.  The Lake Turkana Festival is one of the cultural highlights on Kenya’s calendar.  The tour includes game viewing in Samburu, visiting outback towns Maralal and Marsabit, and visiting the extraordinary cultural festival in Loyangalani.  Fourteen communities in this remote corner of the world coming together to celebrate their differences – don’t you want to be a part of that?!  Visit the website for more information http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com for more information, or check the event page on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/OverlandTravelAdventures

Thomson’s Falls

Thomson’s Falls

In 1883 Joseph Thomson became the first European to reach Thomson’s Falls.   He was a Scottish geologist and naturalist who was also the first European to walk between Mombasa and Lake Victoria, which he did in the early 1880s.  He named Thomson’s Falls for his father.

Long before Joseph Thomson wandered through, the central highlands of Kenya was inhabited by Kikuyus.  Kikuyus are the largest tribe of Kenya making up approximately 23 percent of the country’s population today.  They are of Bantu origin (Bantus came from West Africa) and moved in from northern and eastern areas to settle in the Mount Kenya vicinity.  The Kikuyus are known in Kenya as business people and good traders.  They are pastoralists, preferring to settle an area and grow crops than live the nomadic herdsman life of their neighbouring Maasai, Samburu and Turkana tribes.  Living in Kenya’s central highlands means their traditional dress is almost reminiscent of Russia, with square woollen hats made from sheep’s skin.  Where the Maasai robe themselves in brightly coloured, lightweight blankets, the Kikuyu have think sheepskin draped around them.  It is very rare these days to see Kikuyu dressing and living in the traditional style but at Thomson’s Falls there is the opportunity to see some people dressed in the costumes for photos.

It’s difficult to imagine how Joseph Thomson could have found his way to the Falls looking at the terrain.  At the top of the Falls is Thomson’s Falls Lodge, a colonial structure that has remained as a hotel over the decades.  From the Lodge you can hire a guide to take you to the bottom of the Falls to get a different perspective.  The hike down takes approximately 20 minutes through forest.  The path is steep and made slippery by the spray from the waterfall.  The track is quite well-defined however, unlike it would have been in 1883 when Thomson came through!  Back at the top of the waterfall is another hike (turn right from the top lookout instead of left) to the highest hippo pool in Kenya.

From Thomson’s Falls Lodge you can hire a guide to take you to the bottom of the waterfall, meet traditionally-dressed Kikuyu and show you the hippo pool.

The waterfall tumbles out of the hippo pool and falls 72 metres to the bottom.  The water comes from the Aberdare Mountains and forms part of the Ewaso Ng’iro River.  Thomson’s Falls is located two miles from the town of Nyahururu (formerly called Thomson’s Falls as well) in central Kenya.  Nyahururu is Kenya’s highest town at 2360 metres above sea level.

Thomson’s Falls tumbles out of Kenya’s highest hippo pool and falls 72 metres to the bottom

Have you been to Thomson’s Falls in Kenya? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

A bird’s-eye view of Southern Kenya

Finally, there it is:  Lake Natron.  What a flight!  Sibera seems like a lifetime ago; I’ve seen so much since leaving the taiga forest – the deserts of Central Asia and Middle East, over lush Ethiopia and now finally Kenya’s lakes where I can stop for some rest, some food …. and some mating!  I hope there’s some pretty chickies to meet down here.

It’s a long journey, but usually it’s worth the effort.  We all gather here for a few months to catch up on what’s going on around the world.  The Spotted Thrush, Rock Thrush and Eurasion Bee-eaters bring the latest news from Europe and the locals catch us up on what’s been happening in East Africa during our absence.  They’ve got a nice life the local guys.  Those flamingos don’t have to travel too far if food runs out.  They have so many lakes like Nakuru, Baringo, Bogoria, and Naivasha within such a short distance.  Not like the months some of us have to travel to find food during the winter.  To be fair, the poor old ostriches can’t even fly so I can’t begrudge them anything.  And the Kori Bustards are so heavy it looks like a lot of effort for them to get off the ground.  I think I’m quite lucky compared to them; at least I can get around and see the world.

The Warblers and Blackcaps will come from around my area.  Everyone loves when the Warblers come in – their songs keep us entertained for hours.  The Kenyan water birds will be there of course, including the crazy old Spoonbill with his ridiculous beak.  And all the Plovers!  There’s always so many of them and I do forget their names much of the time – let’s see, there’s Crowned Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover, Three-banded Plover….

OTA's Easter Birding Tour, Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

I’m looking forward to a good party with all these guys!  The Pelicans can get a bit raucous, which I know annoys the Fish Eagles.  And let’s not even mention the relationship between the sleazy Marabou Storks and the snobby Yellow-billed Storks; it’s hard to believe they are related!  But generally we all get along quite well.  And the great thing about southern Kenya is that if the Hadada Ibis is being too noisy at Natron, we can get some peace at nearby Magadi.

I’m really close now and so far so good; I haven’t run into that unfriendly white-bellied one with the big headpiece.  What’s his name again?  Yes: Go-away-bird!  He’s so rude.  We fly all this way for their Kenyan shindig and he just sits in the tree squawking “Go away! Go away!”  The Hornbills, Kingfishers and Turacos are all fine and in fact I’m looking forward to meeting my old pal the Lilac-breasted Roller.  Some of us prefer the water while others of us prefer the trees…. or I should say shrubs down here.  All the salty water doesn’t make for lush forests.

Hey, there’s Red-and-Yellow Barbet and Masked Weaver.  I’ve made it guys!  It’s time to paaaaaaar-ty!

OTA's Easter Birding Tour, Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

Hammerkops

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