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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.

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Interview with James Kiptoo, birding guide in Kenya

Tell us about yourself Kip:

My full names are James Kiptoo and I’ve been interested in birds for a very long time.  During my childhood, I didn’t pay much attention to birds because in my culture we didn’t consider birds as something special.  I used to be a scout and then they chose me to be a scout leader. We used to go camping a lot and also being a leader I used to teach the other scouts.  We used to go on outings but we didn’t use real tents, just poly-thin papers, so I got used to camping.

After primary school, I went to high school and after high school I joined Wildlife Clubs and it was from there that I studied more about nature and animals.  After high school, I joined college and there I started studying birds, animals, reptiles and other things you find in the wilderness.  So my interest in birds grew and I started joining other clubs and societies.  We have the National Museums of Kenya where the Natural History Society of Kenya is based as well as the museum’s Ornithology Department.  On one visit to the Ornithology Department we were shown all the stuffed birds in the drawers and from there my interest really started developing more.

I was introduced to Nature Kenya in 1996. At Nature Kenya, I really praise my mentor Fleur Ng’weno (my daughter is also called Fleur).  Fleur knows birds like the back of the hand; she can tell you everything.  Every Wednesday we have bird walks at the museum and every Wednesday we would come close to her and she would give us binoculars.  It was our first experience with binoculars so we couldn’t tell if they were bad or good, but we were very happy to have them.

With the birds there are many ways of identifying them, one is by the call. You can also tell the bird by the mode of flight, by the habitat, and the mode of feeding. For example, in Nairobi we have the scavengers like the Marabou Stork. We also have the sparrows and here at home I have a Rufous Sparrow nesting outside.

Easter Birding Tour, OTA Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

Nature Kenya does ringing of birds. They put the ring on their feet and that ring has lots of information.  If you find a dead bird and it has a ring, take it to the museum and they can tell where it breeds, how far it has travelled, and so on.

What is your favourite bird?

I don’t have a favourite, all are my favourite.  When I find a new bird, that’s a ‘lifer’, and then it becomes a favourite.

Easter Birding Tour, OTA Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

In Kenya we have about 1089 species of birds because we have the right habitat for all these birds.  We have deserts, forests, seas, savannahs, and oceans. So birds have no reason why they cannot come here.  Kenya has a flyway where birds from Eastern Europe, as far as Siberia, migrate.  We have interesting birds like the Warblers and the Blackcap who move for a very long distance, and this makes me really appreciate birds.  You know how cold and far away Siberia is: this tiny bird comes all that way to escape the cold weather!  They come because they want to breed or feed.

Where is your favourite place for birding?

In Kenya we have places called IBAs – Important Bird Areas.  They are special according to what species you can find there, so the 60 IBAs in Kenya are my favourite places.  They are recognised globally, and also regionally, because of one or a few individual species found there.  In Kenya we have quite a number of endemic birds.  For example if you go to Kinangop Grasslands not far from Nairobi, near Naivasha, we have a bird called Sharpe’s Long Claw which is endemic to that area. People from all over the world come to that area to see the Sharpe’s Long Claw.  When you go to Kiriaini or Mwea you have the Hinde’s Babbler, which is the only endemic species you can find in that area.

We also have the coastal birds of Kenya.  When you go to Arabuko Sokoke for example, you have birds like Sokoke Scops Owl and Sokoe Pipit, just to name a few.  In north-eastern Kenya we have the William’s Lark that we don’t have anywhere else; it’s endemic.

Why is Lake Magadi so special during the Easter period?

Easter is when Lake Magadi will have received some rain.  Bear in mind that Magadi is very hot, but after the rains it’s beautiful because of all these small grass and other plants emerging and the area becomes green and flowers grow.  The bees are sucking the nectar from flowers and the birds are flying in because the water has just landed.  In the Magadi area we have unique habitats for water species like Spoonbills, Flamingos, Crowned Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plovers, and Three-banded Plovers.

But before you get to Magadi, there are a number of places you have to visit first.  For instance, this trip will be starting from Ngong Hills.  The change in altitude is quite drastic – from Ngong town you go up to the wind turbines and met station.  Then from Corner Baridi you descend to see more dry land species.  Among them you might see or hear the White-bellied Go-away-bird, the Chinspot Batis or the Brubru.  The Brubru is a very small bird with rufous or red flanks.  It’s tiny but makes a very loud call, like someone whistling.

Given March to June is the season for seeing migratory birds in Kenya, can you tell us more about that?

As I said earlier, birds migrate from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Siberia, that’s the long-distance migration.  The short-distance migration is like the flamingos moving between Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, Baringo and Oloiden.  The other is the vertical migration where you might see a bird such as the Tacazze Sunbird at the top of Mt Kenya and then next time it is in the Naro Moro area (at the base of the mountain).  They come down to breed.

The long-distance or intra-africa migration is starting now and we are seeing several birds from Europe like the Spotted Thrush, Rock Thrush and Eurasion Bee-eaters.  The birds that migrate from Madagascar (which is a unique habitat) form the Malagasy migration.

What are some “fun facts” you can share with us about birds?

In some communities, if you see a Woodpecker pecking on the left side of the tree they advise you not to continue with that safari.  If you are walking and see an Auger Buzzard and it shows you its white belly then that is good luck.

Surprising Birdlife at Lake Magadi, Kenya

In December 2012 Francis wanted to show me Lake Magadi as a place to bring our guests on day trips.  Nearby, Nguruman is one end of a hiking trail through Loita Hills, whose other end is close to the Maasai Mara, and we also wanted to research that trek.  But the main destination was Magadi’s hot springs!  I was so excited, having visions of natural hot springs akin to Mataranka in the Northern Territory, Australia (i.e. lots of trees surrounding a beautiful natural bath).

How wrong a person can be!  Nairobi is cool due to the altitude and one could not imagine the change in climate that is possible in just 80 kilometres.  But Lake Magadi sits at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley and the weather gets progressively hotter as you descend.  By the time you reach the hot springs, all you can think of is sliding into the pristine water.  You soon remember however, as you dip your toes in, that these are hot springs… and they are really hot (up to 86ºC at the source, but around 45ºC in most areas)!

The big shady trees of my visions, which may have made the hot springs a viable option for a swim, of course were not around.  Magadi is a sodium carbonate alkaline lake and most of its area is covered by water for only a short period each year, during the rainy season.  For most of the year, the lake is a vast salt pan, with small pools around the springs.

On the way to the lake is Magadi town, which I thought reminiscent of mining towns in outback Australia, and indeed it essentially is.  Lake Magadi is the world’s second-largest source of sodium carbonate and the Magadi Soda Factory lies on the northern end of the town, producing soda ash for various industrial uses.  Had I paid attention to that, I probably would have been less hopeful of big trees!

Francis and I returned this New Years Eve.  On our visit in 2012, we decided that day trips to the hot springs may not be so fun, but an overnight camping trip might be better to enjoy a bath under the stars.  The local Maasai bathe during the heat of the day, which I had to admire – I could not even keep my toes in for more than a minute!  It’s still hot but bearable after the heat of the sun has disappeared and our midnight dip was a sublime beginning to 2014.

But the main reason we like Lake Magadi is the surprising range of birdlife found in the area.  The lake is well-known for its flamingos who feed on the algae, mainly in the southern parts of the lake.  In the northern part of the lake are some fresh water springs where other species can be found.  As we drove through the area we were treated to Blacksmith Plovers, Ostriches, a Kori Bustard, Lesser Flamingos and a huge variety of smaller species flitting about (the area is not a complete desert and there are some trees and shrubs for the birds).  Mammals also inhabit the area and we saw wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and gerenuks.

OTA Easter Birding Tour in Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

This Easter we will return and this time we want to invite you.  Between March and June, Kenya’s southern lakes (including Natron and Magadi) are breeding havens for water birds and migrants, so April is the perfect time to experience this area.  Departing Nairobi on April 18 and returning on April 21 the trip will take us on a hike through the Ngong Hills, discover Kenya’s ancient history at Olorgesailie, explore the forests around Nguruman Escarpment, witness the extraordinary birdlife of Lake Natron, and finally a late night dip in Lake Magadi’s hot springs.  Visit the website for more information and register your interest or Like us on Facebook and find the Event page for the full itinerary.

OTA Easter Birding Tour in Kenya, http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com/#!birding-tour/cfme

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