The Maasai Mara – an hour’s flight from Nairobi, the traffic-riddled Kenyan capital – has long attracted khaki-clad nature lovers, ever since the early-1960s when it was declared a wildlife sanctuary. But change is coming to the great plains of eastern Africa.
Those seeking a more intimate safari experience – one without a dozen jeeps parked around a dozing lion – are looking further afield to special conservancies that border the unfenced reserve. In a scheme that will change local lives – and revolutionise the safari experience – Maasai cattle farmers have torn down the fences that once threatened wildlife migratory routes, creating the Olare Motorogi Conservancy and leasing their land to five exclusive camps.
The latest is Mahali Mzuri, the newly-opened property owned by Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson. Extraordinary in many ways, Mahali Mzuri – Swahili for ‘good place’ – sits on an escarpment high above a viridescent valley and the gently flowing Ntiakitiak River. Its 12 space-age permanent tents – think canvas walls and en suite bathrooms beneath a conical roof of black structural PVC – will divide opinion, with purists no doubt favouring a more traditional exterior. Others will applaud the innovation.
Reaching the camp involves a bumpy 45-minute drive from the Mara North Airstrip, passing herbs of unfazed zebras, buffalos and the odd hyena. Stationed just outside the camp is a lone wildebeest. “That’s George,” says our guide, Lenkoko.“He’s always there.”
I settle into my airy tent, admiring the checkered Maasai fabrics and intricate beaded handicrafts handmade by local ladies, and briefly consider popping open the complimentary bottle of vintage bubbly while enjoying a soak in the clawfoot bath that overlooks the valley.
Such extravagance doesn’t come cheap (a stay here costs upwards of £350 per person per night) but beyond all else – the free minibar, the infinity pool, the spa – Mahali Mzuri offers the greatest luxury of all: seclusion. Accessible only to those staying within the conservancy – roughly the size of Liverpool – numbers are strictly limited. As is the number of jeeps permitted around each game site (a maximum of four), with a maximum of 96 split across the five camps. Gone are the days of sharing your lion sighting with a dozen other jeeps. We spend thrilling game drives watching lions and elephants with nobody around for miles.
Yet that’s not all. Its location outside the reserve also has other benefits – here, guests are welcome to stretch their legs. Lenkoko takes us on a morning’s stroll, explaining all about age-old and eye-watering Maasai customs (the knocking out of teeth, circumcision without flinching) as we cross plains of long grass. Giraffes watch us suspiciously; a deadly black mamba snake slithers across our path. There’s nothing to fear, though, for we’re accompanied by smiling tribesman Muli, dressed in bright Maasai robes and clutching a sharp spear.
“I prefer the conservancy. It’s more peaceful and there are fewer cars. You can get closer to nature,” says Lenkoko. More importantly, though, the conservancy is making a lasting difference to the people of the Mara. Schools have been built, a trust has been established and a number of adult initiatives launched to aid development and education.
Back at camp, lunch is being served but another meal is soon to be devoured in the valley below. The stalking lioness bides her time as hundreds of wildebeest descend the steep hillside. We hold our breath and wait. Then, in a heart-stopping moment she springs into action, sprinting close to the herd and claiming her prize. The calf falls to the ground amid the thunderous stampede. Thrilling yet tragic. I just hope it wasn’t George.