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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.

“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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Tsavo West National Park

Tsavo West National Park

In March 1898 the construction of the Mombasa to Kampala railway reached the Tsavo River.  Colonel J.H. Patterson was sent to Kenya to supervise the construction of the railway and the Tsavo River Bridge.  For several months, two man-eating lions reined terror on the 3000-man labour force of Indian and African workers at Tsavo River.

In December the same year, the lions brought the rail works to a complete standstill for three weeks as they had taken 28 Indian workers and an unrecorded number of African workers.  On 9 December, Colonel Patterson killed the first of the two lions.  He had been hunting them for several months and finally succeeded (whilst being propped up on a flimsy structure), approximately 1200 metres from the lions’ cave.  On 27 December, the Colonel killed the second lion from a tree 1800 metres from their cave, effectively ending the terror and enabling construction of the railway to continue.  In early 1899 the railroad head progressed to Nairobi.

Colonel Patterson found the lions’ cave, declaring it to be “beyond all doubt the man-eaters’ den” as hundreds of human bones and skulls were discovered inside.

In February 2013, we went to Tsavo West National Park to learn more about the history of the legendary man-eating lions and explore the second-largest park in Kenya.

Its label as the “Land of Lava, Springs and Man-Eaters” gives quite a good idea of what one can expect to find in Tsavo West National Park.  Located in Kenya’s Southern Region, 240km from Nairobi, Tsavo West is a massive 9045 square kilometres.  Closer to Mombasa than Nairobi, the park makes an interesting diversion from a coast holiday for a few days while not having to travel too far.

Accommodation is a bit limited on the Tsavo West side compared to Tsavo East, but there are a few lodges and campsites inside the park.  Voyager Ziwani, Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge, Severin Safari Camp and Finch Hattons fill the upper range of accommodation.  Expect to pay around US$450-500 per person per night including all meals (a bit more at Christmas, New Year and Easter).  Game drives, bush walks, laundry service, spa treatments and sundowners are available at the lodges.  Finch Hattons was awarded Africa’s Leading Safari Lodge in the 2013 World Travel Awards.

If you prefer something a bit more budget-friendly, there is a campsite near Chyulu Gate.  Kenya Wildlife Service also provides accommodation with Kamboyo Guest House and Lake Jipe Cottages.

There are a few sights around the park that are worth visiting.  Poacher’s Lookout provides a great view over most of Tsavo West including the lava flows.  At Mzima Springs a guide can explain the history of the area as you walk around.  Most of the spring’s water goes to Mombasa while the rest flows into the Tsavo River.  There is an underwater observation room where you can see the various fish species that inhabit the pool.

To visit the Man-Eating Lions’ Cave, you can get a ranger to escort you from Tsavo River Gate.  There is a walking trail to the cave but being within the national park, you need a ranger while you are outside the vehicle.  Tsavo West is also home to a Rhino Sanctuary which is free to visit with plenty of animals.  It is only open between four and six in the evening however.

The wildlife you can see in Tsavo West includes hippos, crocodiles, vervet monkeys, dik diks, elephants, zebras, giraffes, Cape buffalo, black-backed jackal, eland, oryx, warthogs, impala, klipspringer, and lesser kudus.  There is also plenty of birdlife including kingfishers, hornbills, starlings, helmeted and vulturine guineafowl, hoopoes, waxbill, barbet, mousebirds, and bush-shrike.  The landscape is mostly brushy woodland making animal spotting a little bit more challenging than the open savannah of other parks.  The elephants are red due to the colour of the soil with which they bathe themselves.

Have you visited Tsavo West National Park?  Please share your experiences in the comments below.  Or if you would like to visit Tsavo West please visit our website www.ota-responsibletravel.com and send us an enquiry today.

Looking Back: Tourism in Kenya

Looking Back: Tourism in Kenya

Mzungu!”  This oft-heard cry directed at travellers comes from colonial times when the British were travelling from Mombasa port to Nairobi and back.  To the Kenyans at the time, all the British looked the same and so they thought it was the same person going around in circles. Mzungu means something that rotates!  Tourism in Kenya has come a long way since then and this article will look at its development from early traders to the growing industry of today.

Foreign invasions

Around 800AD, Arab traders arrived under the command of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Mostly slave traders, these visitors were not the most welcome in Kenya’s history.  The Portuguese took control of the coastal area in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Arabs soon took it back.

In 1895, Kenya became a British protectorate.  Tourism began with the colonial settlers in the early 1900s.  The settlers enjoyed going “on safari” to hunt The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo).  Luxury camping with numerous servants was the standard, and they either travelled by motor car or on horseback.  The movie Out of Africa has some excellent scenes of a typical safari during this time.

Independence
In the 1960s and 70s tourism throughout the continent was hit by independence struggles, but the hunting safari remained popular.

Shortly after independence, the Kenyan government realised the tourism potential of the country and the impact on the nation’s economy if the industry were to be developed.  The main obstacle however was the lack of qualified people.  So the government, together with the Swiss Confederation, established a training program which produced the first Hotel Management students at Kenya Polytechnic in 1969.  In 1975, the Kenya Utalii College was founded as a dedicated hospitality and tourism training institute.

Promotion Abroad

Also in 1975, the Africa Travel Association (ATA) was established to assist the new African nations develop their tourism infrastructure.  In 1980, the Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa (APTA) was born out of the ATA.  It seems to have much the same objectives, namely to promote education of tourism to African business and to promote Africa as a destination to the rest of the world.

Election Disaster

In the wake of the 2007 elections, inter-tribal violence caused upheaval in Kenya.  Although none of the violence was directed towards foreigners (it was tribes fighting to have their man in the presidency) it impacted the industry significantly.  Tourism slumped by about 50%.

Onward and Upward

Despite the violence early in the year, April 2008 saw Kenya win the Best Leisure Destination award at the World Travel Fair in Shanghai.  In 2010 Kenya received over one million arrivals, a record number to that time.

Last year, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto pledged their commitment to growing Kenya’s tourism industry during their inauguration speeches.  Currently Kenya is receiving approximately 1.5 million tourists a year.  But Ruto stated that this government is committed to growing that number to 3-5 million in order to turn around the economy and increase jobs for young people.

At the 2013 World Travel Awards (Africa), Kenya was well-represented among the winners.  The Kenya Tourist Board won Africa’s leading tourist board award.  Nine accommodation categories were taken by Kenyan lodgings in categories such as eco, green, meetings and conferences, spa, and tented safari camp.  The Maasai Mara was named Africa’s leading national park.

On the world stage, Kenya was also well-represented in the nominations in the categories: golf destination, tourist board, eco-lodge, green hotel, new hotel, resort, spa resort, and private game reserve.  Kenya won the World’s Leading Safari Destination.

Kenyan tourism is growing from strength to strength.  Long gone are the hunting safaris; now the only shots taken are with a camera.  Despite the terror attack and airport fire last year, Kenya has been recognised globally as a leading destination.  Security remains an issue for many travellers coming to Kenya but, with the government’s renewed commitment to developing the industry, it is a safe place to holiday.  And as the general population recognises and profits from the economic benefits of tourism, the support of the nation will only increase Kenya’s attractiveness as a destination.

3 Smart Tips for Experiencing Your First Safari

3 Smart Tips for Experiencing Your First Safari

Africa is becoming an increasingly popular destination for travellers, as people find it easier to tick off that “Safari” bucket-list item.  Flights are getting cheaper, tour operators are plentiful and travel agents in countries far from the African continent are becoming well-versed in the myriad options available under the Safari concept.  But Africa can also be a daunting destination.  The media is plagued with stories of civil strife, political tension and personal security issues.  This article offers three smart tips for those wanting to embark on their first safari.

  1. Personal Security

Listening to foreign news about Kenya, one would think the whole country was at war.  Reading government travel warnings about South Africa gives a similar impression.  While it is prudent to heed travel warnings and other information about the safety of your destination, it is also advisable to connect with people living there to find out how they are experiencing daily life.  In general, people want to get on with their lives and the majority of citizens are not throwing grenades or robbing tourists.  As with anywhere (including your home town!) you should keep your wits about you, but there is no reason to cancel your safari because the media has hyped up a situation.

  1. Know what you have booked

Tour operators are a dime a dozen in many countries of Africa as tourism becomes increasingly lucrative.  In Kenya, tourism accounts for approximately 13% of GDP, making it the largest industry of the country.  So it is important that you thoroughly research your selected tour operator and ensure they are the real deal.  There are plenty of review sites on the internet, and a tour operator should be prepared to connect you with previous guests (if those guests give permission of course!) so you can check them out.  Ask plenty of questions about the mode of transport, the standard of accommodation, what activities are included in the price, which meals are included, whether you will be picked up at the airport, etc.  If you are clear on what to expect then the chance of nasty surprises spoiling your holiday will be minimised.  And don’t take anything for granted – if you assume something, then it is almost guaranteed that your assumption will be wrong.  Africa behaves differently to other places in the world so it is vital to ensure everything is explicit.

  1. Interact with locals

There are a lot of “flying packages” where you fly into the capital city, transfer immediately to a charter plane to fly to a game reserve, spend a few days looking at wildlife and then fly back to the capital and home.  You might have a chat with your safari driver or the staff at your lodge, but that would be the only chance you have to interact with a local.  While this suits many people, my opinion is that there is no point in travelling if you don’t meet the people and see the culture.  The safari experience is enriched when you take some time to visit communities and talk to people about their lives.  There are a lot of kitsch tourist villages to visit, but there are opportunities to engage with people in a meaningful way, if you use a tour operator committed to sustainable and responsible tourism.

Africa is the ultimate safari destination with opportunities for the most sublime wildlife encounters and eye-opening cultural encounters.  Sadly, much of the wildlife is in grave danger from poaching and shrinking habitat.  Tourism provides an income stream that encourages the protection of the wildlife which is crucial right now.  If a safari is on your bucket list, start your research, find a reputable tour operator and come to Africa!  You won’t ever regret it…. and perhaps it will just be the beginning of a love affair with this amazing continent.

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

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