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Why the Heck Is Conservation Important Anyway?

Why the Heck Is Conservation Important Anyway?

Last year we lost Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, leaving only two females remaining in the world.  However, the people at Ol Pejeta Conservancy are dedicated to protecting those two rhinos, not to mention rescuing chimpanzees from circuses and other unpleasant situations.  This post takes you on a tour of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, looking at their various projects, as well as the practicalities of how you can visit.

Located three kilometres south of Nanyuki, Ol Pejeta is one of many conservancies in the Laikipia region.  Conservancies are privately owned (as opposed to National Parks which are government-owned) and usually come about as ranchers set aside a part of their farm for conservation purposes.  The vegetation is allowed to grow naturally and wild animals come to these safe havens away from human habitat encroachment.  Ol Pejeta also works closely with the community, establishing a school and helping other farmers in the area with sustainable farming techniques and human-wildlife conflict.

What to do in the conservancy

As with other game parks, the most common activity is to go on game drives through the conservancy.   Lions, waterbucks, (southern) white and black rhinos, leopards, hippos, topi and other antelopes can all be found at Ol Pejeta.  There are two specific places however, that make Ol Pejeta unique: the Endangered Animals Enclosure and the Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

The Endangered Animals Enclosure is where you will find the two Northern White Rhinos pondering the demise of their kind.  Together with other stakeholders, Ol Pejeta is raising funds to attempt IVF for the female Northern White Rhinos.  The rhinos are aging however, so it’s a race against time and increasingly it looks like they will have to use a southern white rhino as a surrogate.  Recently, the conservancy started to offer horse rides through the Endangered Animals Enclosure, adding another level of excitement to visitors’ experience of the conservancy.

The Chimpanzee Sanctuary is the only place in Kenya where you can see chimps.  The chimpanzees have all been rescued from abusive situations whether they were in a circus or kept as pets or other entertainment.  As a result, they can be a little unfriendly, but after some time getting to know their new family and adapting back to the wild they settle into their new life.  The first time I visited, one chimp seemed to be carrying a lot of anger and was throwing sticks at visitors – fortunately there’s a fence between humans and animals.  But his aggressive behaviour was indicative of the circumstances he had lived in before coming to Ol Pejeta.  A ranger will take you on a guided walk around the sanctuary and tell you about some of the chimps – they have names and each has its own story.

There are several accommodation options within the conservancy ranging from the luxurious to the basic.  There are three public campsites that require you to bring all your own food, tents, cooking equipment and carry your rubbish out.  They supply firewood and will dig a toilet if you book in advance.  No showers though.  The largest lodging is Serena Sweet Waters Camp; a luxurious tented camp arced around a large waterhole.  The tents are spacious with en suite bathrooms and four-poster beds.  Meals are buffet-style and the dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the waterhole – dinner AND a show!  Pelican House is a self-catering guesthouse perfect for families and small groups to rent exclusively.  The Stables are a budget accommodation with full service while at the other end of the spectrum is Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages, Kicheche Laikipia Camp and Porini Rhino Camp.

For those interested in spending a longer amount of time to learn more about the conservation and community work of the conservancy, two-week volunteer programs are available.  They also have a Junior Ranger program for children aged 4-12 years, making this conservancy one of the most family-friendly in Kenya.

Ol Pejeta is about a four-hour drive north of Nairobi on a decent highway.  The last 20 kilometres is on a dirt road from the highway to the entrance gate.  If time is limited, you might prefer to fly from Nairobi to Nanyuki from where your accommodation in Ol Pejeta can arrange a pick up.

Would you like to visit Ol Pejeta?  Get in touch with us at OTA to organise your visit, either as part of a longer safari or as a special weekend away.  We recommend at least two nights if Ol Pejeta is to be your only safari destination, but it also makes a great overnight stop on the way to Samburu National Reserve.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to start planning this exotic safari experience.

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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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!

Crowned Cranes Amboseli

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 Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

If you are a backpacker, independent traveller or more experienced safari-goer you might be considering your accommodation options for your next visit to Kenya.  This article offers advice about the different types of accommodation and whether it is better to stay in a nearby town when visiting the national parks.  The answer does somewhat depend on your definition of “better” – in terms of quality usually it is not better, but in terms of cost it usually is.  My recommendation is to stay outside the park but close to the gate where you can usually find campsites and cheaper lodges than inside the park, but still enjoy the convenience of being at the park.

For many backpackers and independent travellers, “better” can often mean “cheaper” so let’s start with that as a definition to decide the best place to stay.  Although the cost of the accommodation in the towns will be lower than accommodation inside the parks, you also need to factor in the cost of transport between the town accommodation and the park.  Sometimes camping is preferable to dingy local guesthouses and can be the same price. Camping inside the parks is expensive, but at most parks in Kenya there are campsites close to the park gates that have good amenities (including cold beer) for around US$6-10 per person per night.

Aside from cost, there are more experiential definitions of “better” to decide where to stay.  Guesthouses in towns can offer a deeper insight into local culture and if you get lucky with your fellow guests it can be a very good experience.  You have more freedom to explore when you are close to the action.  You can go out to find a local restaurant and again have a more local experience with your meals.  Public transport to towns in Kenya is readily available so getting to your accommodation in a town is easier.

To counter these positive aspects, there are some things to consider.  Local guesthouses are often co-located with a restaurant and bar so it can be quite noisy at night, especially if there is a big football game on.  They also may not have the quality of facilities that we might expect at home.  While the overall cleanliness might look OK, the attention to detail is often lacking.  Many local establishments have squat toilets or even just a hole in the ground.  If there is a toilet, there is often not a toilet seat.  On the coast you will be hard-pressed to find a hot water shower and inland the hot water showers are electric (so you have to remember to flick the switch to get hot water).  If mosquito nets are provided, they often have holes in them.  Because most travellers do stay closer to the park, you also need to be prepared to be stared at as you will be a novelty (especially women).

If your priority for visiting that area is to see the wildlife in the park, then it is far more convenient to stay inside the park or just outside the gate, rather than in a nearby town.  Realistically, the closest towns are just not that close – for Maasai Mara you would be staying in Narok which is two hours away on a corrugated road, and for Samburu you would be looking for somewhere to stay in Isiolo which is over half an hour away.

If you do want to stay in a local guesthouse then I suggest doing as much research as you can.  Sites like Trip Advisor may not be so useful for small local places, so you are probably better asking people who have been before – perhaps expats or Kenyans in Nairobi who have to travel to that area for work.  It will help to find out the types of people who frequent the accommodation (is it geared towards business travellers or bus/truck drivers) and if there is anything to be especially aware of (i.e. some guesthouses act as the local brothel, which is only known to locals, not unwitting tourists).

Even if you prefer travelling independently, when visiting national parks in Kenya it is often easier to go with a tour operator who can cater to your budget and needs.  Your safety and security is much higher with an operator and their knowledge of the accommodation options means you have more choices available to you.  But if you still prefer to go it alone, then hopefully this article has provided you with more awareness about the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodation options.

Have you stayed in local guesthouses in Kenya? What has been your experience?  And what is your recommendation for fellow travelers in choosing their accommodation?

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