A luxury safari in Kenya

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Depending on who you talk to, Kenya’s Maasai Mara is either the very best, or the very worst, location for a first safari. Arguably the most recognised safari location in the world, “the Mara” – as regulars like to call it – is renowned for its population of lions, cheetahs and leopards.

The very same national park – home to the BBC documentary, Big Cat Diary – has help shape travellers' ideas of what a modern safari is. Many claim the Maasai Mara is still the best place to catch big cats, up close and personal.

But with such notoriety comes a cost; there are more than 100 camps and lodges in and around the 1,500 square kilometre park, and on any game drive you’re likely to encounter many more cars than cats. The ideal may be empty plains, but for many, the reality is crowds and commotion.

As an unashamed safari beginner, I’m based at Sala’s Camp, which aims to reconcile a genuinely wild experience with creature comforts. The property certainly has a prime spot. While the vast bulk of accommodation options are spread around the north of the national park, Sala’s eight luxury tents are set at the opposite end, just 500 metres from the border with Tanzania’s neighbouring Serengeti National Park. The closest neighbouring camp is 7km away and is set on the banks of the slow Sand River.

Sala’s boasts some of Kenya’s first views each year of the fabled Great Migration as more than a million wildebeest and 250,000 zebras – plus all their assorted predators – pass north from Tanzania in July and some of its last when the herd reverses back to the south in October. It’s this four-month spell that typically marks the best time to visit Kenya.

On day one, I start before dawn, riding in an open-topped 4x4 with my local guide, Stephen, at the wheel. Meanwhile, our spotter, David, stands on the back seat, for hours at a time, his head poking over the parapet surveying the long flat plains, so characteristic of the Mara. I’d met both a day earlier when they picked me up from the airstrip at Keekorak – little more than a patch of sand and a single armed guard lounging in the shade, the sole concession to formality. Driving to camp Stephen points to the waist-high grasses that line either side of the tracks. I am told they recently sprouted up following a burst of rain.

“This year we have something to celebrate – in five years, I’ve never seen the grass this long,” he explains.

Though this sign of bountiful rain is good for the Maasai – the semi-nomatic tribe that inhabits this land, it will also make spotting game particularly difficult for us.

After two hours bumping around without seeing more than the flash of an impala, I begin to contemplate an early dinner. My gaze starts to waver, overwhelmed by vast, undulating plains on all sides. Then the car slows to a halt.

“Look out to the left,” orders Stephen, a chime of pride in his voice.

Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with a wild lion. Anything you’ve been told, dreamed or planned instantly evaporates when you meet the cold stare of a predator’s gaze . It wasn’t fear – something about the easy laugh of the guides puts terror far from reach – so much as deep disbelief. It was just there, perhaps three metres away, glaring at me with weary contempt. The car’s presence was viewed with the familiarity of a minor disturbance, the mechanics of the modern safari creating a kind of uneasy truce between car and cat. Eventually she gets bored of eyeballing us and wanders off. She collapses into the grass next to three more napping adults, none of whom seem remotely fazed as I frantically snap away.

On the way back to camp, we encounter a lazy family of elephants strolling calmly through the planes, shadowed in the golden haze of the setting sun.

Satisfied with a successful first outing, I dine in the communal mess with the camp’s manager, Mark Boyd, a wiry, energetic 31-year-old Brit, and his two visiting friends. Over an excellent risotto, the conversation frequently returns to the subject of the welfare of the local wildlife.

Earlier that day we saw planes whizzing overhead and rangers buzzing around as part of a government rhino census, which aims to microchip every one of the great hulks in a bid to deter poachers.

Though I’m told that poaching in Kenya has subsided recently, it remains a real and present danger. Boyd says there are just 54 rhinos living in the Mara, and among such a small population, even a couple of killings each year can wreak havoc on mating cycles. And whatever safeguards authorities put in place, with rhino horn currently selling for as much as Dh220,000 a kilo, the incentive for poachers remains.

The next morning I hit the tracks again at dawn. Even without spotting anything, it’s a humbling experience to be out alone in the plains, feeling the day hazily gain consciousness; the shivering stillness of first light slowly gives way to a burning sun by noon.

After about three hours we spot a grumpy, cartoon-like face peering ominously from behind a tree. The hulking African buffalo sports a black body and an ugly visage capped by magnificent, curved horns that spiral from the forehead like the bottom of a judge’s wig. Less than 24 hours in the Mara, and I’d ticked off three of the Big Five, the classic set initially coined by game hunters, which includes the lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhinoceros.

Soon after, we track down a cheetah – a markedly less uplifting experience. I don’t doubt my guides’ spotting talents for a second, but it was a semi-circle of more than a dozen 4x4s and minibuses arched around a remote tree that alerted us to the cat up top. Still, another box ticked.

Talking to other travellers, it became clear this was by no means an unusual experience. Yet compared with Kenya’s tourism heyday, just five years ago, it would seem we’ve got it good. The country welcomed 1.75 million visitors in 2011, a figure that slid to 1.26 million in 2014. And while the number of camps continues to expand, things are only getting worse for the tourism market, with official figures reporting a 25 percent decline in visitors between summer 2014 and last June.

The drop off is primarily blamed on the rise of terrorism. Since 2011 Kenya has been shaken by a long list of terror attacks linked with the militant group Al Shabaab. In 2013, 67 were killed at a shopping mall in Nairobi. In June and July of 2014 at least 85 people were gunned down in popular tourist costal areas in Lamu and Tana River counties. In April 2015, 147 people were killed when gunmen stormed a university.

None of these incidents took place in the popular safari areas, but today the UK government warns of a “high threat” of terrorism and kidnapping across the whole of Kenya, with advice against all travel in some areas. The Americans maintain similar travel warnings.

This, and the ensuing media coverage, has crippled the country’s tourism industry. When I stop at a shopping centre before heading to the airport, it is jarring to have a guard thrust open my door, without pausing for permission, and check the glovebox for weapons.

The 2014 West African ebloa outbreak also aided, absurdly so, in the sharp decrease in visitors. As one hotel manager reminded me, the epidemic was closer to London than Nairobi – but it has not stopped the ignorant from ruling out Africa as a destination entirely.

Back at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport I board a flight heading an hour north to Laikipia, situated in what was once known as the Great Rift Valley. Around 500km north-east of the Maasai Mara, it could be another planet. The landscape is scorched earth, instead of the rolling grasses I had encountered in the Mara. I step off the plane onto bright orange sands, and am left to question whether anything can survive in this desolate terrain.

The answer is a resounding yes. While my time in the Mara was defined by long, sun-baked days gazing hopefully through the grasses, here I am met with an abundance of animals.

In a single day I spot a pack of grazing zebras, scurrying gazelles, jackals, antelopes, waterbucks, and a lone lion. Set amid a neon-bright, sandy backdrop, this is the familiar image of east Africa from primary school textbooks and Hollywood movies.

For the second leg of my trip, I am staying on a privately owned conservancy, rather than a national park, lending itself to an easier game-spotting experience. Sosian is a working ranch, established by Italian artisans in the 1940s and is currently home to 1,500 cattle. After falling into decay, the estate was rescued by a consortium of investors at the turn of the millennium, and revamped to offer a luxury, family friendly getaway. It’s this – and leasing the land to the British Army for training exercises, I find out later – which keeps the ranch afloat.

Being on private land has its perks. Much of the local lion population has been collared with a transmitter – an initiative headed by American and British university researchers, I’m told – that helps alert local communities about threats to their cattle. It also brings tracking big cats down to an imprecise science, one that includes waving a radio beacon around and hunting for their signal. Admittedly it’s rather less romantic than a Mara game drive, and doesn’t always yield consistent results.

Which is why, “just sometimes”, the ranch leaves dead meat out to tempt the cats into easy view. According to the hotel literature, this only happens when cattle die of natural causes. A “turnover” of two percent means 30 cattle die per year, though this isn’t the full story told by guests and guides. The calf carcass left up a tree one evening, just a short drive from the camp entrance, seemed like a slightly-too-convenient way of attracting a leopard mum and her cubs out for a late supper. And so this was the way I ticked off the fourth of the Big Five – I never did find those pesky rhinos.

Yet Sosian is about far more than game drives. Styled as a “home in the wilderness”, its popularity among guests is down to both the charming hospitality of its hosts, Rosie Constant and Simon Kenyon, and the wide-range of activities on offer: trekking, tracking and birding, as well as tours on horseback, camel rides and fishing. The grounds also boast a swimming pool and tennis court.

An affluent, post-colonial atmosphere presides, particuarly when it comes to mealtime. Guests congregate for long, lazy communal breakfasts in the bush and lunches around the pool, while evening meals are served at a long dining table. The subject of food is, unsurprisingly, a big deal here.

One of the great incongruities of safari is that the concept counter-intuitively goes hand-in-hand with luxury. Rather than embracing the deprivations of “the bush”, the pastime has historically minimised them as much as possible. The safari was pioneered by very affluent, white visitors employing, and relying on, a huge staff of local guides, cooks, and the like. Today that tradition is kept well and alive in Sosian, particularly if you opt to take dinner under the stars, where a team of five will serve you a three-course meal on a raised platform in the wilderness. There are few experiences more memorable, though, understandably, some might find such an indulgence hard to stomach.

After a week of safari, it’s easy to feel that initial thrill start to wane. The surprise, adrenaline and fear of getting up close to a wild beast begins to fade. Spend enough time on a luxury bush retreat, and the sense of mankind’s superiority over the natural world actually starts to grow. It’s the very same combination of hospitality and luxury, however, that really makes Kenya an ideal destination for a first safari. The industry and infrastructure has existed for so long, that all manner of travellers are famously well catered to. And while there is still a long road ahead for the mending of the country’s tourism industry, there is widespread hope that it is healing. Two separate industry sources shared the same optimistic outlook, predicting that this year, tourist levels will return to “60 to 70 per cent” of peak rates.

Exhausted, overwhelmed and heavily sunburnt, I return to the capital for a night before flying home. I check into the luxurious Hemingways Nairobi, an unabashedly colonial-inspired retreat in an affluent suburb. The next morning I pick up the paper from outside my door. The front page tells me the capital has been placed on high alert after “several” lions escaped from Nairobi National Park, which borders the city. Despite the animals being loose for several hours, luckily no one, man or beast, was hurt. But riding back to the airport, I was reminded of the words the same driver met me with just nine days earlier: “Nature is unpredictable, nature is unforgiving, if you violate nature – then it will get you back.”

Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 19.