Category Archives: Kenya domestic tourist

Guide to Baku, Azerbaijan

Getting There: Qatar Air was the best, and the only real option picked by our travel agent. We booked tickets early and they cost about $1,000 for a round trip. The flights are Nairobi-Doha and Doha-Baku and total time and the total journey time was about eight hours. Our layover in Doha was short and we had to sprint through the airport to get our connecting flight. Fortunately, we had received boarding passes for the Baku-leg in Nairobi, but in the rush, we lost some documents.

In the weeks prior to departure, there was some confusion about how to obtain a visa to enter Azerbaijan. The country has an e-visa page, but the pull-down menu of country choices does not list Kenya. Some other travellers going for the race chose South Africa as the nearest country to complete the e-visa application but we chose to wing it.

The Formula One race is a big business deal in Baku, and there was a Presidential directive on the internet that the Government of Azerbaijan would offer visas on arrival for F1 fans coming to attend the race. We had arrived early for check-in for our flight in Nairobi which was a good thing as we had to haggle with the Qatar Air staff and make some calls as they checked a book register of passengers. Eventually, they allowed us to proceed and board. There was no issue in Doha, other than the sprint across to catch the connecting flight.

On arrival at Heydar Aliyev International Airport (GYD) in Baku, there was a special desk section for F1 fans with special ushers around, dressed in F1 garb, ready to assist. You showed your ticket, paid a $26 fee and were issued with a 30-day single-entry visa. Note: We had bought our tickets through the official F1.com site and they arrived two weeks before the race, delivered from the UK by DHL to Nairobi.  

For other fans who already had applied for and got e-visas online, they could walk up to airport machines and get served.

After getting an e-visa, you then proceed to the immigration area.  There, they ask a few questions about the purpose of your trip and you also have to provide an email and phone number (we gave Kenyan ones).

if you intend to stay for more days in the country, you have to register online within 10 days of arrival and even the hotel you are staying at can process this

Getting Around: Baku is a small city and we walked end-to-end across it on different days. There was no need for taxis as it’s a very walkable city with lots of sights. We took a taxi from the airport that cost 50 Manat for a distance of about 40 kilometers using an unofficial cab (the official airport ones charge 70 Manat) and that was the only ride we hailed. All cabs are old Mercedes cars. As you walk around, note that weather changes were quite abrupt from sunny to cloudy. days were ok, but the nights were chilly.

Where to Stay: We had made a reservation at the Viva Boutique using Booking.com which we had made a while back and the rate was about $120 (200 Manat). They cost much more if you have booked late. Hotels tend to block off and charge higher fees for Grand Prix weekends. This room which would now be about  400 Manat on race day while other hotels would charge about 800 Manat. 

The hotel is not far from the track and we walked to different events of the race weekend.

We had arrived a few days before the race and had made an Airbnb reservation for the first few days. The homeowner had offered to pick us from the airport, and we had even negotiated an amount for this. But after clearing immigration, the Airbnb host was not answering his phone and we got worried. So we went to the hotel and negotiated for extra nights.

What to Eat: Restaurants are many, from local ones to others serving common international cuisines such as London Pub, McDonald’s and Starbucks.  Local restaurants had many dishes which we did not try. They have chicken served in many different styles and we ate a lot of chips and bacon.

Staying in Touch: It’s usually advisable, when visiting a new country, to get a local phone SIM card, in order to avoid roaming rates that are very expensive. We got Azercell lines from a booth at the airport that cost about $20, and which came with lots of minutes, SMS and 10GB data bundle that lasted the whole trip. This enabled lots of phone chats, browsing, and sharing of images and videos from the Baku trip with friends. However, like in a few other countries, you can’t make phone calls on WhatsApp – a VPN is advisable for that.

Shopping & Sight-Seeing: The local currency is called the Manat. It’s quite strong $1 = 1.70 Manat (so a Manat is ~$0.6 or ~EUR 0.5). Credit cards work well here for most purchases, but it is always a good idea to call your bank before you travel to any country.

Sights to see on the streets of Baku are the full-grown trees, especially in the old city section. The buildings also have interesting architectural designs, walling and engineering of tiles on newer buildings.

Baku is a small town. Malls are modest in size. There are kiosks that are rather expensive, compared to the supermarkets.  By Monday, after the race, malls were quite empty.

One popular tourism attraction is Yanar Dağ, (“burning mountain”), a natural gas fire which blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea near Baku. Tourist charges to visit are 2 Manat each.

Race Day:  The race is at 4:10 PM, which is late compared to other F1 races, and Baku is an hour ahead of Nairobi. 

We had great seats across the pit lane that cost about $500 and it was a fun vantage point. The race itself was kind of anti-climatic given the dominance of the Mercedes team who recorded their fourth consecutive 1-2 finish in 2019, and pre-race favourites Ferrari again seemed lost. The stage was set on Friday, during practice, when one of the cars from team Williams ran over a manhole cover which had come loose. This cause extensive damage to the car and the session had to be stopped. Other teams, including Ferrari, had their practice time limited as a result and this may have contributed to their Sunday pace.

During the weekend, we did the pit-walk to view cars up close in the garages. Many F1 races now put on huge musical concerts to entertain fans from across the world who have come to attend, and this year Baku had American rap star Cardi B performing on Sunday night, after the race.

Odd Points: You can exchange foreign currency with no questions asked and no need to show any identification (ID) in Baku.

A guest post by @asemutwa who travelled to watch the Formula 1 Socar Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2019 race in Baku.

Also see this other race trip report.- Guide to Abu Dhabi.

Turning Dreams into Hotels – Angama and Hemingways

From recent social media posts, we have two tales about how two award-winning hotels came to be built.

Angama: The story of Angama was published back in 2017 but was re-shared this week in a newsletter from the lodge. It was contained in a blog that was written by the founder on the putting together of finding the right partners and putting together a project team and how they managed to execute on a design and vision to build a 10,000 square meter lodge on a cliff in the Mara, in just ten months. This came after eight months of chasing funding.

Hemingways:  The story of Hemingways, is from an interview of the Chairman of Hemingways Holdings, Dicky Evans by journalist Joy Doreen Biira.

He narrates how they operated a hotel in Watamu on the Kenyan coast for 30 years before deciding that there was an opportunity to do a hotel property in the capital city of Kenya. Then, on to the search for an ideal location, acquiring the land, growth by acquiring other companies, working with planners and neighbours, sourcing environmental permits, utilities etc. all to build and fit out what became Hemingways Nairobi at a total cost $22 million. To do this, they also got some funding from I&M Bank, and also invested in other properties in the Mara and in Naivasha and are doing renovations and expansion into new apartments at Watamu.

The importance of partnerships comes in both stories; Hemingways at Watamu partners with other hotels in Nairobi, which don’t have properties as the Coast, to host tourists who want a  private luxury experience at the beach, while Angama, in another post, narrates how local airlines came together to reduce the flying time for their tourists moving between the Mara in Kenya and Serengeti in Tanzania to just a few hours – eliminating an extremely  long process of several flights through Nairobi, Kilimanjaro, and Arusha and airports.

In the two posts, there are unique insights you rarely hear local investors talk about such as how much money they put have invested into their projects, the process of acquiring land, and how infrastructure developments lead to new investment opportunities and possibilities. Also, the day-to-day running and management, and the use of expatriate project managers is a theme that runs through the stories of the two properties that were built quite fast and which are now receiving global accolades for excellence.

Some of the recent awards the hotels have been feted for include the “Best Resort in the Middle East and Africa” by Conde Nast Traveller for Angama, while Hemingways was named the “Best Hotel in Kenya” in three categories (top 10 hotel, top luxury, top service) by Trip Advisor.

Mara Triangle reports on running the Masai Mara

Earlier in December came some news reports of 26 elephant deaths that had happened in recent months in the Masai Mara area. This came a few months after a national uproar in Kenya over the deaths of 11 rhinos from a wildlife translocation program gone wrong,

The source of the stories on the elephant deaths was a report from the Mara Elephant Project (MEP), but the organization has since retracted the sensational claims.

That said, there’s a great ongoing series of reports on the management or the running of the Masai Mara game reserve by Mara Triangle. Written and archived monthly, the Mara Triangle reports give great insight into activities in the Mara, on topics like revenue collection, security updates (including poaching numbers), staff changes, rainfall, number of visitors, special arrivals, scientific research being done in the Mara, filming in the park and also on wildlife deaths.

Excerpts from different 2018 monthly reports

Revenue

  • March to May is the most difficult period as in those months, expenditure substantially exceeds revenue. March revenue was Kshs 30 million, and July was Kshs 98 million despite 44% of visitors not paying the Conservancy fee. In August they crossed the $1 million revenue mark for the first time ever, earning Kshs 109 million. Majority of visitors were from the Narok side which has better game viewing and management.
  • Discussions are ongoing between the Mara Conservancy and Narok County government, for the Mara Conservancy to manage all aspect of the park, through Seiya Ltd, except revenue collection, which is done by KAPS (Kenya Airports Parking Services). For that, they would retain 30% of the revenue.
  • Instances of non-residents, even Chinese tourists, posing as residents to enter the park, are common.
  • There is a high number of non-paying visitors and KAPS was asked to do a reconciliation. It found that, in April 56% of visitors to the Triangle did not pay the Conservancy.
  • They have applied to Safaricom for a Paybill number so people can use their M-Pesa to pay the conservancy fee. The Paybill number (863297) has since been activated and they hope to move to a cashless system of collections.
  • Governors Balloons started paying revenue for the first time in seventeen years.
Rains and Roads
  • In 2018, the Mara had its highest rainfall since 2006 causing flooding and heavy damage to roads. The rains in the areas were actually the highest recorded in sixty years.
  • Heavy rains damage roads and the management sometimes resorts to closing off some areas of the park. Vehicles crisscrossing off-road, in search of wildlife, only add to the problem. The County Government has directed that it does not want to see any saloon cars, in particular, the Toyota Probox, in the park.

Poaching and Wildlife Deaths

  • They document all wildlife deaths, the causes of these, and if there was a human involvement (versus death from natural causes), especially of elephants and rhinos and the recovery of the tusks and horns from the dead animals.
  • A District Warden from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) collects all recovered ivory after each piece has been recorded and signed for. 
  •  KWS now has a trained prosecutor in Kilgoris and there are discussions on how to fund a training course for non-commissioned officers on wildlife law, preparation of statements and court procedures.
  • Sniffer dogs are an important aspect of park security, tracking poachers and thieves. New dogs are imported from overseas, trained, and extensively traded by vets.
Human-Wildlife Conflict:
  • A study found that the main actors in this are spotted hyaenas (53% of instances), leopards (32%), and then lions (15%).
  • Most households lose an average of 3.5% of their livestock to predators.
  • A compensation system has been developed: a kill is reported, rangers visit the scene to verify, photos are taken, and if approved, payment is done at the end of the month. The Conservancy is then reimbursed by the Angama Foundation.

The World-famous Migration

  • This year, 2018, saw one of the worst migrations in recent years. While newspapers report that Tanzanian authorities started fires to create a barrier for the wildebeest, something that they do every year, this did not in fact delay the migration  – but this was a story put out by the tourist industry to explain why safaris they sold on the basis of the migration did not, in fact, feature the migration.

  •  The heavy rain in the Serengeti in Tanzania meant the wildebeest had enough water and grass and did not need to migrate until later. Wildebeest only move from Serengeti to the Mara if they have exhausted water and foliage.  The Mara used to have its own Loita migration, but that doesn’t exist any more as the Loita wildebeest population has crashed.
Bad Manner and Tourism:
  • There are daily complaints about indiscipline and more up-market operators are avoiding the Mara during the high season. A Dutch diplomat refused to pay fine for driving off-road and then blocked a bridge.
  • There is chaos at many crossings, with as many as 300 vehicles present some with people running between them (and some of these images were shared on social media).

  •  It is very difficult to gauge how much the wildebeest are affected by too many vehicles.  The vehicles disrupt the crossing and drive the animals to quieter spots. 
  • Drivers do not obey rules, especially when they think they are not being monitored. On the 23rd (of September) we had nearly 20 vehicles around a leopard sighting .. It is most unfortunate that we can not rely on our resident drivers, (who are well-trained and from top camps) to police themselves. 
  • Campsites are sometimes left in a mess, including two cases by professional safari guides.
Other Masai Mara findings:
  • Visitors in the year included Narok Governor Tunai, Cabinet Secretaries for Tourism (Balala)  and also for Internal Security (Matiangi). Leslie Roach who had donated $200,000 when the Conservancy was started, also visited the Triangle with her family. Also, John Ward visited Serena, a day before the 30th anniversary of his daughter Julie’s death (Apparently Serena was the last place that Julie was confirmed being seen alive). Some MCA’s visited, requesting assistance and David Attenborough also visited the Mara. He is making a film about the loss of biodiversity in his lifetime and his crew also did some filming for a Netflix series on ecological habits that will be shown in August 2019.  
  • The audit for the year to June 2018 was done by  Deloitte who reported that the Triangle had income of Kshs 263 million and a profit of Kshs 10.5 million after expenses of Kshs 252 million.  
  • KAPS removed three members of staff for possible fraud.
  • Some large Flircameras donated by WWF need repair but that organization no longer has funding for the camera project.

KQ KAA Partnership at JKIA

This week, Kenya Airways and the Kenya Airports Authority – (KAA) published a joint notice about discussions towards collaboration in the management of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

This is not new or unique. Last year the Ethiopia government merged it’s airline, the largest airline in Africa, making it the centerpiece of a hub-strategy for Addis that incorporates the airport, passengers, logistics, training, catering and tourism). In Rwanda there is also a similar management arrangement, another soon at Tanzania, while the latest results from Emirates, in its 30th year of profit announced last month, show 14% of their revenue was from cargo and 15% was from D-nata which does ground handling and logistics for other airlines around the world including from extensive investments in Europe, Asia, and North America.

At a previous shareholders meeting (AGM), KQ Chairman Michael Joseph spoke of closer ties with the government, and the need for the airline to get in involved in route approval, and protecting Nairobi as its hub. He said that whenever a foreign leader visited or the President of Kenya went overseas, a “win” from such trips was the granting of more rights to foreign airlines to fly into Kenya, which was to the detriment to KQ, in which the government had a significant investment.

According to its latest results (June 2016 from the Auditor General of Kenya), KAA which constructs, operates and maintains aerodromes around Kenya (including 16 airports)  had Kshs 13.5 billion revenue and a Kshs 2.6 billion profit (in the previous year, this was Kshs 4.4 billion).

The revenue includes Kshs 6.7 B (billion) in passenger service charges, Kshs 1.7B from concessions and Kshs 3 B from landing and parking fees – half of which are probably paid for by Kenya Airways. JKIA handled 100,000 aircraft takeoffs/landings and processed 6.7 million passengers (out of the 9.6 million KAA handled in total) and 235 million tons of cargo.

But KAA also comes with it a lot of politics such as tussles over the composition of its board and top management and project disputes such as the Greenfield terminal at JKIA, and with private developers such as World Duty Free at JKIA and other land disputes at various airports around the country.

The newspaper report (Business Daily) also mentions that the proposed partnership with will also see Kenya Airways exempted from payments of some Value Added Tax (VAT) and the Railway Development Levy, a 1.5% tax on all imports into Kenya that is meant to finance ongoing development of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).