Kenya’s finest

The Masai Mara has seen many changes since Brian Jackman first visited over 40 years ago, but the writer never tires of Kenya’s finest big game stronghold

KenyaDawn comes up fast in Kenya. Arriving at first light it’s hard to believe you left London just eight hours ago. Touching down in Nairobi, it’s time to swap your Kenya Airways Dreamliner for a 14-seater bush-plane on the morning run to the Masai Mara. Even before you begin the descent you can pick out the serpentine coils of the Mara River, the steep folds of the Oloololo Escarpment beyond – and something else. In every direction, spilling like black beads across the plains, wildebeest are moving in numbers beyond comprehension. The great migration has arrived.

A drama as old as Africa itself
What is unfolding before your eyes is a drama as old as Africa itself. It is played out on one of the earth’s most beautiful arenas and it happens when the Serengeti wildebeest herds trek north from Tanzania to spend the dry season in Kenya. It’s the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, and for visitors to the Mara it marks the high point of the year, ushering in four months of unsurpassed game viewing.

No wonder the Mara has been called the greatest slice of wildlife real estate in Africa. At times, driving out into its wide grass oceans, it seems that every ridge and skyline is graced with a moving frieze of animals – not just wildebeest and zebra but also elephant, giraffe, topi, eland and buffalo.

The land of the lion
Even without the migration the Mara is Kenya’s finest big game stronghold, home to all kinds of animals, from six-tonne elephants to rare African wild dogs and pint-size mongooses. Cheetahs patrol its open grasslands and leopards keep watch from its riverside forests. But for me it will always be the land of the lion, the iconic carnivore that stands for all that is best about Africa, and there are few greater thrills than to wake in your tent and listen to the big pride males roaring and grunting under the stars.

This is where I saw my first wild lions 40 years ago, following the Musiara Marsh Pride with Jonathan Scott. That was long before they achieved fame as the feline superstars of the BBC’s long-running Big Cat Diary TV series. Today they are still the lords of this land, and they have continued to walk through my life and inhabit my dreams ever since.

Today, sadly, lions are declining across most of Africa. Even in the Mara National Reserve there are now fewer than 200 adults. Yet it can still claim one of the highest densities of lions on the continent and numbers have actually been increasing in the private wildlife conservancies of the Greater Mara.

Although everybody wants to see the big cats, it is from July onwards that the Mara really comes into its own with the arrival of the migration. The Serengeti zebras are usually the first to appear, chomping down the waist-high oat grass with the wildebeest hot on their heels. Within days, what began as a trickle becomes a flood of animals, pouring across the Mara River in their tens of thousands before dispersing right across the reserve and into the adjoining conservancies – from the valleys of Mara North and Mara Naboisho to the thorn tree glades of Ol Kinyei.

Here they remain throughout the dry season – adults, yearlings and gangling calves – crossing and re-crossing the Mara and Talek Rivers in their constant search for fresh grazing until the plains are reduced to yellow stubble and the onset of the short rains in late October signals the beginning of their return to the Serengeti.

The major river crossings take place where the Mara River swings in a wide bend beneath the Mara Serena Lodge. They are spectacular beyond belief but are not a sight for the squeamish. Many animals are crushed in the mad stampede as the herds spill headlong down the banks, while others fall prey to the waiting crocodiles as vultures gather to feast on the drowned. No matter. The vast majority survive unscathed, cantering away towards Rhino Ridge and all the way east to Keekorok.

Inevitably, there are times when the crossings attract large numbers of vehicles, in which case you may prefer to leave the river and head out deep into the savannah. There, parked in the shade of a solitary acacia, you can have the Mara to yourself – apart from the squealing herds of zebras and the constant muttering of a million wildebeest.

Accommodation spotlight: Mahali Mzuri

Msafiri caught up with the managing director of Virgin Limited Edition to hear more about Sir Richard Branson’s tented luxury safari camp

About Mahali Mzuri
Mahali Mzuri is located in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy and has 13,500 hectares of bush to explore. Against the backdrop of a valley, and sprawling plains as far as the eye can see, visitors to Mahali Mzuri can expect exciting game drives with experienced local Guides, delicious meals, a cosy and relaxing atmosphere in the camp and uniquely designed, spacious and luxurious tents.

The elegant and luxurious tented safari camp features twelve unique suites sleeping a maximum of 24 guests at any time. The tents are perched on a ridge looking over the valley, with a distinctive design adapted to the local climate and terrain.

Guests can enjoy early morning and late afternoon game drives in 4WD Land Cruiser vehicles, seating a maximum of six guests. The camp’s guides can also pack you a picnic lunch for a full day drive to make the most of the bush. For guests looking to get a little closer to the wildlife, Safari Walks can also be arranged, and will be tailored specifically to the guests’ wishes.

When not out on the game drives, guests can enjoy time swimming in the infinity pool or sampling a luxurious spa treatment.

• Rates start at US$640 per person, per night based on double occupancy.
• This includes: twice daily game drives, all meals and drinks (including alcoholic beverages, champagne and premium brands), fees for unlimited access to the exclusive Olare Motorogi conservancy, transfers to and from the Mara North airstrip for scheduled flights or Olare Orok for private charters, all taxes and local levies, guided bush walks, visits to the local markets, laundry service. There is complimentary wireless Internet available throughout the camp
• To book please contact the UK Sales and Reservations office Tel: 0800 716 919 (toll free)
• Tel: +44 (0) 208 600 0430 • Email: enquiries@virginlimitededition.com

The Masai Mara National Reserve
When the Masai Mara National Reserve was established in 1961 it covered only 520 sq km. Today, the figure is 1510 sq km – almost the same size as Greater London, and the wildlife conservancies that have sprung up since 2005 have almost doubled the amount of land set aside for ecotourism. Ranging in size up to 8000 hectares, they help to protect the dispersal area beyond the national reserve where the migrating herds roam in the dry season. In all, throughout the vast Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, some 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebras and half a million gazelles take part in the Great Migration, chasing the rains in their search for pastures new. No two migrations are alike, being driven entirely by the weather, but the herds tend to follow a clockwise direction from the far south of the Serengeti National Park where the zebras and wildebeest give birth on the short grass plains in February and March. When the rains cease in May they are forced to move on to the Mara – their dry season refuge. Even here they must move back and forth across the reserve, regardless of the swollen rivers – by the time the year is over they will have completed a marathon journey of more than 1800 miles.

Interview with Jon Brown

Managing Director of  Virgin Limited Edition

What was it about the Mara that inspired Sir Richard to set up Mahali Mzuri?
Sir Richard Branson has always had a personal interest in Kenya, so it was a natural step to open a property here. Sir Richard Branson recently said: “There’s something about Kenya that makes you feel there’s magic in the air, wonder at every turn, and an ever-present sensation of oneness with nature.”

What does Mahali Mzuri do to help the conservation of the Maasai Mara?
Tourism in the Masai Mara is a key factor in the long- term conservation of the area, not to mention the economic benefits to Kenya as a whole. The problems occur when this tourism is not managed sustainably and results in a decline in the ecosystem and overall safari experience. Our key priorities are to make minimal footprint on the land and to promote high-value, low-density tourism which creates less pressure on the environment.

Mahali Mzuri restricts the number of visitors allowed into the area at any one time and ensures guides adhere to a strict code of conduct thus sustainably managing the impact of tourism on the environment.

Virgin Limited Edition is also supporting both Motorogi and Olare Orok Conservancies in a unique partnership with local Maasai communities and a limited number of other tourism partners. A key component to this is to ensure that the community are seeing the direct benefit of conserving the land and that this benefit is comparable (if not better) than any alternative land use pattern such as agriculture.

And do you involve the local communities in your operations as much as possible?
The local communities are hugely important to every one of our properties. As a company our employment policy is to recruit as locally as possible, therefore giving back to our communities by offering training and employment.

One of Sir Richard’s favourite things to do while visiting Mahali Mzuri is to invite a group of local kids on safari. The Maasai community love the animals, and as an honorary Maasai Elder Sir Richard loves teaching the children about the animals, conservation and the world around them.

Guests can enjoy their stay in the knowledge that their visit in the conservancy is directly contributing to the long term conservation of the area and the local Maasai community.

What game viewing can guests expect?
Wild animals roaming the Kenyan plains include wildebeest, elephant, zebra, lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, impala and gazelle, but that’s just for starters. On a typical game drive at Mahali Mzuri you’ll spot many of the animals listed above, as well as buffalo, topi (antelope native to this area only), hippopotamus, warthog and hyena, plus an abundant and diverse range of bird life.

A number of lion pride territories meet in the Motorogi Conservancy which can make for some interesting encounters as the different groups battle for dominance. The area is also home to roughly 150,000 Loita wildebeest who do not make the annual migration south and seem content to ‘loiter’ all year round!

Of course one of the biggest draws to the area is the annual ‘Great Migration’, which sees up to one million wildebeest plus hundreds of thousands of zebra, gazelles and other game undertake a journey of roughly 1600km through Tanzania and Kenya.

What has been your most memorable game encounter?
My most memorable game encounter has to be watching a young cheetah stroll across the plain deliberately into a large herd of buffalo, which sent them wild. After the commotion he posed regally on a termite mound, staring at us with pride.

Pick of the pillows

Plan your perfect Masai Mara experience at one of these lodges or camps

Mara Explorer
Mara Explorer is situated on a broad, thickly forested bend of the Talek River in the very
heart of the Masai Mara National Reserve. This luxurious tented camp lies at the confluence of the Masai Mara’s four main game viewing areas, and enjoys prime views of the spectacular wildebeest migration between July and September. During the remainder of the year, herds of watering elephant, hippos and other animals can often be seen from the guests’ private verandas.

Mara Explorer’s own all-weather airstrip means you can be in camp less than an hour after leaving Nairobi. The camp offers three drives in the reserve daily in open-sided jeeps led by gold-certified guides. Guests can relax in one of the ten luxury river-facing tents with handcrafted four-poster beds and outdoor bathtubs.

• From US$2405 per night based on two people sharing.
www.heritage-eastafrica.com/tented-camps/mara-explorer

Naboisho Camp
Appealing both to safari purists and those seeking a little luxury, Naboisho Camp is the most upmarket of a handful of small camps in the less-visited Mara Naboisho Conservancy, run in partnership with the local Maasai community. Surrounded by untouched savannah and dense thicket, it is located in a wildlife-rich area where guests frequently have great predator sightings. The camp is smoothly hosted by a very experienced South African couple, Helen and Roelof Schutte, and its standards of service and food are top notch, creating a relaxing sense of space and understated comfort.

The generously spread tents are capacious and smart, but they retain a ‘bush’ feel emphasised by the delightfully private, outdoor safari showers delivered to order in the stone-walled open-air bathroom at the back of each tent (they also have indoor showers). This is a substantial and permanent set-up, but its impact on the local environment is relatively low and guests can expect exciting wildlife action on their doorstep.

The guiding at Naboisho is superb, and the wildlife experience first-rate, both in terms of big game, which you’ll see from the camp’s 4WD safari vehicles, and on the smaller scale of small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects which you can experience on a magical bush walk with Roelof. On the walks, you’ll be accompanied by a Maasai scout, acting as extra eyes and ears, and protected by Roelof’s reassuringly large gun.

• Double/twin tents from US$517 per person per night, based on two sharing, on a four-night stay from 1 Nov to 19 Dec 2015, including all meals, all soft drinks and most alcoholic drinks, laundry, all day and night game drives, bush walks and fly-camping in the deep bush.
www.bit.ly/ExpertAfrica-Naboisho
• Please note that air transfers from Nairobi, international flights and visas are extra.
• Call Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com) on +44 (0)20 8232 9777 for full details.

Mara Engai Wilderness Lodge, Mara Triangle Conservancy
This new and distinctly ‘local’ Mara Engai Wilderness Lodge is nestled among pristine Kenyan Ravine forest on the Estoit Olooloo Escarpment. The Lodge overlooks the amazing Masai Mara National Reserve and Wildebeest Migration Route, with around 120km of unbroken views.

• Mara Engai offers deluxe tented accommodation with en suite and private verandah from US$950 per tent per night on a full board basis. The price includes two scheduled safari game drives per day, Mara Triangle conservancy fees, Wi-Fi, laundry and return airstrip transfers.
• Check www.maraengai.info for their latest promotions.

Mara Serena Safari Lodge
Located at the very centre of Kenya’s famous ‘Mara Triangle’ of the world-renowned Masai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Serena Safari Lodge enjoys a prime position, perched high on a hill with panoramic views over the savannah down to the hippo-filled Mara River. It stands centre-stage to one of Africa’s most dramatic wildlife arenas, with a ringside seat for the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’, the legendary migration of the wildebeest.

Styled to echo the circular motif of a traditional Maasai manyatta, the lodge blends international sophistication with raw African beauty, featuring twin rows of individual rooms, each with its own view of the famous Mara River. The central bar and dining areas enjoy spectacular views, as does the rock-surround swimming pool. Each room stands alone with uninterrupted views, private balcony and spacious seating area. The lodge also boasts an incredible Maisha Safari Spa and gym. Mara Serena is child-friendly and offers baby-sitting, family rooms and children’s dining/menus. Activities include three daily game drives in custom-built traditional safari vehicles, ‘sundowners’ in the bush, breakfast by the hippo pools, hot air balloon safaris and exotic Maasai bush suppers.

• Prices from: US$258 per room
www.serenahotels.com
• Twitter @serenahotels