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Hippos after all!

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

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

Nairobi National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Places to Experience on Your First Safari

3 Places to Experience on Your First Safari

Petra’s work trip to Kenya gave her the perfect opportunity to spend a few extra days to go on a safari.  Her friend had lived in Kenya and so she asked for a recommendation – that was us!  We planned a six-day safari to Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha with a final lunch at the serene Kiambethu Tea Farm.  Extraordinary wildlife and startling a hippo on a walking safari were among her highlights.

Voted Africa’s Leading National Park for the sixth time in the 2018 World Travel Awards, the Maasai Mara National Reserve must be on a first-time safari itinerary.  It was Petra’s first destination and being late July, it didn’t disappoint.  She stayed at the lovely Aruba Camp near Talek Gate, right on the banks of the Talek River.  This time of year is when the migratory herds of wildebeest come into the Maasai Mara from the Serengeti so wildlife is plentiful – not just wildebeest, zebras and gazelles, but also the predators that follow such an abundant dinner plate.

Rift Valley Lakes

Lake Nakuru National Park was next, home to the endangered Rothschild giraffe and black rhinos.  She spent the night at Punda Milias Camp just a few kilometres away from the park, allowing an early entry the next morning for optimal game viewing.  She spent most of the day in the park, getting some awesome sightings of those Rothschild giraffes and getting up to the viewpoint that overlooks the whole Lake Nakuru and the surrounding national park.  In the afternoon, she made the short drive to another Rift Valley lake: Naivasha.

Lake Naivasha is the largest of the Rift Valley lakes in Kenya.  Most of the accommodation is lined along the shore of the lake and this is where Petra found her lakeside banda at Camp Carnelley’s.  In the morning she embarked on a walking safari in Wileli Conservancy.  More giraffes!  This time they were Maasai giraffes and there were even a couple walking on the track in front of her for a while.  As she walked along the lake (with a guide and a ranger) they startled a hippo that had unusually been grazing outside the water – unusual as hippos normally graze at night and stay in the water during the day.  Fortunately, as the humans approached the hippo made a run straight for the lake with an almighty splash.

After that excitement, Petra went with the guide for a different walking safari – this time in the village to witness rural Kenyan life.  The hustle and bustle down by the lake subsided the further they climbed up and away from the shore.  Eventually after a bit of tough-going they hit flat ground and a magnificent view over the lake, flower farms, various conservancies and the geo-thermal plant in Hells Gate National Park.

Would you like to visit some of these places yourself?  We tailor safaris to your time frame, interests and budget to ensure you get the holiday you want and need.  Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to start planning yours.

Walking With the Maasai and Other Adventures

Walking With the Maasai and Other Adventures

As they bumped along the road to the Maasai Mara, they heard a helicopter flying low.  This was the first day of Di and Leonie’s safari and a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) chopper was ushering an elephant back into the park.  What an exciting way to begin their week in Kenya!  This post tells of their June safari through Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Amboseli.

On their arrival they spent the first night at Wildebeest Eco Camp nestled in the quiet, green suburb of Karen in Nairobi’s south-west.  Rested and refreshed, they headed to the Maasai Mara the next day.  It was on this drive to Kenya’s premier game reserve that they watched the KWS helicopter herding a stray elephant back to within the park boundaries.  Human-wildlife conflict is a constant challenge for conservationists in Kenya and elephants can be particularly destructive in a field of crops, which can result in retaliation from the community whose crops have been destroyed.  So it’s imperative to keep the elephants in the safety of the park to avoid such conflict.

They entered the park and enjoyed a game drive as they made their way to Aruba Camp where they would spend the next two nights.  During their time in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve they saw a leopard with its dinner – a Thomson’s gazelle – that it had dragged up into the tree.  They also saw a leopard tortoise, a Marshall Eagle, buffalo herds, Lilac-breasted Roller (Kenya’s national bird), giraffes, elephants, topis, hyena, lions, ostrich and a puff adder.  On their full day game drive, they enjoyed a picnic lunch in the middle of the savannah.  Before leaving the Maasai Mara, they visited a Maasai village, which was a longer walk than anticipated, demonstrating that the Maasai definition of “not far” might be a bit different to an Australian definition!

Lake Nakuru National Park

The next stop was Lake Nakuru National Park.  They stayed two nights a few kilometres outside the park at a camp called Punda Milias (“Zebra” in KiSwahili).  More buffalos here and also rhinos!  Makalia Falls at the south end of the park was gushing down as June brings an end to the rainy season.

A short drive took them to Lake Naivasha where they spent a night at Camp Carnelleys.  The excitement here was a break in!  Monkeys got in their room while they were out.

Finally, they went to Kibo Camp, for two nights at Amboseli National Park.  Flamingoes were plenty in Lake Amboseli – which doesn’t look much like a lake in the dry season so seeing flamingoes here is quite special.

Being the admin gal, I don’t often get to meet our guests, despite usually spending many months emailing each other planning their safari.  So if there’s an excuse to do an airport pick up or drop off or something similar then I don’t mind.  This time it was a camera case and battery left behind in the vehicle.  Di and Leonie had gone on to Tanzania and were flying back to Nairobi and then on home.  So during their transit, I went to the airport to try to deliver the items.  It was a bit of a mission and it was good that they had several hours to kill.  I was passed from pillar to post until one immigration official told me that Di and Leonie would have to talk nicely to the immigration officers inside to allow them to come out to meet me.  I almost gave up hope, but then Leonie found me wandering outside the terminal!  Amazingly it had worked.  Battery delivered, we made our ways home….one journey significantly different to the other, no doubt reflecting the significant differences in adventure each had just had.

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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“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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A Maasai Blessing, Skumfidus and Sparklers

A Maasai Blessing, Skumfidus and Sparklers

Skumfidus has to be one of the coolest words ever!  I learnt that it’s the Danish word for “marshmallow” when we took the Finke family on safari at the end of December.  Hanne, Jacob and their three children have recently moved to Nairobi for Jacob’s job and Hanne’s parents, sisters and their children came to visit for Christmas.  Hanne contacted us to help plan a safari that would suit 14 people over three generations and here’s their story to give you ideas for your own family holiday.

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Maasai Mara Safari

On December 28, six adults and eight children arrived at Mara Explorers Camp in time for lunch.  It had been a long drive and everyone was ready for some food and to stretch their legs.  After lunch there was the option to go for a walk with the Maasai to explore the area which some of the group did.  The rest found their tents, sleeping bags, luggage and a pool table and settled in.

The next day everyone spent all day game driving in the park.  We had prepared a scavenger hunt for the children with a lucky dip prize if they spotted everything on the list.  When they returned in the evening everyone of course got a prize and they had all written a bonus item on the bottom of the page: a cheetah!  We celebrated a successful day of wildlife watching by toasting marshmallows on the campfire.  That’s when I learnt the Danish word for marshmallow: skumfidus.

Seek shade for picnic lunch in the Maasai Mara

Seeking shade for picnic lunch in the Maasai Mara

Elephant, Maasai Mara

Elephant, Maasai Mara

Game driving in the Maasai Mara

Game driving in the Maasai Mara

Grandma and Grandpa went for a hot air balloon flight early the next morning.  Watching the sunrise over the savannah is one of the most magical experiences you can have in Kenya.

Maasai Culture

When they returned, we headed for Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp.  The wildlife in the Maasai Mara had been pretty amazing, but Maji Moto was the highlight of this trip.  On arrival our Maasai hosts gave us shukas (the blankets Maasai wear) and performed a welcome dance.  The Maasai are famous for jumping as part of their dance and of course audience participation is a must.  Afterwards, we were shown to our “huts”.  The accommodation at Maji Moto is Maasai-style mud huts, which are very comfortable and attractive.

Maasai dancing

Maasai dancing

Once we lost the heat of the sun we went for a walk to the hot springs where women from the area collect water.  Some of our guests tried carrying the jerry cans and were full of admiration for the women who carry them several kilometres every day.  Next we walked up a rocky outcrop to watch the sun set.

"Maji Moto" means "hot water" for the hot springs

“Maji Moto” means “hot water” for the hot springs

In the morning, the family went for a walk up the nearby hill and then visited the widows’ village.  When a Maasai man passes away he leaves multiple wives with no financial means.  The Maasai Cultural Camp supports the widows with some of the profits from the visitors going to the women.  When guests visit the widows’ village they can see traditional Maasai life and visit the traditional healer.  Along the way the Maasai guys made the children spears and practiced throwing them.  For the rest of the trip, the spears came everywhere… we had to break the news to the kids that they probably wouldn’t be allowed to take them on the plane home.

Visiting the Widows' Village

Visiting the Widows’ Village

Warrior training at Maji Moto

Warrior training at Maji Moto

But the afternoon was to bring the absolute highlight of the whole five days.  We hiked four kilometres to the Ol Pul Bush Camp.  When we arrived at the clearing we found large beds made from leaves and a white goat tethered near the bushes.  We knew we were to be roasting a goat for dinner, but I hadn’t really thought though the whole process.  The kids were totally into it, except for Mathilde who I hung out with while her brother came and terrorised us with the goat’s head and other gross stuff boys do!  They all helped with the skinning and the butchering and even drank the blood straight from the neck!

ceremonial goat killing

Ceremonial goat killing

Drinking the blood

Drinking the blood

It was a long day!

It was a long day!

The elder Maasai gave Grandpa a blessing for his birthday.  Traditional brew was served to the adults – it’s made from honeycomb and Francis’ drink even had a bee in it, just to prove the point I guess.  And then the Maasai and the Danes sang their respective traditional songs for New Year and danced while the meat roasted on the biggest campfire ever.  Being New Years Eve, sparklers were compulsory and Karen distributed them to everyone.  As we held them to the fire they started sparkling, as they do.  But the Maasai had never experienced sparklers and got quite a start when they started sparkling!

New Years Eve around the fire

New Years Eve around the fire

Sleeping under the stars

Sleeping under the stars

It really was a unique way to bring in the New Year and to celebrate a special birthday.  And it was wonderful for the cousins to have the opportunity to have such an experience together when they have been missing playing together since Hanne and Jacob relocated to Kenya.

Are you looking for a special safari for your family?  Whether you are living in Kenya and have relatives visiting or you are all living in the same town but looking for a chance to reconnect, we would love to help you plan a holiday to remember.  Contact us today by emailing tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

Fantastic safari for 3 generations – Masaai Mara and Masaai cultural stay (Maji Moto)

Review by Hanne Finke Ferdinand

Going on safari in Kenya for the first time as a family group of 14 aged between 5 and 72 years makes for a challenge in organising. Tracey at OTA immediately made us feel safe by listening, suggesting, thinking along with us and very quickly providing an itinerary that made it a lot easier to grasp what an adventure it would be – even within our limited budget!
We had 2 amazing days in the Maasai Mara – camping in a really nice little campground and with delicious camper-food cooked and served by Tracey. The kids enjoyed the space to play, sit by the fire and run around when we were not stuck in the car watching amazing sceneries and wild animals in the Mara.
Afterwards 2 amazing days with Maasai in Maji Moto – warrior training, community projects, widow village, herbal medicine, bonfire without paper and matches, ceremonial goat killing, singing, dancing, sleeping under the stars in the bush etc. We learned SO much about the culture and young as well as old had the best of times.
THANK you OTA for finding these pearls for us in the jungle of lodges and camps in Kenya.

We would recommend OTA for your family adventure at any time!!!

Bonfire fun and singing

Bonfire fun and singing

Confessions of a Safari Operator

Confessions of a Safari Operator

It’s true, not every safari runs perfectly – gasp!  We rely on machines (i.e. vehicles) and they are just as fallible as humans – another gasp!  In August we had a trip that could have gone a bit smoother.  And, as I take a deep breath to calm my nerves about sharing a less than perfect safari with the big wide world, I hope that it will help you with your own expectations of travelling in Africa.

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Africa is unpredictable.  We tell our guests this about 37 times in our pre-trip documentation as they prepare for their tour.  The roads are bad, the police are disruptive, weather patterns are changing, and of course it’s called a “game drive” for good reason – either you win the game or the animals do, depending on who spots who first!  But as the safari operator, we don’t actually want to believe that we can’t predict (and prevent) what will happen.  Of course contingencies are in place to minimise the impact of any unpredictability on the guest.  But it still pains us to have to use those contingencies.

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We hosted a large family group of nine in August: two parents, four sons and three wives.  They wanted to travel all together in one vehicle so we decided the best vehicle for them was a small overland truck.  The itinerary was five days – three in Maasai Mara and two in Amboseli.  It had been planned for several months and everyone was excited.

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Arriving in Kenya

The first hitch came on arrival.  The people arrived but the luggage didn’t.  Not a single piece of luggage from the whole group was in Nairobi when they landed.  I’m still not sure how that could happen, but it did.  The luggage was to arrive on the same flight the next day and so they requested a later departure to Maasai Mara.  We were to leave at 8am but by the time they returned to the airport and retrieved the luggage, it was 4pm!  And in a truck it’s a long, slow drive anywhere, let alone the bumpy road down to the Mara.

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The late departure meant that we were driving at night, which is something we never want to do, especially through the bush.  We finally arrived at midnight and the camp staff were so wonderful!  We had kept in communication with them throughout the evening and they kept dinner for us and served it very graciously at that hour.  Lesson learnt though: next time we won’t depart for Maasai Mara so late and instead leave very early the next day.

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Safari Begins

The next day our morning game drive didn’t start very early as everyone was tired from the previous night.  But Francis took them off around 8am and they spotted lions almost immediately.  A truck gives you more height and they got a great sighting of the pride in the grass.  Shortly after that though, the truck stopped.  And nothing Francis did would move it.  Again the camp staff were amazing and supplied a vehicle so our guests could continue with their game drive.  Then they supplied another emergency vehicle to tow the truck out of the park.

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Francis pulled the engine apart at the camp and discovered the piston had, as he described it, “turned into githeri” (a traditional Kenyan dish of stewed beans and maize, i.e. small round pieces in a bowl).  The trouble with engines is that, even if you regularly service them, there are things inside that you can’t see and that will fall apart with enough bumping along on these fabulous Kenyan roads.  (I recently discovered in Australia that bushes are something that are replaced every twenty years or so.  In Kenya we replace them after almost every trip down to the Maasai Mara!)

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So that was the end of the truck for this trip.  We organised a replacement vehicle to get the group back to Nairobi the following day.  The itinerary continued for the guests as planned, fortunately.  The only issue was that there was now no space for Francis and I in this back-up vehicle.  We tried to hitch a ride on the road nearest the camp, but it’s a quiet road so we didn’t have much luck.  So we got a motorbike taxi (boda boda) across the savannah (outside the park!) to the main gate of Maasai Mara where we would find more traffic.  I have to admit that the motorbike ride has been a highlight of my time in Kenya!  We have driven that route before, but on a motorbike it was something else!  Beautiful scenery, through Maasai villages, across rivers, wow it was stunning!

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Somehow we arrived in Nairobi before the guests, despite our waiting for a lift, and then getting public transport in Nairobi to their accommodation.  But they had a much more leisurely trip, stopping at the Rift Valley lookout, visiting a Maasai village and having lunch en route.  Nevertheless, they were as surprised to see us waiting for them as we were.  We made the arrangements for Amboseli the next day and called it a night.

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Amboseli

Thank goodness the second half of the trip went smoothly!  We had to split them into two smaller vehicles and they switched up their seating arrangements for the two days to spend time with everyone.  They saw hyenas, elephants, a large herd of buffalo in the swamp, saddle-billed stork, zebras, a big flock of ostriches, and of course Mt Kilimanjaro.  They also climbed up lookout hill for sweeping views over the park.

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All’s well that ends well and there really was minimal disruption to the safari for the guests.  It was just my own mortification that got in the way of me enjoying myself.  But Francis always tells me soberly that “Anything can happen” and he is right.  Perhaps we will add that to “Africa is unpredictable” in the trip preparation documents.

Please share your experiences of travel that hasn’t gone exactly to plan – help me realise that not only can anything happen, but anything can happen to anyone!

And if you would like your own well-planned but unpredictable African adventure please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

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