On a recent “Taste of Kenya Tour” booked through Virgin Holidays we experienced a truly terrifying and life threatening experience. This occurred on a boat trip on Lake Naivasha taken from the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort. We feel anyone taking this trip should be aware of what happened, it may also be of interest to anyone planning any boat trip in East Africa. I apologise for the length of this post but feel the the event and its aftermath need to be described in some datail.
On the 2nd December 2011 we took a 1-hour boat trip on Lake Naivasha organized by the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort included as part of the Virgin holiday package. We set out soon after 4pm with 3 other guests and were provided with lifejackets, which appeared to be standard procedure. When we left conditions were overcast, but no suggestion was made that they were not suitable for the trip.
We had been on the lake in the small boat for over half an hour when a tremendously violent storm with torrential rain, strong winds, lightning and thunder covered the area. Prior to the storm black clouds had been gathering but the “coxswain” seemed unconcerned, advising us at one point simply that it was “going to rain”.
As the storm broke the “coxswain” started back at high speed across open water in the general direction of the landing jetty, presumably the most direct route, but perhaps also avoiding hippo’s that frequented the shallows, we had been warned these would have been very dangerous for the boat to run into. Visibility was immediately cut to a few yards by the intensity of the rain and within minutes the “coxswain” told us he was lost. Without being able to see the shore he had lost his bearings and did not have any other means of locating our position. He had no way of contacting the shore apart from a personal mobile phone that did not seem to function in the storm possibly through becoming waterlogged. We felt the “coxswain” panicked and had no idea what to do in the conditions.
The boat was open sided and was slowly collecting water in the bottom both from the rain and from water that came over the low edges of the boat as it rocked in the waves caused by the strong winds, this water soon reached ankle height but there was no means on board of bailing it out. We were quickly saturated and chilled by the strong wind, which was made worse by the speed of the boat across the lake and we were soon shivering violently both through cold and terror at the extreme danger we felt we were in.
We truly believed that the “coxwain” might drive into a group of hippo’s in the poor visibility or that we might sink and no one would know where he had directed the boat in his panic. We were so cold we believed hypothermia was a strong possibility whether we were in the boat or in the water.
The storm lasted over half an hour before a break in the cloud allowed the “coxswain” to get a bearing to take us back towards the jetty, it was clear to us that he had to turn the boat around to do this and he had actually taken us out towards the middle of the lake during the storm. The rain intensity lessened and after a while the shoreline could be made out and some ten minutes later we were thankfully back at the jetty, soaked, extremely cold and very shaken by the whole experience.
By this time it was after 5:30pm (over 30 minutes later than our expected return time). We had been worried that if the storm lasted much longer we would have still been on the lake as darkness fell around 6pm, making finding us impossible especially if the boat had sunk and we were in the water.
Following our return to shore we were assisted back to our rooms, but no-one from the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort management contacted us to check that we were ok or to offer us any practical or emotional support following this ordeal on the boat trip operated by their hotel. After we had been back in our room for over an hour we felt able to contact the hotel management to make sure they knew about the incident (which they did) and to make sure they understood how dangerous it had been and that we had feared for our lives. They showed no real concern or interest in the harrowing ordeal that we had just been through and offered no help or support other than to promise to find out if the camera and binoculars damaged during the incident would be covered by the Sopa Group insurance. (I will post a separate report on the hotel).
In case anyone thinks that storms and sudden changes in the weather on Lake Naivasha could not have been anticipated by the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort I would quote from The Rough Guide to Kenya (page 241 2002 Edition) under the heading “Lake Dangers” - “Beware out on Naivasha. The possibility that underground springs may feed the lake, its location on the floor of the Rift Valley, and its shallowness, all combine to produce notoriously fast changes of mood and weather: grey and placid one minute, suddenly green and choppy with whitecaps the next. Naivasha shouldn’t be underestimated as boating mishaps are all too common. Watch out too for hippos, which can overturn a small boat easily enough if frightened or harassed.”
The following day we travelled to the Masai Mara, arriving feeling totally drained and exhausted. We all felt unwell over the remaining days of our trip which we believe was a reaction to the stress of the incident. On our arrival at the Masai Mara Sopa Lodge they had apparently been advised that we had had some problem at Lake Naivasha but were not aware of the full extent of the ordeal we had endured, or the way it had been handled. Following our description of the event to their Guest Relations representative, the Masai Mara Sopa management were shocked at what had happened at Lake Naivasha and requested a meeting with us so they could compile a full report for the Sopa Head Office Team. They assured us that the Sopa management were very concerned about our experience and were now taking it all very seriously.
We had reported the incident to Virgin Holidays on the evening it happened, detailing the extremely dangerous event and the lack of safety measures in place to deal with such an incident and highlighting that this needed to be addressed for future guests. Following this initial report to Virgin we had no further contact or support from Virgin Holidays until our return to Nairobi at the end of our safari. Back in Nairobi we felt again that the Virgin Representative there showed no great interest in our ordeal, other than to get us to fill in an “Incident Report form” for the records. Unfortunately this continual reliving of the event in each location only added to our distress and completely overshadowed the rest of the holiday.
Whilst we were in Kenya, we felt that Virgin Holidays and their representatives took no practical measures to demonstrate concern for our well being, or any interest in ensuring the safety of future clients.
On the day following our return to the UK we compiled a full report of the incident and its aftermath and sent it to Virgin. It is now 4 weeks since the event. Since it happened we have had to recount the full details of this harrowing experience on 8 separate occasions to Sopa and Virgin staff both verbally and in writing.
We have been in contact with Virgin Holidays in England by telephone and e-mail and they have expressed their concern at our experience, and it now appears that the lack of practical support is because no one in Africa felt it appropriate to categorise this as a “major incident”. We await the outcome of our correspondence with Virgin Holidays over our experience and their follow up.
Right from the start we had made specific requests for assurances from the Sopa Group and Virgin that safety measures would be put in place to ensure no-one else is ever at risk of this type of harrowing experience. It is only belatedly on Wednesday the 27th December (nearly 4 weeks after we reported the incident to them) that we were informed that Virgin have now suspended the boat trips whilst they carry out a Health and Safety Investigation. We wait to find out the outcome of this investigation and any changes that are implemented.
For anyone travelling to Kenya and planning a trip on Lake Naivasha I would suggest that you check out the equipment on the boat and the training of the coxswain very carefully before setting out. Be especially careful in checking all of this if taking a trip from the Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort making sure they NOW have safety measures in place to deal with the sort of storm that we encountered.
If you should be unfortunate and experience anything similar to us I would also advise you make it clear to the Hotel and Virgin Holidays that you consider it a major incident as it is our experience that minor incidents are ignored completely by the hotel staff at Lake Naivasha Sopa Resort and the Virgin team based in Nairobi.