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Is It OK To Book A Safari While In Kenya?

Is it OK to book a safari once you arrive in Kenya or is it better to book in advance?  This question repeatedly comes up on various travel forums.  Many travelers (including myself) like the freedom of landing in a country and seeing how it flows without being locked into a set itinerary where you are told when and where to eat, sleep and go.  So let’s explore how you can go on safari with some sense of freedom while remaining safe, comfortable and within budget.

Let’s start with “Yes”, it’s OK to book a safari once you arrive in Kenya.  If you wander the streets of Nairobi’s CBD, you will be approached by touts selling cheap safaris.  It is very easy to go along with one of them.  The vehicles are usually parked near City Market, so if you are ready to go, you could go immediately.  They accept cash so you just need to go to the ATM, withdraw, hand it over and you’re away.  Simple.

For those who are happy with doing things quickly, simply and are flexible in their expectations, this is perfect.  For others, this might sound a bit dodgy.  I had a friend who went for this method and it wasn’t until her and her comrades had withdrawn the money from the ATM that they realized they were about to walk through downtown Nairobi and at least one person knew they were carrying masses of cash.  It suddenly seemed a foolhardy approach.

So we move to “No” it’s perhaps not a good idea to book a safari when you arrive in Kenya.  Safaris aren’t cheap….or you definitely get what you pay for!  If you find a deal on the street that seems too good to be true, then it probably is.  You might find yourself eating zikuma (kale) and ugali (maize meal) for a week and every day dealing with the results of a poorly maintained vehicle.  Remember, fuel is the same price as at home and the roads are in bad condition (like, worse than you could even imagine), so running a vehicle here is an expensive proposition.

You want to trust your tour operator.  You are about to hand over a large amount of money to make this once-in-a-lifetime safari the one you’ve always dreamed of.  Why would you risk that by picking any Joe off the street?  Take time to do your research.  Read reviews of tour operators (Trip Advisor, Safari Bookings and Your African Safari all help), and start an email conversation to get a feel for how they respond to your wishes.  While it’s not necessary, you may also want to check with industry bodies such at KATO (Kenyan Association of Tour Operators) whose members tend to be more reliable and competent than non-members.  You also want to know who you are dealing with – an agent or an operator.  Of course if you are dealing with your travel agent at home then they will connect you with a reputable tour operator.  But some Kenyan agents can look very much like operators on their websites.  This means they will not be responsible for vehicle maintenance and be “selling you” to a tour operator.  In this case you still don’t know who will be responsible for your comfort and safety while on safari and whether you trust them.  And agents in Kenya are not held by the same rules and guarantees as agents at home, so if they disappear with your money there’s not much recourse.

Kenya is not all bad!

But it’s not just about avoiding shady people (I don’t want to sound like Kenya is full of conmen!), it’s also about availability.  Most people want to come for the Wildebeest Migration in July and August.  These months are also summer holidays in the US and Europe so accommodation in Maasai Mara is around 97% booked throughout the period.  Christmas is also a peak period, with a lot of Kenyans travelling at this time as well as international tourists.  Accommodation and vehicles can be difficult to source in these peak times if you leave it to the last minute.

If you are not fussy about food, the vehicle, or which game park you go to and are on a budget, then you can take a chance with booking your safari when you get to Kenya.  But I recommend you spend some time researching reputable tour operators with good reviews so you know you are safe.  Unfortunately, Kenya is perhaps not the best country to trust strangers on the street who have “the best safari deal for you!”

Overland Travel Adventures has excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and we love working with our guests to personally design their dream safari.  We are a family-run business with husband and wife team, Tracey and Francis, taking care of you from planning through execution.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to start planning your holiday today.

Ellies and Giraffes with Linda and Amy

Ellies and Giraffes with Linda and Amy

One of Nairobi’s best-kept secrets is a beautiful nature park opposite the AFEW Giraffe Centre.  It’s where Linda, Amy and I had a picnic to the soundtrack of birdsong in March 2016.  Volunteers at the Sunrise of Africa School in Kitengela, Linda and Amy booked a day trip with us to see some of Nairobi highlights.  So we visited the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the AFEW Giraffe Centre – two fantastic places where you can get up close to the animals and support conservation efforts carried out by these two organisations.

Kitengela is Kenya’s fastest-growing town and each time we visit Sunrise of Africa School it feels like we have to re-learn the way as buildings go up, roads are built and/or moved and landmarks change.  Eventually I found Linda and Amy early in the morning and we headed straight to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

My opinion is that the Elephant Orphanage is THE best place to visit in Nairobi; if you only have time to visit one attraction here, make it the baby elephants!  They spend most of their day out in the Nairobi National Park, under the supervision of the keepers, learning to forage and live in the wild.  The intention is for their rehabilitation back to the wild when they are old enough.  But for one hour each day they run down to the centre for a milk feed and a play in front of the large number of visitors who come every day.  They are fed formula milk from huge bottles – the younger ones need their bottles held by their keeper, but the older ones twirl their trunks around the bottle and hold it high, emptying the milk straight down their throats.  The keepers give a talk about the orphanage and introduce each elephant, telling the story of how each orphan came to be here.

Nearby is the Giraffe Centre and opposite the Giraffe Centre is a park with walking trails and hundreds of birds.  It is a serene place to spend some time out from the hustle of Kenya’s capital.  Linda, Amy and I found some rocks to perch on and enjoy our picnic lunch in the peace of the bush.  Only one other group came by as we feasted on salad sandwiches, fruit, yoghurt, and cakes.  It sounds a simple lunch for our visitors, but after spending a month eating traditional Kenyan food (beans, lentils, spinach, everything stewed to death, and then the carbs…..), a fresh salad was a welcome change for Linda and Amy.

After lunch, we rejoined the crowds at the Giraffe Centre.  Here is where you stand on platform at eye-level with the giraffes and feed them.  And get a kiss if you’re really game!  The centre is home to several Rothschild Giraffes, one of the most endangered species of giraffe in the world (did you know there are seven species of giraffe, three of which can be found in Kenya?).  The staff give a talk about giraffes in Kenya and about the work of African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the organisation that founded the Giraffe Centre.

Linda left this review on our Trip Advisor page:

“Tracey met us and and took us to the elephant centre, she was warm, friendly and efficient and provided an excellent picnic between the first and second visit. A very relaxed and happy day.”

Would you like to visit the elephant orphanage and giraffe centre in Nairobi?  Get this free day trip with your safari when you come to Kenya between February and June!  Send an email to tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com so we can start planning your holiday today.

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.

Hiding From Elephants and Other Fun Adventures in Rwanda

So there we were: 13 students, three teachers, two guides, a driver, me and a whole mountain of tension in a white 25-seater bus hiding in the bush from some elephants.  How did we get here?  Two schools from Gippsland in eastern Victoria, Australia, come to Rwanda every year as part of a diocesan partnership between Gippsland and Gahini and in 2015 decided a safari in Akagera National Park would be a perfect way to conclude their trip.  They contacted us to organise the safari and it is probably the highlight of our year at OTA!

That first year (2015), I arrived in Kigali a couple of days before the safari both for professional and personal reasons.  I like Kigali and had not visited since 2012.  It is a very safe city with excellent roads – I didn’t see a single pothole in my whole time in Rwanda!  I spent a morning with Joanna from Rwandan Adventures, a tour company with a focus on cycling trips.  Given Rwanda is nicknamed the Land of 1000 Hills, cycling tours are no mean feat!  Together we visited a women’s project where clothes, bags, toys and other crafts are produced.  They have a walking tour of the local area where you can see typical Rwandan life and finish with lunch in one woman’s home.  It sounded wonderful and I cannot wait to help some of you enjoy this experience.

With a driver and guide, I departed early on Saturday morning for Gahini where we were to meet our group for the safari.  The students had spent two weeks here, on the shore of Lake Muhazi in a small Rwandan village.  They had brought supplies for the hospital, visited several churches in the diocese, and played with pupils at the primary school.  The schools work with the Anglican diocese in Gippsland to give Year 12 students an alternative “Schoolies Week”.  (For non-Australians, Schoolies Week is a tradition for students finishing secondary school.  They go to the Gold Coast or another beach location to wreak drunken havoc on the local community.  Something similar to Spring Break in the US, I think.)

We packed the bus and headed to Akagera National Park.  Another great thing about Rwanda is that, not only are the roads in excellent condition, but the country is so small it doesn’t take long to get anywhere.  So it was only a couple of hours before we were at Akagera Lodge ooh-ing at the pool and aah-ing at the rooms.  After two weeks in the village, this was the epitome of luxury!

Akagera National Park

We went out for an afternoon game drive and then a full day game drive on Sunday.  During the genocide and in its aftermath, Akagera almost disappeared.  Animals were poached for bush meat and the land was taken for refugees returning to Rwanda.  Akagera is now only a third the size it was.  Once there were 3-400 lions in the park, but they were completely eradicated.  In 2015, seven lions were brought up from South Africa and released.  One lioness was already pregnant when we got there so the population does have a chance to regenerate which is great news.  There are plans to introduce 25 rhinos to the park and the first few arrived in 2017.

Interestingly, I sensed a bit of edginess to this park as we observed the animals.  Of course antelope and zebras jump and run away if you drive quickly and noisily.  But if you take it easy, in the Kenyan and Tanzanian parks the animals will generally not pay you much attention.  In Akagera however, the animals were a lot more skittish and it was very difficult to get good sightings and even more challenging to get decent photos.  We know elephants have memories that span generations, but it seemed that even the smaller animals were still traumatised from the violent history of the park.

On the first night, some of the group went on a night game drive and got a bit of a scare when an elephant made a charge at the vehicle.  I’ll confess that I wasn’t too keen to be charged by an elephant so I spent the next day hoping we wouldn’t see one!  The elephants in Akagera are quite aggressive because of the high levels of poaching that have occurred in the past (no poaching now, which is awesome!).  And a Toyota Coaster is not quite as nimble as a Land Cruiser in the bush in the event that we did happen upon some trouble.

However, it was only a matter of time before we came upon a mother and her baby sauntering down the middle of the road.  They were walking away from us, so we followed at a safe distance until they stopped to eat…..and eat….and eat.  They wouldn’t move and there was no way we would get past.  We had a boat safari scheduled (another peculiar thing in Rwanda is that such things are scheduled; in Kenya we tend to just turn up and expect things to be ready to go), and needed to get down this road to the boat ramp.  Eventually we decided to turn around and find another way to the lake.  Now, I forgot to mention how thickly vegetated Akagera is.  And this means that, given elephants tend to travel in herds, if you see one or two ellies then no doubt there are more hidden in the trees (and yes it is possible to hide an elephant!).  So as we headed back, we came face to face with a very large elephant coming down the road.  There had been a lot of jokes among the students about Jurassic Park, and here we were, surrounded not by raptors but elephants, with nowhere to run.  So the decision was made to hide.  Yes, we would hide in our big white Coaster in the bush!  There had been a thinner bit of bush a few metres back and so we reversed into the clearing (or “clearer bit” let’s say), turned off the engine and held our collective breaths.

Oh it was an anti-climax.  The bull just wandered past and didn’t even look sideways at us…..but it was a good thing!  We edged slowly out of the clearing back on the road hoping the way was clear now.  It was and we continued around to the other road to the boat ramp…..until we got to the junction of our previous road.  The elephants had taken over the junction – mama and baby were there, the bull was there, and they had a few other friends with them.  They were feeding and we managed to slip past (again the image of a 25-seater bus “slipping past” anything might be a bit difficult to comprehend) and got to the lake.

It was my turn to go for a night game drive that evening and it was incredible!  I saw my first bushbaby, as well as a pregnant hippo and a genet cat.  Another first-timer for me was the Oribi, a type of antelope.

The safari was SO much fun!  I had a great time with the students and teachers; great chats using all the Aussie slang that I haven’t heard in ages.  I hadn’t laughed so much in a long time either, so even though technically I was working, it really felt like a joyful holiday.

Finally, to cap off my week in Rwanda, I stayed with Agnes and her parents on the outskirts of Kigali.  Her mum didn’t speak much English and so my high school French got tested….and failed, embarrassingly!  My final night, before my midnight flight, Agnes took me to karaoke!!  Just when I thought the week had been super with the safari, it just got more super.  And there, the only white person in the bar, I sang Bob Marley.

Does your school want to come to Africa?  It’s a fantastic alternative to the typical Schoolie’s Week/Spring Break giving students the opportunity to volunteer in a community and enjoy a safari, experiencing different cultures and environments.  Contact OTA on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to find out more about what is possible.

Three For Free!

Three For Free!

Are you planning a safari in Kenya next year?  OTA is offering a free city tour with every safari taken between February and June 2020.  So book your Kenyan safari with OTA today to enjoy this incredible bonus.

All safaris that are booked for the period beginning 1 February through to 30 June will enjoy a complimentary day trip around some of Nairobi’s highlights.  The first stop will be the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage where the baby elephants come in from the park for feeding time.  Their keepers introduce each elephant and tell the story of how each one came to be at the orphanage.  (Read more about the Elephant Orphanage here: https://overlandtraveladventures.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/the-david-sheldrick-wildlife-trusts-elephant-orphanage/)

Next is the AFEW Giraffe Centre (https://overlandtraveladventures.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/the-best-location-to-see-giraffes/).  The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife hosts about a dozen giraffes at Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre where you climb up to a platform to be at eye level with these beautiful creatures.  You can feed them and even get a big sloppy kiss if you are very keen!

In the afternoon we head to Africa’s second-largest slum, Kibera.  Amani Kibera is a community-based organisation working towards peace and development in the slum.  Started by a team of young people following the traumatic post-election violence in 2008, Amani Kibera is committed to eradicating the tribalism that erodes Kenyan society.  They promote peace through three pillars: sport, education and economic empowerment.  You will have the opportunity to visit the public library they have established as well as the youth economic empowerment project where you can lend further support by purchasing some of the handicrafts the young people produce.

Valued at $135 per person this tour of Nairobi gives you the chance to see the positive work being undertaken in the fields of conservation, education, and youth empowerment by various organisations.  And it’s yours for free when you book your safari with OTA to travel between February and June 2020!  Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to start planning your Kenyan 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.

3 Places to Experience on Your First Safari

3 Places to Experience on Your First Safari

Petra’s work trip to Kenya gave her the perfect opportunity to spend a few extra days to go on a safari.  Her friend had lived in Kenya and so she asked for a recommendation – that was us!  We planned a six-day safari to Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha with a final lunch at the serene Kiambethu Tea Farm.  Extraordinary wildlife and startling a hippo on a walking safari were among her highlights.

Voted Africa’s Leading National Park for the sixth time in the 2018 World Travel Awards, the Maasai Mara National Reserve must be on a first-time safari itinerary.  It was Petra’s first destination and being late July, it didn’t disappoint.  She stayed at the lovely Aruba Camp near Talek Gate, right on the banks of the Talek River.  This time of year is when the migratory herds of wildebeest come into the Maasai Mara from the Serengeti so wildlife is plentiful – not just wildebeest, zebras and gazelles, but also the predators that follow such an abundant dinner plate.

Rift Valley Lakes

Lake Nakuru National Park was next, home to the endangered Rothschild giraffe and black rhinos.  She spent the night at Punda Milias Camp just a few kilometres away from the park, allowing an early entry the next morning for optimal game viewing.  She spent most of the day in the park, getting some awesome sightings of those Rothschild giraffes and getting up to the viewpoint that overlooks the whole Lake Nakuru and the surrounding national park.  In the afternoon, she made the short drive to another Rift Valley lake: Naivasha.

Lake Naivasha is the largest of the Rift Valley lakes in Kenya.  Most of the accommodation is lined along the shore of the lake and this is where Petra found her lakeside banda at Camp Carnelley’s.  In the morning she embarked on a walking safari in Wileli Conservancy.  More giraffes!  This time they were Maasai giraffes and there were even a couple walking on the track in front of her for a while.  As she walked along the lake (with a guide and a ranger) they startled a hippo that had unusually been grazing outside the water – unusual as hippos normally graze at night and stay in the water during the day.  Fortunately, as the humans approached the hippo made a run straight for the lake with an almighty splash.

After that excitement, Petra went with the guide for a different walking safari – this time in the village to witness rural Kenyan life.  The hustle and bustle down by the lake subsided the further they climbed up and away from the shore.  Eventually after a bit of tough-going they hit flat ground and a magnificent view over the lake, flower farms, various conservancies and the geo-thermal plant in Hells Gate National Park.

Would you like to visit some of these places yourself?  We tailor safaris to your time frame, interests and budget to ensure you get the holiday you want and need.  Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to start planning yours.

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