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4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

You don’t need to be scared to go on safari.  When CNN described Kenya last year as “a hotbed of terrorism” it called attention to some crazy myths that must be prevailing to prevent travellers coming to Kenya.  I want to address some of these myths to help put your mind at ease and feel confident to experience that bucket list safari you’ve always wanted.  This won’t be a marketing spiel; I live in Kenya so I know the good, the bad and the ugly and will share all of it with you.

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Myth 1: Kenya is full of terrorists

CNN’s description of Kenya was outlandish to say the least.  Kenya suffered several terrorism incidents throughout 2013 and 2014, the most notable of which was the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre.  Most of the activities were much smaller scale however – grenades thrown into bus stations, churches and nightclubs.  In April 2015 the Garissa University was attacked and since then Kenya has not had another attack (time of writing is August 2016, I hope I don’t jinx it!).  Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from Somalia, are reported to be the key offenders.

Unfortunately today, terrorism occurs everywhere and anywhere.  In the last year we have seen attacks in Paris, Sydney, Brussels and Istanbul.  But travellers still flock to these places.

Fifty million people survive every day in Kenya, so your chances are pretty good that you will come out alive.  Like saying “all Muslims are terrorists”, Kenyans want peace as much as the next person.  Moreover, the parts of Kenya you, as a traveller, would be frequenting are not terrorist targets – there have been no attacks on any national parks or game reserves to date.   There is a terrorist risk near the Somali border and in parts of Nairobi.

The current travel advisory from the Australian government is that only some areas are dangerous, not the whole country.  And the dangerous areas don’t have much of interest to the average safari-goer.

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Myth 2:  Nairobi is “Nai-robbery”

A decade ago carjackings, armed robbery, and muggings were relatively common in Nairobi, earning the city the nickname “Nai-robbery”.  But one mayor did a lot of work with the street boys and nowadays Nairobi is just as safe (or risky) as any other big city in the world.  Expatarrivals.com says that crime in Nairobi is “opportunistic, unsophisticated, comparable to other world capitals.”  The crime rate has decreased each year since 2012 according to Standard Digital.

I have lived in Nairobi for five years now and I have never been physically attacked.  One evening, my phone was snatched – but who walks in the city centre in the evening alone talking on their phone; it was totally my fault.  However, everyone who saw the thief chased him and I got my phone back!  Nairobians themselves are tired of crime in their city, especially towards foreigners because they don’t want travellers to have a bad experience of Kenya.

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Myth 3: Corruption is rife and foreigners are targeted because they are thought to have more money

I cannot say that corruption is not rife.  It is, but as a tourist you are unlikely to encounter it.  If you book a full package safari, there will be little opportunity for police or any other official to ask you for a bribe.  Tourists are rarely targeted.  Foreigners are not an easy target because we tend to ask too many questions and don’t always understand what’s really happening.  It’s not in our habit to slip some money in the door handle for the traffic policeman for example.  Expatriates who participate in corruption means crime continues unpunished and Kenya’s development remains stymied.  The phrase “When in Rome…” should not apply to bribery and corruption.

President Kenyatta says the right things about cleaning up Kenya’s corruption, but it’s going to take a huge shift.  However it’s certainly not a reason to avoid a Kenyan safari!

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Myth 4: Tour operators are dishonest and you will lose your money if you pay in advance.

Yes, there are some briefcase businesses, but in this age of the internet you can certainly do you own due diligence and avoid being scammed.  There are plenty of review sites online and many allow you to contact reviewers directly to ask about their experience.  Use Trip Advisor, do your research, check the prices.

The tourism industry has suffered greatly the past four years (due to the myths I’m writing about here!) and tour operators are getting increasingly desperate just to make a sale.  But if park fees are included in your package, check that the total price can cover those fees.  For example, it is $80 for a 24-hour ticket to the Maasai Mara.  So if you are booking a two-night safari to Maasai Mara for $200, you can do some simple maths and calculate that $160 is for park fees, leaving only $40 for transport, accommodation and food.  Park fees are public information so you can do some rough calculations.  If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is!  Either your operator is paying bribes at the park gate, or your vehicle hasn’t been maintained, or your food will be substandard.  Or you could get the trifecta!  Please, it does not help Kenya’s fight against corruption to encourage your tour operator to pay bribes at the gate so you can get into the park cheaply.

The Kenyan Association of Tour Operators and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism are also working hard to introduce measures to curb cheats.

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Sensational media is destroying Kenya’s main industry and the economy is suffering as a result.  So if an African safari is on your bucket list, look beyond the headlines and see Kenya for the amazing country it really is.

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OTA’s Wildlife Wonder – East Africa’s best game parks in two weeks

OTA’s Wildlife Wonder – East Africa’s best game parks in two weeks

The Maasai Mara and Serengeti form a cross-border eco-system that supports millions of animals and is the scene for the Great Wildebeest Migration.  In January, OTA is leading a tour to these parks as well as Lake Naivasha, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, giving guests the opportunity to experience a variety of landscapes throughout their safari.

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Spectacular wildlife in Maasai Mara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater is the biggest draw-card of this safari, but the stunning birding in Lakes Naivasha and Natron is not to be dismissed.  Throughout the safari, we will travel through several different environments, each providing incredible scenery.  Guests will also have the opportunity to visit a traditional Maasai village.  Travelling in a comfortable safari vehicle fit for photography, game-viewing and touring and accompanied by an experienced driver-guide, on this trip you will stay in three-star tented camps and lodges.

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Francis Wamai, Founder and Director of OTA, says: “Lake Naivasha is the biggest of the Rift Valley lakes and Lake Natron has an alga that makes it look red; both are home to millions of flamingos.  Maasai Mara is famous for the Great Wildebeest Migration that arrives in July and returns to Serengeti in November – that’s where you’ll see the herds on this trip.  Ngorongoro Crater is the caldera of an extinct volcano and local people believe it is the Garden of Eden, especially as nearby Oldepai Gorge is where some of the earliest human remains have been found.”

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OTA’s 13-day Wildlife Wonder Tour is designed for those looking for an exceptional and unique safari experience.  The tour cost is US$3460 per person inclusive of all meals, accommodation, entry fees to Maasai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, and an English-speaking driver-guide.  There are limited seats available so contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to reserve yours.

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Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

School holidays roll around four times a year and each time you want to keep your kids entertained and once in a while treat them to something really special.  Well here today, I’m presenting the ultimate school holiday treat for the whole family!  Often, family travel focuses on a destination suitable for children but can be a bit of a drag for the parents.  East Africa is NOT such a destination – it offers plenty for everyone from your primary-school-aged son to his grandmother.

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East Africa has so many activities for all ages.  Many people just think of a typical safari, looking at animals from a safari vehicle.  When parents are considering a holiday for their young children, spending days in a car does not sound attractive.  But there’s so much more!  At Lake Naivasha you can go cycling in Hells Gate National Park.  In the Maasai Mara and Serengeti you can go in a hot air balloon.  Many lodges have swimming pools to break up a big day of game drives.  You can head up to a beautiful viewpoint for a sundowner in most places you might be in the region.  Walking safaris are available in Central Kenya, Lake Naivasha and Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.  Or perhaps a boat ride at Lake Baringo, Lake Victoria, Lake Kivu (in Rwanda), or on the Nile River in Uganda.  At the source of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda, the teenagers can go white-water rafting downstream while the elders relax on a lunch cruise upriver!

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I mentioned earlier that parents tend to worry about their young kids spending full days in a car.  What if they get bored?  What if they need a toilet?  Oh it could just be a disaster.  Wrong!  There are ways to make game drives fun and entertaining with games or a scavenger hunt or get them to fill out a field guide if they are a bit older.  That will keep them engaged and interested in finding the next animal.  You could have prizes for the most obscure find for the day.  And anyway, the animals you are seeing are lions and elephants and giraffes!  One family took their two children aged 3 and 5 on a safari and they had prepared their guide that they may have to cut things short if the kids became ratty.  But it never happened.  The children were thrilled with seeing the animals and lasted the whole day!

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Meeting local people and learning how they live is a fantastic experience for all generations.  But in East Africa there is a lot of issues and life is really different to what we are used to in the West.  We have witnessed profound impact on teenagers especially when they have interacted with kids their own age living in the slums or in a Maasai village.  Visiting community-based organisations and seeing their projects can inspire young people to start thinking how they can make a difference in this world.  We have had family groups visit schools and donate books.  Other families have visited traditional villages and it’s so fun to see the children playing together despite a language barrier.

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So if you are starting to think that it might be OK for finding things to do, but now you start thinking about the logistics.  Where will you stay?  How will you travel?  Again, East Africa has you covered.  Many accommodation places have family rooms.  We also understand that travelling with a family can be expensive, so if you are travelling on a budget then consider a camping trip.  It is really exciting camping in the national parks listening to the sounds of the bush around you at night!  As for transport, there are a range of vehicle sizes, depending on how many you are.  A typical safari van or Land Cruiser seats 6-7 passengers but if you are looking to bring the extended family for a multi-generational trip, you might hire an overland truck.

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The biggest concern for families considering coming to East Africa is safety and security.  When you book through a reputable tour operator, you will be fully escorted the whole time by knowledgeable local guides.  By booking a full safari package and paying up front for everything, you do not have to carry so much cash on you.  And remember the national parks have never really been a target for terrorists or criminals – big cities are much more lucrative for them.  On a safari you will be spending most of your time in national parks and minimal time in cities so your risk of encountering these bad guys is reduced.

So what are you waiting for?  It’s time to build amazing memories together.  You might use it to celebrate a special occasion – for example we had a family group reunite in Kenya to celebrate the grandfather’s 70th birthday. Regardless, a family holiday to East Africa is a bucket list event no one will ever forget.

“Absolutely relaxed and responsible safari!”

“Absolutely relaxed and responsible safari!”

In January, Jasmin and Josh became our first ever AirBnB guests.  Jasmin had been studying on exchange here in Kenya and her boyfriend Josh came to visit her at the end of semester so they could travel together.  After a week in Kenya, Jasmin’s brother Fabio also joined them and Jasmin and Fabio decided they wanted to go the Maasai Mara after Josh returned home.

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We were able to find them two other travel buddies from Argentina so the four of them set off from Nairobi early one morning for a three day trip to Kenya’s top tourist destination.  They stayed at Mara Explorers and headed into the park almost immediately.  They spend the afternoon and all the next day in the game park watching wildlife.  Some of the group also went in for a final game drive on the last morning before returning to Nairobi.  That was the best game drive, because that was the time they saw lions on a hunt!

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Jasmin and Fabio came back and stayed a few more nights in our spare room before they went home, saying goodbye to the friends Jasmin had made during her semester here.  It was a pleasure to host Jasmin, Josh and Fabio both in our home and on safari and we hope they will return to Kenya again someday!

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Jasmin left us a lovely review on Trip Advisor: “Absolutely relaxed and responsible safari!”

Me and my brother made a safari to Masaai Mara. We already knew Francis and Tracey because we’ve spent some nights at their place in Rongai. They are really nice and helpful people and we had an amazing time with them. The safari to the Mara was one of the highlights of our time in Kenya.

I think Francis is a really good driver and I felt so relaxed in his car. This is important because it is quite a distance to the Mara park from Nairobi. Also in the park we felt that he really knows the area and that he exactly knew when he can drive through a waterhole (this time there were a lot of them) – we never got stuck. He also drove respectfully when animals were around, what I appreciated a lot. He really asked what we wanted and did not just stop at any souvenir shop like I knew it from other safari organizations (and I think can be a bit annoying). Finally, the place where we went for the two nights was also a great spot (The Mara explorer’s camps).

I totally recommend to travel with OTA because it is a small, really personal safari organization of such a nice couple with experience and knowledge.

https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r369153929-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html#
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4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

A safari in Kenya is one of life’s most incredible experiences and the ultimate travel adventure.  However, many travellers share some common doubts about security and any media about Kenya seems to bring only stories of terrorism, ebola and road accidents.  But you have to be unlucky to get caught up in trouble of these sorts.  Kenya has much to offer if you can shake off the media’s negative images, so you should go on safari for the following reasons:

  1. To see the Great Wildebeest Migration
  2. Beach, bush, mountains, desert, savannah – Kenya has many different environments and with them, different cultures, wildlife and birds
  3. Poaching is increasing and gloomy predictions say there won’t be any elephants in 20 years
  4. Kenyan people are ready to welcome visitors – low tourist numbers affect the whole economy and Kenyans want to show travellers their beautiful country

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The Great Wildebeest Migration

Tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to witness the Wildebeest Migration, often touted as the eighth wonder of the natural world.  Each year approximately 120,000 tourists come to see the wildebeest cross the river while crocodiles snap at them.  But even if you miss the river crossing, seeing the massive herds (animals in their millions!) grazing the savannah is a sight to behold.  Cameras cannot do it justice; you have to see it for yourself.

Varied environments

Whether you want a beach holiday, bush retreat, mountain climb or desert experience, Kenya has it all.  And you can put together an itinerary that covers some or all of these environments without having to fly long distances.  The most common Kenyan holiday combines a safari with a few days at the beach at the end to wash the dust off.  And along with these different environments comes different cultures and wildlife – Samburu in northern Kenya has five endemic species you won’t see in the southern parks.  For culture, you can visit a Maasai village, experience 14 different ethnic groups around Lake Turkana and then finish in cosmopolitan Nairobi.  The highlight of the central highlands is Mt Kenya, but you don’t have to hike for a week to enjoy the mountains; there are coffee and tea plantations to visit and the beautiful Thomson’s Falls.  Through the Rift Valley and into western Kenya are lakes with the myriad birdlife, including the famous flamingos.

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Poaching threatens the Kenyan safari

There seems to be a misperception that poaching was a problem in years past, but is not now.  Sadly this is untrue, and in fact it is becoming worse.  One prediction is that there will be no elephants in 20 years if poaching continues at the current rate.  Lions and rhinos are also under significant threat, with rhinos disappearing at a rate that is simply not sustainable.  It’s difficult to be optimistic that humans will be able to turn around the trend with market forces so strong for ivory and rhino horn, so it is perhaps better to come to Kenya now to see these magnificent animals before it’s too late.

Kenyan people

Tourism is Kenya’s biggest industry so when tourism numbers are low the whole country feels the economic impact.  Kenyans are naturally hospitable, keen to welcome visitors and show off their country.  Not everyone is a terrorist or a madman; most are proud of their country and excited to meet travellers.  Moreover, there is a lot of positive work being carried out by Kenyans to develop Kenya that goes unseen and unheard.  Come and see for yourself and be inspired!

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A Kenyan safari will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life.  I came to Kenya in 2010 and have now made it my home.  But a word of caution: you may have heard people who have travelled to Africa talk about the “Africa bug” – it bites!

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What are your perceptions of Kenya?  Do negative news reports impact your decision on where to travel or do you ignore the hype and do your own research on a destination?  Please leave your comments below.

Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

On Valentine’s Day 2015 my friend Kirstin and I met George out the front of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  It wasn’t some kinky Valentines arrangement, but rather a very informative and entertaining walking tour of Nairobi’s CBD.

From the Hilton, we walked to Kimathi Street where a statue of the war hero General Kimathi stands.  When this statue was being erected, there was significant controversy about whether Kimathi was worthy of a statue or not.  After one year of deliberation he got his place.  Kimathi was a leader of the Mau Mau rebellion which has been viewed by some Kenyans as the great rebellion that gave Kenya its independence and by other Kenyans as a group of rogues who caused needless trouble while more formal efforts were taking place.

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Next we headed up to Kenyatta Avenue where the impressive Sarova Stanley Hotel dominates.  Inside the hotel is the Thorn Tree Cafe where an acacia tree used to stand.  The acacia tree held a message board where colonial settlers left messages for one another.  Nowadays, you may have heard of Lonely Planet’s online travel forum dubbed “Thorn Tree” – that’s where the name comes from!

Also at this intersection, a statue of Lord Delamere used to stand.  It marked the division of Nairobi – to the west of Delamere was the side of the city for the white colonialists and to the east was the rough and tumble of Indian merchants and Kenyan vendors.  Still today you can see the difference between the east and west sides of the city.

Along Kenyatta Avenue, we stopped to admire Cameo.  Not because it’s a popular night spot, but because it is the oldest building in Nairobi at over 100 years old.  Ironically Nairobi’s newest store is located inside – Subway, the sandwich chain has made a foray into the Kenyan market.  Next door is the Bank of India which has had quite a history.  It has been the Parliament House, before the current Parliament was built, and also the National Archives before those too were relocated to their current home on Moi Avenue.

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Turning off Kenyatta onto Wabera Street we found the McMillan National Library.  It’s not hard to find anything if it’s address is Wabera Street, as the street is only 100 metres long!  Next to the library is Jamia Mosque and continuing alongside the mosque to the end we arrived at Chai House and the City Market.  The market sells everything from meat and fish to vegetables and souvenirs.  Despite all the shops though, the market was empty of customers.  Outside however, the rose sellers were doing a booming Valentines trade!

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Our last stop was the Kenya International Conference Centre (KICC), the tallest building in Nairobi at 28 floors.  The second floor from the top was a revolving restaurant, but the large empty space was today a place for young couples to hang out.  On the roof is a helicopter landing pad and for a fee you can walk around for 360 degree views of Nairobi.

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On weekends there is an open air market that George offered to take us to for some souvenir shopping.  But it had started to rain and Kirstin and I figured this wouldn’t be our one and only chance to buy souvenirs, so we skipped it and went to a cafe instead.  Over a cup of tea we learnt more about George who had been taken in by Mathare Children’s Fund (MCF) when he was a child and received support from the community organisation to complete school.  MCF also provided him with the training to become a city tour guide, facilitated by the National Museums of Kenya.  George is also attending university, studying economics, and the guiding allows him to earn some money to help him through school.

MCF have trained several young people to be guides on city walking tours.  Even though I have lived in Kenya for over four years, there was a lot we saw on the tour that I had never noticed before (even if I had walked past it a dozen times!).  And things I had noticed, I hadn’t known about.  The tour lasts two hours (not including the cup of tea at the end!) and costs 1000 Kenyan shillings (approximately US$10) per person plus 400KES to go to the top of KICC.

Covering three of Kenya’s lesser-known game parks, OTA’s 6 Day Northern Trails Safari heads up to the arid north of Kenya.  Before the safari, you have the opportunity to explore Nairobi on one of these walking tours.  If you are interested in joining this trip in October, please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

Protecting Kenya’s Wildlife at the Maasai Olympics

Protecting Kenya’s Wildlife at the Maasai Olympics

Safari to Maasai Olympics in Kenya

The Maasai Olympics is a biennial event in Kenya that started in 2012. 2014 saw the second Olympics and we are very excited for the next one this year. So in the lead up to the next event, we have a look at what it is all about.

Big Life Foundation and Lion Guardians work closely with the Maasai communities in the region surrounding Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks in southern Kenya to hold this event. The Maasai traditional initiation rite was to hunt and kill a lion. But a few years ago, in 2008, the elders of the area recognised the practice as unsustainable and approached Big Life Foundation to assist in setting up a different way to prove the manhood of the Maasai. And so the Maasai Olympics were born, to educate the communities and gain their committment to conserving wildlife and habitat for the future and to recognise that this is their only sustainable way of life.

The Olympics consists of five events: rungu throwing, spear throwing, high jump, 200-metre sprint and five-kilometre run. A rungu is a club that most Maasai men carry (you often see it tucked into their belt) and the throwing competition tests accuracy while the spear-throwing competition tests distance. The high jump is not the standard high jump we think of in the west. The Maasai traditional dance involves a lot of jumping where the men simply stand on the spot and jump as high as they can, staying as rigid as a pole. Trophies, cash and even a prize bull are up for grabs for the winners. The two winners of the five-kilometre run in 2014 even received a sponsored trip to the 2015 New York Marathon!

Changing the tide to conserve lions (and other animals) is vital for the survival of Kenya’s delicate eco-system. The initiative taken by the Maasai elders a few years ago is admirable and the Maasai Olympics stands as an example to other communities to work towards conservation and education of their youth. More information can be found on Big Life Foundation’s website.

The Maasai Olympics takes place every two years in December usually somewhere in the Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system. If you would like to be join OTA’s safari in Kenya which includes attending the event, please contact us on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we will add you to the list and let you know as more information becomes available.

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