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Hiding From Elephants and Other Fun Adventures in Rwanda

So there we were: 13 students, three teachers, two guides, a driver, me and a whole mountain of tension in a white 25-seater bus hiding in the bush from some elephants.  How did we get here?  Two schools from Gippsland in eastern Victoria, Australia, come to Rwanda every year as part of a diocesan partnership between Gippsland and Gahini and in 2015 decided a safari in Akagera National Park would be a perfect way to conclude their trip.  They contacted us to organise the safari and it is probably the highlight of our year at OTA!

That first year (2015), I arrived in Kigali a couple of days before the safari both for professional and personal reasons.  I like Kigali and had not visited since 2012.  It is a very safe city with excellent roads – I didn’t see a single pothole in my whole time in Rwanda!  I spent a morning with Joanna from Rwandan Adventures, a tour company with a focus on cycling trips.  Given Rwanda is nicknamed the Land of 1000 Hills, cycling tours are no mean feat!  Together we visited a women’s project where clothes, bags, toys and other crafts are produced.  They have a walking tour of the local area where you can see typical Rwandan life and finish with lunch in one woman’s home.  It sounded wonderful and I cannot wait to help some of you enjoy this experience.

With a driver and guide, I departed early on Saturday morning for Gahini where we were to meet our group for the safari.  The students had spent two weeks here, on the shore of Lake Muhazi in a small Rwandan village.  They had brought supplies for the hospital, visited several churches in the diocese, and played with pupils at the primary school.  The schools work with the Anglican diocese in Gippsland to give Year 12 students an alternative “Schoolies Week”.  (For non-Australians, Schoolies Week is a tradition for students finishing secondary school.  They go to the Gold Coast or another beach location to wreak drunken havoc on the local community.  Something similar to Spring Break in the US, I think.)

We packed the bus and headed to Akagera National Park.  Another great thing about Rwanda is that, not only are the roads in excellent condition, but the country is so small it doesn’t take long to get anywhere.  So it was only a couple of hours before we were at Akagera Lodge ooh-ing at the pool and aah-ing at the rooms.  After two weeks in the village, this was the epitome of luxury!

Akagera National Park

We went out for an afternoon game drive and then a full day game drive on Sunday.  During the genocide and in its aftermath, Akagera almost disappeared.  Animals were poached for bush meat and the land was taken for refugees returning to Rwanda.  Akagera is now only a third the size it was.  Once there were 3-400 lions in the park, but they were completely eradicated.  In 2015, seven lions were brought up from South Africa and released.  One lioness was already pregnant when we got there so the population does have a chance to regenerate which is great news.  There are plans to introduce 25 rhinos to the park and the first few arrived in 2017.

Interestingly, I sensed a bit of edginess to this park as we observed the animals.  Of course antelope and zebras jump and run away if you drive quickly and noisily.  But if you take it easy, in the Kenyan and Tanzanian parks the animals will generally not pay you much attention.  In Akagera however, the animals were a lot more skittish and it was very difficult to get good sightings and even more challenging to get decent photos.  We know elephants have memories that span generations, but it seemed that even the smaller animals were still traumatised from the violent history of the park.

On the first night, some of the group went on a night game drive and got a bit of a scare when an elephant made a charge at the vehicle.  I’ll confess that I wasn’t too keen to be charged by an elephant so I spent the next day hoping we wouldn’t see one!  The elephants in Akagera are quite aggressive because of the high levels of poaching that have occurred in the past (no poaching now, which is awesome!).  And a Toyota Coaster is not quite as nimble as a Land Cruiser in the bush in the event that we did happen upon some trouble.

However, it was only a matter of time before we came upon a mother and her baby sauntering down the middle of the road.  They were walking away from us, so we followed at a safe distance until they stopped to eat…..and eat….and eat.  They wouldn’t move and there was no way we would get past.  We had a boat safari scheduled (another peculiar thing in Rwanda is that such things are scheduled; in Kenya we tend to just turn up and expect things to be ready to go), and needed to get down this road to the boat ramp.  Eventually we decided to turn around and find another way to the lake.  Now, I forgot to mention how thickly vegetated Akagera is.  And this means that, given elephants tend to travel in herds, if you see one or two ellies then no doubt there are more hidden in the trees (and yes it is possible to hide an elephant!).  So as we headed back, we came face to face with a very large elephant coming down the road.  There had been a lot of jokes among the students about Jurassic Park, and here we were, surrounded not by raptors but elephants, with nowhere to run.  So the decision was made to hide.  Yes, we would hide in our big white Coaster in the bush!  There had been a thinner bit of bush a few metres back and so we reversed into the clearing (or “clearer bit” let’s say), turned off the engine and held our collective breaths.

Oh it was an anti-climax.  The bull just wandered past and didn’t even look sideways at us…..but it was a good thing!  We edged slowly out of the clearing back on the road hoping the way was clear now.  It was and we continued around to the other road to the boat ramp…..until we got to the junction of our previous road.  The elephants had taken over the junction – mama and baby were there, the bull was there, and they had a few other friends with them.  They were feeding and we managed to slip past (again the image of a 25-seater bus “slipping past” anything might be a bit difficult to comprehend) and got to the lake.

It was my turn to go for a night game drive that evening and it was incredible!  I saw my first bushbaby, as well as a pregnant hippo and a genet cat.  Another first-timer for me was the Oribi, a type of antelope.

The safari was SO much fun!  I had a great time with the students and teachers; great chats using all the Aussie slang that I haven’t heard in ages.  I hadn’t laughed so much in a long time either, so even though technically I was working, it really felt like a joyful holiday.

Finally, to cap off my week in Rwanda, I stayed with Agnes and her parents on the outskirts of Kigali.  Her mum didn’t speak much English and so my high school French got tested….and failed, embarrassingly!  My final night, before my midnight flight, Agnes took me to karaoke!!  Just when I thought the week had been super with the safari, it just got more super.  And there, the only white person in the bar, I sang Bob Marley.

Does your school want to come to Africa?  It’s a fantastic alternative to the typical Schoolie’s Week/Spring Break giving students the opportunity to volunteer in a community and enjoy a safari, experiencing different cultures and environments.  Contact OTA on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to find out more about what is possible.

Confessions of a Safari Operator

Confessions of a Safari Operator

It’s true, not every safari runs perfectly – gasp!  We rely on machines (i.e. vehicles) and they are just as fallible as humans – another gasp!  In August we had a trip that could have gone a bit smoother.  And, as I take a deep breath to calm my nerves about sharing a less than perfect safari with the big wide world, I hope that it will help you with your own expectations of travelling in Africa.

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Africa is unpredictable.  We tell our guests this about 37 times in our pre-trip documentation as they prepare for their tour.  The roads are bad, the police are disruptive, weather patterns are changing, and of course it’s called a “game drive” for good reason – either you win the game or the animals do, depending on who spots who first!  But as the safari operator, we don’t actually want to believe that we can’t predict (and prevent) what will happen.  Of course contingencies are in place to minimise the impact of any unpredictability on the guest.  But it still pains us to have to use those contingencies.

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We hosted a large family group of nine in August: two parents, four sons and three wives.  They wanted to travel all together in one vehicle so we decided the best vehicle for them was a small overland truck.  The itinerary was five days – three in Maasai Mara and two in Amboseli.  It had been planned for several months and everyone was excited.

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Arriving in Kenya

The first hitch came on arrival.  The people arrived but the luggage didn’t.  Not a single piece of luggage from the whole group was in Nairobi when they landed.  I’m still not sure how that could happen, but it did.  The luggage was to arrive on the same flight the next day and so they requested a later departure to Maasai Mara.  We were to leave at 8am but by the time they returned to the airport and retrieved the luggage, it was 4pm!  And in a truck it’s a long, slow drive anywhere, let alone the bumpy road down to the Mara.

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The late departure meant that we were driving at night, which is something we never want to do, especially through the bush.  We finally arrived at midnight and the camp staff were so wonderful!  We had kept in communication with them throughout the evening and they kept dinner for us and served it very graciously at that hour.  Lesson learnt though: next time we won’t depart for Maasai Mara so late and instead leave very early the next day.

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Safari Begins

The next day our morning game drive didn’t start very early as everyone was tired from the previous night.  But Francis took them off around 8am and they spotted lions almost immediately.  A truck gives you more height and they got a great sighting of the pride in the grass.  Shortly after that though, the truck stopped.  And nothing Francis did would move it.  Again the camp staff were amazing and supplied a vehicle so our guests could continue with their game drive.  Then they supplied another emergency vehicle to tow the truck out of the park.

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Francis pulled the engine apart at the camp and discovered the piston had, as he described it, “turned into githeri” (a traditional Kenyan dish of stewed beans and maize, i.e. small round pieces in a bowl).  The trouble with engines is that, even if you regularly service them, there are things inside that you can’t see and that will fall apart with enough bumping along on these fabulous Kenyan roads.  (I recently discovered in Australia that bushes are something that are replaced every twenty years or so.  In Kenya we replace them after almost every trip down to the Maasai Mara!)

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So that was the end of the truck for this trip.  We organised a replacement vehicle to get the group back to Nairobi the following day.  The itinerary continued for the guests as planned, fortunately.  The only issue was that there was now no space for Francis and I in this back-up vehicle.  We tried to hitch a ride on the road nearest the camp, but it’s a quiet road so we didn’t have much luck.  So we got a motorbike taxi (boda boda) across the savannah (outside the park!) to the main gate of Maasai Mara where we would find more traffic.  I have to admit that the motorbike ride has been a highlight of my time in Kenya!  We have driven that route before, but on a motorbike it was something else!  Beautiful scenery, through Maasai villages, across rivers, wow it was stunning!

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Somehow we arrived in Nairobi before the guests, despite our waiting for a lift, and then getting public transport in Nairobi to their accommodation.  But they had a much more leisurely trip, stopping at the Rift Valley lookout, visiting a Maasai village and having lunch en route.  Nevertheless, they were as surprised to see us waiting for them as we were.  We made the arrangements for Amboseli the next day and called it a night.

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Amboseli

Thank goodness the second half of the trip went smoothly!  We had to split them into two smaller vehicles and they switched up their seating arrangements for the two days to spend time with everyone.  They saw hyenas, elephants, a large herd of buffalo in the swamp, saddle-billed stork, zebras, a big flock of ostriches, and of course Mt Kilimanjaro.  They also climbed up lookout hill for sweeping views over the park.

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All’s well that ends well and there really was minimal disruption to the safari for the guests.  It was just my own mortification that got in the way of me enjoying myself.  But Francis always tells me soberly that “Anything can happen” and he is right.  Perhaps we will add that to “Africa is unpredictable” in the trip preparation documents.

Please share your experiences of travel that hasn’t gone exactly to plan – help me realise that not only can anything happen, but anything can happen to anyone!

And if you would like your own well-planned but unpredictable African adventure please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

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Emily and Lee’s Kenyan Safari

Emily and Lee’s Kenyan Safari

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I love starting trips on weekends.  The traffic to escape Nairobi is clear and we don’t have to start a safari in a jam.  Emily and Lee conveniently started their journey to Mombasa on a Saturday morning, and we found ourselves bright and early at Wildebeest Eco-Camp in Karen.  It was a reasonably unremarkable drive, therefore, to Amboseli.  The only potential for disaster arose when I inserted my foot firmly in my mouth with a cynical remark about the aid industry…. only after the words were out did I remember that Lee works as a fund raiser for an NGO.

But their humour remained intact, even after the 22 kilometres of corrugated road on the last stretch to the park (it’s nothing compared to the road to the Maasai Mara, but not having that for comparison, 22 kilometres can also be tiring).

Our arrival at Kibo Camp was like a homecoming for Francis and me.  First Charles, the supervisor, cracked a big smile in welcome as he saw us emerging from the van.  Francis had only been there a few days before, but I was pleasantly surprised they remembered me after several months.

We checked in and Charles generously gave us a new guest tent.  The tents are floored with stone and covered with cow-hide rugs.  The four-poster bed in the middle of the room is surrounded with a mosquito net which is set up during the evening turn-down service while we have dinner.  At the rear of the tent is the en suite with flush toilet and hot shower.  The water is solar heated – part of Kibo’s eco-friendly efforts.  No time to linger in our luxurious tent though; it was lunchtime.

As Francis and I entered the dining room our old friend Gona was preparing our table.  When he turned and saw us, it was like meeting a long-lost pal.  “Mama and Papa Overland” he cried and shook both our hands energetically.  Nothing is too much trouble for Gona – as he says “my name is Gona and I’m gonna serve you.”  Gona had christened us Mama and Papa Overland on my first visit to Kibo in 2013.  We were quietly tickled by the name and are glad it’s stuck.

Safari in Amboseli

Emily and Lee had their first game drive that afternoon.  They were lucky with an early lion sighting!  Even better, it was a lion couple on their honeymoon.  Of course they also saw plenty of elephants and a hippo with her baby out of the water.

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Emerging from our tents at sunrise the next morning, we were greeted with a perfect view of a naked Kilimanjaro.  Usually covered in cloud during the day, early morning is the best time to see the mountain and Amboseli is the best place for those views.  Francis whisked Emily and Lee off to the park for an early morning game drive.  Over breakfast, Lee marvelled at the incredible variety of birds they had seen during the drive, many of which they had never heard of, including the Secretary Bird.  We all had a giggle at Francis’ imitation of the Secretary Bird as it hunts.  Amboseli National Park comprises a large swamp in the middle of a massive arid area and thus attracts many water birds including water rail, egrets, herons, ibis, kingfishers and plovers.

After breakfast we bid our farewells to the awesome staff and started back to Mombasa Road.  The highway between East Africa’s main port and the rest of the region is only single lane in each direction with some trucks hurtling along at hair-raising speeds while others barely make it up the gentlest of inclines.  Side mirrors are a needless accessory it seems and rarely used.  It’s not my favourite road to travel on and so I like to either turn around to talk to people behind or pretend to sleep – anything to not look at my impending death over and over!  Francis is masterful though and navigates the other drivers’ craziness with cool calm.

Elephants and Leopards

Our destination was Taita Hills and Lumo Sanctuary.  It took us about six hours from Kibo to Taita Hills but it was worth it as Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge came into view.  A herd of elephants were wending their way through the lodge’s stilts as they made their way to the waterhole.  I had tried to describe how the waterhole is at the reception area, but it’s difficult to understand that elephants can be just a few metres away as you check in, until you get there!

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Once you are there it is even more difficult to tear yourself away from the incredible proximity you have with these beautiful creatures.  However, after enjoying sunrise over Kilimanjaro that morning we felt it a fitting end to have a drink watching the sun set over the mountain.  The only trouble was that we got distracted by a couple of lionesses feasting on a zebra on our way.  By the time we got to Lion’s Bluff, the sun had all but disappeared.  The thing about being so close to the equator is that sunset happens in about five minutes – not the two-hour romance we get in Melbourne!  But Lion’s Bluff still has one of the best balcony bars in Africa, so we indulged in a glass of wine anyway.

There’s a rocky outcrop in Lumo Sanctuary where on one of my earliest visits another driver-guide told us he had just seen a leopard.  We scoured the outcrop, fully circling it, looking for the leopard with no luck.  On every subsequent visit I search that outcrop desperately for the leopard.  I look among the tree branches and in the cracks and crevasses of the rocks, always suspecting the leopard will be in the most hard to see place and really wanting to be the first clever cat to find it.

So the third day of the safari saw us on an early morning game drive close to this outcrop with me desperately craning my head to find the elusive leopard.  As I carefully searched the branches of a particularly large sausage tree (a leopard’s favourite), everyone started talking about something else remarkable: the large elephant that almost seemed stuck under the very same tree.  Had I really missed that?!  He was perched somewhat tenuously on a ledge and munching on the leaves of the sausage tree.  As he backed up, his side rubbed against the rock giving an audible demonstration of how thick his skin must be.  After watching him for some time and satisfying ourselves that he wasn’t really stuck, we continued our circuit of Leopard Rock.

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I returned to looking in all the hidey holes when a minute later Francis suddenly hit the brakes and said “Leopard!”  And there, lounging in plain view on a Pride Rock-style arrangement was indeed a leopard!  What luck!  And we were the only ones there to enjoy this magnificent sighting.  After several minutes however another van approached, but too fast and too noisily.  The leopard jumped lightly off his rock lounge and disappeared into the grass.  (Note: suggest to your driver-guides they drive slowly in the parks, especially as they approach another vehicle that is obviously looking at something, so you don’t miss out on exciting sightings.)

Leopard at Taita Hills, Kenya

Leopard at Taita Hills, Kenya

We were happy with our sighting anyway, and headed back to the lodge for breakfast.  This morning the zebras were having their turn at the waterhole, but not before having a bit of a chase around with the elephants.

Kenya’s coast

Then it was time to drive to Mombasa.  To avoid driving through the city centre, we turned off at Mariakani and drove through rolling green hills.  It became a rough road but the scenery was quite beautiful (aside from the large rubbish dump in one part).  Finally we got to Nyali where Francis and I took our bearings from the dentist’s office he had visited in 2013.  As he had been under the influence of strong painkillers at that time, I suggested he trust my directions…and eventually we got there.

We had such a great time with Emily and Lee and we can’t wait to welcome them in 8-10 years when they bring their baby daughter for safari!

For us, we found a campsite and sat down to a cold Tusker and a chat about how long we were going to enjoy our beach holiday.  The silver lining of Kenya’s tourism decline is that we didn’t have to rush back to Nairobi for the next safari…. lucky us??!!

After a lazy morning, we headed 11 kilometres north to Jumba la Mtwana, the ruins of an Arab trading port.  It was very interesting; the guide taught us a lot.  And it was so beautiful – ruins of stone and coral buildings amongst trees of so many shades of green.  The port was active between 1350 and 1450 and has three mosques and many houses including a hotel of sorts for the traders who sailed in.

Francis tests the acoustics in the remains of a mosque.  This is the alcove where the Imam stood to preach...although I think Francis should be facing the other way to get the amplifying effect!

Francis tests the acoustics in the remains of a mosque. This is the alcove where the Imam stood to preach…although I think Francis should be facing the other way to get the amplifying effect!

In the morning before leaving for Nairobi, we visited Bombolulu Workshop and Cultural Centre.  Established in 1969, Bombolulu is a craft workshop employing people with disabilities.  They design and produce jewellery, bags, clothes, wood carvings and many other crafts.  It’s a fantastic project employing around 100 staff (that number used to be 350 before the global financial crisis).  Accommodation is provided for the staff if they wish and there is a school and day-care centre for their children.  It is well worth a visit if you stay on the north coast.

If you would like to experience a safari like Emily and Lee, please contact us today (tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com) to start planning your Kenyan holiday.

Emily and Lee collage

Four Brilliant Ideas for a Kenyan Long Weekend

Four Brilliant Ideas for a Kenyan Long Weekend

Easter holidays, Eid, May Day, Kenyatta Day – there are plenty of long weekends throughout the year and if you live in Nairobi you might be wondering how to spend a four-day weekend.  This article will give you four ideas of how to spend a long weekend and explore Kenya beyond Nairobi’s city limits.

1. Lumo and Amboseli

Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary lies adjacent to Tsavo West National Park and offers stunning sunset views of Mt Kilimanjaro.  It’s about a seven-hour drive from Nairobi so you can arrive in time for a late afternoon game drive on your way to your accommodation.  The next day, spend the full day searching for leopards around the rocky outcrops and wonder at the red elephants that inhabit the sanctuary.  The shy Lesser Kudu is prevalent and many birds can be seen.  Depart early the following morning for Amboseli National Park where you can again enjoy a late afternoon game drive to your accommodation in the middle of the park.  Wake up to sunrise views of Mt Kilimanjaro as you head out for a morning game drive before making your way back to Nairobi.  Alternatively you could swap Lumo for Tsavo West.

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2. Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru

Depart Nairobi early for the famous Maasai Mara, where you can go for an afternoon game drive after lunch.  Spend the whole next day game driving including a visit to the hippo pool and seeking out the lions that became famous through the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.  There are opportunities to go for a hot air balloon flight at dawn, visit a Maasai village or walk with the Maasai up to the escarpment for stunning views over the reserve.  On the third day drive to Lake Nakuru National Park, where you can find accommodation inside the park.  Evening and morning game drives provide opportunities to see rhinos and Rothschild giraffes before returning to Nairobi.  This itinerary could be just as enjoyable going to Nakuru first and then to Maasai Mara.

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3. Lake Naivasha and Maasai Mara
It’s a short two-hour drive to Lake Naivasha leaving you most of the day to enjoy the activities available there. You might want to cycle through Hell’s Gate National Park, hike up Mt Longonot or take a boat ride on the lake. Early the next morning you might opt to go for a walking safari at Green Crater Lake or Wileli Conservancy before heading to the Maasai Mara.  An afternoon game drive can be enjoyed, followed by a full day in the park the next day.  Before heading back to Nairobi on the last day, there is time for a final morning game drive and perhaps a visit to the neighbouring Maasai village.  Again, this itinerary could be done in reverse – heading to Maasai Mara for two nights first and then enjoying the final night at Lake Naivasha and doing the activities on the day you return to Nairobi.

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4. Lake Magadi

If you are interested in heading off the beaten track a bit and not spending so many hours driving from place to place, Lake Magadi and the surrounding area offer a different experience.  This is also a fantastic trip to see the migratory birds that visit Kenya at this time of year.  On the way you can hike Ngong Hills, stop at Olepolos for lunch and then stay at the Olorgesailie Pre-Historic Site for the first night.  The next day continue to Magadi town and into the Lake Magadi Conservation Area where you set up camp for the second night.  The hot springs are very hot if you are brave enough for a swim, otherwise you can take a walk, do some bird watching or just chill out.  From Lake Magadi head to the cooler Nguruman Escarpment where you can camp not far from the town at a campsite in the wildlife corridor between Maasai Mara and Amboseli.  In the morning go for a walk with the camp staff to see the wildlife and birds of the area before driving back to Nairobi.

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On the first three trips, there are options to stay in lodges or to camp, while the Lake Magadi trip is camping only.  You are welcome to contact OTA to discuss your weekend plans further.

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