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Suswa Caves

Kenya is full of hidden gems that we keep discovering and we want to show our visitors all of them!  We recently camped at Suswa Caves, one such hidden gem.  Sometimes you just need to get off the beaten track, and although the road through Suswa is the well-beaten track to the Maasai Mara, the diversion to Suswa Caves is very unbeaten.  So, at the risk of making Suswa Caves Kenya’s hottest destination, I’m going to tell you about our weekend there and how you can enjoy your own adventure.

Eight of us headed to Suswa loaded up with camping gear, food and water.  Laura and Moses came from their camp in the Maasai Mara with their friend Helen who was visiting from the UK.  Kip, Leonie and their daughter Fleur came from Nairobi, like us.  We arrived at the turnoff to Mt Suswa Conservancy at the same time as Moses and Laura so we set off together into the conservancy.  The road was so dusty!  We had to keep almost a kilometre between our vehicles so the ones behind didn’t get lost in the cloud.  On their way in, Kip and Leonie got stuck in a dust drift – that’s how bad it was!

After we entered the conservancy we had to find the campsite and set up camp.  It wasn’t the easiest to find, but some of the local Maasai who take care of the conservancy found us, waved us down and gave us directions.  We were pleasantly surprised to find something resembling a toilet block – a hole in the ground surrounded by a structure with the doorway facing away from the campsite.  There are two campsites in Mt Suswa Conservancy: one is on the rim of the crater (I forgot to mention that Mt Suswa is an extinct volcano) and the other is next to the caves.  We were at the one near the caves.   Apart from the crumbling buildings around long drop toilets, there is no other infrastructure at the campsites so you must bring everything.  Fortunately we are all ex-overlanders so we are used to spending a couple of nights in the bush and had all the requisite supplies for such an adventure.  For a fee the Maasai brought us firewood, but it most likely wasn’t environmentally sustainable firewood.

Maasai water harvesting

The next morning we hiked.  We found a guide to take us up to the crater rim of Mt Suswa.  On the way he showed us the ingenious method the Maasai have been using to harvest water.  Mt Suswa sits in the Great Rift Valley and is one of several volcanoes that caused the Rift Valley to exist; Mt Kilimanjaro and nearby Mt Longonot being two others.  This volcanic activity means there are hot springs and geysers throughout the area.  In fact this activity has resulted in Kenya Power building a massive geothermal power plant in Hells Gate National Park, which is spitting distance from Mt Suswa.  Anyway, the Maasai have put pipes over steam vents in the mountainside in a way that directs the steam down the mountain.  By the time the steam has travelled down the pipe, it has condensed to water and drips into a large jerry can.  Anyone can come and take water from this source.  On our way back to camp after visiting the crater rim, we stopped by the main water collection point and our guide doused each of us in cold water harvested from the steam vents.  It seemed a bit extravagant given the dryness of the landscape, but it was also very welcome as it was so hot.

On our hike we saw rabbits and shy vervet monkeys, a rare species as most vervet monkeys are very cheeky and not at all shy.  We also saw plenty of birds which Kip was thrilled about as he is an avid birder.

In the afternoon, our guide took us to (and through) the caves.  I would never have guessed how extensive they were and how large.  Some were just massive holes in the ground, which might prove a hazard if you weren’t looking where you were going!  Others were narrow passages which weren’t so much my cup of tea.  There were a lot of bats, and I didn’t fancy coming across one trying to get out while I was trying to get in!  We were shown one chamber that was known as the leopard’s eating cave.  I’m not sure if it was true or not, I preferred not to think too hard about it as our campsite was quite close.  One large cave was called the baboon parliament as it is a favourite gathering place for troupes of baboons.  The rocks were shiny and smooth from the baboons sitting on them so much.

Next time we go, I think the campsite on the crater rim is preferable to the one near the caves, if only for the view.  Hikes need to happen in early morning and late afternoon with a siesta to pass the heat of the day.  Conservancy and camping fees are quite reasonable and the man who collects them is very good at knowing that you are in the conservancy – so even if the entrance gate is unmanned, you will still have to pay as he comes to the campsite to check on you.  Keep your receipts though, so you can prove payment in case another administrator comes around to check/collect.

Would you like to visit Mt Suswa and its caves?  Get in touch with tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we’ll help you get there.

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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Protecting Kenya’s Wildlife at the Maasai Olympics

Protecting Kenya’s Wildlife at the Maasai Olympics

Safari to Maasai Olympics in Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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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