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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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“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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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.

Tools You Need for Planning a Holiday

DSC00093The websites and applications recommended in this article can help you plan your travel, from finding low-cost flights to planning your budget, booking excellent accommodation and, most importantly, having fun on the road.

1. Kayak
Benefit: Allows you to compare flexible dates very easily so you can find the best days to fly.
Description: Kayak is a standard flight search engine where you enter your destination and preferred travel dates. If you tick “Flexible date” it will present an easy-to-understand layout to show the cheapest dates to fly.
Tip: Once you have used Kayak to find the cheapest flight, go to that airline’s site and see if it’s cheaper to book directly. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

2. Hipmunk
Benefit: Their agony scale balances cost with layovers, plane changes, etc so you can weigh up your time versus your money.
Description: Hipmunk is another flight search engine where you enter your destination and travel dates. It present the flights on a time line so you can compare the length of the journey with the prices. It has an algorithm to judge the “agony factor” and ranks the flights accordingly. But it presents the information so you can also decide for yourself the level of agony you are willing to put up with for a lower price.
Tip: You can also choose to rank the flights on price alone or any other factor. But the agony scale puts it all in perspective.

3. Seat Guru
Benefit: Helps you pick the best seat for your flight (or at least avoid the worst!)
Description: Enter the airline and/or flight number and it will present a colour-coded chart showing good seats, bad seats, mixed review seats and ordinary seats. You can use this chart to select seats for your flight when you book or check in.
Tip: Select your seats when you book so you have maximum choice, but keep checking back from time to time in case better seats become available.

4. Trip Advisor
Benefit: Read reviews from other travellers about accommodation and attractions. The site also ranks accommodation and attractions according to category and location to enable easy comparison.
Description: Simply enter your destination and what you are looking for there (i.e. hotel, tour, restaurant, etc) and it will give you a list.
Tip: Check the dates of the reviews. A change of management can make a dramatic difference so if there is an overall four star rating but the reviews from the past six months have been terrible, you might think twice. Of course, it also works the other way – a low star rating might have excellent recent reviews.

5. Universal Packing List
Benefit: UPL puts together a packing list and a preparation list according to the parameters of your trip.
Description: Go to http://upl.codeq.info/ and enter all the details of your trip – dates, climate (it has a handy link to get that information), activities, mode of travel, accommodation style, size of bag, etc. It will give you a packing list and preparation list specific to your journey.
Tip: Don’t do this at the last minute. You will be surprised, especially for an international trip, at all the little things you need to do and get that you might forget. For example, do you have enough sockets to charge all your electronics (and nowadays we seem to travel with more and more!) the night before?

6. Sworkit
Benefit: An app with no-equipment workouts to help you keep fit while you travel.
Description: Choose the type of workout (strength, cardio, yoga, stretching) and the amount of time you want to exercise for. It provides a circuit-style session with exercises that can be done in a small space with no equipment (i.e. a hotel room).
Tip: In a new city sometimes even going for a run can be a bit daunting. But a quick workout in your room is a cost-free way to stay in shape on the road.
Price: A free plan is enough to keep you going, but there are paid options as well.

7. XE.com
Benefit: Provides easy access to foreign exchange rates
Description: The app is easy to use – simply plug in the amount, the currency you have and the currency you want to convert to and it will give you the conversion. You can set up a number of different currencies if you are travelling to several countries and enter the amount of one currency and see the conversion into all the currencies you have in the list. It can be useful when you are crossing a border and need to change money to decide if you want to change at the border or wait for a better rate further down the line. Or if you are carrying say US Dollars and Euros and need to get some Kenyan shillings, you can see which currency will be more beneficial.
Tip: It’s such a handy tool to have on your phone for quickly converting grocery items, accommodation prices, tour quotes, etc on the fly.

8. Foursquare
Benefit: Share hidden gems with fellow travellers and get their secrets as well.
Description: It uses your smart phone’s GPS signal to determine where you are so you can do quick and easy check-ins. You can read other travellers’ tips, leave reviews, photos and your own tips.
Tip: Link Foursquare to your Facebook account so your check-in automatically shows up as a status update to share with friends and family.

These tools will help you get the most out of your journey, from saving you money on the flight, to helping you pack, getting the best seat, finding great accommodation and at last sharing it all with your loved ones back home. What are your favourite apps or websites that you use to plan or enjoy travel?

Tips for Going on a Solo Backpacking Trip

Tips for Going on a Solo Backpacking Trip

Travelling solo can be one of life’s most eye-opening, mind-expanding, joyful experiences.  This article will give you some suggestions to overcome the trepidation you may experience, especially as a woman, when deciding to venture forth on your own.  The best advice: Go for it!

5 Ways to Set Yourself Free and Travel Solo

  1. Make smart decisions

You make smart decisions at home everyday about what to spend money on, whether a situation feels safe, who to trust or not, etc.  Bring these smarts with you on your travels – don’t sell your brain for a plane ticket!  Even if you are on a budget, sometimes it is better to spend a little extra to stay in a more secure hotel or take a taxi at night.

  1. Meet people

Most of my travels have been solo, yet I have rarely felt lonely.  Using networks like Couch Surfing has helped me connect with fellow travellers and hosts who have been happy to hang out and show me their home town.  In backpacker hostels, the communal spaces provide opportunities to strike up a conversation and even in hotels there is usually a pool or a bar to linger at to find someone to chat with.

  1. Use a guidebook

Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Rough Guides, DK, Bradt…. there are so many guidebooks on the shelves of your local bookshop there is no excuse for not being well-informed about a place.  It’s true that not everything should be taken as gospel (indeed prices are often out of date even before the book is published) but it gives you a good idea of what to do, where to stay, where the good food is, where to find banks and most other information you want when you get off an overnight bus/train/plane.  Often they have some sample itineraries to help you get the best of a destination.

  1. Join a tour

If the thought of doing everything yourself and fumbling your way through a destination is totally off-putting, there are plenty of tours all over the world to suit any taste, style, and personality.  Depending on the type of tour you choose, you will be issued with six or sixty travel buddies to keep you from getting lonely during your travels.  Often taking a tour will put your family’s hearts and minds at rest as you embark on your solo trip … but don’t feel forced to take a tour if you really want to experience total freedom.

  1. Take time out

Travelling solo can be exhausting as you are making all the decisions yourself, you feel like your guard must always be up, and you are often putting yourself in uncomfortable situations (going to restaurants alone, striking up conversations with strangers, etc).  So it’s important to take time out to nurture yourself.  It’s supposed to be a holiday as well right?!

Twelve years ago I travelled solo for the first time and experienced incredible freedom that changed me forever.

Being quite shy, stepping out of my comfort zone to meet people was a massive challenge.  Couch Surfing has been my staple travel site since 2006 because it gives me the opportunity to connect with local people and get to know a place on a deeper level.  Through this network, I have made life-long friends who I know I can call on the next time I might be flitting through on a long layover.  Armed with a guidebook and a local, I feel like I get to see the best of a destination – both the tourist sites and the best restaurants, bars and other bits of ordinary life.  When I travel, my focus is on connecting with the culture, and so this style suits me.  Of course when meeting locals online one must be careful, but reading profiles and references thoroughly and trusting my instincts has kept me safe and provided me the most wonderful opportunities and experiences.

Have you travelled solo? Or are you considering taking a trip but have some worries?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Holiday Stress Be Gone!

Holiday Stress Be Gone!

Holidays are fast approaching and you are met with a blank canvas – you could go anywhere!  You are spoilt for choice, but inundated with information.  And by the time you have sorted through the information and made a decision, is there even any time left to actually go for the holiday?  And that’s without considering the time needed for work commitments or things to be done around the home (spring cleaning, renovations, etc).

Holidays are not supposed to be stressful, but somehow the planning and preparation can leave us frazzled and wondering if it’s really worth it.  This article offers step-by-step guidance for smooth travel planning and you will be sipping cocktails on the beach before you know it.

  1. Start thinking about where to go at least five months in advance

Leaving things to the last-minute always results in higher stress levels so start planning early.  Choosing a destination can be tough but having this window of time can help you decide.  You can set up flight alerts and look out for other special offers to help you get the best deals.  If you have a short-list of destinations, set up flight alerts for each of them and the best prices might help you with the final decision.

  1. Use a travel agent

There are rumours that these professionals are going out of fashion, but do not underestimate their value.  If you have some ideas about the types of activities you want to do on your holiday (i.e. mountain climbing, safari, water sports) but cannot figure out where to do it, then your travel agent is the person who can match you to your ideal destination.  But the real value of the travel agent is that they take all the stress out of the planning – they are the one to wait on hold to make bookings, to do the research for the best hotel and flight deals, and to look for the activities.  And if something goes wrong on your holiday, it’s the travel agent who deals with it.  You only have to make one phone call to your agent and the rest is sorted out for you.  Booking on-line may be cheaper but it can also leave you stranded when things don’t work out.

  1. Set mini-deadlines for travel planning

In another article I’ve set out a preparing for travel timeline outlining a checklist for the eight weeks before you depart (http://ezinearticles.com/?Seven-Easy-Steps-to-Planning-Your-Dream-Holiday&id=7206060).  Some vaccinations require a series of doses over several weeks, so it is recommended you visit a travel doctor at least six weeks before departure.  Visas can take time to obtain so check with the relevant embassy and put that time into your calendar.  Pet care, house sitting and letterbox collection are also things you want to have time for – you need time to vet the house sitters for example.  Put these deadlines in your diary or calendar and stick to them to avoid the last-minute panic.

  1. Keep a packing list

As you think of things you will need on your holiday jot them down somewhere so that when you are packing (at the last minute!) you don’t have to think too much.  You might read some travel blogs of people who have been to the same place and advise to take certain items – you can add that to your list without worrying that you might forget in a couple of months.  Also your travel agent or tour operator may give you a suggested packing list for your specific activities so add that to your personal list as well.

  1. Sort out your work commitments

Pretend your last day at work before your holiday is one week before your actual last day.  That way, you can ensure you get your work finished in plenty of time (even if you don’t make that deadline, you still have time to complete it in the final week).  There have been studies showing that it takes people a few days to wind down from work and half your holiday might be wasted by the time you relax into it.  So why not start the wind-down process before you leave?  You can also spend the last week handing over to your co-workers, giving plenty of time to ensure all loose ends are tied up before you go.

Starting early and writing out a plan (and sticking to it!) will ensure your holiday is stress-free both in the preparation stage and enjoying it while you are there.  And if a safari is on your holiday list, OTA provides clear step-by-step guidance to assist you with preparing for travel to Africa (www.ota-responsibletravel.com).

OTA Kenya Safaris www.ota-responsibletravel.com

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