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“Best honeymoon ever”

Two suitcases full of donations!  That’s what Bryan and Jade brought with them when they came to Africa for their month-long honeymoon safari.  As members of Pack for a Purpose, we encourage our guests to put some school supplies or clothes in their luggage if they have a bit of extra room.  But these two flew business class and maxxed out their luggage allowance after taking up a collection around their workplaces, family and friends.  We were able to arrange for them to make some of the donations in person as they travelled through Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya so they could see the positive impact they were making with the mountains of stationary they’d dragged halfway around the world.

Bryan and Jade flew from Melbourne, Australia, to Kigali, Rwanda.  There was to be no messing around – they were to start their safari with a bang: gorilla tracking!  They spent their first night at the Hotel des Mille-Collines which was made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda.  Like much of Kigali, the hotel does not show any scars from its grizzly history and is an up-market city hotel in the heart of Kigali.

Before heading up to the Volcanoes National Park, home to the mountain gorillas, the couple spent the morning in Kigali.  They visited the Genocide Memorial, a sombre museum detailing Rwanda’s history of colonialism and how it led to tribal tensions and ultimately the 1994 genocide.  Although I’ve personally been to Kigali several times and taken guests to the gates of the memorial, I’ve only been able to go inside once – although it is vitally important for people to be aware of how such an event can happen, it is incredibly sad and not a place I could tackle a second time.

Their first full day in Africa was certainly one of contrasts: from the luxury of Hotel des Mille-Collines, to the torrid history at the Genocide Memorial, and then to Nyamirambo Township for a community walk to witness modern Rwandan life.  All this before lunch!  They enjoyed a local lunch at the Women’s Centre in the township which supports women living in the slum by selling their handicrafts and giving them employment in cooking for visitors.

Then they drove two hours north of Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park – another contrast to the city they had experienced in the morning.  Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is located just outside the national park and has spectacular views of the volcanoes.  It is a community-run luxury lodge that was established by the Governor’s Collection based in Kenya but with all proceeds supporting the local community.

After that jam-packed first day, you’d think a rest was in order.  But no, it was an early start into the park to look for a unique and endangered species.  Not the mountain gorilla yet, but the Golden Monkey.  Once found, you can spend an hour watching these playful, lively creatures in their natural habitat.  You do get a bit of a crick in your neck though as they tend to play in the canopy which also makes getting good photos a challenge.

After the Golden Monkey experience, Bryan and Jade visited the Karisoke Research Centre which was founded by Dr Dian Fossey in 1967.  They enjoyed a guided tour where they learnt about the ongoing work of the Centre in protecting the mountain gorillas.

Finally the big day had arrived: day three in Africa was gorilla day.  It’s a very early start as you need to be at the ranger station by 7am for orientation.  The trek can vary in length and difficulty depending on the location of the gorilla family you are visiting.  Once you find them you spend an hour observing these beautiful and endangered creatures.  It is one of life’s most magical experiences being in the presence of a gorilla family.  The startlingly high price for the permit, the toil of hiking in the mountains through dense bush, the inhuman time the alarm woke you in the morning – all these are forgotten as you sit in the foliage metres away from these incredible beings that are so close to us genetically.  You can see the tenderness in the mother’s eyes as she watches her baby learn to swing on the vines, and the massive silverback keeping one watchful eye on his family and an even more watchful eye on the visitors – you know that one sudden move could be your last if he swung his powerful arm at you.

In a daze you head back down the mountain only half-believing what you just experienced.  Over (a usually late) lunch you tend to garble stories with your travel companion(s), still in awe of being in the presence of mountain gorillas.  After lunch, Bryan and Jade visited a local village to catch a glimpse of rural life before heading back to Kigali.

After that whirlwind three days in Rwanda, they flew to Arusha in Tanzania.  They had to fly via Nairobi and at the last minute the schedule changed and they ended up with several hours in Nairobi.  I met them at the airport for lunch as Nairobi’s airport isn’t one that you can easily while away several hours.  It was nice to meet them in person – Bryan was a friend of a friend and we had met a couple of times many years before but I’d never met Jade.  But usually through the process of designing a tailor-made itinerary, I feel like I get to know our guests quite well as emails and phone calls fly back and forth, so it is always lovely to meet in person and put faces to itineraries.  They had left one suitcase of clothing donations with our Rwandan partner and gave me another massive suitcase when we met for lunch, obviously not wanting to cart it all over Tanzania.  It was full of stationary which we could distribute between Amani Kibera and Kiota Children’s Home.  Bryan and Jade had put the call out to friends, family and colleagues that they were going to Africa and had a huge luggage allowance so anyone who wanted to donate items for needy families could give those items to the couple to bring.  And donate they did!

Game drives begin

Bryan and Jade’s first stop in Tanzania was Lake Manyara National Park, described as one of the hidden gems of Tanzania.  It is famous for tree climbing lions and large herds of elephant, which are not shy to come straight up to the vehicle.  They enjoyed an afternoon game drive, their first of many!

The next day they drove to one of the most famous game parks in Africa: the Serengeti.  These huge flat plains are home to millions of wildebeest during the migration meaning you are also likely to find lion, cheetah, leopard, hyena and many other small predators.  Again their afternoon was spent on game drive before enjoying dinner and the experience of sleeping in the middle of the Serengeti at Lemala Ewanjan Camp.

They had another full day in the Serengeti with their guide Grayson finding the best spotting locations.  It’s always good to start early for a better chance of finding the big cats before they retreat from the blazing sun during the day.  The Serengeti has so much to offer: you can spend time at the hippo pool, watching these majestic animals laze about in the cool water alongside the crocodiles, watch a big pride of lions or be in the middle of the migration.  You can journey from the wide open plains to the kopjes, volcanic rocky outcrops that provide protection and shelter for a wide variety of animals.  From the top of a kopje, you can look out across the vast grasslands.  This diverse and interesting landscape provides the ultimate in game viewing.

After a final morning game drive, they continued to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area where they stayed at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge which sits right on the rim of the crater.  The next morning they descended into the Ngorongoro Crater which is a wonderful haven for wildlife.  Ngorongoro is unique in that almost all the wildlife lives within the crater walls hence you have the opportunity to find game easily.  Rhino, in particular, can be seen regularly as well as prides of lion and other predators like cheetah.  After a picnic lunch by the hippo pond, our honeymooners commenced the drive to Lake Eyasi.

Lake Eyasi is home to the hunter-gatherer ethnic group of the Hadzabe Bushmen, who bear similar characteristics to those of Bushmen in Southern Africa.  This indigenous tribe is probably the last that lives in true harmony with nature and are well-known for their communication via clicking rather than speech.  Bryan and Jade enjoyed hunting with them and experiencing their way of life.

Finally it was time for them to come to Kenya.  Francis met them at the Namanga border post and brought them to Nairobi and straight into the Nairobi National Park where they enjoyed a game drive as they found their way to The Emakoko.

Then it was time for their first wedding gift; Matt and Katie had given them an elephant called Maktau!  As a foster parent of an elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, you can visit the elephants in the evening, away from the mass crowds of the morning session, and help put the baby elephants to bed.  Bryan and Jade fell in love with several other elephant orphans during their visit and came away with another three fostered babies.

You might think that a luxury lodge in a national park just 6km from a major capital city would be exciting enough, but their second night in Nairobi trumped the first.  Almost a year before the trip, Bryan and Jade’s friends got in touch with me about giving the newlyweds a really special gift: a night at the Giraffe Manor!  It’s necessary to book a year or more in advance and even though November is a shoulder season, there was still only one night in the window of travel time Bryan and Jade had that had a room available at Giraffe Manor.  We had to design the whole itinerary around this one night.

After checking in and lunching with the giraffes (and watching a self-proclaimed Instagram influencer go through a number of outfit changes as he posed with giraffes) I took Bryan and Jade to Kibera slum with their suitcase of donations to give personally to the Amani Kibera community-based organisation.  They sat down with Ben, one of the founders, to hear more about the projects Amani Kibera does to promote peace in the slum.  Ben was blown away with the pile of stationary and the couple of iPads that Bryan and Jade were donating.  The organisation facilitates sponsorship of students who cannot afford school fees and the additional assistance of the stationary would be a great help to those students.

Breakfast at Giraffe Manor has been photographed and featured as a quintessential African experience, so we gave Bryan and Jade a rare late start before heading out of Nairobi and off to Amboseli National Park.  Nestled at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is another oft-photographed place with the picture of elephants grazing in the shadow of the mountain another quintessential African moment.  On arrival at Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge, they were greeted with rose petals all over their bed – just in case all the adventure had made them forget this was their honeymoon!

From Amboseli, they skirted around the base of Kilimanjaro, close to the Tanzanian border, to get to Tsavo West National Park.  After lunch at the lodge, they got another wedding present: a guided excursion to the Shetani Lava Fields and Caves, which are the results of Mt Kilimanjaro’s last eruption.

Tsavo West is huge and together with Tsavo East National Park, they make up 4% of Kenya’s total land mass.  Bryan and Jade had a few days to explore the vast parks and spent three nights in three lodges in three corners of the park.  First at Kilaguni Serena Lodge, from where there is easy access to the Shetani Lava Fields and also Mzima Springs where there is an underwater viewing room.  Hippos, crocodiles and lots of fish can be observed from this unique vantage point.  Second was Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge which is up on stilts and elephants, zebras, and all the other animals wander around the salt lick below.  Technically, the salt lick is in a sanctuary adjacent to the national park so it is possible to do a night game drive, which our honeymooning couple of course took up.

The third day was back in the national park in Tsavo East at Satao Camp.  Unfortunately their bush breakfast was cancelled due to rain, but that was the least of the problems the rain had caused.  Trucks were bogged on the road and Francis had to detour off road around them.  Then there were David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service trucks bringing elephants to Tsavo East from the orphanage in Nairobi to start their rehabilitation.  But the local elephants were going crazy so they couldn’t release the new elephants from the trailers.  One elephant blocked the road so no one could pass – not Kenya Wildlife Service and not our travelers.

At last they reached Watamu and the Medina Palms where the swimming pool extends all the way from the rooms to the beach.  Now we can say Bryan and Jade were on their honeymoon: five relaxing nights on a honeymoon package washing the safari dust off in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.  Bryan is a diver so we selected this part of the Kenyan coast for the Watamu Marine Park famous for dolphins, turtles and plenty of other spectacular marine life.

The only thing left is their five-star Trip Advisor review which we were pretty chuffed with as it described their trip as the “Best Honeymoon Ever”:

Nothing was too difficult and everything planned to the smallest detail. When there was a long stopover, she came to the airport and bought us lunch! All the hotels on the way were told it was our honeymoon and we got upgrades and champas and great service. The organization was spot on but flexible. Shout out to Grayson in Tanzania who was excellent too. Would thoroughly recommend OTA and their partners! Eagle eye spotting of game so we were often the first!

https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g294207-d3561827-r640285262-Overland_Travel_Adventures_Private_Day_Tours-Nairobi.html

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.

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.

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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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

Have you met the Samburu Five?

Have you met the Samburu Five?

Situated at the southern corner of the Samburu district in the Rift Valley province, the Samburu ecosystem comprises three national reserves: Shaba, Buffalo Springs and Samburu.  These parks are not as famous as others in Kenya, but within this ecosystem are species found nowhere else in the country, including the Grevy’s Zebra, Somali Ostrich, Beisa Oryx, Reticulated Giraffe and Gerenuk.

OTA Turkana Festival Tour, Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

The landscape offers amazing variety from open savannah to scrub desert to lush river foliage, offering fantastic opportunities for excellent wildlife encounters.  Steep-sided gullies and rounded hills formed on the lava plain describe the terrain.  Vegetation in the reserve area is dominated by umbrella acacia woodland with intermittent bush-, grass- and scrub-land. Near the river, Doum Palm dominates the landscape. The fruits of the Doum are eaten by monkey, baboon and elephant.

The climate in this area is typically dry and hot.  Temperatures can reach 40°C in the day with an average low of 20°C at night.  The rainy season occurs during the hotter months between April and June and also November and December, with November usually being the wettest month.  Between January and March it is very hot and dry; July to October is also dry.  The elevation in the park ranges from 800 to 1,230 metres.

Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves are separated by 32 km of the Uaso Nyiro River, which winds its way through Kenya from the Aberdare Mountains to the Loriam Swamp near the Somali border.  The river is the lifeline of this arid region, drawing the water-dependent animals to it during the dry season.  In the Samburu language, “Uaso Nyiro” means “River of Brown Water”.

Located 345km north of Nairobi is Archer’s Gate, the main entrance to Samburu National Reserve.  Established in 1948, the Reserve is relatively small at 170 square kilometres, making animals a bit easier to find than in other parks.  Entry fees for foreigners are currently US$70 per day (2014).

OTA Turkana Festival Tour, Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Monkey, olive baboon, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, monitor lizard and Nile crocodile are the most commonly seen residents of Samburu.  Lodges in the reserve have attracted the normally reclusive leopards with bait for several years, so the chances of seeing one are greater than in other parks.  As well as these mammals and reptiles, there are over 300 species of birds, including large flocks of Helmeted and Vulturine Guineafowl.  The five endemic species to the area are: Gerenuk, also known as the “giraffe-necked antelope” as it has a stretched neck adapted for browsing high into the bushes; Grevy’s Zebra, with wide black stripes and a completely white belly; Beisa Oryx; Reticulated Giraffe; and the blue-legged Somali Ostrich.

Accommodation in and around Samburu National Reserve varies in luxury and budget.

Umoja Women’s Campsite is our favourite budget option just outside the park gate at Archer’s Post.  It is a community campsite with bandas (small huts) and simple meals.  It is attached to a women’s village that provides refuge for Samburu women fleeing domestic violence.  Proceeds from the campsite support the women, and you can visit the village to learn more about Samburu culture.  Meet the Chairwoman and Founder, Rebecca Lolosoli, in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1zuCNemmPo.

Samburu Intrepids is an eco-friendly option inside the reserve.  They have financed the development of a school, a bee-keeping project and medical services in the community.

Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Lodge, Saruni Samburu, Sasaab Samburu and Elephant Bedroom Camp are other lodges in the area.

The town of Archer’s Post has simple, budget guesthouses and restaurants.

OTA Turkana Festival Tour, Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

OTA is running a eight-day safari from Nairobi, Kenya to the Lake Turkana Festival via Samburu National Reserve in June.  The Lake Turkana Festival is one of the cultural highlights on Kenya’s calendar.  The tour includes game viewing in Samburu, visiting outback towns Maralal and Marsabit, and visiting the extraordinary cultural festival in Loyangalani.  Fourteen communities in this remote corner of the world coming together to celebrate their differences – don’t you want to be a part of that?!  Visit the website for more information http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com for more information, or check the event page on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/OverlandTravelAdventures

Lake Nakuru National Park: A bird watcher’s paradise

The Rift Valley province in Kenya is home to seven national parks, including the two premium parks as designated by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).  Lake Nakuru National Park is one of those premium parks and will be the subject of this article.

 

White rhinos at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

White rhinos at Lake Nakuru National Park

Named the “Bird Watchers’ Paradise” by KWS, Lake Nakuru was first gazetted as a bird sanctuary in 1961.  In 1964, the park was extended to the north, so it now covered the whole lake and a surrounding perimeter.  In 1990, the lake was designated as a Ramsar site – the Ramsar Convention is an international treaty for the protection, conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands of international importance, especially as waterfowl habitat.

Flamingoes at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.comCyanophyte Spirulina platensis, the major food source for flamingos, thrives in the lake and supports huge numbers of Lesser Flamingo.  Both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and other water birds are found in abundance, as well as a large variety of terrestrial birds, bringing the number of species found in Lake Nakuru National Park to nearly 450.  There are approximately 56 mammal species residing in the park including both black and white rhinos.  The park hosts unique vegetation including about 550 different plant species including yellow acacia woodlands and Africa’s largest Euphorbia candelabrum forest.

Tree-climbing lions at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Tree-climbing lions

There are three viewpoints in the national park: Lion Hill, Baboon Cliff and Out of Africa.  These are designated areas where you can get out of the vehicle, stretch your legs, and get some stunning photos of the lake and surrounds.  There are also a few hills that are not established viewpoints (so you must stay in the vehicle) that also offer views of the picturesque landscape; Enasoit, Honeymoon and Lion Hill Ridge are three.  Lake Nakuru also has a waterfall feeding it at the south end. Makalia Falls gushes during the wet season and is barely a trickle in the dry.

Makalia Falls, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Makalia Falls

There are two public campsites within the National Park – one near the main gate and one at Makalia Falls.  Although Makalia Falls’ location is preferable, running water is intermittent as are doors on the toilets.  There are also several special campsites dotted around the park.  There are no fences between you and the animals in these campsites, so you must be careful when you are cooking and make sure you do it in daylight hours.  Camping fees are US$25 for non-residents, 500KES for residents and 200KES for East African citizens.

Makalia Falls campsite, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Makalia Falls campsite

To enter the National Park, the fees are US$80 for non-residents, 1000KES for East African residents and citizens plus 300KES for a small vehicle (up to six seats).  There are toilets, a restaurant and a curio shop at the main gate.  Entry permits are valid for the day of entry only, and you must be out of the park by 6pm (or parked at the campsite if staying overnight).  So it’s a good idea to get in early if you only have one day.

Baboon family, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Baboon family

Packing a picnic is a cost-efficient and quite pleasant lunch option – the lookouts mentioned above make good lunch stops, just watch out for baboons!  Baboon Cliff and Out of Africa lookouts both have toilets and covered areas.  There is another picnic site in the middle of acacia woodlands.  If you are in the park for just one day, Makalia Falls is also a nice place for a picnic.

Road block at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Road Block

It is definitely worth spending a day exploring Lake Nakuru National Park.  As one of Kenya’s premium national parks, it is famous as the home to thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingos. The park also provides sanctuary for Rothschild giraffe, rhino and leopard.

Leopard at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, OTA Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Leopard

Interview With Rebecca Lolosoli, Chair of Umoja Women’s Group

After visiting Rebecca several times over the course of a year, OTA interviewed her in September 2013 to share her story of Umoja Women’s Group.  She founded Umoja in 1990 to help Samburu women suffering from domestic violence and other abuses find a safe refuge.  Over the decades she has met incredible opposition from the Samburu men, but against the odds she has established a haven currently housing 58 women and recently ran for a political position in her community.

My name is Rebecca Lolosoli. I work with Umoja Women’s Group which was started in 1990.  We started a women’s village and in 1990 we had three women; now we are 58 women.  It’s a village where women run to, like a shelter for the women.

We are fighting for the rights of women, the rights of weak families, and the rights of girls.  Samburu women don’t have rights.  So we fight for our girls to go to school, to choose their husbands and to own anything like land and livestock as any other human being can.  This village is the shelter for women where women and girls run to during their problems, such as early marriages, early pregnancy, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  We also try to help those girls that get pregnant before FGM because their baby will be killed so we try to protect the girl and protect the baby.

OTA's Turkana Festival Tour in Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

And now also the women work fighting for peace. We need peace in Kenya and we want to have peace with other communities like our neighbours – the ones who are fighting with Samburu: Borana, Turkana, and Pokot.  So we think the women are to bring these changes of peace and we want to network with our neighbours (the Borana, Turkana and Pokot).  We want to visit each other and try to see how we can bring peace between us because we are the victims.  It’s always the women and children who are the victims.  That’s why we have to think again about peace because there’s no development without peace and that’s what we are trying to do with Umoja Women’s Group.

OTA's Turkana Festival Tour in Kenya www.ota-responsibletravel.com

You can visit Umoja Women’s Village at Archer’s Post, near the gate of Samburu National Reserve.  Rebecca also runs a campsite close to the village where tourists visiting the Reserve can stay.  The proceeds from the camp support the women in the village and their ongoing fight for women’s rights in the Samburu community.  Visit www.umojawomen.org for more information.

OTA is running a nine-day safari from Nairobi, Kenya to the Lake Turkana Festival via Samburu National Reserve and Thomson’s Falls in June.  The Lake Turkana Festival is one of the cultural highlights on Kenya’s calendar.  It includes game viewing in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, visiting outback towns Maralal and Marsabit, and visiting the extraordinary cultural festival in Loyangalani.  Ten communities in this remote corner of the world coming together to celebrate their differences – don’t you want to be a part of that?!  Visit the website for more information http://www.ota-responsibletravel.com for more information, or check the Event page on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/OverlandTravelAdventures

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.

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