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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

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Lamu

Having heard much about the island of Lamu, I decided to take a week off and check it out.  I knew it was on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and it was the place in Kenya to experience traditional Swahili culture.  I didn’t know that getting there by bus was not the best way to travel!  Lamu is fairly remote, and most tourists opt to fly in and out.

The journey involved an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa (not as straightforward as it sounds, but another story completely), a seven-hour bus ride with the girl next to me curled up with her head in my lap asleep, and finally an overloaded boat to the island.

But arriving on Lamu was like entering another world: from the bumpy dusty road to an architecturally beautiful haven.  My accommodation was a cheap guest house with a lovely rooftop terrace where I could relax if I tired of exploring.

My first goal was to fill up on the historic sites including Lamu Museum and Swahili House, giving me excellent insight into traditional Swahili culture.  As I wandered about the Old Town, I marvelled at the narrow laneways, intricate carved wood doors, and traditional houses.  There are no cars in Lamu; if you need to go further than walking distance or carry a load, you travel by donkey.  This makes walking a pleasure…. unless you get too close to a grumpy donkey!

My favourite thing when travelling is to watch life happen; Lamu Fort provided the perfect place.  Looking out over the central square from the fort afforded views of market sellers and chess players.  The fort has views in all directions, so I could see houses all around, with people coming in and out, children visiting their friends and playing in the laneways.

Alberto Mateo

The real beauty however, I found at the waterfront.  Fishing has long been the primary industry of Lamu, and it continues to be an important part of life here.  I watched as the fisherman hauled in their catch, made and mended their nets, and repaired their boats.  The dhows (wooden sailing boats) they use are the same design as years past, and fathers teach their sons the skills of boat building, net making and fishing.  And so life continues as ever before in this remote paradise.

Alberto Mateo

Lamu is a haven, so serene compared to mainland Kenya.  I learnt there are many ways to experience Swahili culture, apart from the museum.  For example one man invites people to his home for a dinner of traditional dishes, there are sunset dhow cruises, or just soak up the atmosphere in the Old Town.

Alberto Mateo

The photos for this post were supplied by Alberto Mateo.  More of his work can be found at  www.albertomateo.com  and www.thelastfootprint.com

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.

Kakamega Forest

To bring in the New Year, I joined a couple of friends in Kakamega Forest, a place I have been meaning to visit for a long time.  There I met a couple of members from Kenya Forest Conservation Corps, a newly established local non-government organisation (NGO) working on conservation projects in the forest.

Kakamega Forest is the last patch of equatorial rainforest left in Kenya and is located in the west near the border with Uganda.  The forest is under threat from neighbouring villagers cutting the trees to produce charcoal, the primary cooking fuel used in East Africa.  The forest is seen as a resource for local people who use it for firewood gathering, vines are collected to use as ropes, bark is used for medicinal purposes and also to make blankets, cattle graze and thatching grass is collected.

The forest covers 45 square kilometres and sits 1600m above sea level.  An average of 2.08 metres of rain falls every year, with rainfall heaviest in April and May.  It is home to 380 species of trees and plants, including 125 tree species.  The forest contains some of Africa’s greatest hardwood trees such as Elgon teak.  Brush-tailed porcupine, bush pig, giant water shrew and hammer-head fruit bat are some of the animals found in the forest, as well as a flying squirrel that can fly up to 90 metres.  There are approximately 350 species of birds as well as butterflies and snakes which normally can only be found in West Africa.  There are over 40 species of snakes and 45% of all recorded butterflies in Kenya can be found in Kakamega Forest.  Seven kilometres of trails allow hikers to enjoy the forest.  In 1930, Kakamega was the centre of Kenya’s gold mining industry.  The forest has been protected since 1933, but panning for gold in the forest’s rivers is still common.

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Kenya Forest Conservation Corps has applied for 1000 hectares of land to conduct afforestation projects.  They are also planning to set up an eco-lodge where guests can enjoy the forest, especially those interested in studying the natural remedies available from the myriad of plants in the forest.  I met Gibson and James, two members of the KFCC.  They are dedicated to protecting the forest and finding alternative sources of income for villagers, so they are not reliant on destroying the forest to produce charcoal.  The carbon credits scheme provides a good opportunity, as companies can pay the local people to plant trees on their behalf to offset their carbon usage.

Planting my avocado tree.  James invites all his guests to plant a tree as a memory of their visit

Planting my avocado tree. James invites all his guests to plant a tree as a memory of their visit

James’ plans for an eco-lodge is to incorporate a full cultural experience with drumming workshops, traditional dance performances, story-telling, and the food will all be organically grown and locally sourced.  He is passionate about the healing benefits of natural foods and plans to set up specialised tours to educate people about the natural remedies to be found in the Kakamega Forest.

James is dreaming of setting up an eco-lodge on his land.  A beautiful setting right on the river, I can't wait!

James is dreaming of setting up an eco-lodge on his land. A beautiful setting right on the river, I can’t wait!

The forest is such a beautiful place, the serenity only disturbed by the calls of the Black and White Colobus Monkeys playing in the trees overhead.  On the early morning, we went for a walk in the forest.  The trails are not signposted, so there is the risk of losing yourself if you forget your direction.  But most trails eventually lead back to the accommodation or main gate and even when we got a little bit disoriented, the peace of the forest could not allow us to get too upset.  We found a viewing platform and climbed up for a view over a clearing…. and got us a bit closer to those noisy monkeys!

The accommodation available near the main gate is simple bandas (small traditional-style huts) with shared bathroom facilities (hot water is available on request).  There is a kitchen where you can self-cater or get the staff to prepare your meals.  The central dining banda is a large comfortable communal space where guests can relax and share stories of their forest experiences.

Kakamega is a bit of a hidden treasure, off the main tourist path.  Most people imagine vast open savannah when they think of Kenya.  But Kakamega Forest provides a unique contrast that I can only recommend.

Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Between Christmas and New Year, I took a rush trip down to Tanzania to visit a Tanzanian friend I had met in Melbourne earlier in the year.  He was back in his home town of Morogoro with his family, and so I took the opportunity to meet his family and explore the Morogoro region a bit.

I have driven through Morogoro several times on our tours travelling between Kenya and South Africa, but have never stopped.  To be very honest, Morogoro is a typical African town – nothing to get very excited about.  But about an hour south east of Morogoro lies Mikumi National Park.  The main highway from Dar Es Salaam to Malawi traverses right through Mikumi, but again I have never had the opportunity to explore the park beyond the highway.  It is possible to see giraffe, elephants and impala as you drive along the highway, which really reminds you that you are in Africa.  Imagine just driving along the highway and seeing a family of elephants under the trees on the side of the road!  Or a giraffe waits patiently to cross the road as you go past.  So I have always enjoyed that drive, but now it was time for me to venture off the highway and see what lay beyond.

From the highway, it looks like Mikumi should be a forested park, as thick shrubs and trees line the road.  But on the other side of this line of vegetation, the landscape opens out into the typical African savannah.  We were travelling in Segere’s vehicle, which was just a saloon car, and the roads were perfectly fine for 2 wheel drive.  At the gate we were able to hire a guide who knew his park inside out and could tell us about the animals we were seeing.

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The first wildlife encounter was a small herd of buffalo covered in mud.  They wallow in the mud to cool down, which was understandable because it was baking!  I always think buffalos look a bit dim, especially with their horns creating an image of a ridiculously overdone coif.  But these ones covered from top to toe in mud really looked silly… not that I would dare tell them that, they didn’t look so friendly!

Next we saw a couple of elephants.  Segere’s kids were very impressed with how big these giants were!  They were chilling out under a tree, one of them scratching his hind leg on the trunk.  The tree looked ready to fall under the weight.  Elephants are responsible for huge amounts of environmental destruction as they eat so much and also knock plants down as they travel, scratch and source food.  Seeing an area after a herd of elephants has been through makes you wonder if some devasting machine came through and wreaked such havoc.

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Giraffes were the third item on the list and we saw a lot throughout the day.  I can never decide if a giraffe looks graceful or clumsy when it runs, but I like to see them run however they look.  Most of the giraffes we say were under acacia trees, which is their favourite food.  The acacia has huge thorns however, and tiny leaves so I would like to question the giraffe on the risk versus reward of their menu choice.

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We saw zebras, impalas, and plenty of birds including lilac-breasted roller, blacksmith plover and oxpecker.  We got to the hippo pool just in time for the only rain of the day.  It’s the only place in the park where you can get out of your vehicle.  Fortunately the rain didn’t last long and we were able to get some family photos to remember our wonderful adventure.

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Thank you to Segere and Speciosa and their children Nathan and Naty for hosting me in Morogoro and showing me Mikumi National Park!

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Improving Maternal & Child Health in Masai Land, Kenya

The well-being of mothers, infants and children determines the health of the next generation and can help predict future public health challenges for families, communities and medical care systems. Moreover, healthy birth outcomes and early identification and treatment of health conditions among infants can prevent death or disability and enable children to reach their full potential.

Despite major advances in medical care, critical threats to maternal, infant, and child health exist in the Masai District of Narok. Among the most pressing challenges, are reducing the rate of pre-term births and reducing the infant death rate.

More than 80% of women in Narok District will become pregnant and give birth to one or more children. Most of these women suffer pregnancy complications ranging from depression to the need for a cesarean delivery. Although rare, the risk of death during pregnancy has also been witnessed.

Each year, approximately 12% of the infants are born pre-term and 8.2% of infants are born with low birth weight. In addition to increasing the infant’s risk of death in its first few days of life, pre-term birth and low birth weight can lead to devastating and lifelong disabilities for the child. Primary among these are visual and hearing impairments, development delays, and behavioral and emotional problems that range from mild to severe.

Scarcity of Maternal and Child Health Community Centres has also contributed at large as the biggest challenge in Narok North District. Expectant mothers are unable to receive early maternal services and end up delivering in homes under less care and poor service; this poses a big danger to both the mother and the infant.

In order to curb this challenge, the Ewang’an e Suswa Community-based Organisation is raising funds to assist in the complete establishment of the Ewang’an e Suswa Community Health Centre. The Health Centre’s goal is to make services available to all residents of Suswa in Narok North District. Emphasis is placed on ensuring services to child-bearing women, infants and children. The organisation received a donation from the Japanese Government towards the construction of the Health Centre which is currently underway but the funding is only enough to construct an out-patient facility.

In order to accomplish its goal, the Ewang’an e Suswa Community-Based Health Centre will:

  • Promote the delivery of high quality, comprehensive, family-centred health services for women, infants, children and adolescents
  • Monitor relevant health status indicators to identify, assess and proactively plan for current and future areas of need including proposals for regulatory change for the general community
  • Promote early pre-natal care, breastfeeding, provision of nutritious food, and health education to improve pregnancy outcomes and child care
  • Once fully established and equipped, the Centre would also act as a treatment centre for both out- and  in-patient illnesses giving priority to Maternal Health care, Malaria and HIV/AIDs (Prevention of mother to child-PMTCT)
  • The Centre will also act as a control centre providing advice on prevention and outreach interventions

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A Message from Blue Bells

Dear Friends & Supporters,

Meet Hanna. She is 4 years old and attends pre-school at the Blue Bells Orphanage in Busia. Because she and her family know that education is a path out of poverty, Hanna walks two kilometers a day to get to and from school.

But Hanna doesn’t complain. Going to school means she will learn to read, practice drawing, and importantly, receive a free and nutritious lunch as part of the BCS’s school meals program. This means that Hanna won’t go hungry throughout the day — she’ll remain sharp through the afternoon, and still have the energy to play at recess and make the walk home at the end of the day.

A monthly donation of $20.15 — or any amount — will help ensure that Hanna and other of kids like her across  Busia -Alupe continue to receive school meals and other essential support. 

Please donate today to help create a brighter future .

Thank you and happy holidays,

Chrisphine Ochieng Okumu

Blue Bells /kenya

+254 729049433

If you would like to find out more about how to donate to Blue Bells, please contact Tracey at tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com or check out the Blue Bells Facebook page and contact them directly.

Chrisphine kids

Muungano Development Gateway (MDG), the NGO responsible for Blue Bells Orphanage, is seeking volunteers with agricultural expertise.  In order to fund their activities (including the orphanage, a school, and to support those families fostering orphans in their own homes) they are distributing soya bean seeds among the community with the intention that each family will take what they need, some will be used for the feeding program at the school and the rest sold to provide income for the community.  So far 320 farmers are growing soya beans, supporting 120 orphans.  To expand this income-generating project, they are looking for people with expert knowledge in how to be more effective and efficient in growing the crops.

Additionally, the teachers at the Blue Bells School are stretched and all work as volunteers.  They receive a small salary as and when MDG can afford to give them something, but for the most part they volunteer.  If you would like to join these amazing Kenyans giving their time freely to educate the next generation, they would appreciate more teachers to serve the growing number of students.

If you are interested in either of these volunteering opportunities, please contact Tracey at tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

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