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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.

“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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Darcy’s Kenyan Safari

Darcy’s Kenyan Safari

Amboseli campsite

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

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

Wildlife Escapades in Amboseli

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

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Fish Eagles

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

Safari in Maasai Mara

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

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

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Darcy Faye Kelton picnic Maasai Mara

Giraffe Maasai Mara

Leopard Maasai Mara

 

Kenya’s Rift Valley Lakes

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

Faye Darcy Kelton Makalia Falls

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

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

Faye Hells Gate

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

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

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

Four Brilliant Ideas for a Kenyan Long Weekend

Four Brilliant Ideas for a Kenyan Long Weekend

Easter holidays, Eid, May Day, Kenyatta Day – there are plenty of long weekends throughout the year and if you live in Nairobi you might be wondering how to spend a four-day weekend.  This article will give you four ideas of how to spend a long weekend and explore Kenya beyond Nairobi’s city limits.

1. Lumo and Amboseli

Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary lies adjacent to Tsavo West National Park and offers stunning sunset views of Mt Kilimanjaro.  It’s about a seven-hour drive from Nairobi so you can arrive in time for a late afternoon game drive on your way to your accommodation.  The next day, spend the full day searching for leopards around the rocky outcrops and wonder at the red elephants that inhabit the sanctuary.  The shy Lesser Kudu is prevalent and many birds can be seen.  Depart early the following morning for Amboseli National Park where you can again enjoy a late afternoon game drive to your accommodation in the middle of the park.  Wake up to sunrise views of Mt Kilimanjaro as you head out for a morning game drive before making your way back to Nairobi.  Alternatively you could swap Lumo for Tsavo West.

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2. Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru

Depart Nairobi early for the famous Maasai Mara, where you can go for an afternoon game drive after lunch.  Spend the whole next day game driving including a visit to the hippo pool and seeking out the lions that became famous through the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.  There are opportunities to go for a hot air balloon flight at dawn, visit a Maasai village or walk with the Maasai up to the escarpment for stunning views over the reserve.  On the third day drive to Lake Nakuru National Park, where you can find accommodation inside the park.  Evening and morning game drives provide opportunities to see rhinos and Rothschild giraffes before returning to Nairobi.  This itinerary could be just as enjoyable going to Nakuru first and then to Maasai Mara.

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3. Lake Naivasha and Maasai Mara
It’s a short two-hour drive to Lake Naivasha leaving you most of the day to enjoy the activities available there. You might want to cycle through Hell’s Gate National Park, hike up Mt Longonot or take a boat ride on the lake. Early the next morning you might opt to go for a walking safari at Green Crater Lake or Wileli Conservancy before heading to the Maasai Mara.  An afternoon game drive can be enjoyed, followed by a full day in the park the next day.  Before heading back to Nairobi on the last day, there is time for a final morning game drive and perhaps a visit to the neighbouring Maasai village.  Again, this itinerary could be done in reverse – heading to Maasai Mara for two nights first and then enjoying the final night at Lake Naivasha and doing the activities on the day you return to Nairobi.

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4. Lake Magadi

If you are interested in heading off the beaten track a bit and not spending so many hours driving from place to place, Lake Magadi and the surrounding area offer a different experience.  This is also a fantastic trip to see the migratory birds that visit Kenya at this time of year.  On the way you can hike Ngong Hills, stop at Olepolos for lunch and then stay at the Olorgesailie Pre-Historic Site for the first night.  The next day continue to Magadi town and into the Lake Magadi Conservation Area where you set up camp for the second night.  The hot springs are very hot if you are brave enough for a swim, otherwise you can take a walk, do some bird watching or just chill out.  From Lake Magadi head to the cooler Nguruman Escarpment where you can camp not far from the town at a campsite in the wildlife corridor between Maasai Mara and Amboseli.  In the morning go for a walk with the camp staff to see the wildlife and birds of the area before driving back to Nairobi.

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On the first three trips, there are options to stay in lodges or to camp, while the Lake Magadi trip is camping only.  You are welcome to contact OTA to discuss your weekend plans further.

Tsavo West National Park

Tsavo West National Park

In March 1898 the construction of the Mombasa to Kampala railway reached the Tsavo River.  Colonel J.H. Patterson was sent to Kenya to supervise the construction of the railway and the Tsavo River Bridge.  For several months, two man-eating lions reined terror on the 3000-man labour force of Indian and African workers at Tsavo River.

In December the same year, the lions brought the rail works to a complete standstill for three weeks as they had taken 28 Indian workers and an unrecorded number of African workers.  On 9 December, Colonel Patterson killed the first of the two lions.  He had been hunting them for several months and finally succeeded (whilst being propped up on a flimsy structure), approximately 1200 metres from the lions’ cave.  On 27 December, the Colonel killed the second lion from a tree 1800 metres from their cave, effectively ending the terror and enabling construction of the railway to continue.  In early 1899 the railroad head progressed to Nairobi.

Colonel Patterson found the lions’ cave, declaring it to be “beyond all doubt the man-eaters’ den” as hundreds of human bones and skulls were discovered inside.

In February 2013, we went to Tsavo West National Park to learn more about the history of the legendary man-eating lions and explore the second-largest park in Kenya.

Its label as the “Land of Lava, Springs and Man-Eaters” gives quite a good idea of what one can expect to find in Tsavo West National Park.  Located in Kenya’s Southern Region, 240km from Nairobi, Tsavo West is a massive 9045 square kilometres.  Closer to Mombasa than Nairobi, the park makes an interesting diversion from a coast holiday for a few days while not having to travel too far.

Accommodation is a bit limited on the Tsavo West side compared to Tsavo East, but there are a few lodges and campsites inside the park.  Voyager Ziwani, Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge, Severin Safari Camp and Finch Hattons fill the upper range of accommodation.  Expect to pay around US$450-500 per person per night including all meals (a bit more at Christmas, New Year and Easter).  Game drives, bush walks, laundry service, spa treatments and sundowners are available at the lodges.  Finch Hattons was awarded Africa’s Leading Safari Lodge in the 2013 World Travel Awards.

If you prefer something a bit more budget-friendly, there is a campsite near Chyulu Gate.  Kenya Wildlife Service also provides accommodation with Kamboyo Guest House and Lake Jipe Cottages.

There are a few sights around the park that are worth visiting.  Poacher’s Lookout provides a great view over most of Tsavo West including the lava flows.  At Mzima Springs a guide can explain the history of the area as you walk around.  Most of the spring’s water goes to Mombasa while the rest flows into the Tsavo River.  There is an underwater observation room where you can see the various fish species that inhabit the pool.

To visit the Man-Eating Lions’ Cave, you can get a ranger to escort you from Tsavo River Gate.  There is a walking trail to the cave but being within the national park, you need a ranger while you are outside the vehicle.  Tsavo West is also home to a Rhino Sanctuary which is free to visit with plenty of animals.  It is only open between four and six in the evening however.

The wildlife you can see in Tsavo West includes hippos, crocodiles, vervet monkeys, dik diks, elephants, zebras, giraffes, Cape buffalo, black-backed jackal, eland, oryx, warthogs, impala, klipspringer, and lesser kudus.  There is also plenty of birdlife including kingfishers, hornbills, starlings, helmeted and vulturine guineafowl, hoopoes, waxbill, barbet, mousebirds, and bush-shrike.  The landscape is mostly brushy woodland making animal spotting a little bit more challenging than the open savannah of other parks.  The elephants are red due to the colour of the soil with which they bathe themselves.

Have you visited Tsavo West National Park?  Please share your experiences in the comments below.  Or if you would like to visit Tsavo West please visit our website www.ota-responsibletravel.com and send us an enquiry today.

Mt Longonot National Park

Mt Longonot National Park

Mt Longonot National Park is situated approximately 90km from Nairobi and provides a wonderful hiking opportunity for the hale and hearty.  Labelled by Kenya Wildlife Service as “Sheer Adventure”, it certainly can feel like that as you traverse the narrow track around the rim with very little between you and a steep fall either down the mountain or into the crater.

Located near Naivasha in the Rift Valley Province and Central Kenya region, Mt Longonot covers an area of 52 square kilometres.  It rises 643 metres from base (2146m above sea level) to summit (2789m).

It’s a fairly steep ascent for about 3km from the base to the crater rim – it was a volcano.  You can then opt to circumnavigate the entire crater rim, which is approximately 7km, before descending back to the base.  From the top you have expansive views of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Naivasha.  Guides and porters are available upon request.

Being such an easy day trip from Nairobi, one sunny Saturday a group of us decided to go.  It was the beginning of a training regime to prepare us for climbing Mt Kenya.  I have decided that Mt Kenya will have to wait a while – my (un-) fitness level was embarrassingly revealed on Mt Longonot!  On weekends Mt Longonot is a very popular outing for many Nairobians and we saw people of all ages running and walking on the mountain – elderly men, training athletes and a swarm of children participating in a sponsored activity.  As a result the path up to the rim was almost like a highway and the first point you reach at the top was crowded.  Fortunately most were simply climbing up to enjoy the view from that point and then descending.

As we had all day, and we figured 7 km wasn’t too far, we decided to take the track around the crater rim.  I supposed that 7km was not too far on flat ground, and I supposed the crater rim would be somewhat flat.  I was wrong on both counts.  On the western side of Mt Longonot the rim rises sharply and it is a bit of a rocky scramble to get over it.

Stunning views are the reward for the slog – as you circumnavigate the crater you first see over Lake Naivasha and its surrounding flower farms to the west, then south and east towards Maasai Land and finally north to the Aberdares.  My hiking buddy was Agnes and she told me that in years past, this was a place local Maasai men would come to throw themselves into the crater if life became too difficult to deal with.

The track up the mountain is also the only way down.  It’s very sandy, and I could not say which direction is easier: two steps up resulted in one and a half steps down as you sink in the sand while one step down resulted in sliding down the equivalent of three steps and worrying about knee joints.

Perhaps I’ve painted an unfairly grim picture of this mountain, but please understand that my sedentary lifestyle means that mountain climbing isn’t awesome for me!  My climbing companions loved it and couldn’t wait to do it again.

 

OTA is offering trips to Mt Longonot National Park for US$100 per person (non-residents’ price; 7450 Kenyan Shillings for East African residents), including park entry fees and transport between your accommodation in Nairobi and the mountain.  That’s a 25% discount if you simply quote the code: MLNP@ezine in your email to tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.  And this is valid until the end of 2014!

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