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Hiroyuki’s Safari

Three leopards on the first day of safari, can you believe it?!  That was Hiroyuki’s experience when he came to Kenya in August 2016.  He contacted us because he had seen our commitment to community projects and wanted to spend some time with Amani Kibera in the slums of Nairobi.  Here’s the story of his short time in Kenya and how we helped him see both the real life and the safari life of Kenya.

The Kenyan Life(s)

Hiroyuki arrived in the late afternoon and we arranged for Ben to meet him at the airport.  Ben is the co-founder of Amani Kibera, a community-based organisation working with youth in the Kibera slum.  Hiroyuki was very interested in learning about life in the slum and if possible doing a homestay, so we asked Ben and his wife Mariam to host him.  I think Hiroyuki got more than any of us bargained as Ben took him on a drive through Nairobi’s city centre on the way from the airport to Kibera.  Hiroyuki then got taken for a night out with the boys, experiencing Kenyan life as authentically as one probably could!

When Francis went to pick him up the next morning, he was very tired and possibly just a little hungover.  But he was about to face the five-hour drive to the Maasai Mara – not the hangover cure I would be looking for!  He managed to sleep all the way, which would have made the drive less painful.  Before getting to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Hiroyuki was to spend a night experiencing another side of “typical Kenyan life”, this time in a rural Maasai community.  The contrast was pretty significant to the previous day, but that’s the wonder of travelling – finding these contrasts and realising that a stereotype of “Kenyan” is just not possible, as with all nations.

As I said at the outset, this was a short trip and so his third, and final, night was at last spent in the game reserve.  His accommodation was on the Talek River at Aruba Camp which meant traversing the park to get there.  It must have been a big night with the Kibera boys, because he was still tired and struggling to keep his eyes open on the game drive.  Incredibly, Francis found three leopards that afternoon while Hiroyuki dozed.  Francis tried to rouse him and he did wake up to take a photo before going back to sleep.  Eventually Francis gave up and took him to the camp early.  It seemed a shame that not everyone is lucky to find even one leopard in three days of game driving and here in one afternoon were three leopards and no one to enjoy the sightings.

The next morning was better for everyone and they saw eland, lion, ostrich, hyena, wildebeest, vultures, elephants and a secretary bird.  But that was the end of the trip.  After the morning game drive they headed back to Nairobi and the airport for the flight out.  It seems a long way to come for three days, but he experienced a range of environments giving a real taste of all the facets of Kenyan life.

“Best honeymoon ever”

Two suitcases full of donations!  That’s what Bryan and Jade brought with them when they came to Africa for their month-long honeymoon safari.  As members of Pack for a Purpose, we encourage our guests to put some school supplies or clothes in their luggage if they have a bit of extra room.  But these two flew business class and maxxed out their luggage allowance after taking up a collection around their workplaces, family and friends.  We were able to arrange for them to make some of the donations in person as they travelled through Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya so they could see the positive impact they were making with the mountains of stationary they’d dragged halfway around the world.

Bryan and Jade flew from Melbourne, Australia, to Kigali, Rwanda.  There was to be no messing around – they were to start their safari with a bang: gorilla tracking!  They spent their first night at the Hotel des Mille-Collines which was made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda.  Like much of Kigali, the hotel does not show any scars from its grizzly history and is an up-market city hotel in the heart of Kigali.

Before heading up to the Volcanoes National Park, home to the mountain gorillas, the couple spent the morning in Kigali.  They visited the Genocide Memorial, a sombre museum detailing Rwanda’s history of colonialism and how it led to tribal tensions and ultimately the 1994 genocide.  Although I’ve personally been to Kigali several times and taken guests to the gates of the memorial, I’ve only been able to go inside once – although it is vitally important for people to be aware of how such an event can happen, it is incredibly sad and not a place I could tackle a second time.

Their first full day in Africa was certainly one of contrasts: from the luxury of Hotel des Mille-Collines, to the torrid history at the Genocide Memorial, and then to Nyamirambo Township for a community walk to witness modern Rwandan life.  All this before lunch!  They enjoyed a local lunch at the Women’s Centre in the township which supports women living in the slum by selling their handicrafts and giving them employment in cooking for visitors.

Then they drove two hours north of Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park – another contrast to the city they had experienced in the morning.  Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is located just outside the national park and has spectacular views of the volcanoes.  It is a community-run luxury lodge that was established by the Governor’s Collection based in Kenya but with all proceeds supporting the local community.

After that jam-packed first day, you’d think a rest was in order.  But no, it was an early start into the park to look for a unique and endangered species.  Not the mountain gorilla yet, but the Golden Monkey.  Once found, you can spend an hour watching these playful, lively creatures in their natural habitat.  You do get a bit of a crick in your neck though as they tend to play in the canopy which also makes getting good photos a challenge.

After the Golden Monkey experience, Bryan and Jade visited the Karisoke Research Centre which was founded by Dr Dian Fossey in 1967.  They enjoyed a guided tour where they learnt about the ongoing work of the Centre in protecting the mountain gorillas.

Finally the big day had arrived: day three in Africa was gorilla day.  It’s a very early start as you need to be at the ranger station by 7am for orientation.  The trek can vary in length and difficulty depending on the location of the gorilla family you are visiting.  Once you find them you spend an hour observing these beautiful and endangered creatures.  It is one of life’s most magical experiences being in the presence of a gorilla family.  The startlingly high price for the permit, the toil of hiking in the mountains through dense bush, the inhuman time the alarm woke you in the morning – all these are forgotten as you sit in the foliage metres away from these incredible beings that are so close to us genetically.  You can see the tenderness in the mother’s eyes as she watches her baby learn to swing on the vines, and the massive silverback keeping one watchful eye on his family and an even more watchful eye on the visitors – you know that one sudden move could be your last if he swung his powerful arm at you.

In a daze you head back down the mountain only half-believing what you just experienced.  Over (a usually late) lunch you tend to garble stories with your travel companion(s), still in awe of being in the presence of mountain gorillas.  After lunch, Bryan and Jade visited a local village to catch a glimpse of rural life before heading back to Kigali.

After that whirlwind three days in Rwanda, they flew to Arusha in Tanzania.  They had to fly via Nairobi and at the last minute the schedule changed and they ended up with several hours in Nairobi.  I met them at the airport for lunch as Nairobi’s airport isn’t one that you can easily while away several hours.  It was nice to meet them in person – Bryan was a friend of a friend and we had met a couple of times many years before but I’d never met Jade.  But usually through the process of designing a tailor-made itinerary, I feel like I get to know our guests quite well as emails and phone calls fly back and forth, so it is always lovely to meet in person and put faces to itineraries.  They had left one suitcase of clothing donations with our Rwandan partner and gave me another massive suitcase when we met for lunch, obviously not wanting to cart it all over Tanzania.  It was full of stationary which we could distribute between Amani Kibera and Kiota Children’s Home.  Bryan and Jade had put the call out to friends, family and colleagues that they were going to Africa and had a huge luggage allowance so anyone who wanted to donate items for needy families could give those items to the couple to bring.  And donate they did!

Game drives begin

Bryan and Jade’s first stop in Tanzania was Lake Manyara National Park, described as one of the hidden gems of Tanzania.  It is famous for tree climbing lions and large herds of elephant, which are not shy to come straight up to the vehicle.  They enjoyed an afternoon game drive, their first of many!

The next day they drove to one of the most famous game parks in Africa: the Serengeti.  These huge flat plains are home to millions of wildebeest during the migration meaning you are also likely to find lion, cheetah, leopard, hyena and many other small predators.  Again their afternoon was spent on game drive before enjoying dinner and the experience of sleeping in the middle of the Serengeti at Lemala Ewanjan Camp.

They had another full day in the Serengeti with their guide Grayson finding the best spotting locations.  It’s always good to start early for a better chance of finding the big cats before they retreat from the blazing sun during the day.  The Serengeti has so much to offer: you can spend time at the hippo pool, watching these majestic animals laze about in the cool water alongside the crocodiles, watch a big pride of lions or be in the middle of the migration.  You can journey from the wide open plains to the kopjes, volcanic rocky outcrops that provide protection and shelter for a wide variety of animals.  From the top of a kopje, you can look out across the vast grasslands.  This diverse and interesting landscape provides the ultimate in game viewing.

After a final morning game drive, they continued to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area where they stayed at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge which sits right on the rim of the crater.  The next morning they descended into the Ngorongoro Crater which is a wonderful haven for wildlife.  Ngorongoro is unique in that almost all the wildlife lives within the crater walls hence you have the opportunity to find game easily.  Rhino, in particular, can be seen regularly as well as prides of lion and other predators like cheetah.  After a picnic lunch by the hippo pond, our honeymooners commenced the drive to Lake Eyasi.

Lake Eyasi is home to the hunter-gatherer ethnic group of the Hadzabe Bushmen, who bear similar characteristics to those of Bushmen in Southern Africa.  This indigenous tribe is probably the last that lives in true harmony with nature and are well-known for their communication via clicking rather than speech.  Bryan and Jade enjoyed hunting with them and experiencing their way of life.

Finally it was time for them to come to Kenya.  Francis met them at the Namanga border post and brought them to Nairobi and straight into the Nairobi National Park where they enjoyed a game drive as they found their way to The Emakoko.

Then it was time for their first wedding gift; Matt and Katie had given them an elephant called Maktau!  As a foster parent of an elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, you can visit the elephants in the evening, away from the mass crowds of the morning session, and help put the baby elephants to bed.  Bryan and Jade fell in love with several other elephant orphans during their visit and came away with another three fostered babies.

You might think that a luxury lodge in a national park just 6km from a major capital city would be exciting enough, but their second night in Nairobi trumped the first.  Almost a year before the trip, Bryan and Jade’s friends got in touch with me about giving the newlyweds a really special gift: a night at the Giraffe Manor!  It’s necessary to book a year or more in advance and even though November is a shoulder season, there was still only one night in the window of travel time Bryan and Jade had that had a room available at Giraffe Manor.  We had to design the whole itinerary around this one night.

After checking in and lunching with the giraffes (and watching a self-proclaimed Instagram influencer go through a number of outfit changes as he posed with giraffes) I took Bryan and Jade to Kibera slum with their suitcase of donations to give personally to the Amani Kibera community-based organisation.  They sat down with Ben, one of the founders, to hear more about the projects Amani Kibera does to promote peace in the slum.  Ben was blown away with the pile of stationary and the couple of iPads that Bryan and Jade were donating.  The organisation facilitates sponsorship of students who cannot afford school fees and the additional assistance of the stationary would be a great help to those students.

Breakfast at Giraffe Manor has been photographed and featured as a quintessential African experience, so we gave Bryan and Jade a rare late start before heading out of Nairobi and off to Amboseli National Park.  Nestled at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is another oft-photographed place with the picture of elephants grazing in the shadow of the mountain another quintessential African moment.  On arrival at Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge, they were greeted with rose petals all over their bed – just in case all the adventure had made them forget this was their honeymoon!

From Amboseli, they skirted around the base of Kilimanjaro, close to the Tanzanian border, to get to Tsavo West National Park.  After lunch at the lodge, they got another wedding present: a guided excursion to the Shetani Lava Fields and Caves, which are the results of Mt Kilimanjaro’s last eruption.

Tsavo West is huge and together with Tsavo East National Park, they make up 4% of Kenya’s total land mass.  Bryan and Jade had a few days to explore the vast parks and spent three nights in three lodges in three corners of the park.  First at Kilaguni Serena Lodge, from where there is easy access to the Shetani Lava Fields and also Mzima Springs where there is an underwater viewing room.  Hippos, crocodiles and lots of fish can be observed from this unique vantage point.  Second was Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge which is up on stilts and elephants, zebras, and all the other animals wander around the salt lick below.  Technically, the salt lick is in a sanctuary adjacent to the national park so it is possible to do a night game drive, which our honeymooning couple of course took up.

The third day was back in the national park in Tsavo East at Satao Camp.  Unfortunately their bush breakfast was cancelled due to rain, but that was the least of the problems the rain had caused.  Trucks were bogged on the road and Francis had to detour off road around them.  Then there were David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service trucks bringing elephants to Tsavo East from the orphanage in Nairobi to start their rehabilitation.  But the local elephants were going crazy so they couldn’t release the new elephants from the trailers.  One elephant blocked the road so no one could pass – not Kenya Wildlife Service and not our travelers.

At last they reached Watamu and the Medina Palms where the swimming pool extends all the way from the rooms to the beach.  Now we can say Bryan and Jade were on their honeymoon: five relaxing nights on a honeymoon package washing the safari dust off in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.  Bryan is a diver so we selected this part of the Kenyan coast for the Watamu Marine Park famous for dolphins, turtles and plenty of other spectacular marine life.

The only thing left is their five-star Trip Advisor review which we were pretty chuffed with as it described their trip as the “Best Honeymoon Ever”:

Nothing was too difficult and everything planned to the smallest detail. When there was a long stopover, she came to the airport and bought us lunch! All the hotels on the way were told it was our honeymoon and we got upgrades and champas and great service. The organization was spot on but flexible. Shout out to Grayson in Tanzania who was excellent too. Would thoroughly recommend OTA and their partners! Eagle eye spotting of game so we were often the first!

https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r640285262-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html

Hippos after all!

We met Corinne in 2014 through an introduction from my old school principal.  She started a school in Kitengela, near Nairobi, which Huntingtower (that’s my old school in Melbourne) supports.  Sunrise of Africa School is founded on Christian Science principles, with over 300 students from pre-school to Class 8.  Corinne and her husband George live in Kenya while their children Christoph and Michelle live abroad with their families.  Every few years they all come together at the old house in Nairobi for Christmas.  And in 2016 we were privileged to be part of their celebrations as they planned a safari to the Maasai Mara.

After booking in February, it was a long time coming, but finally we were gathered out the front of the house ready to go.  But unfortunately, it was not to be.  The road to the Maasai Mara is notoriously horrible, for inexplicable reasons given how much tourists pay the local county government to visit Kenya’s greatest game reserve!  While we carried equipment, Michelle and George drove their own vehicles full of passengers.  But when a suspension bush gave way, and some passengers were going a little green from the bumpy road, it was decided that the Maasai Mara was not to be the amazing Christmas safari after all.  With long faces we parted ways – we continued as we had another family coming to join us the following day (stay tuned for the story of the Fink family trip!) while the Corvins returned to Nairobi.

Nairobi National Park

But all was not lost!  On our return to Nairobi, we organised a day trip to Nairobi National Park.  Administered by Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), the roads are in a much better state of repair, not to mention that it is located a mere 8km from the CBD!  We met early in the morning and after battling our way through the ticket-buying bureaucracy (only took 20 minutes to buy 10 tickets!) we were on our game drive at last.

One of the first places we stopped was a waterhole where there are always a lot of water birds squawking around.  Mattias said he thought he saw a hippo, but his dad wasn’t sure and when he asked Francis and I if there were hippos here we both said no …. Well we had never seen any there!  But Mattias was right!  And not just one hippo, but a few.  His sister, Zoe, had been dying to see a hippo, so she was very happy with her big brother.

Despite this sighting, we still headed to the river where more hippos generally hang out.  Lucky that we had seen the hippos in the first pool however – there were none where they were supposed to be.  That’s why it’s called a “game” drive – it’s a like a game of hide-and-seek between humans and animals!  We had brunch at the river and then they went for a walk with Humphrey the ranger to spot some crocs.

As we continued the game drive, we were rewarded with two rhinos, a lion and then a black-backed jackal right alongside the cars!  The jackal simply trotted along unperturbed by our presence, at one point looking directly at James and Michelle’s car, so they got some great photos.  We also got pretty close to some giraffes and watched as some impalas in a bachelor herd knocked horns as they fought for alpha status.

On 18 July 1989, President Moi and Dr Leakey (then head of KWS) sent a strong message to the world about poaching elephants for ivory.  They burned 12 tonnes of the stuff, worth about US$1 million, in the Nairobi National Park.  Today the Ivory Burning Site still remains with the ashes of those tusks as a reminder of Kenya’s stance on poaching.  Although I had been to Nairobi National Park several times before, finally I visited this site for the first time with the Corvins.  It was such an impressive move by Moi and Leakey, I only wish more governments today had the same courage.

And that was the day.  We are still sorry we didn’t get the opportunity to show them the Maasai Mara, but we already have some great ideas for their next visit!  Karibuni tena!!

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.

Kilmanjaro’s Royal Court… Otherwise Known As Amboseli

Kilmanjaro’s Royal Court… Otherwise Known As Amboseli

Known as the “Kilimanjaro Royal Court”, Amboseli National Park is nestled at the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain.  Amboseli is a top destination in Kenya for wildlife and one of the classic African images is that of a herd of elephants strolling across the plains with the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro in the background.  It is to catch this sight that people flood to Amboseli National Park.  While Kilimanjaro is actually across the border in Tanzania, Amboseli has a perfect view of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain which rises an impressive 5895 metres above the plains.

Amboseli is approximately a half-day drive from Nairobi, meaning you can leave early in the morning and arrive in time for lunch and an afternoon game drive.  Some of the lodges and camps in the area offer a walk with local Maasai warriors and it’s definitely worth taking the opportunity for a sunset or sunrise walk to view Kilimanjaro.  The best time to view the majestic mountain is at dawn, when the clouds lift and the light is clear and soft.  Early morning walks are very good photo opportunities as you witness the African sunrise lighten the mountain and distribute golden rays to the dry savannah of Amboseli National Park.

You can spend a full day game driving in the park, which contains swamp grounds where elephants and hippos are in abundance.  A variety of plains game, antelopes and birds can also be seen.

There are several camps and lodges both inside and outside the park.  Maasai Simba Camp is run by the local community and profits support the hospital and schools in the neighbouring village.  Kibo Camp is very close to the main gate and offers outstanding service at a very reasonable price.  Inside the park is Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge which won Africa’s Leading Eco Hotel in the 2013 World Tourism Awards.  Part of the Serena Hotel chain, a stay here includes game drives with professional guides, bush dinners with a campfire and Maasai dancing, and village visits.  Tortilis Camp is a classic luxury safari camp with stunning views of Mt Kilimanjaro.  In nearby Selenkay Conservancy is Porini Amboseli Camp where your stay includes game drives in Selenkay Conservancy plus one full day with picnic lunch in Amboseli National Park and a visit to a Maasai village.

If driving 250km is not your thing, Amboseli also has an airstrip with regular flights from Wilson Airport in Nairobi.

Why not book a weekend trip to Amboseli? With beautiful lodges inside the park it is possible to travel there on Saturday and return on Sunday – what a unique way to spend a weekend for a Nairobian!  Get in touch today (tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com) to book.

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