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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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Namibia & Botswana Tour Part II: Etosha to the Okavango Delta

From Etosha we headed east to Tsumeb and Grootfontein.  After a brief stop at the Hobas Meteorite, the largest to ever hit the earth, we continued to Roy’s Rest Camp.  After an overnight stop we headed north to Divundu.  River Dance Lodge was our overnight stop, one of the nicest campsites I have ever been to!  It sits right on the Kavango River on the north side of the highway that runs through the Caprivi Strip, meaning that you are looking across the river at Angola.  Lovely big couches on the balcony give a wonderfully comfortable place to utilise the free wireless internet – something we had all been missing for a while.

From Divundu we went south into Botswana, driving through Bwabwata National Park.  Unfortunately all the animals were sheltering from the heat of the day so we didn’t get to see anything as we passed by.  We crossed over the border and on to Shakawe in Botswana’s remote northwest.

The main attraction in this corner of the world is the ancient rock art of Tsodilo Hills.  Ranging between 3000 and 10,000 years old, the cave paintings are fantastically well-preserved.  At Twyfelfontein, we had been surprised to see engravings of seals and penguins which indicated those people had travelled all the way to the coast.  But now in Tsodilo Hills, even further from the sea, we saw the same motifs!  Like Twyfelfontein, these paintings were used for communication about what had been seen and hunted in the area … except for the penguins, which must have been a tale from a weary traveller.

Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Ancient rock paintings at Tsodilo Hills

There was a huge cave where the San Bushmen must have sought shelter during the rains.  Evidence of fire smoke on the roof and other clues indicate this.  Our guide showed us a popular game the women used to play while the men were out hunting.  It required far too much hand-eye coordination for me, but Dennis, Henning and Francis all gave it a go with mixed success.

Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Learning to play traditional games

From Shakawe we continued south to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.  Dennis, Merete, Henning and Pia have abandoned Francis and I to enjoy three days in the beautiful Delta.  I am sure they are seeing such wonderful sights – the Delta teems with wildlife and there are so many ways to enjoy the sights from scenic flights, to dugout canoes, to walking safaris.

When they return we will say farewell to Dennis and Merete as they head back to Cape Town, and we will travel with Henning and Pia to Livingstone via Chobe National Park.  If you want to hear about that installment  click the Follow button below and you will be able to keep track of all our adventures.

I cannot believe how much stuff we have managed to stuff into our van!  Now it's clean, we just have to repack now .....

I cannot believe how much stuff we have managed to stuff into our van! Now it’s clean, we just have to repack now …..

The Transit: Nairobi to Windhoek in six short days

It’s been quite an eventful week for OTA.  On Monday Kenya held its long-awaited election.  Francis arrived at his polling station at 4am ready to vote early so we could leave on our next adventure.  But alas, it was not to happen.  Twelve hours later, suffering from sunstroke and dehydration, he submitted his vote and I unpacked my bag for another night in Nairobi.

So on Tuesday, this time it was me to leave at 4am to pick up Francis and this time start on our next adventure.

Currently we are on our way to Windhoek, capital of Nairobi.  It’s a cool 4000km from Nairobi as the crow flies.  But of course, travelling as the crow flies takes us on all sorts of interesting roads.  So we take a longer route in the interests of saving time – this is Africa!

Our early start on Tuesday paid off and by evening we were in Chalinze.  Although satisfied with our progress, we did feel that the Tanzanian police stationed every 5km (it seemed!) were hindering us somewhat.  Of course some police are necessary on a major highway to control speed and occasionally check documents.  But checking the presence of our fire extinguisher and asking who we were voting for in Kenya (that was the real reason for the pull over) constituted, to me, a waste of time.

Breakfast in Morogoro - OTA travels from Nairobi to Windhoek www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Breakfast in Morogoro, Tanzania

Wednesday got a little more interesting when we lost the water pump.  Even on the major highways, the roads are riddled with potholes and, especially in Tanzania, the buses and trucks don’t mind overtaking on blind corners and pushing smaller vehicles off the road – a bit terrifying at times!

Francis came the rescue and, once procured (from the town 60km away and the first one that arrived did not fit), he popped it in and we were away.

Dinner that night does deserve comment before we continue.  Chips mayai (chips with a couple of eggs fried over them – I imagine a fantastic hangover cure, but otherwise a heart attack on a plate) and chicken, also fried.  In East Africa you get a choice of chook: broilers are normal chickens; African racing chickens are the one you see roaming the streets – tough old birds!  This night we got no choice; African racing chicken it was.  Francis’ comment sums up the jaw-breaking experience perfectly: “Oh, I thought it was a bone, but it is meat!”

Thursday was our Malawi marathon.  We crossed the border, meeting some friends from another tour company at the border post.  After getting past all the police checks in northern Malawi we were free to move.  And we did!  We drive all through the night, while I introduced Francis to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on an audio book.  That was about 12 hours we spent in Malawi, arriving at the Zambian border around 3am.  We snatched a couple of hours sleep in the supermarket car park in Chipata before continuing through Zambia – this is NOT how we run tours with our guests, please note!

Driving through Zambia with OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Street market in Zambia

So we zoomed through Zambia on Friday and entered Namibia on Saturday.  At last we reached Windhoek this morning after 5116 km where we were so happy to meet a hot shower and a comfortable bed.  Now, refreshed and ready for the next three weeks, we will meet our guests this afternoon.  Stay tuned next week as the story continues (of saner and more interesting travelling).

Travelling in Namibia with OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Villages in northern Namibia as we whiz by

Travelling East Africa: Independent versus Group Tour

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 doing my own independent 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 ten 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, two years later I find myself in Nairobi, living semi-permanently in the continent which has thrown me my toughest challenges and continues to do so.

In this article I will discuss the different methods of exploring Africa – independently, group tour, and private safari – and the pros and cons for each. 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.

1. Independent travel

As I said, I love travelling independently. It is my preferred method for my personal travels. You get real experiences, have more opportunity to interact with local people, and your schedule is usually flexible enough to take random opportunities as they arise. You might get chatting to a woman on the bus and a few hours later as you both disembark she invites you to her home to meet her family. You are free to take that opportunity.

But travelling this way in Africa has proved more challenging than I imagined. Even in trying to complete simple errands in daily life, complications arise and nothing ever seems to go smoothly. For some, they can handle these constant obstacles and consider it “part of the fun”. But it can wear a person down. It is time consuming. Moreover, as a mzungu (foreigner) you are perceived as rich and will be charged higher prices; most opportunities to get more money from you will be taken. There are poor people in Africa unfortunately, and they must survive somehow.

2. Group Tour

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.

But there are some pitfalls with group tours (as any independent traveller will be quick to point out!). What if you don’t like the other people you are forced to travel with? You also should ask a lot of questions about extra hidden costs – on first glance a tour may look cheap, but check the inclusions and exclusions. A tour to the gorillas in Uganda is $500 cheaper than another so you choose that, only to find the gorilla trekking permits are not included – there’s the $500. There is no flexibility in the itinerary and often the schedules are exhausting, quickly covering a lot of mileage to see as many sights in as short a time as possible. It is good if you have limited time and just need to get around and tick off a checklist, but to relish a destination, this is not the way to do it.

3. Private Safari

I mentioned earlier that I do run a private safari company, so you have fair warning that my advice may be biased, but I am trying not to be. I have travelled independently, worked on an overland truck with large group tours, and run private safaris and there is a reason why I have chosen to start my own private safari company. Simply because I truly believe it is the most effective way to travel in East Africa. You can design your own itinerary, accommodation and meals according to your budget. You have more flexibility on the road. And often it is cheaper for families or small groups of friends; by the time you pay for four people on a group tour, you may as well have paid for private transport.

If you are solo, a private safari is expensive. Further, there are so many tour operators it can be an overwhelming task to choose which one to travel with. Reading reviews on travel forums is a great way to find a reliable operator and then the communication between you can build trust and ensure you get what you need from your holiday. The final disadvantage to a private safari is the impression that you are in your own little bubble, with little engagement with the continent. However an increasing number of operators do offer opportunities to visit and interact with local communities, as responsible travel principles becomes more important in the tourism industry

I still like the idea of mixing with the locals on public transport, but when I find myself on a bus sharing three seats with five people, with an embargo on open windows, for ten hours, I do question if it is worth it.

Nairobi to Kigali Post Script: The Return Journey

After farewelling Chris and Tom, my first task was to scout out hotels in Kigali across different price ranges.  This task was hindered a bit due to the conflict in Goma which had resulted in both Congolese and foreigners fleeing into Rwanda and filling all the hotel rooms.

The next day I headed to Gahini, about 80km east of Kigali.  My uncle had recommended I visit as he had been there in 2007 working with the church on a water project.  Set on Lake Muhazi, Gahini is a small community with a couple of lovely accommodations overlooking the water.  I had one entire guesthouse to myself and spent a peaceful day alone catching up on emails.  I met the Bishop, who does various projects in the area and on my second night a group of young people from Gippsland (regional Victoria) arrived for their “Schoolie’s Week” experience.  It seems a much better idea than getting drunk on the Gold Coast, to come to Rwanda and volunteer for two weeks.

Lake Muhazi

From Gahini I crossed the border to Tanzania.  I was joined by Nadia and Eric who I had met in Kigali.  When we got to Mwanza, there was another accommodation crisis.  This time because graduates were celebrating by coming to Tanzania’s second largest city – another Schoolie’s Week celebration!

Mwanza is set on Lake Victoria and is not too bad for an African city (visit Africa for the nature, not the cities!).  We found a decent pizza restaurant and a flash hotel with a pool to lounge by after wandering the streets under the hot sun.

Poolside

From Mwanza, it only took a few hours to reach the western entrance to the Serengeti, where I wanted to check out some accommodation options.  And that’s where my problems began.

I headed down a dirt track to check a recommended place.  Just as I was thinking that I ought to turn around because it really was too muddy, my rear tyre fell in the ditch and I was stuck.  Some boys from the village came to assist me and succeeded, only to push me into another hole!  They disappeared, somewhat dejected.  I had called the accommodation I was destined for, and after two hours finally someone arrived…. on a motorbike.  I had assumed he would arrive with a vehicle to tow me out, but we never assume anything in Africa!  Shortly after he started working on getting out of the hole, the rain started to bucket down.  Digging a tyre out of a ditch in the rain is one of life’s more futile exercises, but bless him he continued work.  After a couple more hours I asked someone who had offered to call a tractor if the tractor was coming.  For some mysterious reason he had not yet called the tractor, perhaps thinking that digging in the rain was going to produce results.  At last the tractor came.  And then I learnt a key lesson: supervise everything!  One man attached the tow chain to the bulbar rather than the tow loop and as the tractor jerked the van (successfully) out of the mud, the bull bar became detached, smashing a headlight and ripping the steel on the front panel.  Then the tractor stopped.  It would not start again.  Not enough fuel was the explanation.  TIA – This is Africa!

The next morning they returned with fuel and I managed to get to the tar road.  I got to Musoma where I managed to get the bull bar re-welded.  From Musoma it was a long drive to Nairobi, which ended with a peak hour arrival in the city.  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether I love or hate this city – I was so happy to be home after the ordeal in Tanzania, but are these traffic jams really necessary??

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