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Hiroyuki’s Safari

Three leopards on the first day of safari, can you believe it?!  That was Hiroyuki’s experience when he came to Kenya in August 2016.  He contacted us because he had seen our commitment to community projects and wanted to spend some time with Amani Kibera in the slums of Nairobi.  Here’s the story of his short time in Kenya and how we helped him see both the real life and the safari life of Kenya.

The Kenyan Life(s)

Hiroyuki arrived in the late afternoon and we arranged for Ben to meet him at the airport.  Ben is the co-founder of Amani Kibera, a community-based organisation working with youth in the Kibera slum.  Hiroyuki was very interested in learning about life in the slum and if possible doing a homestay, so we asked Ben and his wife Mariam to host him.  I think Hiroyuki got more than any of us bargained as Ben took him on a drive through Nairobi’s city centre on the way from the airport to Kibera.  Hiroyuki then got taken for a night out with the boys, experiencing Kenyan life as authentically as one probably could!

When Francis went to pick him up the next morning, he was very tired and possibly just a little hungover.  But he was about to face the five-hour drive to the Maasai Mara – not the hangover cure I would be looking for!  He managed to sleep all the way, which would have made the drive less painful.  Before getting to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Hiroyuki was to spend a night experiencing another side of “typical Kenyan life”, this time in a rural Maasai community.  The contrast was pretty significant to the previous day, but that’s the wonder of travelling – finding these contrasts and realising that a stereotype of “Kenyan” is just not possible, as with all nations.

As I said at the outset, this was a short trip and so his third, and final, night was at last spent in the game reserve.  His accommodation was on the Talek River at Aruba Camp which meant traversing the park to get there.  It must have been a big night with the Kibera boys, because he was still tired and struggling to keep his eyes open on the game drive.  Incredibly, Francis found three leopards that afternoon while Hiroyuki dozed.  Francis tried to rouse him and he did wake up to take a photo before going back to sleep.  Eventually Francis gave up and took him to the camp early.  It seemed a shame that not everyone is lucky to find even one leopard in three days of game driving and here in one afternoon were three leopards and no one to enjoy the sightings.

The next morning was better for everyone and they saw eland, lion, ostrich, hyena, wildebeest, vultures, elephants and a secretary bird.  But that was the end of the trip.  After the morning game drive they headed back to Nairobi and the airport for the flight out.  It seems a long way to come for three days, but he experienced a range of environments giving a real taste of all the facets of Kenyan life.

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.

John’s Trip

Have you ever been so dehydrated you’ve seen green elephants, green hippos or a giant weevil about the size of a cow?  On his descent of Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania, John had these hallucinations, but that didn’t stop him from continuing up three more mountains in a two month East African adventure!  A solo traveller on a mission to climb the peaks and visit the mountain gorillas in Uganda, John was looking for pocket-friendly ways to see the region.  Joining group tours is always a gamble, and he regaled us with tales of the fellow travellers he met on the tours we organised for him.

Before John came to Kenya, he had spent a lot of time in Tanzania climbing three mountains (Ol Doinyo Lengai, Meru and Kilimanjaro), hanging out in the Serengeti and visiting a Maasai village.  His other African goals included scaling Mount Kenya and tracking the gorillas in Uganda.  So we helped him find a tour to Uganda which had the added bonus of travelling via the Maasai Mara, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru National Park and Jinja.  As with all group tours there is a chance that your travel mates might not be compatible, but it is certainly a convenient and affordable way for a soloist.  He visited Elsamere, the home of Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame, took a cruise at the source of the Nile River, and visited orphanages at Lake Bunyonyi and Nakuru.

While he was in Nairobi between trips, John stayed in our spare room, which we have on AirBnB.  We were regaled with tales of his travels (he has travelled all over the world!) and he got to experience a very “local” life in Ongata Rongai.  We took him for dinner a couple of times to our favourite local for nyama choma, as well as the more touristy sites of the elephant orphanage and the giraffe centre.  He also went into town to visit the National Museum, which gives an excellent history of Kenya from pre-history to present.  We took him to Kibera to visit the community projects of Amani Kibera and a day hiking in the Ngong Hills.

Mt Kenya was the big climax though for his Kenyan experience.  Again being a soloist, the climb can be prohibitively expensive, but our colleague in Nanyuki was taking a group up and said John could join.  It was a school group, as it turns out – so John hiked up the mountain with 40 teenagers!

After leaving John to hike up the mountain, Francis and I decided to take our own adventure.  We spent some days exploring the area, checking out different accommodation, and having a break from the bustle of Nairobi.  We ended up at Naro Moru gate for the night where we camped at the public campsite.  We drove up the mountain as far as we could and then continued walking….for about 20 minutes!  I don’t think I can say that I’ve hiked Mt Kenya!  With rain clouds on one side and clear blue sky on the other, the weather on the mountain is unpredictable and can change suddenly.  Francis wasn’t keen on lingering as there was a high chance of getting stuck if the road turned muddy.

In the morning we wandered up to Batian Guest House about a kilometre from the campsite.  It is a self-catering house that sleeps eight.  Stunning views of the mountain would greet you in the morning as you ate breakfast on the balcony.  On our return to the campsite, baboons were running amok!  Our food was safely locked up, but the creatures were everywhere!  As Francis approached, they scattered but not before one broke the side mirror as he slid off the roof to the ground!

Our next stop was Aberdare National Park – a new one for me!  We had a bit of a challenge finding the campsite but finally we slid down an embankment into a clearing.  It was beautiful!  Surrounded by trees with a river running by, we had the forest to ourselves.  The next day we went for a drive around the forested Salient where we saw plenty of buffalo and bushbuck, before we headed to the moorland.  Aberdare is not a big park but it is divided fairly definitely into two sections – the salient and the moorland.  We thought that our chances of spotting animals would disappear on the moorland, but we were wrong.  We saw elephants and then the elusive bongo!  Bongos are incredibly shy and notoriously difficult to spot, so I held no hope of seeing one.  But we saw two!

We visited Fishing Lodge, a self-catering guesthouse that sleeps 14 people (seven in each cottage).  It is in a great location from where you can fish in the river and walk a few kilometres to the waterfalls.  Aberdare has landscape one doesn’t normally associate with Africa: waterfalls, forest, and babbling brooks.  So it is quite an interesting addition to the typical safari itinerary if you are looking to experience Kenya in all her diversity.

If you are looking for some (or all) of the experiences described here, please get in touch.  We love planning interesting itineraries tailored to your interests and budget, and as you can see there is much more to Kenya than savannah plains.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to start planning your safari today.

Jared’s Graduation in Uganda

Jared’s Graduation in Uganda

Here is the result of one woman’s amazing generosity: Jared Opio, a Ugandan student of Public Health graduated in December 2015!  If you have been following us for a few years, you might remember Jared’s initial request that I posted on this blog at the end of 2012.  He was looking for a sponsor so he could transform his life by gaining a university education.  Bev answered his request and, after three years, Jared invited us all to his graduation in Kampala.

Road trip!  We packed up two of Francis’ kids, Mathew and Miriam, and the four of us headed west.  We were only ten minutes on the road when a crazy bus caused our first halt.  It was passing us on the verge and was rocking wildly as it fell in and out of holes until one lurch made the bus rock so far as to bump us and shatter a  back window!  Fortunately no one was sitting there, but I was furious.  Kenyan buses think they are kings of the road and have little regard for other users, just as long as they can get where they are going as quickly as possible.  It seems they had caused such damage before however, as the conductor gave some cash to Francis and they continued their journey.  When we found somewhere later in the day to replace the window, we found the amount he had given us was exactly right!

The rest of the trip to Kampala was event-free.  We spent a night at Lelin Camp near Iten overlooking the Kerio Valley.  The training centre for Kenyan athletes is at Iten and indeed as we drove through early the next morning we saw several running along the mountain roads.

We arrived a day early and so we spent the day catching up with Jared.  We were pleasantly surprised when he handed us gifts – OTA t-shirts!!  He had got our logo from the internet and had it embroidered on shirts for Francis and I.  This is something we had been talking about doing for years now, and here Jared had shown us up!  We are immensely grateful for the shirts and wear them with pride.

In the evening, we went to see the Ndere Troupe, a dancing and drumming show.  The host was very entertaining and one of his sets involved getting an American member of the audience to demonstrate to the Ugandans how all the vowels actually have different pronunciations.  He used the examples “hat”, “hut”, ‘hurt” and “hot” which can all sound very similar when a Ugandan (or a Kenyan) say them.  Similarly, I’m never quite sure if Francis is asking me if I’m “hungry” or “angry” and the evolution of “hangry” in English has made things a bit easier for both of us.

The Burundian drummers had to be the highlight however.  Their drums were massive and so the logical place to carry huge drums is of course on one’s head.  They walked onto the stage beating the drums that sat horizontally on their heads.  They then lowered the drums to the ground and you could tell how heavy they were from the way they heaved them down.  It was incredible!

Graduation Day

The next day was the graduation.  Unfortunately, Bev had fallen ill a week before she was due to travel and so I was even more anxious to be there to report back to her about it.  But when I arrived at the gate they told me I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera inside.  It was very confusing – this is a big day for families to see their loved ones graduate from university and we can’t bring cameras in?!  Meanwhile, everyone inside was taking photos with their phones and iPads!  I’m still not sure about the reason for banning cameras but we got around the situation and I was able to attend.

Jared was beaming with pride in his cloak and hat amongst his fellow students.  The Bachelors of Public Health were the second biggest group after the Nursing graduates and they let out a loud whoop once all their names had been called.  The restrictions of the space meant that the students just stood up when their name was called rather than negotiating their way to the front to doff and shake hands.  It was a much more efficient way to do it and the ceremony finished a bit early as a result.

Jared and his aunt invited us to lunch afterwards where we ate some delicious food and took photos in the garden….in between downpours!  It was a short but sweet visit as the next day we headed back to Kenya.  We are very proud of Jared’s achievement and of course we thank Bev so very much for affording him this opportunity.  Jared has since secured employment in his field, working in refugee camps on the Uganda-South Sudan border administering vaccinations and improving maternal and child health.

Thrilling Safaris that show the Best of Kenya

Thrilling Safaris that show the Best of Kenya

If you had friends living in Kenya you’d definitely have to take advantage of the safari opportunity presented by visiting them, right?  That’s exactly what Koen and Puteri’s friends did.  The only challenge was how to schedule all the parks they wanted to visit amongst their obligations in Nairobi.  Simple: three short safaris rather than one long one.

The first trip was to Maasai Mara….of course!  As Kenya’s premier tourist destination, it is on top of most people’s lists when they come here.  Sadly, Kenya’s premier tourist destination is accessed by one of the world’s worst roads and so the group opted to fly there.  Koen, Puteri and their two children accompanied their friends for a three-day weekend in “The Mara”.  They stayed at Mara Siria, a tented camp on the Oloololo side of the reserve.

A few days later, the three friends set out with Francis to Amboseli and Tsavo West National Parks.  This was a four-day trip with mass herds of elephants and stunning views of Mt Kilimanjaro the highlights.

The first day they drove down Mombasa Highway to Lumo Community Sanctuary.  They stayed at the beautiful Lions Bluff, a tented camp perched atop a ridge overlooking the plains to Mt Kilimanjaro.  Their bar is The Best place for a sundowner in Kenya (IMHO).

The next day saw them cross the road into Tsavo West National Park, Kenya’s largest park and, together with Tsavo East National Park, takes up 4% of Kenya’s area.  The animals in Tsavo West tend to be a bit shy compared to other parks; I think because it’s such a huge space, quite bushy and less visited, so they don’t get used to passing traffic.  The travellers stayed at Voyager Ziwani, another tented camp again facing Mt Kilimanjaro for a dramatic sunset view.  There is also a waterhole by the camp and they saw no less than ten Giant Kingfishers fishing.  Leslie went for a walk near the waterhole and although she saw the crocodile, she thought it was a fake – you would, wouldn’t you?!  But suddenly as she approached, it dived into the water.  I don’t know who got the bigger fright!

The final stop before returning to Nairobi was Amboseli National Park.  Rather than returning to the highway, it is possible to skirt around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro from Tsavo West to Amboseli.  Travelling this way takes you through the Shetani Lava Flows, from the last time Kilimanjaro erupted.  They stayed at Kibo Camp where the pool was a very welcome break from the vehicle.  On their game drive in Amboseli, they saw a lion at last.

What’s lurking in the bushes?

Leslie went home after this safari so there were only two who went with Francis to Samburu and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the north of Kenya….and in the northern hemisphere as they crossed the equator to get there.

Their first day in Samburu saw them chased by an elephant.  Their second day in Samburu saw them reversing and retreating as an elephant was blocking the road and was not willing to budge for anyone.  They saw a lion at the river and a caracal – not a common sighting.  They stayed at Samburu Intrepids, a tented camp inside the park.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy was the last park for these epic travellers, and probably the highlight of their whole time in Kenya.  They watched a lion hunt a baby rhino.  Fortunately (for the rhino!) the lion was unsuccessful, but what an amazing thing to witness!  They stayed at the Serena Sweet Waters Camp, one of Kenya’s nicest tented camps as the dining room and tents arc around a large waterhole.  In the evenings, animals congregate at the waterhole – there’s almost no need to go out on a game drive!  I remember arriving there one evening myself and as I entered the dining room, I was greeted with the sight of about five rhinos just outside the window!

Would you like to experience your own safari in Kenya?  We would love to hear from you! Get in touch via tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we can start planning your adventure today.

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