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Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

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2,080 posts
48 reviews
Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

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.

Nairobi, Nairobi...
2 posts
71. Re: Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

I am from Kenya but I currently live and work abroad. Sorry to say this; but in Kenya nobody is bothered about anyone's safety. On a daily basis we have like 30 deaths on the road/ killings by the Al Shaabab but the Government is not bothered. There was also an incident 3 years ago when 50 teachers drowned on Lake Naivasha while they were taking a break/ boat ride while attending Teacher's Seminar in one of the hotels around Lake Naivasha. I look forward to the day Governments in Africa will value human life like in the Developed Countries. GOD Bless & Protect Kenya.

Bristol, United...
Level Contributor
12 posts
1 review
72. Re: Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

Recently been on the boat trip, with no mishaps luckily!

Fantastic opportunity to see the hippos in the lake - im sure all activities concerning water and wildlife has its dangers- :(

thank god you were all unharmed- i can only imagine how scarey it must have been for you.

and boo hoo virgin -!

Ilford, United...
Level Contributor
400 posts
20 reviews
73. Re: Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

I was reading this post this morning and thinking how awful/scary it must've been for you Shep, I hope the new measures put in place are fit for the purpose. We were "lucky" enough to do a similar trip last year, luckily it was uneventful but having read an earlier comment about the weather being a bit unpredictable in the afternoon, seem to recall our trip was earlier in the day (en route from Nakuru to Mara). I'm not sure if you would've gone from the same jetty as us or if Sopa had their own jetty but we paid at a desk then got the little boat and off we went.

However our holiday wasn't without a mishap/scare - we went on the Kinazini Funzi Dhow trip which I have to say we did enjoy overall. We were in a similar sized boat as used on Naivasha which had an overhead sun canopy, so there we were chugging up the river near the riverbank looking at the birds/wildlife on the bank when (we think!) the outboard motor's throttle seemed to stick as we headed for some overhanging trees. The trees met the canopy which then pushed us backwards but the action of that happening prompted the boat to tip to a 45deg angle. There we were bailing out shin deep water from the bottom of the boat. The boat had tilted towards my hubby's side of the boat (his nerves aren't the best!) all he could think about was "we're gonna die, there are crocodiles in the river", my thoughts after the event were "we could've died because we didn't get vaccinated against cholera this year"! Obviously the stop to bail out and make sure the motor was ok took more time than normal so in the haste (maybe it was normal speed, I don't know) to get back to the dhow we were crossing more open/choppy water and my husband was getting quite distressed. Luckily he had had his "big" camera in his hand but his little "point & shoot" had been in the camera bag in the footwell and was ruined & for a while we were worried about the memory cards containing all the safari photos from the week before but they were ok

As I said at the top overall we enjoyed the trip, despite the "disaster"; the crew took details of the damaged items for their insurance purposes and when we got back to our hotel our (Thomson) rep already knew about the incident and we filled out an accident report form. But as hubby said both then & now although Thomson sold the excursion, what happened was not their fault, the fault in our case, and I guess Shep's, lies with the service provider, not that that should absolve the tour operator of all responsibility as there is a "duty of care" to ensure clients are safe when undertaking excursions with a 3rd party provider.

We are still waiting (since Oct 2012) to hear about the compensation/insurance for the camera which we left in resort, as hubby works for Thomson (& reluctant to give bank details) we asked that any monies be paid to the local office in Mombasa who would then be able to contact him thru work email etc. He has recently chased them up again so fingers crossed we don't have to wait too long now.

Although our circumstances are different in terms of the fact that we have not proactively chased this, I certainly feel Shep's pain & empathise with the scenario originally described...

What I would say is we came away from Naivasha saying how wonderful the trip had been, following the subsequent "adventure" my hubby is a little less sure about doing the Naivasha trip again (and having read him Shep's report I doubt this will be high on his wish list this year!!) or the Funzi Dhow trip either but we'll see, another 4 months yet before we need to decide on that! Also, I would not want my little trip report to put anyone off the Funzi Dhow trip either, I'm sure this was probably a "one-off"

Edited: 4:02 pm, April 23, 2013
Nairobi, Kenya
Level Contributor
193 posts
1 review
74. Re: Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

We are glad the rain stopped, we are very sorry for the ordeal, I hope nobody got sick after the experience.

Nairobi, Nairobi...
2 posts
75. Re: Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

I am from Kenya. I don't think you will ever get the refund back. Most people in Kenya are generally dishonest.

76. Re: Terrifying Experience with Virgin Holidays at Lake Naivasha

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