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4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

You don’t need to be scared to go on safari.  When CNN described Kenya last year as “a hotbed of terrorism” it called attention to some crazy myths that must be prevailing to prevent travellers coming to Kenya.  I want to address some of these myths to help put your mind at ease and feel confident to experience that bucket list safari you’ve always wanted.  This won’t be a marketing spiel; I live in Kenya so I know the good, the bad and the ugly and will share all of it with you.

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Myth 1: Kenya is full of terrorists

CNN’s description of Kenya was outlandish to say the least.  Kenya suffered several terrorism incidents throughout 2013 and 2014, the most notable of which was the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre.  Most of the activities were much smaller scale however – grenades thrown into bus stations, churches and nightclubs.  In April 2015 the Garissa University was attacked and since then Kenya has not had another attack (time of writing is August 2016, I hope I don’t jinx it!).  Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from Somalia, are reported to be the key offenders.

Unfortunately today, terrorism occurs everywhere and anywhere.  In the last year we have seen attacks in Paris, Sydney, Brussels and Istanbul.  But travellers still flock to these places.

Fifty million people survive every day in Kenya, so your chances are pretty good that you will come out alive.  Like saying “all Muslims are terrorists”, Kenyans want peace as much as the next person.  Moreover, the parts of Kenya you, as a traveller, would be frequenting are not terrorist targets – there have been no attacks on any national parks or game reserves to date.   There is a terrorist risk near the Somali border and in parts of Nairobi.

The current travel advisory from the Australian government is that only some areas are dangerous, not the whole country.  And the dangerous areas don’t have much of interest to the average safari-goer.

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Myth 2:  Nairobi is “Nai-robbery”

A decade ago carjackings, armed robbery, and muggings were relatively common in Nairobi, earning the city the nickname “Nai-robbery”.  But one mayor did a lot of work with the street boys and nowadays Nairobi is just as safe (or risky) as any other big city in the world.  Expatarrivals.com says that crime in Nairobi is “opportunistic, unsophisticated, comparable to other world capitals.”  The crime rate has decreased each year since 2012 according to Standard Digital.

I have lived in Nairobi for five years now and I have never been physically attacked.  One evening, my phone was snatched – but who walks in the city centre in the evening alone talking on their phone; it was totally my fault.  However, everyone who saw the thief chased him and I got my phone back!  Nairobians themselves are tired of crime in their city, especially towards foreigners because they don’t want travellers to have a bad experience of Kenya.

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Myth 3: Corruption is rife and foreigners are targeted because they are thought to have more money

I cannot say that corruption is not rife.  It is, but as a tourist you are unlikely to encounter it.  If you book a full package safari, there will be little opportunity for police or any other official to ask you for a bribe.  Tourists are rarely targeted.  Foreigners are not an easy target because we tend to ask too many questions and don’t always understand what’s really happening.  It’s not in our habit to slip some money in the door handle for the traffic policeman for example.  Expatriates who participate in corruption means crime continues unpunished and Kenya’s development remains stymied.  The phrase “When in Rome…” should not apply to bribery and corruption.

President Kenyatta says the right things about cleaning up Kenya’s corruption, but it’s going to take a huge shift.  However it’s certainly not a reason to avoid a Kenyan safari!

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Myth 4: Tour operators are dishonest and you will lose your money if you pay in advance.

Yes, there are some briefcase businesses, but in this age of the internet you can certainly do you own due diligence and avoid being scammed.  There are plenty of review sites online and many allow you to contact reviewers directly to ask about their experience.  Use Trip Advisor, do your research, check the prices.

The tourism industry has suffered greatly the past four years (due to the myths I’m writing about here!) and tour operators are getting increasingly desperate just to make a sale.  But if park fees are included in your package, check that the total price can cover those fees.  For example, it is $80 for a 24-hour ticket to the Maasai Mara.  So if you are booking a two-night safari to Maasai Mara for $200, you can do some simple maths and calculate that $160 is for park fees, leaving only $40 for transport, accommodation and food.  Park fees are public information so you can do some rough calculations.  If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is!  Either your operator is paying bribes at the park gate, or your vehicle hasn’t been maintained, or your food will be substandard.  Or you could get the trifecta!  Please, it does not help Kenya’s fight against corruption to encourage your tour operator to pay bribes at the gate so you can get into the park cheaply.

The Kenyan Association of Tour Operators and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism are also working hard to introduce measures to curb cheats.

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Sensational media is destroying Kenya’s main industry and the economy is suffering as a result.  So if an African safari is on your bucket list, look beyond the headlines and see Kenya for the amazing country it really is.

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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4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

A safari in Kenya is one of life’s most incredible experiences and the ultimate travel adventure.  However, many travellers share some common doubts about security and any media about Kenya seems to bring only stories of terrorism, ebola and road accidents.  But you have to be unlucky to get caught up in trouble of these sorts.  Kenya has much to offer if you can shake off the media’s negative images, so you should go on safari for the following reasons:

  1. To see the Great Wildebeest Migration
  2. Beach, bush, mountains, desert, savannah – Kenya has many different environments and with them, different cultures, wildlife and birds
  3. Poaching is increasing and gloomy predictions say there won’t be any elephants in 20 years
  4. Kenyan people are ready to welcome visitors – low tourist numbers affect the whole economy and Kenyans want to show travellers their beautiful country

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The Great Wildebeest Migration

Tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to witness the Wildebeest Migration, often touted as the eighth wonder of the natural world.  Each year approximately 120,000 tourists come to see the wildebeest cross the river while crocodiles snap at them.  But even if you miss the river crossing, seeing the massive herds (animals in their millions!) grazing the savannah is a sight to behold.  Cameras cannot do it justice; you have to see it for yourself.

Varied environments

Whether you want a beach holiday, bush retreat, mountain climb or desert experience, Kenya has it all.  And you can put together an itinerary that covers some or all of these environments without having to fly long distances.  The most common Kenyan holiday combines a safari with a few days at the beach at the end to wash the dust off.  And along with these different environments comes different cultures and wildlife – Samburu in northern Kenya has five endemic species you won’t see in the southern parks.  For culture, you can visit a Maasai village, experience 14 different ethnic groups around Lake Turkana and then finish in cosmopolitan Nairobi.  The highlight of the central highlands is Mt Kenya, but you don’t have to hike for a week to enjoy the mountains; there are coffee and tea plantations to visit and the beautiful Thomson’s Falls.  Through the Rift Valley and into western Kenya are lakes with the myriad birdlife, including the famous flamingos.

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Poaching threatens the Kenyan safari

There seems to be a misperception that poaching was a problem in years past, but is not now.  Sadly this is untrue, and in fact it is becoming worse.  One prediction is that there will be no elephants in 20 years if poaching continues at the current rate.  Lions and rhinos are also under significant threat, with rhinos disappearing at a rate that is simply not sustainable.  It’s difficult to be optimistic that humans will be able to turn around the trend with market forces so strong for ivory and rhino horn, so it is perhaps better to come to Kenya now to see these magnificent animals before it’s too late.

Kenyan people

Tourism is Kenya’s biggest industry so when tourism numbers are low the whole country feels the economic impact.  Kenyans are naturally hospitable, keen to welcome visitors and show off their country.  Not everyone is a terrorist or a madman; most are proud of their country and excited to meet travellers.  Moreover, there is a lot of positive work being carried out by Kenyans to develop Kenya that goes unseen and unheard.  Come and see for yourself and be inspired!

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A Kenyan safari will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life.  I came to Kenya in 2010 and have now made it my home.  But a word of caution: you may have heard people who have travelled to Africa talk about the “Africa bug” – it bites!

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What are your perceptions of Kenya?  Do negative news reports impact your decision on where to travel or do you ignore the hype and do your own research on a destination?  Please leave your comments below.

Recipe for a Successful Safari

Recipe for a Successful Safari

Here’s a safari recipe that will leave you knowing what to expect when you land in Africa, ease your travel preparations, and ensure you have a fantastic holiday.

Safari Ingredients:

  • A willingness to step outside your comfort zone
  • An open mind
  • A sense of adventure

Safari Method:

  1. Get ready. First you need to organise all your logistics – book a tour, book your flights, and get all your documents in order (passports, visas, vaccination certificates, etc). Figure out your travel goals and make sure you communicate them to your tour operator so they can help you plan the perfect safari itinerary.  Check your goals against the above ingredients and try out some activities that push the limits of your comfort.  It might be to include some nights camping, it might be white-water rafting, or it might be volunteering at a community project – it doesn’t matter, so long as it is an adventure to you.
  2. Get set. The next step is to prepare for travel. Research your destination for extra activities, climate information, cuisine recommendations and anything else you can find out.  Ask lots of questions both of your tour operator and from other travellers.  And finally, pack appropriately as you are now armed with all the information that you need.  A decent camera is a good investment for a safari as you will want to take some special pictures of the wildlife.  Read up some travel blogs and look for ways you can engage with locals in your destination – find a tour operator who can facilitate dinner with a family, a visit to a community project or even a home stay.  Open your mind to the possibilities and you will be surprised at the opportunities that come up.
  3. Go! The time has finally come for your holiday. Get to the airport on time, keep your copy of Born Free in your hand luggage to read on the plane, and ensure all the other ingredients listed above are handy. Your adventure is about to begin and now, having followed steps one and two, you are ready for anything.  Travel in Africa is unpredictable, but with the right attitude the unexpected can turn into a fabulous opportunity to experience something a bit different.  Maintain a sense of humour, roll with the punches, and your safari will be one of the greatest memories of your life.

Following this simple recipe will ensure you have a great safari.  You will have everything organised, feel in control, and be ready for anything.  At OTA we guide our guests through this recipe to ensure they fulfil their travel goals, have all the information they need, and feel confident and comfortable as they board the plane.

Recipe for a Successful Safari

What are some of the other ingredients for a successful safari?  If you have travelled to Africa, please share your tips for first time safari-goers in the comments below.  Or if you are planning a safari and have questions, please post them too.

And while you are planning, here’s something to consider: For any safari in the months of March to June each year, we offer a free day tour around Nairobi’s highlights including the Elephant Orphanage and Giraffe Centre.

Confessions of a Safari Operator

Confessions of a Safari Operator

It’s true, not every safari runs perfectly – gasp!  We rely on machines (i.e. vehicles) and they are just as fallible as humans – another gasp!  In August we had a trip that could have gone a bit smoother.  And, as I take a deep breath to calm my nerves about sharing a less than perfect safari with the big wide world, I hope that it will help you with your own expectations of travelling in Africa.

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Africa is unpredictable.  We tell our guests this about 37 times in our pre-trip documentation as they prepare for their tour.  The roads are bad, the police are disruptive, weather patterns are changing, and of course it’s called a “game drive” for good reason – either you win the game or the animals do, depending on who spots who first!  But as the safari operator, we don’t actually want to believe that we can’t predict (and prevent) what will happen.  Of course contingencies are in place to minimise the impact of any unpredictability on the guest.  But it still pains us to have to use those contingencies.

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We hosted a large family group of nine in August: two parents, four sons and three wives.  They wanted to travel all together in one vehicle so we decided the best vehicle for them was a small overland truck.  The itinerary was five days – three in Maasai Mara and two in Amboseli.  It had been planned for several months and everyone was excited.

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Arriving in Kenya

The first hitch came on arrival.  The people arrived but the luggage didn’t.  Not a single piece of luggage from the whole group was in Nairobi when they landed.  I’m still not sure how that could happen, but it did.  The luggage was to arrive on the same flight the next day and so they requested a later departure to Maasai Mara.  We were to leave at 8am but by the time they returned to the airport and retrieved the luggage, it was 4pm!  And in a truck it’s a long, slow drive anywhere, let alone the bumpy road down to the Mara.

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The late departure meant that we were driving at night, which is something we never want to do, especially through the bush.  We finally arrived at midnight and the camp staff were so wonderful!  We had kept in communication with them throughout the evening and they kept dinner for us and served it very graciously at that hour.  Lesson learnt though: next time we won’t depart for Maasai Mara so late and instead leave very early the next day.

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Safari Begins

The next day our morning game drive didn’t start very early as everyone was tired from the previous night.  But Francis took them off around 8am and they spotted lions almost immediately.  A truck gives you more height and they got a great sighting of the pride in the grass.  Shortly after that though, the truck stopped.  And nothing Francis did would move it.  Again the camp staff were amazing and supplied a vehicle so our guests could continue with their game drive.  Then they supplied another emergency vehicle to tow the truck out of the park.

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Francis pulled the engine apart at the camp and discovered the piston had, as he described it, “turned into githeri” (a traditional Kenyan dish of stewed beans and maize, i.e. small round pieces in a bowl).  The trouble with engines is that, even if you regularly service them, there are things inside that you can’t see and that will fall apart with enough bumping along on these fabulous Kenyan roads.  (I recently discovered in Australia that bushes are something that are replaced every twenty years or so.  In Kenya we replace them after almost every trip down to the Maasai Mara!)

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So that was the end of the truck for this trip.  We organised a replacement vehicle to get the group back to Nairobi the following day.  The itinerary continued for the guests as planned, fortunately.  The only issue was that there was now no space for Francis and I in this back-up vehicle.  We tried to hitch a ride on the road nearest the camp, but it’s a quiet road so we didn’t have much luck.  So we got a motorbike taxi (boda boda) across the savannah (outside the park!) to the main gate of Maasai Mara where we would find more traffic.  I have to admit that the motorbike ride has been a highlight of my time in Kenya!  We have driven that route before, but on a motorbike it was something else!  Beautiful scenery, through Maasai villages, across rivers, wow it was stunning!

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Somehow we arrived in Nairobi before the guests, despite our waiting for a lift, and then getting public transport in Nairobi to their accommodation.  But they had a much more leisurely trip, stopping at the Rift Valley lookout, visiting a Maasai village and having lunch en route.  Nevertheless, they were as surprised to see us waiting for them as we were.  We made the arrangements for Amboseli the next day and called it a night.

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Amboseli

Thank goodness the second half of the trip went smoothly!  We had to split them into two smaller vehicles and they switched up their seating arrangements for the two days to spend time with everyone.  They saw hyenas, elephants, a large herd of buffalo in the swamp, saddle-billed stork, zebras, a big flock of ostriches, and of course Mt Kilimanjaro.  They also climbed up lookout hill for sweeping views over the park.

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All’s well that ends well and there really was minimal disruption to the safari for the guests.  It was just my own mortification that got in the way of me enjoying myself.  But Francis always tells me soberly that “Anything can happen” and he is right.  Perhaps we will add that to “Africa is unpredictable” in the trip preparation documents.

Please share your experiences of travel that hasn’t gone exactly to plan – help me realise that not only can anything happen, but anything can happen to anyone!

And if you would like your own well-planned but unpredictable African adventure please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

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