RSS Feed

Tag Archives: nature

Travelling Solo in East Africa

Quietly considering myself a “seasoned traveller”, in June 2010 I packed my backpack and headed off to Africa for the adventure of a lifetime.  Family and friends told me I was out of my mind and requested I join a tour.  But I had already backpacked the USA, Europe, and worked as a tour leader in Central Asia, Russia and China independently travelling in those parts between tours.  So what could Africa throw at me that I could not handle?

This naivety is not uncommon, I am relieved to admit.  But in fact Africa is NOT Europe.  It is not even Vietnam, which may be considered a reasonable comparison if you look at development data.  But that is the wonderful thing about this amazing continent: it is different to everywhere else in the world.  And despite having started my backpacking career sixteen years ago, Africa still makes me feel like the greenest of travellers.  That is not to say independent travel is impossible; indeed I survived three months backpacking South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi.  If not for finding a job, I was planning to continue up to Nairobi.  As it happens, nine years later I find myself living here, in the continent which has thrown me my toughest challenges and continues to do so.

These days I do suffer an internal conflict: I am a huge advocate for independent travel, getting to know real life through home stays and using public transport; but now I run a tour company offering private safaris (I’ll admit that up front, so you can read this article in whichever light you think appropriate) and the more I use my own vehicle, the less I enjoy crowded buses.  So what’s my advice for someone wanting to travel solo in Africa?

Transport

First let’s talk about public transport.  It’s not comfortable and you need to be prepared to be overcharged on the price of a journey.  But maintain a sense of humour, ask locals how much the journey usually costs before embarking the bus, and relish the opportunity to “live like a local”.

Most people come to Africa to see the wildlife, so getting to a National Park or three is a priority, and the second challenge.  Unfortunately public transport rarely gets you all the way to a National Park.  The best way is to book your accommodation and ask them for a pick up from the nearest town.

Accommodation

Speaking of accommodation, lodges in or near the parks tend to be expensive.  Regardless of where you are in the world, travelling solo and sleeping in private rooms every night can eat into your travel budget quickly.  After a month of backpacking in South Africa, I noticed many other backpackers were carrying a small tent and I realised that could be a way to extend my travel time by cutting costs.  There are many hostels and guesthouses that have yard space where you can pitch your tent and safely camp as a solo traveller.  I do not advocate bush camping though!  Also at such hostels and guesthouses, it’s easy to meet fellow budget travellers with whom you can share the costs of hiring a vehicle for game drives.

Tours

Even if you are not into the group tour thing, I would suggest getting yourself on short trips – just to save your sanity.  From Nairobi for example, there are regularly three-day tours to the Maasai Mara or Amboseli.  Three days is manageable, right?  So use long distance buses to get between big cities – Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala, etc – and then join a short tour and make your life a little more enjoyable.

If are not averse to group travel, overland tours can be a fun way for solo travellers to see Africa.  Overland trucks traverse the continent, catering mainly to the backpacker market, making them a cheap option.  Sitting in the back of a truck for a few weeks sharing all the amazing new experiences with a bunch of other travellers is fun.  At the end of the day, there’s always someone to have a drink (or three) with.

Africa is not like Europe with backpacker hostels everywhere.  Some countries are easier than others – South Africa for example has great tourism infrastructure to suit all budgets, while Tanzania has less options and Botswana outright targets the luxury market.  It’s definitely possible to travel solo without being a millionaire though.  With humour, time and a little bit extra in your back pocket so you have room to splurge when the going gets tough, travelling solo in Africa can be one of life’s greatest adventures.

If you would like more advice about travelling in Africa, please contact me on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.  I love to talk travel and will be happy to point you in the direction that suits your preferred travel style so you can get the most out of your African adventure.

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.

angelique-3

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.

black-rhino

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.”

dsc_2444

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.

elsamere

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.

dsc_1102

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!

dsc_1195

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!

imag0083

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.

imag0123

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.

imag0124

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.

dsc_1218

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!

dsc_1219

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!

dsc_1227

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#
dsc_1252

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.

The Best Location to See Giraffes

The Best Location to See Giraffes

The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) in Kenya conducts conservation work throughout the country.  But, by far, their most famous project is the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi.  One of the most popular tourist attractions in Kenya’s capital, the Giraffe Centre gives us the opportunity to come eye-to-eye with these gentle, graceful creatures.

Giraffe Centre, Nairobi; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

As you mount the stairs, a ranger issues you with a handful of pellets.  Now that you are at eye (and mouth) level with these giants, you can see up close their beautiful long eyelashes and long blue tongue.  They hungrily eye off the pellets and if you are a bit slow in feeding them, you may receive a gently head-butt as a reminder.  And if you are super-keen to get personal with them, simply pop a pellet between your teeth and get a big sloppy giraffe kiss!

The centre is home to Rothschild Giraffes and the AFEW has a breeding program to prevent this endangered species from becoming extinct.  They also conduct conservation education for Kenyan youth and teachers.  Your entry fee as a tourist goes towards this work and helps the AFEW offer free entry to Kenyan children.  The staff also present information sessions at various times throughout the day for visitors, so while you are there be sure to ask them to let you know when the next session is.

The giraffes have a large acreage on which to roam and at the other end of the land is the Giraffe Manor.  This high-end accommodation offers a unique experience for a city stay, with the Manor lawns extending out to the acreage.  There are no fences, giving the giraffes free reign over the space.  And they take advantage of it!  It is not uncommon to have a giraffe pop its head through the window while you are enjoying breakfast or afternoon tea.  You think that only happens for the promotional photos, but believe me, it happens when the camera isn’t there as well!

Do you fancy sharing afternoon tea with a giraffe, or perhaps getting a kiss from one?  OTA can help you plan your Kenyan adventure, so contact us today: www.ota-responsibletravel.com.

Giraffe Centre, Nairobi; OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Thomson’s Falls

Thomson’s Falls

In 1883 Joseph Thomson became the first European to reach Thomson’s Falls.   He was a Scottish geologist and naturalist who was also the first European to walk between Mombasa and Lake Victoria, which he did in the early 1880s.  He named Thomson’s Falls for his father.

Long before Joseph Thomson wandered through, the central highlands of Kenya was inhabited by Kikuyus.  Kikuyus are the largest tribe of Kenya making up approximately 23 percent of the country’s population today.  They are of Bantu origin (Bantus came from West Africa) and moved in from northern and eastern areas to settle in the Mount Kenya vicinity.  The Kikuyus are known in Kenya as business people and good traders.  They are pastoralists, preferring to settle an area and grow crops than live the nomadic herdsman life of their neighbouring Maasai, Samburu and Turkana tribes.  Living in Kenya’s central highlands means their traditional dress is almost reminiscent of Russia, with square woollen hats made from sheep’s skin.  Where the Maasai robe themselves in brightly coloured, lightweight blankets, the Kikuyu have think sheepskin draped around them.  It is very rare these days to see Kikuyu dressing and living in the traditional style but at Thomson’s Falls there is the opportunity to see some people dressed in the costumes for photos.

It’s difficult to imagine how Joseph Thomson could have found his way to the Falls looking at the terrain.  At the top of the Falls is Thomson’s Falls Lodge, a colonial structure that has remained as a hotel over the decades.  From the Lodge you can hire a guide to take you to the bottom of the Falls to get a different perspective.  The hike down takes approximately 20 minutes through forest.  The path is steep and made slippery by the spray from the waterfall.  The track is quite well-defined however, unlike it would have been in 1883 when Thomson came through!  Back at the top of the waterfall is another hike (turn right from the top lookout instead of left) to the highest hippo pool in Kenya.

From Thomson’s Falls Lodge you can hire a guide to take you to the bottom of the waterfall, meet traditionally-dressed Kikuyu and show you the hippo pool.

The waterfall tumbles out of the hippo pool and falls 72 metres to the bottom.  The water comes from the Aberdare Mountains and forms part of the Ewaso Ng’iro River.  Thomson’s Falls is located two miles from the town of Nyahururu (formerly called Thomson’s Falls as well) in central Kenya.  Nyahururu is Kenya’s highest town at 2360 metres above sea level.

Thomson’s Falls tumbles out of Kenya’s highest hippo pool and falls 72 metres to the bottom

Have you been to Thomson’s Falls in Kenya? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

%d bloggers like this: