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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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Community Engagement on Safari

Community Engagement on Safari

Gone are the days when “Safari” was only for the elite of Britain’s colonial population.  Nowadays the Dark Continent is accessible to anyone on any budget.  And it is no longer about hunting or simply wildlife spotting.  Increasingly, travellers are looking for ways to connect with people, to find out how other cultures live, what they eat, what their houses are like, and what jobs they do.  Of course, travellers coming to Africa want to see wildlife, but sprinkle a smattering of meeting people through the safari and you enhance the experience and bring more life to the trip.  Although community-based tourism is relatively new in Africa, there are some great experiences you can include in your safari to break up the game drives.

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One of the simplest, and most overlooked, ways of getting to know a culture is to talk to your guide.  Many people fly in and out of the game reserves and don’t have time to interact with a guide on the ground (they might talk to their driver on a game drive).  Travelling by road rather than flying gives you more opportunity to see more of the country and ask your guide lots of questions.  Moreover, you can choose a tour company that uses local guides in some places on your itinerary meaning that your tourist dollar is spread more widely and you are getting the expert knowledge of someone who lives in that area.  Examples include:

  • In Kenya at Lakes Naivasha and Baringo there are local guides who can take you on a boat or for a walk
  • MCF Panairobi (http://mcfpanairobi.or.ke/) offers walking tours with street kids in the Nairobi CBD
  • In Cape Town and Johannesburg you can do township tours
  • In the Okavango Delta in Botswana you can take a mokoro (dugout canoe) trip with local polers

You get the benefit of the experience of someone who has grown up in that area and they get access to some tourist dollars.  If you are travelling with a tour company, ask them if they use local guides.

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Home stays or just a meal with a family gives you a perfect opportunity to see real life in your destination.  If you are not completely comfortable with imposing yourself on a family, you can request your driver-guide take you to a local restaurant instead of the tourist restaurants.  If you do go for a meal with a family, there is sometimes the opportunity for a cooking lesson before the meal and you all eat what you produce.  Mwenya Uganda (http://www.mwenya-uganda.org/) is a community organisation that hosts such an experience as a day trip from Kampala.

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Home stays are not for everyone, but there are some places that provide a great balance between having your own privacy while being part of the community.  Maji Moto (http://majimotomaasaicamp.com/) near the Maasai Mara in Kenya is one example: you have your own hut close to the Maasai village, your meals are prepared by the Maasai and you participate in village life during the day.

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Visiting community-based organisations is becoming a popular offering of many tour companies.  You might spend a day teaching English in a school, tutoring students in a library, playing with children at an orphanage or planting trees.  Or you can simply visit the projects to see the positive development work occurring in the communities.  If you want to bring donations, visit Pack For A Purpose (www.packforapurpose.org) and search for your accommodation and/or tour operator.  There you will find a list of supplies you can donate to the projects your tour operator/ accommodation supports.  Investours (http://investours.org/home/) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is a day experience where your fee becomes a micro-loan for one entrepreneur who you choose through the course of the day as you visit several small businesses and get to understand daily life.

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There are many tribes throughout the African continent that have a representation in the form of a cultural village or a living museum.  In Kenya there are several Maasai villages around the Maasai Mara, Samburu villages around Samburu National Reserve, an El Molo village at Lake Turkana, and a Kikuyu cultural centre at Githunguri.  In Namibia there is a Damara living museum near Twyfelfontein and a Himba village near Kamanjab.  In Tanzania you can visit the Bushmen near Lake Eyasi and in Botswana there are also opportunities to see the San Bushmen around Ghanzi.

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Festivals are a great way to experience local culture if you can time your trip well.  The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival in northern Kenya occurs each May and brings together fourteen ethnic groups in a flurry of singing and dancing.  Lake of Stars in Malawi and Rift Valley Festival in Kenya are two contemporary music festivals both happening around August or September each year.  There are plenty of festivals which can usually be found on the internet or by asking your tour operator.

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As you can see volunteering for two weeks is not the only way to engage with communities as you travel.  Throughout the African continent there are various opportunities to meet local people and learn their cultures and traditions.  As you plan your African safari keep your eye out for different experiences – trawl travel forums, blogs and ask your tour operator – so that your safari embraces all aspects of the country.

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At OTA we specialise in unique tailor-made experiences. Contact us today to start planning your African adventure on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.  As an extra bonus, from March to June 2016 we are offering a free day trip to visit some of Nairobi’s highlights with every safari!

Stunning Birding in Baringo

Stunning Birding in Baringo

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Kenya is a spectacular destination for birders and this article will describe the species you can expect to see at Lake Baringo as I tell you about my experience there.

Lake Baringo is home to 450 species of birds and thus a paradise for bird-watchers.  There are two activities that provide excellent birding opportunities: a walk up to the escarpment overlooking the lake or a boat ride on the lake.  The walk takes you through scrubland where you can see woodpeckers, ostriches, and we even saw a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl.  But I think the boat ride is really special and the birds we saw that morning were incredible.

We set off at 7 o’clock in the morning so we could make the most of the waking activity on the lake.  Within a few minutes we saw a Pied Kingfisher posing perfectly on a branch followed closely by a Fish Eagle that had just caught a fish!  There he stood proudly on a tree with a fish held firmly in his claw.  A beautiful Malachite Kingfisher tried to retreat into the bushes, but wasn’t quite quick enough.  One area of the lake is covered in water lilies and we spotted an African Jacana picking its way through the foliage.  The hippos also like that area and we were greeted with grunts from the herd as we passed.  A flock of Eurasian Swallows flew in and arranged themselves on a dead tree protruding out of the lake.  Local fishermen prefer the early morning for their work and we saw quite a few in their dugout canoes (not what I would like to be in when hippos are around!).

birding in Baringo

There is an island in the middle of the lake and as we drew closer, we saw the mansion of a nest that Hamerkops had built, but unfortunately we didn’t spot the residents.  One fisherman feeds the Fish Eagles for the visitors each morning and so we watched the spectacle of a Fish Eagle swooping in for the catch.  We continued around the island and there we found two Water Thick-knees paddling in the shallows.  The island is rocky on one side and we were lucky to see some rock hyraxes and a monitor lizard basking in the sun.  We also saw two Madagascar Bee-eaters in a tree and a Long-tailed Cormorant perched on a rock drying its wings.  As we returned to the camp, the boat came close to the shore where Lesser Masked Weavers were busy building nests.  And finally, just when we thought we had seen enough, a Pied Kingfisher appeared from seemingly nowhere, dove into the water in front of our boat and emerged with a fish!  Spectacular!

Are you excited to visit Lake Baringo?  Then book OTA’s Baringo Birding Tour for a week of birding in Kenya!

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And if you travel between 1 March and 30 June 2016, you will enjoy a free day tour around some of Nairobi’s highlights including the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, AFEW Giraffe Centre, Kazuri Beads workshop or Amani Kibera’s community projects.  Get in touch today: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

Darcy’s Kenyan Safari

Darcy’s Kenyan Safari

Amboseli campsite

Darcy is very lucky.  She has college friends scattered throughout the globe, making vacations with her two teenagers both affordable and exciting.  For the summer of 2015, Darcy decided to visit her friend who was on assignment in Kenya.  The friend contacted us first (expatriates are understandably protective of their visitors) and on passing the screening test we started planning with Darcy for the big adventure.

She had nine days for safari and, as with most family groups, the budget wasn’t excessive.  We agreed on a camping trip to keep the price down, with accommodation at her friend’s house for the nights in Nairobi.  The itinerary covered Amboseli National Park, Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park, Lake Naivasha and finished with white-water rafting on the Tana River.

Wildlife Escapades in Amboseli

Amboseli was the first stop of their safari and the campsite unfortunately isn’t the best in Kenya, so it was a bit of a leap off the deep end into the Kenyan bush and camping scene.  But waking up at dawn and peering out the tent to a crystal clear view of Mt Kilimanjaro somewhat makes up for the lower comfort levels.  On their game drive they saw ostriches, crowned cranes, a Goliath heron and hippos.  But the highlight must surely be the baby elephants playing in the mud.  They jostled for position, but once lying down in the bath they were not moving for their friends!

Crowned Cranes Amboseli

Fish Eagles

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Meanwhile, back at camp, I was fighting baboons.  The biggest baboon in Kenya (I’m sure!) came to check out the food boxes that we had thought were secure enough.  As he sauntered by on all fours, he looked to be about the size of a lion.  The secure boxes were nothing for him.  He crushed the lid of the balsamic vinegar, but must not have liked the taste.  He emptied the coffee tin, also probably not to his taste.  Finally he took off with the five-pack of 2-minute noodles – there is definitely no accounting for taste!  The Maasai who work at the camp heard my girly screams and came to assist, but a bit too late.  The baboon disappeared, but dropped noodles as he left which the Maasai rescued for me.  After that, we put the food boxes in their lockable, baboon-proof shed.  However, it seemed it wasn’t only the baboons I had to watch for; the cook’s assistant didn’t realise some food was ours and nearly got my cabbage (I caught it just in time!).

Safari in Maasai Mara

We returned to Nairobi for the night before heading to the Maasai Mara.  The road was especially rough down to the Mara and poor Darcy was a little green when we finally arrived.  In the afternoon they went for a walk up to the escarpment with the local Maasai for a stunning view over the game reserve.

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Darcy, Faye and Kelton spent a full day in the park with Francis, enjoying a picnic lunch in the savannah.  They saw elephants, hartebeest, buffalo, giraffe, and the most amazing leopard sighting ever.  It was sitting up in a sausage tree, but as they watched, the leopard descended the tree giving a clear view of this magnificent and most elusive creature.  They had already seen another leopard earlier in the morning sitting in a leafy tree, so they were already having an above average game drive, but this was a big cherry on top.

Darcy Faye Kelton Maasai Mara

Darcy Faye Kelton picnic Maasai Mara

Giraffe Maasai Mara

Leopard Maasai Mara

 

Kenya’s Rift Valley Lakes

Next stop was Kembu Camp for pizza night!  There was a large group from one of Nairobi’s international schools there as well, but Faye and Kelton were a bit shy to interact, preferring to stay cosy around the open fire with Darcy, Francis and I (which I can definitely understand, as it gets pretty cold there).  The pizza oven and open fire are not the only reasons we were at Kembu though; it is also convenient for reaching Lake Nakuru National Park, which we did the next day.  Buffalos wallowing in the mud, elands covered in oxpeckers (birds who feast on the ticks that dwell in the fur of most of Africa’s wildlife), giraffes, baboons and zebras were the highlights of the day.  They got all the way down to Makalia Falls at the south end of the park.

Faye Darcy Kelton Makalia Falls

That evening we arrived at Fish Eagle Inn on the shore of Lake Naivasha in the pouring rain.  The appeal of pitching tents in the downpour was not high and so they opted to upgrade to a room.  Cycling in Hells Gate National Park had been earmarked in the planning stages as something they definitely wanted to do and so that was the plan for the following day.  It is certainly a highlight of many a Kenyan safari!

The bicycles were selected and they rode the 2km on to the gate while we drove ahead to sort out the entry fees.  Unfortunately, when they got to the gate, Kelton was very unwell and continuing for a full day’s cycle was not going to be pleasant.  So we changed it to a drive in the park with a few stops along the way.  First we stopped at Fisher’s Tower, where Faye and Darcy tried their hand at rock-climbing.  Darcy made it all the way to the top!  We continued all the way to the gorge where the family went for a walk with the ranger through the gorge.  Francis and I found a checkers board with plastic bottle lids for checkers on one of the picnic tables.  Luckily Kelton returned in time to save me from embarrassment as he took my place against Francis.

Faye Hells Gate

The white-water rafting was to be the last activity before returning to Nairobi.  But it wasn’t to be.  Kelton wasn’t getting any better and rafting was the last thing he felt he could do.  It was a shame because it had been him that had been the most excited about it in the lead up.  So instead we went back early so he could get to a doctor.  They still had a trip to the coast organised and it was generally agreed that it would be way better for him to be able to enjoy his time there, rather than jeopardise it further with a rafting excursion.

All ended well and they had a wonderful time at the beach!  It was great travelling with Darcy, Faye and Kelton and we do hope they will return someday.

If you would like to plan the ultimate family safari in Kenya, please contact OTA via email: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.  Or visit our website www.ota-responsibletravel.com.

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.

Five Fresh Ideas to Experience Kenya

Five Fresh Ideas to Experience Kenya

There are so many hidden treasures within a few hours’ drive of Nairobi, Kenya, that are often overlooked when Nairobians set about planning their weekend getaways.  The trouble is that the big game parks, which are often favoured, are further away and usually require a three-day trip from Nairobi.  So where can you go if you want to leave on Saturday morning and return on Sunday evening?

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  1. Lake Magadi

This vast salt pan attracts myriad water birds, especially flamingos.  Nearby are Shompole Conservancy and Ngurumann Escarpment which are part of a wildlife corridor between the Maasai Mara and Amboseli.  Departing Nairobi on a Saturday, stop at Olorgaisailie Pre-Historic Site about half way between Nairobi and Magadi before continuing to Magadi town for lunch.  After lunch, enter the Lake Magadi Conservation Area where you can walk, do some bird-watching, swim in the very hot springs or just relax.  On the Sunday you can enjoy a lazy morning of swimming, walking or birding before leaving the conservation area to head back to Nairobi.  On the way, stop at the famous Olepolos restaurant for nyama choma overlooking part of the Great Rift Valley.  OTA offers this tour for 23,000KES per person including meals, accommodation, transport and conservancy fees.

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  1. Ol Pejeta

Home to a rhino sanctuary and Kenya’s only chimpanzee sanctuary, Ol Pejeta is located just south of Nanyuki in central Kenya.  You want to leave Nairobi as early as possible on the Saturday to arrive at Sweetwaters Tented Camp inside Ol Pejeta in time for lunch.  Stop at the equator just before turning off the highway for the obligatory photo as you cross into the northern hemisphere.  In the afternoon, go for a game drive in the conservancy.  On the Sunday, go for a morning game drive and return to Sweetwaters for a hearty brunch before heading back to Nairobi.  OTA offers this tour for 28,700KES per person including meals, accommodation, transport and conservancy fees. 

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  1. Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is one of the most popular destinations for Nairobians looking for a weekend escape.  However it still bears mentioning as its proximity to Nairobi makes it a perfect candidate for this list.  You can leave Nairobi early on Saturday morning and get dropped at the entrance to Hell’s Gate National Park for a cycling safari.  Once your energy is spent on the bicycle, you can relax with a late afternoon boat cruise on Lake Oloiden to see the spectacular birdlife of the area.  On Sunday morning, go for a walking safari in one of the conservancies next to the lake to see giraffes, zebras, eland, impala, and gazelles up close.

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  1. Lake Baringo

A little bit further afield, but so beautiful it is definitely worth a visit. With over 450 species of birds, Lake Baringo is a paradise for bird-watchers. Leave Nairobi early on Saturday morning to reach Lake Baringo in time for lunch.  In the afternoon you can go for a nature walk up to the escarpment overlooking the lake.  On Sunday morning take a cruise on the lake to see the water birds and hippos waking up for the day.  Fishermen are also out on the lake in their dugout canoes.  Enjoy a relaxing breakfast after the boat cruise (it is best to get out on the lake around 7am for the best bird-watching opportunity) before driving back to Nairobi, stopping for lunch in Nakuru.  OTA offers this trip for 24,850KES per person including meals, accommodation (camping), transport and a two-hour boat cruise.

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  1. Suswa Caves

On the way to the Maasai Mara as you enter Maasai-land is the small town of Suswa and Mt Suswa rises to your left as you travel towards Narok.  It’s a very dusty road as you turn off the highway and head into the Suswa Conservancy.  There are two campsites, one right above the caves and another on the rim of Mt Suswa’s crater.  Local Maasai guides can take you for hikes to the crater rim and through the caves – it is recommended to do one hike on the Saturday afternoon and the other on the Sunday morning.  Neither is very strenuous but it can get very hot with little shade.

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If you are an expat or Kenyan citizen living in Nairobi these five ideas for two-day weekend trips should help you explore more of Kenya.  If you would like further information, advice or assistance in planning your weekend escape please contact OTA via tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

OTA’s Turkana Festival Tour – cultural engagement and safari in Kenya

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival Tour www.ota-responsibletravel.com Kenya Safari

The Lake Turkana Festival has been an annual event on the Kenyan calendar for five years but in 2014, for the first time, it is being organised and facilitated by the local government.  So come and help the local economy, engage with communities, and support cultural traditions at this spectacular festival in one of the most remote corners of the globe.

OTA is leading a tour to the Lake Turkana Festival between 11 and 19 June 2014.  The tour will travel from Nairobi to Thomson’s Falls (http://www.itravel.net/travel-blogs/eastern-africa/thomson-s-fall-kenya), Maralal, Loyangalani (the venue for the Festival), Marsabit and Samburu National Reserve (https://www.safarious.com/en/posts/10391).  Travelling in a comfortable safari van with pop up roof fit for photography, game viewing and touring, this is a camping trip accompanied by an experienced driver/guide and a cook.

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival Tour www.ota-responsibletravel.com Kenya Safari

Francis Wamai, Founder and Director of OTA, says: “The Turkana Festival is special in order to learn more about the cultures of people in the Turkana region. Also it’s so nice to see the lake itself in Northern Kenya, which is mostly a large desert!”

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival Tour www.ota-responsibletravel.com Kenya Safari

OTA’s nine-day Lake Turkana Festival Tour is designed for those looking for an exceptional cultural experience to combine with their safari.  The tour cost is US$1157 per person (the trip will only run with a minimum of four people) inclusive of all meals, accommodation, entry fee to Samburu National Reserve, and an English-speaking driver and guide.  There are only six seats available so contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to reserve your seat.

OTA offers trips in Kenya where you can experience the local culture, stay in villages, and engage with community development organisations as well as view the amazing wildlife and spectacular natural scenery in this amazing country.  We can cater to groups (large and small) for any budget, offering a range of accommodation from camping to luxury lodges.  Visit www.ota-responsibletravel.com for more information.

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