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Is It OK To Book A Safari While In Kenya?

Is it OK to book a safari once you arrive in Kenya or is it better to book in advance?  This question repeatedly comes up on various travel forums.  Many travelers (including myself) like the freedom of landing in a country and seeing how it flows without being locked into a set itinerary where you are told when and where to eat, sleep and go.  So let’s explore how you can go on safari with some sense of freedom while remaining safe, comfortable and within budget.

Let’s start with “Yes”, it’s OK to book a safari once you arrive in Kenya.  If you wander the streets of Nairobi’s CBD, you will be approached by touts selling cheap safaris.  It is very easy to go along with one of them.  The vehicles are usually parked near City Market, so if you are ready to go, you could go immediately.  They accept cash so you just need to go to the ATM, withdraw, hand it over and you’re away.  Simple.

For those who are happy with doing things quickly, simply and are flexible in their expectations, this is perfect.  For others, this might sound a bit dodgy.  I had a friend who went for this method and it wasn’t until her and her comrades had withdrawn the money from the ATM that they realized they were about to walk through downtown Nairobi and at least one person knew they were carrying masses of cash.  It suddenly seemed a foolhardy approach.

So we move to “No” it’s perhaps not a good idea to book a safari when you arrive in Kenya.  Safaris aren’t cheap….or you definitely get what you pay for!  If you find a deal on the street that seems too good to be true, then it probably is.  You might find yourself eating zikuma (kale) and ugali (maize meal) for a week and every day dealing with the results of a poorly maintained vehicle.  Remember, fuel is the same price as at home and the roads are in bad condition (like, worse than you could even imagine), so running a vehicle here is an expensive proposition.

You want to trust your tour operator.  You are about to hand over a large amount of money to make this once-in-a-lifetime safari the one you’ve always dreamed of.  Why would you risk that by picking any Joe off the street?  Take time to do your research.  Read reviews of tour operators (Trip Advisor, Safari Bookings and Your African Safari all help), and start an email conversation to get a feel for how they respond to your wishes.  While it’s not necessary, you may also want to check with industry bodies such at KATO (Kenyan Association of Tour Operators) whose members tend to be more reliable and competent than non-members.  You also want to know who you are dealing with – an agent or an operator.  Of course if you are dealing with your travel agent at home then they will connect you with a reputable tour operator.  But some Kenyan agents can look very much like operators on their websites.  This means they will not be responsible for vehicle maintenance and be “selling you” to a tour operator.  In this case you still don’t know who will be responsible for your comfort and safety while on safari and whether you trust them.  And agents in Kenya are not held by the same rules and guarantees as agents at home, so if they disappear with your money there’s not much recourse.

Kenya is not all bad!

But it’s not just about avoiding shady people (I don’t want to sound like Kenya is full of conmen!), it’s also about availability.  Most people want to come for the Wildebeest Migration in July and August.  These months are also summer holidays in the US and Europe so accommodation in Maasai Mara is around 97% booked throughout the period.  Christmas is also a peak period, with a lot of Kenyans travelling at this time as well as international tourists.  Accommodation and vehicles can be difficult to source in these peak times if you leave it to the last minute.

If you are not fussy about food, the vehicle, or which game park you go to and are on a budget, then you can take a chance with booking your safari when you get to Kenya.  But I recommend you spend some time researching reputable tour operators with good reviews so you know you are safe.  Unfortunately, Kenya is perhaps not the best country to trust strangers on the street who have “the best safari deal for you!”

Overland Travel Adventures has excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and we love working with our guests to personally design their dream safari.  We are a family-run business with husband and wife team, Tracey and Francis, taking care of you from planning through execution.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to start planning your holiday today.

Ellies and Giraffes with Linda and Amy

Ellies and Giraffes with Linda and Amy

One of Nairobi’s best-kept secrets is a beautiful nature park opposite the AFEW Giraffe Centre.  It’s where Linda, Amy and I had a picnic to the soundtrack of birdsong in March 2016.  Volunteers at the Sunrise of Africa School in Kitengela, Linda and Amy booked a day trip with us to see some of Nairobi highlights.  So we visited the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the AFEW Giraffe Centre – two fantastic places where you can get up close to the animals and support conservation efforts carried out by these two organisations.

Kitengela is Kenya’s fastest-growing town and each time we visit Sunrise of Africa School it feels like we have to re-learn the way as buildings go up, roads are built and/or moved and landmarks change.  Eventually I found Linda and Amy early in the morning and we headed straight to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

My opinion is that the Elephant Orphanage is THE best place to visit in Nairobi; if you only have time to visit one attraction here, make it the baby elephants!  They spend most of their day out in the Nairobi National Park, under the supervision of the keepers, learning to forage and live in the wild.  The intention is for their rehabilitation back to the wild when they are old enough.  But for one hour each day they run down to the centre for a milk feed and a play in front of the large number of visitors who come every day.  They are fed formula milk from huge bottles – the younger ones need their bottles held by their keeper, but the older ones twirl their trunks around the bottle and hold it high, emptying the milk straight down their throats.  The keepers give a talk about the orphanage and introduce each elephant, telling the story of how each orphan came to be here.

Nearby is the Giraffe Centre and opposite the Giraffe Centre is a park with walking trails and hundreds of birds.  It is a serene place to spend some time out from the hustle of Kenya’s capital.  Linda, Amy and I found some rocks to perch on and enjoy our picnic lunch in the peace of the bush.  Only one other group came by as we feasted on salad sandwiches, fruit, yoghurt, and cakes.  It sounds a simple lunch for our visitors, but after spending a month eating traditional Kenyan food (beans, lentils, spinach, everything stewed to death, and then the carbs…..), a fresh salad was a welcome change for Linda and Amy.

After lunch, we rejoined the crowds at the Giraffe Centre.  Here is where you stand on platform at eye-level with the giraffes and feed them.  And get a kiss if you’re really game!  The centre is home to several Rothschild Giraffes, one of the most endangered species of giraffe in the world (did you know there are seven species of giraffe, three of which can be found in Kenya?).  The staff give a talk about giraffes in Kenya and about the work of African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the organisation that founded the Giraffe Centre.

Linda left this review on our Trip Advisor page:

“Tracey met us and and took us to the elephant centre, she was warm, friendly and efficient and provided an excellent picnic between the first and second visit. A very relaxed and happy day.”

Would you like to visit the elephant orphanage and giraffe centre in Nairobi?  Get this free day trip with your safari when you come to Kenya between February and June!  Send an email to tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com so we can start planning your holiday today.

Travelling Solo in East Africa

Quietly considering myself a “seasoned traveller”, in June 2010 I packed my backpack and headed off to Africa for the adventure of a lifetime.  Family and friends told me I was out of my mind and requested I join a tour.  But I had already backpacked the USA, Europe, and worked as a tour leader in Central Asia, Russia and China independently travelling in those parts between tours.  So what could Africa throw at me that I could not handle?

This naivety is not uncommon, I am relieved to admit.  But in fact Africa is NOT Europe.  It is not even Vietnam, which may be considered a reasonable comparison if you look at development data.  But that is the wonderful thing about this amazing continent: it is different to everywhere else in the world.  And despite having started my backpacking career sixteen years ago, Africa still makes me feel like the greenest of travellers.  That is not to say independent travel is impossible; indeed I survived three months backpacking South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi.  If not for finding a job, I was planning to continue up to Nairobi.  As it happens, nine years later I find myself living here, in the continent which has thrown me my toughest challenges and continues to do so.

These days I do suffer an internal conflict: I am a huge advocate for independent travel, getting to know real life through home stays and using public transport; but now I run a tour company offering private safaris (I’ll admit that up front, so you can read this article in whichever light you think appropriate) and the more I use my own vehicle, the less I enjoy crowded buses.  So what’s my advice for someone wanting to travel solo in Africa?

Transport

First let’s talk about public transport.  It’s not comfortable and you need to be prepared to be overcharged on the price of a journey.  But maintain a sense of humour, ask locals how much the journey usually costs before embarking the bus, and relish the opportunity to “live like a local”.

Most people come to Africa to see the wildlife, so getting to a National Park or three is a priority, and the second challenge.  Unfortunately public transport rarely gets you all the way to a National Park.  The best way is to book your accommodation and ask them for a pick up from the nearest town.

Accommodation

Speaking of accommodation, lodges in or near the parks tend to be expensive.  Regardless of where you are in the world, travelling solo and sleeping in private rooms every night can eat into your travel budget quickly.  After a month of backpacking in South Africa, I noticed many other backpackers were carrying a small tent and I realised that could be a way to extend my travel time by cutting costs.  There are many hostels and guesthouses that have yard space where you can pitch your tent and safely camp as a solo traveller.  I do not advocate bush camping though!  Also at such hostels and guesthouses, it’s easy to meet fellow budget travellers with whom you can share the costs of hiring a vehicle for game drives.

Tours

Even if you are not into the group tour thing, I would suggest getting yourself on short trips – just to save your sanity.  From Nairobi for example, there are regularly three-day tours to the Maasai Mara or Amboseli.  Three days is manageable, right?  So use long distance buses to get between big cities – Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala, etc – and then join a short tour and make your life a little more enjoyable.

If are not averse to group travel, overland tours can be a fun way for solo travellers to see Africa.  Overland trucks traverse the continent, catering mainly to the backpacker market, making them a cheap option.  Sitting in the back of a truck for a few weeks sharing all the amazing new experiences with a bunch of other travellers is fun.  At the end of the day, there’s always someone to have a drink (or three) with.

Africa is not like Europe with backpacker hostels everywhere.  Some countries are easier than others – South Africa for example has great tourism infrastructure to suit all budgets, while Tanzania has less options and Botswana outright targets the luxury market.  It’s definitely possible to travel solo without being a millionaire though.  With humour, time and a little bit extra in your back pocket so you have room to splurge when the going gets tough, travelling solo in Africa can be one of life’s greatest adventures.

If you would like more advice about travelling in Africa, please contact me on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.  I love to talk travel and will be happy to point you in the direction that suits your preferred travel style so you can get the most out of your African adventure.

John’s Trip

Have you ever been so dehydrated you’ve seen green elephants, green hippos or a giant weevil about the size of a cow?  On his descent of Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania, John had these hallucinations, but that didn’t stop him from continuing up three more mountains in a two month East African adventure!  A solo traveller on a mission to climb the peaks and visit the mountain gorillas in Uganda, John was looking for pocket-friendly ways to see the region.  Joining group tours is always a gamble, and he regaled us with tales of the fellow travellers he met on the tours we organised for him.

Before John came to Kenya, he had spent a lot of time in Tanzania climbing three mountains (Ol Doinyo Lengai, Meru and Kilimanjaro), hanging out in the Serengeti and visiting a Maasai village.  His other African goals included scaling Mount Kenya and tracking the gorillas in Uganda.  So we helped him find a tour to Uganda which had the added bonus of travelling via the Maasai Mara, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru National Park and Jinja.  As with all group tours there is a chance that your travel mates might not be compatible, but it is certainly a convenient and affordable way for a soloist.  He visited Elsamere, the home of Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame, took a cruise at the source of the Nile River, and visited orphanages at Lake Bunyonyi and Nakuru.

While he was in Nairobi between trips, John stayed in our spare room, which we have on AirBnB.  We were regaled with tales of his travels (he has travelled all over the world!) and he got to experience a very “local” life in Ongata Rongai.  We took him for dinner a couple of times to our favourite local for nyama choma, as well as the more touristy sites of the elephant orphanage and the giraffe centre.  He also went into town to visit the National Museum, which gives an excellent history of Kenya from pre-history to present.  We took him to Kibera to visit the community projects of Amani Kibera and a day hiking in the Ngong Hills.

Mt Kenya was the big climax though for his Kenyan experience.  Again being a soloist, the climb can be prohibitively expensive, but our colleague in Nanyuki was taking a group up and said John could join.  It was a school group, as it turns out – so John hiked up the mountain with 40 teenagers!

After leaving John to hike up the mountain, Francis and I decided to take our own adventure.  We spent some days exploring the area, checking out different accommodation, and having a break from the bustle of Nairobi.  We ended up at Naro Moru gate for the night where we camped at the public campsite.  We drove up the mountain as far as we could and then continued walking….for about 20 minutes!  I don’t think I can say that I’ve hiked Mt Kenya!  With rain clouds on one side and clear blue sky on the other, the weather on the mountain is unpredictable and can change suddenly.  Francis wasn’t keen on lingering as there was a high chance of getting stuck if the road turned muddy.

In the morning we wandered up to Batian Guest House about a kilometre from the campsite.  It is a self-catering house that sleeps eight.  Stunning views of the mountain would greet you in the morning as you ate breakfast on the balcony.  On our return to the campsite, baboons were running amok!  Our food was safely locked up, but the creatures were everywhere!  As Francis approached, they scattered but not before one broke the side mirror as he slid off the roof to the ground!

Our next stop was Aberdare National Park – a new one for me!  We had a bit of a challenge finding the campsite but finally we slid down an embankment into a clearing.  It was beautiful!  Surrounded by trees with a river running by, we had the forest to ourselves.  The next day we went for a drive around the forested Salient where we saw plenty of buffalo and bushbuck, before we headed to the moorland.  Aberdare is not a big park but it is divided fairly definitely into two sections – the salient and the moorland.  We thought that our chances of spotting animals would disappear on the moorland, but we were wrong.  We saw elephants and then the elusive bongo!  Bongos are incredibly shy and notoriously difficult to spot, so I held no hope of seeing one.  But we saw two!

We visited Fishing Lodge, a self-catering guesthouse that sleeps 14 people (seven in each cottage).  It is in a great location from where you can fish in the river and walk a few kilometres to the waterfalls.  Aberdare has landscape one doesn’t normally associate with Africa: waterfalls, forest, and babbling brooks.  So it is quite an interesting addition to the typical safari itinerary if you are looking to experience Kenya in all her diversity.

If you are looking for some (or all) of the experiences described here, please get in touch.  We love planning interesting itineraries tailored to your interests and budget, and as you can see there is much more to Kenya than savannah plains.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to start planning your safari today.

Three For Free!

Three For Free!

Are you planning a safari in Kenya next year?  OTA is offering a free city tour with every safari taken between February and June 2020.  So book your Kenyan safari with OTA today to enjoy this incredible bonus.

All safaris that are booked for the period beginning 1 February through to 30 June will enjoy a complimentary day trip around some of Nairobi’s highlights.  The first stop will be the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage where the baby elephants come in from the park for feeding time.  Their keepers introduce each elephant and tell the story of how each one came to be at the orphanage.  (Read more about the Elephant Orphanage here: https://overlandtraveladventures.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/the-david-sheldrick-wildlife-trusts-elephant-orphanage/)

Next is the AFEW Giraffe Centre (https://overlandtraveladventures.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/the-best-location-to-see-giraffes/).  The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife hosts about a dozen giraffes at Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre where you climb up to a platform to be at eye level with these beautiful creatures.  You can feed them and even get a big sloppy kiss if you are very keen!

In the afternoon we head to Africa’s second-largest slum, Kibera.  Amani Kibera is a community-based organisation working towards peace and development in the slum.  Started by a team of young people following the traumatic post-election violence in 2008, Amani Kibera is committed to eradicating the tribalism that erodes Kenyan society.  They promote peace through three pillars: sport, education and economic empowerment.  You will have the opportunity to visit the public library they have established as well as the youth economic empowerment project where you can lend further support by purchasing some of the handicrafts the young people produce.

Valued at $135 per person this tour of Nairobi gives you the chance to see the positive work being undertaken in the fields of conservation, education, and youth empowerment by various organisations.  And it’s yours for free when you book your safari with OTA to travel between February and June 2020!  Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to start planning your Kenyan adventure.

Thrilling Safaris that show the Best of Kenya

Thrilling Safaris that show the Best of Kenya

If you had friends living in Kenya you’d definitely have to take advantage of the safari opportunity presented by visiting them, right?  That’s exactly what Koen and Puteri’s friends did.  The only challenge was how to schedule all the parks they wanted to visit amongst their obligations in Nairobi.  Simple: three short safaris rather than one long one.

The first trip was to Maasai Mara….of course!  As Kenya’s premier tourist destination, it is on top of most people’s lists when they come here.  Sadly, Kenya’s premier tourist destination is accessed by one of the world’s worst roads and so the group opted to fly there.  Koen, Puteri and their two children accompanied their friends for a three-day weekend in “The Mara”.  They stayed at Mara Siria, a tented camp on the Oloololo side of the reserve.

A few days later, the three friends set out with Francis to Amboseli and Tsavo West National Parks.  This was a four-day trip with mass herds of elephants and stunning views of Mt Kilimanjaro the highlights.

The first day they drove down Mombasa Highway to Lumo Community Sanctuary.  They stayed at the beautiful Lions Bluff, a tented camp perched atop a ridge overlooking the plains to Mt Kilimanjaro.  Their bar is The Best place for a sundowner in Kenya (IMHO).

The next day saw them cross the road into Tsavo West National Park, Kenya’s largest park and, together with Tsavo East National Park, takes up 4% of Kenya’s area.  The animals in Tsavo West tend to be a bit shy compared to other parks; I think because it’s such a huge space, quite bushy and less visited, so they don’t get used to passing traffic.  The travellers stayed at Voyager Ziwani, another tented camp again facing Mt Kilimanjaro for a dramatic sunset view.  There is also a waterhole by the camp and they saw no less than ten Giant Kingfishers fishing.  Leslie went for a walk near the waterhole and although she saw the crocodile, she thought it was a fake – you would, wouldn’t you?!  But suddenly as she approached, it dived into the water.  I don’t know who got the bigger fright!

The final stop before returning to Nairobi was Amboseli National Park.  Rather than returning to the highway, it is possible to skirt around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro from Tsavo West to Amboseli.  Travelling this way takes you through the Shetani Lava Flows, from the last time Kilimanjaro erupted.  They stayed at Kibo Camp where the pool was a very welcome break from the vehicle.  On their game drive in Amboseli, they saw a lion at last.

What’s lurking in the bushes?

Leslie went home after this safari so there were only two who went with Francis to Samburu and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the north of Kenya….and in the northern hemisphere as they crossed the equator to get there.

Their first day in Samburu saw them chased by an elephant.  Their second day in Samburu saw them reversing and retreating as an elephant was blocking the road and was not willing to budge for anyone.  They saw a lion at the river and a caracal – not a common sighting.  They stayed at Samburu Intrepids, a tented camp inside the park.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy was the last park for these epic travellers, and probably the highlight of their whole time in Kenya.  They watched a lion hunt a baby rhino.  Fortunately (for the rhino!) the lion was unsuccessful, but what an amazing thing to witness!  They stayed at the Serena Sweet Waters Camp, one of Kenya’s nicest tented camps as the dining room and tents arc around a large waterhole.  In the evenings, animals congregate at the waterhole – there’s almost no need to go out on a game drive!  I remember arriving there one evening myself and as I entered the dining room, I was greeted with the sight of about five rhinos just outside the window!

Would you like to experience your own safari in Kenya?  We would love to hear from you! Get in touch via tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we can start planning your adventure today.

Welcome the VIPs of Sunrise of Africa School!

Welcome the VIPs of Sunrise of Africa School!

Did you know there are about 300 Kenyan children receiving education due to the generosity of the global Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology!) community?  And in July, some of those supporters came to Kenya to visit the school and see for themselves the beautiful school they had a hand in creating.  But they couldn’t come all the way to the land of safari without also seeing some animals.  Enter OTA – this is the story of the Sunrise of Africa School VIP visit.

Thirteen people made the journey out to Kenya to visit the Sunrise of Africa School.  Three were the grandchildren of the school’s founder.  Three only stayed a short while and didn’t join our safari as they had a couple of other schools to visit.  And then we added three Sunrise staff to the safari so we were back to thirteen when we set out early one chilly July morning for the Samburu National Reserve.  The group had been staying at the Hilton Garden Inn near Nairobi’s international airport.  It was opened in March 2018, and this being July of the same year, the hotel was still sparkly and shiny.  It would be a welcome sight after three days of dusty safari!

Francis, me, our baby Gabriel, Michelle and her daughter Amy squeezed into the van which was a supply vehicle first and foremost and thus was packed tight with all our camping equipment.  The rest were in the Land Cruiser with Julius and Sammy, the school’s Director, had three more in his vehicle.

We headed out of Nairobi before the traffic could build up and had our first stop at Sagana.  The curio shops slyly keep their toilets clean so tour vehicles will be more inclined to stop for a bathroom break.  They also slyly keep their toilets at the back of the shop so you have to walk past all their lovely trinkets on your way in and out.  Not having had much chance to buy souvenirs during the trip so far, the bathroom break became a bit longer.

Next stop was at the home of a friend of the school.  Her house is just before Nanyuki, and she had laid out a massive spread.  Too big for morning tea, too early for lunch, it didn’t matter what we called it, it was delicious!

But now the time was getting away from us as we were due at the lodge in Samburu for lunch.  So we motored on, pausing in Nanyuki to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables for the campers.  Now I should explain our trip a bit more.  The guests had been given the option of staying in a lodge/tented camp or bush camp, in order to cater for varying budgets.  Six of the international guests chose the tented camp option while Michelle and her children and the Sunrise staff opted to camp.  So, that’s why we had a van full of camping equipment but we were rushing to get to the lodge for lunch.

After lunch, they went out on their first game drive (the dash from the gate to the accommodation didn’t count).  They saw a massive tower of giraffes and elephants galore.  The next day they went out for morning and evening game drives, relaxing in their respective camps during the heat of the day.  More elephants, more giraffes, gazelles, gerenuks, impala, and hyena were the highlights.  Unfortunately no lions were forthcoming during those three days.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, our 11-month-old was having a whale of a time chasing monkeys, playing in the dirt, and falling in love with 7-year-old Amy.  He kept us all on our toes though, especially when the group was off on game drive and we were left to cook.  Luckily there were a couple of extra guys around cleaning the campsite and generally helping out, so they took on much of the babysitting.  There’s so much for a toddler to explore around a campsite: a charcoal cooking fire, buckets of water, a bucket of vegetable peelings, logs with all sorts of lovely critters crawling under the bark, the list goes on!  But I’ve come to see that in Kenya children are adored and doted upon, by clucky women and aloof men alike.  So I was comfortable with Gabriel exploring freely, knowing there were several other pairs of eyes always on him along with mine.

On the last day we drove out through Buffalo Springs Reserve.  The Samburu eco-system is made up of three separate reserves.  Samburu and Buffalo Springs are separated by the Ewaso Nyiro River and it’s very easy to cross between the two so long as the bridge hasn’t been washed away.  Shaba is across the highway.  So we headed south through Buffalo Springs to join the highway near Isiolo.  It’s always nice to replace some highway driving with more time in the parks.

We stopped for lunch at Dormans in Nanyuki where we had smoothies and milkshakes and salads and other treats that the guests had been missing after a week at the school eating Kenyan cuisine.  We also made the obligatory photo stop at the Equator.  From Nanyuki we didn’t stop again until we got back to the Hilton Garden Inn.  Our timing wasn’t perfect and we caught a bit of Nairobi’s rush hour traffic.

A visit to Kenya is not complete without a visit to the Giraffe Centre and Elephant Orphanage so that’s what we did the following day.  Then a final lunch together at the home of the school’s founder before the guests headed home.  They really saw all sides of Kenya: both interacting with the people while they were at the school and then interacting with the wildlife on their safari.

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