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There are so many excellent articles and blog posts each month that it's impossible to keep track of all. In this monthly feature we try to capture the best of the travel web in one single place. We're on the look-out for the best posts to recognise them in a special round-up post.
Here we feature the top posts of June 2011 in three completely random categories:
There's also an award for Best Photo of the month. There are of course many contenders for these prestigious titles, which are selected in an entirely subjective and unaccountable manner. If you have a post that you would like us to consider for the July awards just send us the link to the post via Twitter (@Tourdust) or in the comments box below. So on to the winning posts:
For most Brits our knowledge of the details of the brutality of the war fought with the Japanese across eastern Asia in the 1940s is vague at best. It was fascinating therefore to read this moving account from Dave at The Longest Way Home of his visit to an old British fort in Penang. Still bearing the scars of its bitter legacy, most local people do not choose to venture near to the place. Indeed even tourists only visit the area for paint-balling rather than learning a little about the bloody history that SE Asia had to endure.
The Jordanian Tourist Board has been very busy in recent weeks inviting the great and good of the travel blogging world to sample the highlights their country has to offer. What has followed are a series of posts that describe the history, the cuisine, the culture and of course the sights of Jordan. One of my favourite posts is this one by Matt Long of LandLopers, in which he describes his feelings of indifference to some of the initial historical sites and how these were blown away once he arrived at Petra. Looking at his excellent photos it's easy to see why.
In these days of ubiquitous travel blogs it's rare to find an article about a place that others have written little about. So it was refreshing to come across this informative post from the Travels with a Nine Year Old blog about a recent visit to East Timor. An independent state for a little over a decade, this tiny nation is still very much off-the-beaten-track. This post provides a brief history lesson on the conflict that has blighted this fledgling nation and also an insight into what visitors there might expect to find.
Always having had a soft spot for a good sunset I was instantly drawn to this photo. Keith's lyrical description of witnessing this spectacle only adds to the wonder of this northern scene.
To introduce our collection of Kenya holidays, safaris and treks we have asked Rough Guide to Kenya author Richard Trillo to give his expert tips on what to do and where to go in this wonderful country. Over to Richard!
On the coast – your entry point if you fly to Kenya by charter flight – it’s the smell that grabs you first, announcing you’ve arrived in the tropics. The rich, warm scent carries notes of pungent mud, charcoal braziers, cow dung, diesel fumes, red dust and spices. When you emerge from Mombasa airport at night, this aromatic air is like a soft, dark blanket, blown on a monsoon breeze, carrying a chirping cricket chorus. It’s an aroma you never forget, perfectly in keeping with the coast’s sultry, historically charged atmosphere.
Up in the highlands, Nairobi airport at dawn paints a much more prosaic picture for visitors arriving on scheduled airlines, but the smell of dung and charcoal is here too, especially after rain. And your other senses are soon being stimulated: you’ve barely picked up your bags and done a double-take at the life-size sculptures of scrap-metal elephants outside the arrivals hall, than you’re glimpsing real big game in Nairobi National Park. Specked with zebras and giraffes, the wild savanna of the park, bordering part of the busy highway into the city, lies just a stone’s throw from thousands of commuters who walk, cycle and jam themselves into shared minibuses for the journey to work. Overhead, huge marabou storks circle on the day’s early thermals, looking for trash to scavenge.
The southern side of the park isn’t fenced, and thus dangerous wildlife and highway billboards advertising mobile phones vie for the attention of Nairobians. When a rogue buffalo was shot by park rangers recently, the story was up on YouTube, captured by onlookers, almost before the same crowd had registered their disappointment that a free beef handout wasn’t on offer.
Striking contradictions like these, setting visceral nature and the struggle for survival against metropolitan life are a Kenyan hallmark and soon become part of your everyday experience while travelling here. For example, in the Rift Valley, an unlikely wooden “internet café”, powered by a solar panel, is guarded by a man wearing an Arsenal T-shirt and carrying a hefty bow and a pouch of arrows; between Nairobi and Mombasa, the highway is skimmed by speeding buses, with air-con and video, traversing old grazing lands where traditionally dressed herders drive their cattle to pasture; on the Mount Kenya ring road you pull up behind a line of stopped cars to find three bull elephants crossing ahead; and on the coast, a small propeller plane sweeps you from a modern city to a medieval one over remote creeks and tracts of coastal jungle inhabited by hippos, crocodiles and monkeys.
So what are Kenya’s parts? How do you make sense of such a diverse, complex, expressive country, one that is two and a half times the size of Britain?
Seen from the Nairobi perspective, Kenya faces in four directions: east to the Indian Ocean and the monsoon trade winds; north through the highlands to rocky desert plains on the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia; west across the Rift Valley to the cultivated basin around Lake Victoria; and south to the vast, wildlife-rich savannas that continue into Tanzania and rise towards Kilimanjaro.
It’s a landscape of exceptional beauty, full of people of extraordinary physical and mental resilience – and good humour.
The first part of Kenya you’ll experience is the urban, where the rich-poor divide is starkest and you can expect a sense of culture shock and dislocation. Kenya’s four cities, like a string of ever-expanding beads, are Mombasa on the coast, Nairobi in the highlands, Nakuru in the Rift Valley and Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. Shopping malls, supermarkets, offices and hotels attract hopeful migrants from the rural areas, and these newcomers create sprawls of shanty towns and slum-like suburbs. There’s much about it all that will seem familiar – and you can certainly hide away in comfort if you spend a bit of money – but the sting is in the immediacy of people’s circumstances out on the streets, where the relentless poverty can be hard to take in. This string of cities is also the busiest road and rail route through the country – though don’t expect motorways or high-speed trains: the railway line is the same metre-gauge railroad built by the Victorians, and the highway mostly consists of two, un-separated lanes.
Next, the highlands, and Kenya’s western and central highlands rise high enough to escape the climate you would normally associate with a country sitting astride the equator. Mount Kenya itself soars from plains on one side and farmlands on the other to a height of nearly 5200 metres. When this extinct volcano was first formed it was a couple of thousand metres higher: today’s spectacular, craggy outline is the result of water and ice erosion over the past 3.5 million years. The neighbouring Aberdare range (a national park, like Mount Kenya, protecting large numbers of elephants, buffalos and other species) rises through dense forest to almost Scottish moorlands where giant, Afro-Alpine plants grow in the cool air like Sci-Fi experiments.
Flowing north from these highlands is the Ewaso Nyiro river – one of Kenya’s biggest – looping in a great arc through the Samburu-Shaba-Buffalo Springs national reserves, where elephants reign supreme and you’ll see masses of other wildlife, from leopards and ostriches to handsome oryx and lions. The river also waters the dry country of Laikipia, a region of old ranches rapidly making the transition to community-facing wildlife conservation and adventure tourism.
Below the eastern, rainy slopes of Mount Kenya, isolated on the north side of the Tana river, lies one of Kenya’s most beautiful and under visited parks, Meru National Park, where the Adamsons of “Born Free” fame worked with lions and cheetahs.
The highlands further west include the Mau escarpment, the Loita and Cherangani Hills and another old volcano, Mount Elgon, straddling the Ugandan border. With smaller national parks of rainforest – Saiwa Swamp, Kakamega Forest – these are all highly recommended objectives for keen hikers and naturalists.
Throughout the highlands, the lower slopes are intensively cultivated – these are Kenya’s farmlands. Around Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range much of this agriculture is the small-scale terracing of subsistence farmers, with patches of coffee and fruit grown for cash. The north side of Mount Kenya, however, has extensive wheat fields, and the southwest highlands are tea country – hundreds of square kilometres of trimmed, waxy-green tea bushes draped across the landscape. And everywhere you go, that supermarket favourite, the plastic greenhouse, is on the march, blocking the view with humid rearing sheds for string beans and cut flowers.
Sloping to the west, the highlands dip down to the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria and a normally lush, rolling scene of farms, grasslands and sugar cane fields. Visit the area for intriguing islands of fossils and bird life, local cultural and historical sites and something called the “Obama trail” – Barack’s father grew up here, although apart from the odd sign, there’s nothing to indicate the fact.
Cutting through the middle of the highlands, the Kenyan portion of the Great Rift Valley (which stretches from Jordan to Mozambique) is a giant gash in the earth’s surface, dotted with jewel-like lakes and geothermal activity. Hot and dry, this is where you’ll see one of Kenya’s archetypal images, countless thousands of pink flamingos flocking in the algae-rich alkaline shallows of Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria. Lake Nakuru, securely fenced and bursting with wildlife, is also a fine place to see rhinos and leopards.
The two freshwater lakes, Naivasha and Baringo, are characterised by pods of snorting hippos, acacia woodland and amazingly rich birdlife. Both make wonderful places to camp – or relax in a bit more luxury – for a few days. In the far north, touching the Ethiopian border, lies the jade sickle of Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, with its often wildly attired Turkana, Samburu and Elmolo inhabitants and its enormous population of Nile Crocodiles.
The part of Kenya that receives the most visitors is the southern savanna region. It’s a huge area, dominated culturally by Maasai herders and in natural terms by vast herds of migratory wildlife. In the southwest, the Mara river flows beneath the landmark Oloololo Escarpment through Kenya’s number one tourist attraction, the Maasai Mara National Reserve, location of one of the most vigorous and dramatic eco-systems in the world, where an annual migratory herd of more than a million wildebeest takes possession of the grasslands from July to October, surging west and south again and crossing the crocodile infested Mara river in a phenomenon of unforgettable, electrifying intensity. Although you can’t walk inside the reserve, the conservancies around it (there’s no fence) are community-run and game walks, cycling and horse-riding are all possible.
Southeast along the Tanzanian border, enclosing a clutch of lush swamps, lies the major elephant sanctuary of Amboseli National Park, beneath the snow-capped massif of Kilimanjaro. Further southeast, in the huge expanse of dry bush country shelving down to the coast, lies the duo of Tsavo West and Tsavo East national parks, together amounting to an area the size of Wales and including thousands of miles of tracks you can explore to your heart’s content. Don’t miss the wide, shallow Galana River in Tsavo East and the stunning oasis of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West.
The last part in the story of Kenya’s landscapes is the coast. In many ways a separate country, separated from the interior by a hundred-kilometre band of thorny desert, the coast was, until the early twentieth century, part of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, and was only married off to the Kenya Colony forty years before the country reclaimed its independence (some coastal people would say they exchanged the domination of Zanzibar for that of Nairobi). For such an effortlessly laid-back part of the world, the coast.
is surprisingly politicised, with a deep-seated Swahili culture that has been amalgamating interior languages and cultural norms with the laws and language of Islamic and Arabic culture for more than a thousand years. Seasonal trade winds – the northeast and southeast monsoons – play along a coast of beaches and creeks, protected by a coral reef.
The diving and snorkelling are excellent, the constant breeze encourage kite- and wind-surfing, and much of the coast lives up to tropical beach paradise expectations. True, there are some stretches of fairly intense hotel development near Mombasa, and at Malindi, but much of the coast is still relatively unspoiled – notably the Lamu archipelago, in the north, where the main island of Lamu still has no vehicles and some of the lesser islands are almost completely self-sufficient.
So how does travel work in Kenya? What is a safari and how do you avoid being eaten by lions or squashed by an enraged elephant?
Think of the country, in one sense, like any other: you can travel without restriction all over Kenya, with the exception of parts of the northeast where travel is limited by Somalia’s insecurity and local banditry. Public transport or car hire will do the trick (and you can choose to have a driver/guide rather than doing the driving yourself, but either way you should hire a 4x4). In towns, you can stay overnight in hotels (there are very few campsites outside the parks), which don’t normally need to be booked ahead. If you’re driving a private vehicle, the parks are open to you, though you’ll need to book lodge or tented camp accommodation in advance (a tented camp is a permanent encampment of large tents, usually with floors, furniture, plumbed-in bathrooms and a separate roof for when the heavens open. Don’t forget park fees, which are payable per 24 hours, and usually range from $40 to $75 per day.
Rather than travelling independently, many visitors go on an organised safari – which just means journey in Swahili, so a safari is simply a tour. Most safaris concentrate on the national parks and will include “game drives” for several hours twice a day – after dawn and before dusk – when you leave your lodge or tented camp and set off in search of wildlife. In most of the parks, you can’t leave your vehicle – except of course in the camps, where spear-carrying watchmen look out for inquisitive wildlife – but some parks allow game walks, which gives you the chance to really absorb the natural environment in the company of trained rangers or local Maasai guides.
Kenya’s busiest tourist seasons are July and August and Christmas and New Year, when many lodges and camps are sold out and prices are highest. The best deals are to be had from April to June, during the so-called “long rains” (often a bit of a misnomer), when it sometimes feels as if you have half the country to yourself.
And the question of wildlife danger? The facts are: the wildlife is wild; most parks, and many lodges and camps, are unfenced; and wild animals and people don’t mix well, as a glance at virtually any daily paper will show, with marauding elephants, unseen crocodiles, surfacing hippos and goat-nabbing lions all regularly featured. You need to take care, as accidents do happen, but that’s what Kenya is all about. Guides and other staff will invariably protect you with great skill and devotion, but you can’t make a safari one hundred percent safe. And that’s why travelling here retains its emotional allure: the word exciting might apply to a theme park ride, but it doesn’t come close to describing the experience of travel in Kenya.
Seeing the African Big 5 (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard) in around an hour takes some doing. We were fortunate to see these creatures and many more besides while on a number of game drives from our lodge in South Africa. We've also seen them at zoos and wild animal parks of varying standards across the world. So if you want to get up close and personal with wildlife, what is the best way to do it - and is there is a right or wrong way?
Of course there are different types of zoo. In the old days, before we became 'enlightened' in our care for animals, the exhibits of a zoo were managed and acquired in much the same way as paintings or statues in a gallery. Little regard was given for animal welfare and conservation, with most animals having to live in cramped spaces and having little to stimulate them from one mundane day to the next. I visited a zoo in China in the 1990s and more recently Dubai Zoo (an absolute disgrace) and imagined that these were probably reflective of how most zoos around the world would have been forty or fifty years ago.
Illustrious modern zoos (or wild animal parks as they often prefer to be branded) include the famous Singapore Night Safari and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, both of which I have enjoyed visiting. Animals here have far more space and their enclosures are not solely designed as pits with unobstructed public viewpoints. These places manage breeding programmes and place a strong emphasis on promoting awareness of conservation issues, positioning their operations as more educational than entertainment.
A real safari on the other hand is about seeing the animals in an entirely natural habitat. Well, almost. An experienced ranger will know where specific animals are likely to be at a certain time and will often leave 'treats' out so that beast and tourist can cross paths conveniently. As far as is possible the young are conditioned to be comfortable with a jeep being alongside them while they nap, eat or play.
A big part of the safari experience is the opportunity for photography. Most safari-goers will pack a good camera with a big lens, hoping to capture that ultimate close-up photo of a lion eating a zebra with an elephant in the background (or something like it). But safaris are unpredictable and it's quite possible to come away from a game drive having seen little or nothing. It's harder still if you chosen prey is the tiger; visitors to Indian game parks can spend a week on the hunt for even the briefest glimpses of one of these elusive cats.
So is it all about getting the best photo? If so then perhaps a modern zoo may provide the guarantee of animal sightings, and usually in a habitat that vaguely resembles the animal's natural environment. Where a safari wins out for me is that very element of uncertainty, of being in the hands of fate as to whether you catch a sighting of whatever crosses your path that day or whether you come back having seen nothing.
And there's also something humbling about being enclosed on a vehicle while the animals stroll around and observe you with curiosity; as if they are visiting a zoo where you are the exhibit. As a naturally curious person I enjoy observing animals in any environment; but I don't think that the excitement of seeing something unexpected run across your path can ever be recreated, even in a modern zoo.
Read on for the nitty gritty about travelling in Kenya. Includes information on getting to Kenya, vaccination requirements, visas and all importantly the weather and when to go.
Kenya has international airports in Nairobi (Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta NBO) and Mombassa (Mombasa Moi International MBA) which are around 8 hours flying time from the UK. British Airways and Kenya Airways fly regular direct services to Nairobi. Return tickets usually range from £550 to £850 depending on when you are travelling. If you are willing to put up with the inconvenience then cheaper tickets can usually be purchased with a stop from Qatar Airways, Ethiopian and Emirates. Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta airport is a ½ hr 16km drive from Nairobi City Centre, but traffic is often very bad.
There is a good internal flight network whose hub is at Nairobi Wilson Airport. The network mainly serves destinations on the coast and the main national parks. Most safaris and treks include transport in a minibus or 4wd vehicle.
Kenya is subject to 2 rainy seasons, and a busy peak tourist season, but in reality is a year round destination. Most people visit during the summer months of July and August, when the weather is dry and the Maasai Mara is teeming with the Wildebeest migration.
-July and August are peak season with Europeans and Americans making the most of their summer holidays, so expect crowds. However they also fall right after the long rains, so expect lots of lush green.
-September and October play host to the short rains. Rain tends to fall for only a couple of hours in the afternoon or morning, so you shouldn’t let it stop you.
-November, December, January, February and the first half of March are the dry season. Expect hot weather and quiet parks.
-Second half of March, April, May and June plays host to the long rains. During this period it tends to rain through the night and into the morning. It is usually possible to get a dry spell between 10am and 2pm for getting out on safari.
Visas are required for most nationalities (including UK citizens, Americans, Canadians, Austalians and Europeans) and are purchased on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi for £20 (single entry).
Kenyan currency is the Kenyan Shilling. There are ATMs at the airport and in most major Cities.
Vaccinations normally recommended for a trip to Kenya are: diphtheria; tetanus; poliomyelitis; typhoid; hepatitis A; yellow fever. Vaccinations sometimes recommended are: meningococcal meningitis, hepatitis B, rabies, tuberculosis, and cholera. Malaria is present through most of the country and precautions are essential. Check with your doctor or nurse for suitable antimalarial tablets. A good website to check for travel health advice is http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/destinations/africa/kenya.aspx
The Tambopata river, snaking it's way through the jungle is all you could hope from a rainforest waterway; brown, murky and mysterious. With a two and a half hour boat ride up to our jungle lodge, there was plenty of time to sit back, relax and watch the scenery. The week before I went there had been a sighting of a jaguar on the banks of the mighty river. We were not quite so lucky, but were still thrilled with what we did manage to see.
The white and black bird you can see is a King Vulture, a pretty rare spot in the Rainforest. The other birds are common vultures, they have been grazing on a decaying carcass.
We saw quite a few caimans as we motored upstream, basking in the sun.
This is a capivari, a common mammal in the rainforest that looks like an over-sized guinea pig.
And the murkier side to jungle life. Illegal loggers taking wood down river to sell at the markets.