Big cat central: a review of Mahali Mzuri, Masai Mara, Kenya

Blog DSC_8585Blog DSC_8586“Welcome to Olare Orok” grinned the barefoot co-pilot as he flung open the doors of the Cessna Caravan and pulled down the steps to let the sunshine in.

Waiting at the tiny airstrip were our Masai guides John and Dickson from Mahali Mzuri, Sir Richard Branson’s safari camp, one of five camps in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy in Kenya’s Masai Mara, an hour’s flight west of Nairobi.

Branson’s camp opened in 2013 and works in partnership with the Maasai landowners to protect the ecosystem for the benefit of both community and wildlife. We’d had a number of guests stay at the camp in 2017 but I had not visited for myself so was very much looking forward to our stay.

Blog DSC_8592The transfer to camp in open Landcruisers is no more than 20 minutes but easily stretched to an hour as we discovered a beautiful female cheetah relaxing in the shade of an acacia within moments of leaving the airstrip.  We then came across a huge herd of buffalo – 100 or more flicking their ears and munching the lush grass, enriched by early rains in the Mara.

blog DSC_9055I was travelling with my wider family – seven of us in all. For the grannies, who both grew up in Kenya in the 50s it was a welcome, and emotional return. For my children, it was their first taste of East Africa.

Mahali Mzuri means ‘beautiful place’ and we were not disappointed.  The emerald cloak of the Mara in late March was captivating. Early rains had given the landscape a freshness and vibrancy.  The camp itself overlooks a valley with a rocky river at its heart. Giraffe lolloped along the valley as we settled down to an alfresco lunch, ably looked after by Johnstone, who had all our names within the first five minutes. Swahili started to come back to the grannies after a wine or two, much to his amusement and delight. A plump hippo waddled on the river bank and monkeys chattered nervously in the acacias.

blog DSC_8811Blog DSC_8691blog DSC_8820blog DSC_8827Mahali Mzuri does not have the look of your average tented camp.  The striking design, by Kenyan architects, pays homage to the local Ndorobo tribe who in times past used the ridge as a lookout,  while the interiors are inspired by the landscape with a natural palate of stone grey, red-oat rust and sun gold injected by bold prints, art and basketry all sourced locally. All the wood was harvested from sustainable sources and the site’s environmental impact was also addressed, with each canopy structure only touching the ground at three points, and all waste water being processed through gravity-fed anaerobic bio-digesters.

Each of the twelve tents is strung high above the valley, with six either side of the main camp area.  All enjoy wonderful panoramic views and are linked by a series of walkways. Each tent is raised up on a concrete plinth and stretched on a giant arching steel structure, surrounded by a spacious wooden deck. The interior, which is linear in design features a bedroom, living space and luxury bathroom complete with shower and roll top foot and claw bath. The tents are breeze cooled and incredibly comfortable – perfect for our multi generational group. Two of the tents are configured for families and can accommodate four sharing.

Although the tent interiors don’t feel huge, especially the family tent where our teenagers slept on wide sofabeds in the living room,  there’s everything you could possibly need, from torches and filtered water to bug spray and sunscreen. There’s even a complimentary mini bar in case you fancy a cold Tusker on the deck and don’t fancy the stroll to the main bar.  The outside area really does feel generous and has the most wonderful vista.

The communal camp area consists of three main sections. The main dining tent has several large dining tables arranged both indoors and outdoors on the deck, with  fallen trees as their bases and solid glass tops, as well as smaller tables.  The second central tent is a welcoming  lounge and bar area where tasty snacks appear three times a day at dawn, tea and during sundowners.  Both of these two open fronted tented areas are linked by steps to a lower decked tier with a large fire pit and further seating. Softly illuminated by lanterns and the glow of a camp fire, this was a wonderful place to sit with a nightcap as Olare’s big male lions warmed up their roar.

The third section of the communal camp area, also linked by decking, and favoured by the resident camp hyrax families offers a small gift shop, the office and washrooms. Steps down from here lead to a glorious sundeck and infinity pool, with a small spa on the level below.

Stays at Mahali Mzuri are all-inclusive from bubbles on arrival at the airstrip to a warming after dinner amaretto or whatever you fancy  – it’s great to be able to budget for all this from home rather than during your holiday and we found it extremely relaxing to know everything was included from the word go. The only exceptions to this rule are the additional activities, for example the spa, community visits and hot air balloon safaris.

Food was of a very high standard with several choices offered at lunch and dinner – both being leisurely three course affairs. All our dining was private with our own table set up. The chef would often come out to chat with diners which was a lovely touch. Breakfast included fresh fruit, juices, toast and preserves, pastries and an expansive cooked menu from eggs and bacon to pancakes.

Blog DSC_8682blog DSC_9001For the next three days we followed a safari routine,  rising at around 530am in the dark, and escorted by the waiting ‘askaris’ to the lounge for a hot brew and a warm pastry as dawn unveiled the valley. We’d leave at first light, by 630am, kept cosy in the open Landcruisers by lovely hot water bottles,  ponchos and Maasai blankets, provided by camp. We’d be out until 930/10am, peeling off layers as the sun got higher in the sky, ready for a big breakfast back at camp mid morning.

The middle part of the day was spent having a swim, reading on the deck, watching the wildlife come and go from the valley and eating and drinking. The pool was a great distraction in the heat of the day, especially for the children. The pool deck offers some lovely deep shade. We’d meet in the lounge at 4pm for tea, which was always very sociable with the other camp guests,and be out on safari from 430pm till around 7pm when we’d return for a gin and tonic on the deck before dinner. On our final night we dined by the pool, surrounded by lanterns. After sundown the askaris guide you around camp, ensuring your safety.

blogDSC_8904We were able to explore a number of different areas in the conservancy during our stay, crossing rivers and crawling carefully down rocky hills to the wide open plains below, the children taking turns to sit up front with Dickson, completing their ‘warrior’ booklet as they went. Children 6 years+ are warmly welcomed.

On our first morning game drive we explored the valley immediately below camp. Some of our best wildlife sightings were right here. We had not long been on the valley floor when Dickson’s efforts were rewarded. The monkeys were nosier than usual and the birds were squawking. Then we saw her…

Blog DSC_8714Slinking along the valley, on the opposite side to the river from us, with her coat golden in the morning sun was a lioness. Dickson recognised her and said she had four cubs up on the slopes further along from camp. We waited patiently as she crossed the river and came towards us, almost brushing the tyres of the Landcrusier as she went.

blog DSC_8760The monkeys continued to chatter nervously and as we followed the lioness, a large hippo appeared on the horizon – I’ve never seen a hippo so far from water  – it looked like a huge boulder.

Suddenly there was a great explosion of movement from a thicket lower down the slope. What looked to be a leopard shot out of the bushes at lightning speed, pursued rapaciously by our lioness, who stretched herself up the tree as far as she could, clawing at the bark.

We held our breath. All was still again save for the hippo who continued to traverse the hillside. The lioness lay in wait for a few moments before deciding to continue her journey along the valley. We sat and watched. And waited in the hope the leopard would emerge.

blog DSC_8748blog DSC_8738The dark rosettes of the leopard could just about be seen with the binoculars but he was well concealed in the highest boughs of the tree. It took about 15 minutes until we saw any movement at all. Gradually, gracefully he picked his way down the tree. He was a huge thick-set male leopard. He sidled casually along the river bank, standing proudly in the long grass before disappearing out of sight…

We never did catch up with the lioness and her four cubs – we saw them from a distance and we glimpsed them playing in the trees as a dramatic storm swept through the valley one afternoon, pelting our Landcruiser and turning the sky black and moody. The storm curtailed the afternoon drive a little but it was very exciting.

blog DSC_8802We may not have spent time with the lioness and cubs but our stay in the Mara was not short of big cats  – this area is densely populated – we even got to watch a ‘super pride’ of 17 lion hunting warthog, and we also found the two huge male lions who woke us every night with their spine tingling roars. On the second night the roar was so loud it literally felt like the lion was right outside the tent. Thrilling.

blog DSC_8984In the valley and area immediately around Mahali Mzuri we did not see another vehicle – on the other side of the valley, down on the plains, we did see other vehicles, but most of our sightings were enjoyed on our own or with only one other vehicle. This included watching the wonderful cheetah brothers.

One of our highlights at Mahali Mzuri was coming across a one hour old baby elephant being nursed by her mother. Truly magical. We stayed watching until well after 1030am before returning to camp for a late breakfast.

We stayed three nights at Mahali Mzuri and wish we had stayed four – testament to the fact we had a great time.  We loved the staff who were all so warm and friendly, from our superb guide Dickson, to the managers Mariana and Wilson. We were incredibly comfortable, saw some amazing wildlife and laughed continually for three days. What more could you want?

Blog DSC_8597Green season travel

blog DSC_9126We chose to travel in the Green season – we enjoyed hot sunny days, some incredible sunsets and sunrises and only one big downpour which arrived just before sunset and lasted several hours. Some of the roads were badly damaged by heavy rain earlier in the month and we had to travel to the larger Ol Kiombo airstrip an hour away from camp to fly on to our next stop because Olare Orok was too soft to land on but other than that the weather did not impact on our plans. Mornings and after sunset it got quite chilly and you needed to dress with plenty of layers but the middle of the day was blazing hot. There are many young animals during the Green Season, the birding is fantastic and the landscape is beautiful. I love visiting at this time of year.

Special Offers

The benefit of the Green season is that there are very few other visitors in the Mara and you can take advantage of lower rates and special offers, for example Mahali has stay and pay offers and also a ‘children go free’ offer running at certain times of year. Look out for these for travel between March and June and often in November time too.  We include some offers on our ‘Special Offer‘ page on the website.

To find out more about Mahali Mzuri please click here.

To find out more about Kenya as a holiday destination please click here.

To discuss your family journey to Africa, or for a tailor-made itinerary,  please call us on 01603 964 730.

17 April 2018, by Sara White

 

Summer Beach Holidays

As June approaches most people are busy dreaming about their big summer holiday. After a long cold winter and a lot of hard work, most of us sun-starved Brits are dreaming of some relaxation in the warm sunshine with a bit of a dip in the sea if we are lucky.

So where are you going this year? If you haven’t booked anywhere yet why not try something a little bit different this year – how about Mauritius or the Seychelles or Zanzibar?  We have some truly stunning 4 and 5 star beach resorts on offer for prices that are comparable to the Mediterranean but with better beaches, better weather, better sea temperatures, better food and better facilities and scenery. What’s not to like?

Mauritius

A large and lush green island that sits off the coast of  South Africa in the Indian Ocean, this is a great destination for those looking for large beach resorts with excellent facilities and great day trips. The beaches are soft white sand lined by palm trees and the stunning mountain ranges that are scattered around the island. The water is crystal clear and as warm as a bath and perfect for snorkelling or scuba diving. Mauritius has an interesting Creole culture and history which makes for some great excursions into the island to see the towns and villages. We have a wide range of accommodation from romantic getaways for honeymooners to fantastic family hotels with kids clubs and plenty of watersports. Why not take a look at Paradise Cove Boutique Hotel which is adult only and perfect for honeymooners or Long Beach Resort which is great for families?

Seychelles

Now if you fancy pushing the boat out and really revelling in a bit of luxury then an island in the Seychelles would probably suit you. There are many different islands and resorts to chose from including tiny little private islands to larger islands with bigger resorts boasting all sorts of facilities from spas and tennis to scuba diving and sailing. All are luxurious and surrounded by absolutely stunning scenery. The beaches of course are the main draw with the softest white sand imaginable and clear warm turquoise water surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful coral reefs.  Choosing which resort to pick can be tricky as they are all wonderful but if you really can’t make up your mind you could even do a couple of different islands and resorts on our island hopping option.

Zanzibar

The evocatively named Spice Island sits just off the coast of Tanzania and works very well as a beach extension to a safari in either Kenya or Tanzania. However Zanzibar also works very well as a stand-alone beach destination. There is wide range of accommodation on the island from historic hotels in the Unesco World Heritage Site of Stone Town to small boutique resorts tucked away in quiet locations to large modern beach resorts with the full range of watersports and all inclusive packages.  For honeymooners or those looking for a bit of privacy we can recommend a private villa such as those at Zanzibar White Sandy Luxury Villas and Spa which are truly stunning and even have outdoor bathrooms and hanging beds.

If you want some more information you can find all our beach options under the lodge library on our homepage or just follow the link. If you would simply like some advice or to book a great summer getaway with guaranteed sunshine and some of the world’s best beaches then give us a call!

Posted by Ruth

 

Unusual Places to Sleep – Star Beds

In Africa you can find some really unusual places to sleep including treehouses, rustic cabins, cruise boats, luxury trains and most excitingly of all – star beds. The star bed is a relatively new phenomenon but it is proving incredibly popular and I can see why. It combines the excitement and atmosphere of camping with the luxury and comfort of a safari lodge.

Star beds are the name given to beds out in the open, giving you the opportunity to sleep with nothing between you and the African night sky. Due to low light pollution in Africa the stars are incredibly bright and clear and you can see far more than here in the UK.  The African night sky is one of the most under-rated marvels of this amazing continent and one of the most incredible aspects of the unique nature of the African bush. This is truly a magical, once in a life time experience and definitely one for a memorable honeymoon!

Real Africa has several places where you can enjoy a night or two under the African sky in a star bed:

Tswalu Game Reserve, South Africa

Tswalu Kalahari is South Africa’s largest private game reserve, covering an area of over 100,000 hectares in the vast Kalahari wilderness. Tswalu takes conservation as its absolute priority which means numbers are kept low with a maximum of thirty guests at a time.

The Malori Sleepout is the name of the star bed at Tswalu.  Imagine sleeping in a luxury king-size bed on a raised deck in the middle of a game reserve, surrounded by the calls of nocturnal animals, with nothing between you and the brilliant stars of the Kalahari night sky. You sleep on a raised platform with a thatched overhang for protection should it rain.  You can choose to sleep under the thatch or further along the deck where it is completely open to the night sky. The bed itself is luxurious with lovely linens and there is a private outdoor bathroom close by. The Malori deck was built to maximise the stunning surroundings and the bed has panoramic views of the vast plains of the Green Kalahari and its famous sunsets. You will be provided with sundowners and also a supper so that you can enjoy this space on your own. This is also available for families as the lodge can provide extra camp beds for the children.

Nkwichi Lodge, Lake Malawi, Mozambique

Nkwichi, is a halcyon paradise hidden on the pristine Mozambican shores of Lake Malawi. This is the place to come if you want to sleep out under the African stars but on a beach rather than in the bush.  This is a truly tranquil and remote spot. With 8 secluded beaches set on 4 kms of Rift Valley coastline, Nkwichi is the perfect setting to discover a lost world on the shores of one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. The best way to enjoy the unrivalled beauty of Lake Malawi is Nkwichi’s ‘Lake of Stars’ Bed’. Set on a deserted, virgin beach  or on a private rock island close to the shore with Fish Eagles soaring overhead, this is the perfect way to soak up the glory of an African night-sky. Again you will be looked after with all the comforts of the luxury lodge at hand but with the peace and tranquillity of your own private outdoor location.

Loisaba Wilderness Lodge, Kenya

The two sets of Star Beds are unique to Loisaba. The first and original set are located among a kopje of rocks in one of the eastern valleys overlooking the “Kiboko” waterhole. The second and newer set is located about 8 kilometres further south on the banks of the Ewaso N’giro River. These are perched on stilts above the river below and are reached by footbridge from the opposite bank. Each Star Bed dramatically designed, handcrafted wooden raised platform, and partially covered with a thatched roof. The homemade “Mukokoteni” (uniquely designed bed on wheels), can either be wheeled onto the open deck area for a night under the stars, or left under the shelter of the roof. All the beds have complete “four-poster” insect netting. The Star Beds are normally reached by one of many options; on foot, horse, camel or vehicle and with two sets now in place create a unique opportunity to travel between them both and the lodge as part of a Star Bed Expedition.

Guests are guided and hosted by a team of traditional Samburu and Laikipiak Maasai warriors. Food is prepared in traditional camp kitchen on an open fire.  Both the Kiboko and Koija Star Beds comprise of 2 double sleeping platforms and one twin platform. Each double platform is designed for 1 or 2 people. The family platform accommodates 4 people (sharing bathroom facilities). Each platform is en-suite and has a large camp-style shower. The platforms are sited to ensure complete privacy.

If you are looking for a truly unique experience and you fancy camping under the stars but in total comfort then give us a call and we can book one for you!

Posted by Ruth Bolton

Our Top Ten Island Getaways in Africa and the Indian Ocean (Part 1)

Are you sitting at work dreaming of escaping to a tropical island in the sun? Forget the Caribbean, Africa has some truly gorgeous island getaways just right for escaping the cold winter or a wet summer. Some are tiny with just a handful of rustic hideaways whilst others are much larger and more established with lots of luxury hotels, fantastic water-sports and world class restaurants.  All of them have sublime scenery; some have dramatic rocky coves whilst others have dreamy beaches with white sand and turquoise waters. Here are the first 5 in our top 10 as voted by the Real Africa team.

Mfangano Island, Lake Victoria, Tanzania

Mfangano Island is found at the eastern end of Lake Victoria and it is one of the team’s favourite islands. The island is a great combination of beautiful scenery, laid back African atmosphere and great wildlife. You can while away many hours just relaxing on the island watching the incredible birdlife or going fishing for your supper. It is also home to one of our favourite camps run by the team behind Governors Camps.  Mfangano Island Camp is a luxury, island hideaway lodge lapped by the waters of Lake Victoria, shaded by giant fig trees, and a secluded atmosphere. There are beautiful lush gardens set on a private bay with enormous boulders which sit at the water’s edge providing a perch for cormorants or giant monitor lizards to sun themselves. You will feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life on Mfangano.

Ibo Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique

Our intrepid explorer Lily nominated Ibo Island as one of her favourites having travelled to Mozambique last year. Ibo Island is part of the famous Quirimbas Archipelago which nestles in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of northern Mozambique. Once Mozambique’s mighty trading centre, Ibo Island has remained all but forgotten to the outside world for almost a century. Wander around this colonial little island town and hear tales of pirates and prisoners, turtle shells and silver. Explore old forts and ancient romantic buildings where you can almost feel the history come to life. Ibo is home to some wonderfully majestic historical architecture, some beautifully restored and some left as atmospheric ruins. Add to this almost dazzlingly white sandy beaches and warm turquoise waters, mangrove swamps and quaint fishing villages, giant sand dunes and lush greenery and you have a real paradise. Mozambique and the waters off Ibo Island are also famous for their pristine coral reefs and incredible marine wildlife including manta rays, rare dugongs, a variety of dolphins and all sorts of species of whales. We offer holidays to Ibo Island Lodge which is an award winning beach hotel with a fantastic location and stylish luxury accommodation.

Pemba, Tanzania

Pemba is a small island off the coast of its larger and more famous neighbour Zanzibar. Its remote location and small size has meant that it remained an untouched and pristine island of great beauty and history. The lush mosaic of forests, swamps, mangroves, and gently undulating hills combined with stunning hidden beaches and quiet lagoons makes for a serene and beautiful island getaway. The history of the island is told in the scattered ruins of mosques and tombs hidden away in the forest, some of which date back to Arab colonisation in the 17th century.

Likoma Island, Lake Malawi, Malawi

Likoma Island is another very popular destination amongst the team.  It is unusual in that it actually sits in Mozambican waters but is still part of Malawi. Likoma has a gentle, pretty landscape made up of rolling grassland dotted with trees, secluded coves and beaches and stunning views over to the mainland. There are a handful of hotels on the island but very little traffic as there are no paved roads and people travel by boat.  The waters here are crystal clear and warm making it perfect for snorkelling, diving, kayaking, fishing and sailing. The waters of the lake are also home to wonderful birdlife and the whole atmosphere is very peaceful indeed. We offer stays at the wonderful Kaya Mawa which is a 5 star luxury lodge with incredible views, secluded beaches and gorgeous rooms. It was voted by Conde Nast as one of the top ten most romantic places in the world.

Mafia Island, Tanzania

Another small island off the East African coast and part of the Zanzibar archipelago, Mafia Island is a proper Robinson Crusoe desert island. It is a place to get away and soak up nature in all its finest. Mafia Island’s coral reefs are renowned as an excellent, world-class diving destination. Scientists have confirmed that Mafia has some of the richest reefs in the world, with an unparalleled variety of hard and soft corals and diversity of tropical fish. If you are not one for diving you can explore the island’s nature trails and discover the hidden ruins of lost buildings reclaimed by the jungle. However it is really the gloriously pristine white sandy beaches lapped by gentle warm waters which you tend to have all to yourself that attract most people to Mafia Island. It is wonderfully peaceful and calming and a perfect place to relaxing. We offer a fantastic little rustic retreat called Chole Mjini if Mafia Island sounds the place for you.

If you fancy turning your daydreams into reality then give us a call and we can fix you up!

Posted by Ruth Bolton

 

 

 

 

The Best Places for Cave Paintings in South Africa

I have been fascinated by cave paintings (also known as rock art) since I was a little child. I am just amazed that someone could tell a story hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years ago and here we are in the 21st century able to still read it and imagine the people and their lives from such a long, long time ago. South Africa has some of the best cave paintings or rock art sites in the world and many of them are close to the lodges and safari camps that we use on our itineraries.

Drakensberg and Kamberg

South Africa is an incredibly rich source of cave paintings and one of the best areas to see many of them in in Kwazulu Natal in the stunningly beautiful Drakensberg Mountains. The San people (also known as Bushman) created beautiful rock paintings and engravings which you can see all around this area. There are over 40,000 of them in this area alone so they were pretty prolific! There are various walking tours that take you to sites that are close together and these trails usually have an information centre where you can learn more about them or hire a guide to show you around.

The Kamberg San Rock Art Trail is amazing and includes such sites as the Game Pass Shelter.  The San paintings are now national monuments protected by law but were first discovered back in the early 1900s.  At first they were thought to be simple depictions of daily life such as hunting but nowadays experts believe that the artwork is actually made up of mystical images that were seen by shamans whilst in a trance. They reflect the spirituality of the San who believe that men can take on the powers of animals through a shaman in a trance and the animals depicted are more about the wellbeing of the tribe rather than actual hunting. The most common subject matter for rock art by the San includes animals, especially the eland antelope, human figures and therianthropes which depict the metamorphosis from human to animal.

Among the most accessible of the many Drakensberg rock art sites is the open-air Bushman Cave Museum in the Giant’s Castle Reserve, established in 1903 and run by KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation. A short walk takes you to the cave, which features 500 rock paintings, some of which are estimated to be around 800 years old. However if you are a fit and adventurous hiker you can take yourself off to more remote trails where you will be able to discover caves on your own!

Northern Cape

There are over 400 rock etchings at the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre outside Kimberley in the Northern Cape. Dating back as far as about 1,800 years these are some of the oldest examples of rock art in South Africa.  From the older hairline engravings to the more recent pecked-out shapes and relatively modern middens, Later Stone Age groups (ancestors of the San), the KhoeKhoe and various waves of colonists have all left their marks in this area.

Western Cape

Another great area for Rock Art in South Africa is the Clanwilliam Living Landscapes Project on the Western Cape where you can follow the Sevilla Trail and the Warmhoek Trails to see some more incredible examples. The CLLP is a community-based heritage and education project aimed at highlighting the living legacy of the San people that once lived in the Cederberg many thousands of years ago. The visitor can use the landscape as a time machine and ‘travel’ through using the wealth of archaeological material continually discovered here including rock art, structural remains and human artefacts, to connect to the lifestyle, beliefs and wisdom of the ancient San people. The Cedarberg area is so rich in pre-historic sites that it is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact the rock art on the Sevilla Rock Art Trail is thought to be between 8,000 and 800 years old. Although there is still some dispute over the age of rock art, the latest dating methods show that the oldest specimens of this San rock art are more than three times older than the Egyptian pyramids!

In fact there are so many sites in South Africa yo u could spend your whole holiday looking at rock art and still not see it all! We have some fantastic accommodation close to these areas and especially in Kwazulu Natal and the Drakensberg Mountains so if you fancy taking a look for yourself just let us know! I will be looking at other rock art sites across Africa so check out the blog to see more in the future.

Posted by Ruth Bolton