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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.

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!

Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

If you are a backpacker, independent traveller or more experienced safari-goer you might be considering your accommodation options for your next visit to Kenya.  This article offers advice about the different types of accommodation and whether it is better to stay in a nearby town when visiting the national parks.  The answer does somewhat depend on your definition of “better” – in terms of quality usually it is not better, but in terms of cost it usually is.  My recommendation is to stay outside the park but close to the gate where you can usually find campsites and cheaper lodges than inside the park, but still enjoy the convenience of being at the park.

For many backpackers and independent travellers, “better” can often mean “cheaper” so let’s start with that as a definition to decide the best place to stay.  Although the cost of the accommodation in the towns will be lower than accommodation inside the parks, you also need to factor in the cost of transport between the town accommodation and the park.  Sometimes camping is preferable to dingy local guesthouses and can be the same price. Camping inside the parks is expensive, but at most parks in Kenya there are campsites close to the park gates that have good amenities (including cold beer) for around US$6-10 per person per night.

Aside from cost, there are more experiential definitions of “better” to decide where to stay.  Guesthouses in towns can offer a deeper insight into local culture and if you get lucky with your fellow guests it can be a very good experience.  You have more freedom to explore when you are close to the action.  You can go out to find a local restaurant and again have a more local experience with your meals.  Public transport to towns in Kenya is readily available so getting to your accommodation in a town is easier.

To counter these positive aspects, there are some things to consider.  Local guesthouses are often co-located with a restaurant and bar so it can be quite noisy at night, especially if there is a big football game on.  They also may not have the quality of facilities that we might expect at home.  While the overall cleanliness might look OK, the attention to detail is often lacking.  Many local establishments have squat toilets or even just a hole in the ground.  If there is a toilet, there is often not a toilet seat.  On the coast you will be hard-pressed to find a hot water shower and inland the hot water showers are electric (so you have to remember to flick the switch to get hot water).  If mosquito nets are provided, they often have holes in them.  Because most travellers do stay closer to the park, you also need to be prepared to be stared at as you will be a novelty (especially women).

If your priority for visiting that area is to see the wildlife in the park, then it is far more convenient to stay inside the park or just outside the gate, rather than in a nearby town.  Realistically, the closest towns are just not that close – for Maasai Mara you would be staying in Narok which is two hours away on a corrugated road, and for Samburu you would be looking for somewhere to stay in Isiolo which is over half an hour away.

If you do want to stay in a local guesthouse then I suggest doing as much research as you can.  Sites like Trip Advisor may not be so useful for small local places, so you are probably better asking people who have been before – perhaps expats or Kenyans in Nairobi who have to travel to that area for work.  It will help to find out the types of people who frequent the accommodation (is it geared towards business travellers or bus/truck drivers) and if there is anything to be especially aware of (i.e. some guesthouses act as the local brothel, which is only known to locals, not unwitting tourists).

Even if you prefer travelling independently, when visiting national parks in Kenya it is often easier to go with a tour operator who can cater to your budget and needs.  Your safety and security is much higher with an operator and their knowledge of the accommodation options means you have more choices available to you.  But if you still prefer to go it alone, then hopefully this article has provided you with more awareness about the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodation options.

Have you stayed in local guesthouses in Kenya? What has been your experience?  And what is your recommendation for fellow travelers in choosing their accommodation?

Tips for Going on a Solo Backpacking Trip

Tips for Going on a Solo Backpacking Trip

Travelling solo can be one of life’s most eye-opening, mind-expanding, joyful experiences.  This article will give you some suggestions to overcome the trepidation you may experience, especially as a woman, when deciding to venture forth on your own.  The best advice: Go for it!

5 Ways to Set Yourself Free and Travel Solo

  1. Make smart decisions

You make smart decisions at home everyday about what to spend money on, whether a situation feels safe, who to trust or not, etc.  Bring these smarts with you on your travels – don’t sell your brain for a plane ticket!  Even if you are on a budget, sometimes it is better to spend a little extra to stay in a more secure hotel or take a taxi at night.

  1. Meet people

Most of my travels have been solo, yet I have rarely felt lonely.  Using networks like Couch Surfing has helped me connect with fellow travellers and hosts who have been happy to hang out and show me their home town.  In backpacker hostels, the communal spaces provide opportunities to strike up a conversation and even in hotels there is usually a pool or a bar to linger at to find someone to chat with.

  1. Use a guidebook

Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Rough Guides, DK, Bradt…. there are so many guidebooks on the shelves of your local bookshop there is no excuse for not being well-informed about a place.  It’s true that not everything should be taken as gospel (indeed prices are often out of date even before the book is published) but it gives you a good idea of what to do, where to stay, where the good food is, where to find banks and most other information you want when you get off an overnight bus/train/plane.  Often they have some sample itineraries to help you get the best of a destination.

  1. Join a tour

If the thought of doing everything yourself and fumbling your way through a destination is totally off-putting, there are plenty of tours all over the world to suit any taste, style, and personality.  Depending on the type of tour you choose, you will be issued with six or sixty travel buddies to keep you from getting lonely during your travels.  Often taking a tour will put your family’s hearts and minds at rest as you embark on your solo trip … but don’t feel forced to take a tour if you really want to experience total freedom.

  1. Take time out

Travelling solo can be exhausting as you are making all the decisions yourself, you feel like your guard must always be up, and you are often putting yourself in uncomfortable situations (going to restaurants alone, striking up conversations with strangers, etc).  So it’s important to take time out to nurture yourself.  It’s supposed to be a holiday as well right?!

Twelve years ago I travelled solo for the first time and experienced incredible freedom that changed me forever.

Being quite shy, stepping out of my comfort zone to meet people was a massive challenge.  Couch Surfing has been my staple travel site since 2006 because it gives me the opportunity to connect with local people and get to know a place on a deeper level.  Through this network, I have made life-long friends who I know I can call on the next time I might be flitting through on a long layover.  Armed with a guidebook and a local, I feel like I get to see the best of a destination – both the tourist sites and the best restaurants, bars and other bits of ordinary life.  When I travel, my focus is on connecting with the culture, and so this style suits me.  Of course when meeting locals online one must be careful, but reading profiles and references thoroughly and trusting my instincts has kept me safe and provided me the most wonderful opportunities and experiences.

Have you travelled solo? Or are you considering taking a trip but have some worries?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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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