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Aug 6, 2016

Wheelchairs on safari

Can’t walk? Wheelchair user? (Or any lesser kind of impaired mobility? Or no impairment at all, just an adventurous spirit?) Want to go on safari? You can.

The formula goes like this for a safari in Kenya. First find your airline. Best choice, Emirates. You get to experience the longest flight in the world - 17 hours from Auckland to Dubai – possibly an experience you could enjoy, possibly not. For impaired mobility travellers transit in Dubai is extremely well organised with a special lounge and an attendant to guide you to your connecting flight to Nairobi.

If you haven’t been to Africa before, be prepared. It hits you the moment you arrive in Nairobi. There is no such thing as an arrivals area at the terminal, you get your bag, go outside and there is Africa – crowds of Kenyans lining the street waiting for passengers, waiting to help carry your bags (for $), or just waiting. There is a game reserve on the edge of Nairobi and there is a chance you will see your first giraffe, peering over the treetops as you drive from the airport into the city.

Street scenes have to be seen as they are really indescribable - just kaledescope of people, animals, sounds, smells, buildings, shacks, vehicles all mixed to together. You keep having the remind yourself this is not a movie. It's real.

Accommodation is not a problem in Nairobi, there are good hotels. Batians Apartment Hotel which is mentioned in the Access4all accommodation guide, is suitable for almost everyone except perhaps wheelchair people who cannot walk as the shower is a little narrow to access. Food here and at other hotels will be quite familiar to you. Tusker beer may not be, but is good to get acquainted with so you can feel truly Kenyan.

Nairobi doesn’t have many especially compelling attractions. But it does have the wonderful David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program. In its own words: “The Orphans’ Project exists to offer hope for the future of Kenya’s threatened elephant and rhino populations as they struggle against the threat of poaching for their ivory and horns, and the loss of habitat due to human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought”.

10am is orphan baby elephant feeding time, and show off to the people who are watching time as well. Some of the little orphans have already developed very impressive football dribbling skills. Not far away is the Giraffe Centre where giraffes are kept mainly for children’s education. You can get up close to them, feed them, get even closer with a mouth to mouth exchange of food if you like animals A LOT.

There are many Kenyan safari options ranging from many days, ultra-luxury trips – tables and chairs set up on the banks of a game park river to wine and dine and watch the wildlife as the sun sets – to Go Africa Safaris and Travel who are little pricey but specialise in safaris for disabled travellers, to more budget style.

Here is budget style – 3 days to the Masai Mara reserve for $599NZ.  It is the most basic but can take mobility impaired people and provides all you need for a truly memorable experience. The first day is taken up with driving to the Masai Mara reserve, descending down into the vast Rift Valley, seeing the first Masai people with their distinctive red cloaks (some with mobile phones on a belt beneath the coat – makes sense as some do still walk enormous distances and may want to phone home).

There is a fairly brief evening excursion into the park, usually with much excitement at seeing the first animals – antelope, zebra, lions here and there. Just taste a for the next day. Accommodation consists of tents – they are permanent with paved floors, beds and bathrooms, including accessible if needed. For anyone with disabilities, going camping like this  could well be a new and simple pleasure..

Like Nairobi street scenes words and photographs cannot do justice to the second day - you have to be there. It is spent entirely in the reserve, ranging far across the vast Masai Mara grasslands, almost always finding all of the “Big 5” – lions, elephants, rhino, leopard and giraffes, as well as all kinds of other animals.

Just listing them also gives no sense of the actual experience - you may see sights like a whole pride of lions feeding on a freshly killed buffalo, the driver's caution in getting no closer than 100m to the rhinos because they are unpredictable, fast, dangerous... and big, the way the elephant herds look as they trek across the dry, dry grassland, a lion watching a group of hippo in a river, just waiting for a tasty little one to make the mistake of coming to the shore.

And really this day alone is enough to create a memory for a lifetime - a truly unique experience. There are so many animals, so many species that more safari days will to some extent just be a repeat of this. Of course some of you would be very happy to do that.

About vehicles. They are safari minibuses – vans essentially, with a pop-up top for viewing. They are relatively easy to board -  even wheelchair users can do it. The driver is also the guide, explaining everything you may want to know about the park and the animals. And he will almost certainly be typical of most Kenyan people - incredibly warm and genuinely friendly, helpful in any way you want.

So, mobility-impaired safaris are really no problem. What they are is an unforgettable experience that will forever after make zoos seem small and unexciting. Sorry zoos.