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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.

The McDonnell Family on Safari

The McDonnell Family on Safari

It was Ashley who first wrote to me about a safari for her family.  I assumed she was the mother of this Irish family of six, but it turned out she was the 20-year-old daughter, older sister to her three brothers, and super-organised in getting the family’s Christmas plans into shape.  She was clear on time frame, travel goals and budget (most importantly) and with that information we were able to put together a holiday that fitted their needs.

It seemed to be going so well in the lead up and we were very excited to be spending Christmas with a big family ourselves, albeit cooking the dinner while they were off enjoying themselves.  But that’s our job and we love it!  So it was a bit of a surprise to meet only four rather than six people at the airport on Christmas Eve.  The youngest, Ryan, had a passport that was to expire in five months rather than the recommended six.  Although Ryan was only nine years old, the check-in agents in Ireland had suggested that it would be better he go and find another passport because the Kenyan authorities would not have many qualms in detaining a child (I still don’t really want to believe it to be true, but better not to test the theory).  So Ryan and his father set off to the passport office to try and get a new passport (on Christmas Eve!) and be on the flight the next day, Christmas.

Meanwhile the rest of the family landed in Nairobi and settled into their campsite.  We discussed the options of staying an extra night in Nairobi versus continuing with the trip and having the other two catch us up.  They decided to do the latter – we weren’t travelling too far the next day and it was very easy to organise another vehicle to meet them at the airport and bring them to Lake Naivasha.

1. Ready for safari!

We didn’t expect Ryan and Fergus to arrive much before dinner, so the rest of the family went for a bicycle ride around to Lake Oloiden, a soda lake adjacent to fresh water Lake Naivasha.  There is an incredible array of birdlife and several hippos residing in the lake and a boat ride is the perfect way to enjoy it.  But as if that wasn’t enough, you will never guess what else they saw…… a leopard!!!  Yes!  It was climbing in a tree close to the shore.  It took me five months in Africa before I spotted my first leopard and here were the McDonnell family just 24 hours on the continent being spoilt with the most awesome sighting!  Just don’t tell Ryan and Fergus, who were still battling their way through immigration.

The family reunited in time for Christmas dinner (roast pork, vegetable skewers, rice, brussell sprouts, carrot mash and Christmas cake) during which we were regaled with the tale of getting a new passport during the Christmas holidays.  It all worked out and here everyone was.

2. Christmas Dinner

Boxing Day was much more relaxed and the family could settle into holiday mode properly now.  We spent the day at Lake Naivasha and started with a walking safari in Wileli Conservancy.  There aren’t many predators in the Naivasha area (never mind the leopard from the previous day!) so it is one of the few places in Kenya where you can enjoy walking and cycling safaris.  I think jet lag and the general stress of the passport problem caught up with everyone in the afternoon because they all disappeared.  Everyone except Ryan that is, who had hired a bike and was zooming around the campsite at top speeds startling the Marabou Storks.  Rain threatened and Francis diligently ensured all the tents were closed up, thinking the family were in the bar.  Half an hour later a red-faced Chris emerged from one of the tents looking like he’d just come from the sauna.  That’s when we realised we had shut everyone inside their tents as they slept. At least they were dry!

The following day Francis took the McDonnells to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  Kenya’s premier tourist destination, the Maasai Mara is home to the famous Wildebeest Migration and has the highest population density of lions anywhere in the world.  It wasn’t the right time of year for the migration, but animals they spotted included lion, elephants, impala, topi, and a giraffe who wandered in at lunch as the family picnicked under an acacia tree.

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3. Who's hiding in the bush

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4. Giraffe crashing the picnic

At the Mara River there is a good opportunity to stretch legs as spending a full day game driving can get tiring.  There are rangers at the river who will escort you for a short walk to see crocs and hippos in the river….. Just don’t get too close!

Back to Nairobi to explore properly and rest a bit before beginning the big drive to the coast.  The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is one of Nairobi’s “must sees” and that is where we could be found at feeding time the next day.  The baby elephants are too cute, but their stories are sad.  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust does excellent work looking after the young orphans and eventually rehabilitating them back into the wild.  They are bottle-fed a special milk formula at 11am everyday when visitors are allowed to come, meet them and pat them if you are lucky.

5. Setting up camp

Ashley and Grace McDonnell

Chris, Ryan & David McDonnell

After the elephant orphanage we stopped at the mall for lunch (the boys wanted a KFC fix) before heading to the Kibera slum.  Amani Kibera is a community-based organisation that works with young people through sport, education and economic empowerment to give them opportunities for a better future.  The McDonnells had bought several non-fiction books at the mall to donate to Amani Kibera’s library including an atlas.  Students of all ages study at the library after school and at weekends and the books are a key resource to assist them with their studies.

Ashley & Grace McDonnell @ Galleria

To cap off the day, the McDonnells opted to have dinner with a Kenyan family.  We went to the home of Barack and Elizabeth where we were greeted with far too much food!  Barack’s son Collins was around the same age as Ryan and we barely saw the two boys for the rest of the evening.  They continue to be pen pals.  Elizabeth had cooked up a storm of traditional Kenyan dishes including mukimo, matoke, rice, tilapia, cabbage, sikuma wiki, githeri, chapatti, beef stew, sweet potato and ugali.

6. Dinner with a Kenyan family

7. At Amani Kibera's library

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The next day was a long drive to the village of Itinyi where we stayed at Mama Mercy’s Ndoto Bandas.  Mama Mercy works in her community assisting girls to get an education and be safe in the process.  She is helping to establish a boarding house at the girls’ secondary school.  Girls often get into trouble with men, sometimes by choice and sometimes not by choice, as they travel between school and home.  Eliminating this travel by having the girls accommodated at the school is vital to the success of the girl into her future.  Mama Mercy also personally sponsors five girls, paying their fees and hosting them in her home.  She is truly a woman who practices what she preaches.  The money she raises by hosting guests in her bandas (a Kenyan word for a small hut) helps her in her sponsorship. She also assists women in the village by selling their handicrafts in a small shop co-located with the bandas.

New Years Eve at Mama Mercy’s was a bit of a quiet affair; after the long drive everyone was a bit tired to stay up to see 2015 click in.  Most of us made it though.

Finally we got to the coast.  In order to avoid the horrendous traffic through the middle of Mombasa we took a detour through the Shimba Hills – it was a longer drive distance-wise, but beautifully scenic.  We pitched our tents at a campsite right on the beach; a perfect conclusion to this safari.  Everyone disappeared to the water almost immediately.

8. Camping on the beach

After a morning of snorkelling, Chris and David were ready for something more adventurous.  So we headed to Amani Tiwi Beach Resort for lunch and whatever activities could be found there.  Chris and David found diving, Ashley and Ryan found beach volleyball, Fergus found wi-fi and Grace found a glass of wine.  Something for everybody!

10. Breakfast at Twiga Camp

9. Playing beach volleyball

And then it was the end of the trip.  The tents were pulled down for the last time and we headed to the airport.  It was such a fun ten days for all of us – it’s why I love my job, it doesn’t really feel like work when we get to travel with such a fun family!

Chris McDonnell

Ashley’s review on Trip Advisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r249596251-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html#REVIEWS) and the video she made (https://vimeo.com/120882066) also tell the story.

“Fantastic Family Trip for Christmas & New Years 2014”

Ashley and her family travelled with us over Christmas and New Year.  We had so much fun with them, from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha, to Maasai Mara and finally to the coast.  Here’s what she said about the trip:

“My family and I had a fantastic first experience of Kenya with Tracey and Francis. From Nairobi to Mombasa we had an incredible time, visiting various NGOs and CBOs that OTA work with as well as going on safari in the Masai Mara and seeing a lion, elephants and buffalo.
On Christmas day we spent a few hours cycling around lake Naivasha with John who showed us all of the wildlife including giraffes, zebras and warthogs. We took a boat ride spotting hippos and even managed to get close to a leopard!
New Year’s was spent with the inspirational Mama Mercy who runs a women’s empowerment group and orphanage, another part of our trip that did not disappoint.
For a family of six. aged 9 to 50+, Tracey and Francis ensured that there was something for all of us! We couldn’t have asked for more out a family holiday. Hopefully we’ll be back again someday to see a rhino!”

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http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r249596251-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html#

When Is the Best Season to Travel in Kenya?

When Is the Best Season to Travel in Kenya?

People often ask us about the best time of year to come to Kenya, so we decided to put together this guide to help you plan your own safari.  There are pros and cons for every time of year, so it largely depends on what you want to see and how you prefer to travel.

The high season in Kenya is the dry season which runs from July to September.  The grasses are low so you can get better animal sightings and you can access more places when it is not raining.  The biggest highlight at this time of the year is the Great Wildebeest Migration when massive herds cross the river from Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya around July.  This is Kenya’s most popular attraction and, as it conveniently coincides with summer holidays in North America and Europe, it is the busiest time of year.  This results in higher accommodation prices and of course many more tourists.

Travelling in Kenya; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Conversely, the low season is also the wet season, beginning in March and finishing around June.  The main reasons to visit at this time of year are the reasons you wouldn’t want to go in high season – lower prices and fewer people.  During this period, you might even find a lodge safari at the same price as a high season camping safari.  However, the rains mean the grass grows quickly and thickly making animals harder to spot.

That leaves the shoulder season between October and December.  This is a nice period to visit as the wildebeest herds are still in the Maasai Mara, although they start to leave in November or December.  Some lodges drop their prices somewhat between the high season and Christmas.  However this season is also defined by the “short rains” (it rains for a short period of the day, as opposed to the long rains in March to June where it rains for a long period of the day) and if you end up staying at accommodation that retains a high rate right through to Christmas then putting up with a bit of rain may not be worth it.

Finally the Christmas period from December to February is marked by hot and dry weather and a high concentration of wildlife in the major parks.  The best feature of this season is the migratory birds arriving in Kenya in their millions.  On the other hand, the mass migratory herds have usually moved back to Tanzania by this time.  Christmas and New Year supplements are often charged on accommodation.

So given all that, what’s the verdict?  If pushed to make a recommendation, we suggest September to November.  The rains are not so bad, you can find accommodation that has reduced prices, the migratory herds are still in the Maasai Mara (usually until around November), there are not so many tourists because the summer holidays are over, and the migratory birds start to arrive in November.

Travelling in Kenya; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Has this helped you to decide the best time of year to come to Kenya for a safari?  Visit www.ota-responsibletravel.com for some great itineraries or contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to kick-start the planning of your African adventure.

Celebrating Christmas in Kenya

How does two big days of partying with the whole family sound to you? That’s how Kenyans typically celebrate their Christmas – and it’s not so dissimilar to how we observe the holidays in the West. To mark the festive season, this article will describe the traditions of Christmas in Kenya.

Most Kenyans in the cities have left their families in the rural areas for work or study reasons, so the first activity that marks the holidays is a mass migration of people back to the villages to their parents’ home. Although only about half the population is Christian (Muslims make up the larger part of the other half), everyone has holidays at this time of year. However, the shops are not doused in Christmas decorations at this time. Some shops decorate modestly and you may catch the odd Christmas tune in the supermarket, but it is nothing close to shopping malls in the West.

This brass band in one of Nairobi's malls was getting shoppers into the Christmas spirit, with their guest conductor!

This brass band in one of Nairobi’s malls was getting shoppers into the Christmas spirit, with their guest conductor!

By December 24, everyone has usually gathered in the rural home. The home is decorated in the morning with flowers and a Cyprus tree. Christians attend church in the evening, for midnight mass. On returning from church, the party starts! There’s no time for sleep. A goat is usually killed for the occasion and the family will make traditional beerand the special dishes of their particular tribe. Plenty of singing occurs, starting with the traditional songs of the family’s tribe and finishing nowadays with the Christmas carols we all know.

Some people attend church on December 25, but it’s usually women and old men. Most people, however, are still partying and the celebrations continue through the day with more eating, drinking, singing and catching up with family members. For many, this is the only time of the year that they have the opportunity to see their families, so it is a very important time to reconnect.

Boxing Day, December 26, is the day for curing the hangover and giving gifts. A gravy-like soup made from the goat’s blood and bone is a typical (and sworn-by) hangover cure… and it’s not as bad as it sounds! Gifts are given if the family can afford such a luxury, although usually even something small is appreciated.

In KiSwahili, the greeting is “Heri ya Krismasi” (Merry Christmas) and the response is “Wewe pia” (You also).

Family dinner

Family dinner

 

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