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

 

In the driving seat – Namibia is the ultimate self-drive destination

From the towering sand dunes at Sossusvlei to the wild expanses of Etosha National Park, the best way to experience all the drama of Namibia’s rugged landscape is by getting behind the wheel, on a self-drive tour.

Namibia is a long thin country hinged to South Africa in the South and Botswana in the East. On a self-drive tour you can enjoy largely empty roads (apart from perhaps the odd elephant…) and spectacular scenery ranging from the Kalahari, one of the world’s oldest deserts to the shimmering panorama of Fish River Canyon.

The simple network of roads is well maintained and easy to navigate. Main highways are tar with a speed limit of 120mph and services are efficient. You drive on the left, signposts are in English and passengers are expected to wear front and rear seatbelts, just as in the UK.  With a population of only a couple of million, traffic is light. All self-drive tours are super flexible so you can stop as you please.

All sounds very straightforward doesn’t it?  Then add the thrill factor – tarred main roads give way to gravel tracks, viewpoints along steep mountain passes and windswept shores tempt you out of your vehicle. You might not see another car for miles leaving you and your travel companions to really relish the unspoilt African wilderness.

Planning

The key to a successful and stress-free self-drive is in the planning. Namibia is a big country and the danger is to try and do too much in one trip. You need to allow sufficient time to relax and really enjoy the scenery, the wildlife and the beautiful lodges and camps.

Using expert knowledge and our experience, we can put together a tailor-made itinerary which balances all these aspects to perfection and takes into account your budget.

Although you may be on a self-drive tour you don’t want to spend all your time behind the wheel – at Etosha National Park, you can stay in the lap of luxury at Ongava Lodge where you can abandon your wheels and enjoy guided game drives in the National Park with an experienced ranger.

The vehicle

Our self-drive tours come with a 4×4 vehicle, equipped with cell phone and cool box (essential!) a detailed route map and 24 hour support. Since many of the roads are straight and empty the majority of driving isn’t too challenging.  The car is delivered to your guest house for you. Many of the roads can be driven safely with a saloon car but in order to ensure maximum comfort (and a real African sense of adventure) we recommend a 4×4.

Families

Namibia is a great prospect for adventurous families. However it is not the best choice for families with young children because the distances can be quite great (4-5 hours average on driving days).

Children over around eight/nine years old, and certainly teenagers, will find Namibia more enthralling. There’s a very low malarial risk and a great variety of activities to enjoy as a family, from game drives in Etosha to sand dune surfing. You can visit community and conservation projects, for instance the Cheetah Conservation Fund Education Centre, getting close to the cats while the wild coast has seals and shipwrecks galore. You can cruise to see dolphins and whales from Walvis Bay,  or see ancient rock art or a petrified forest.

Older children cope better on longer drives – they can plug in an ipod and enjoy taking pictures and video too, or keeping a diary of their travels.

There is some fantastic family friendly accommodation in Namibia including self catering options and bed and breakfast style lodges. Many of the lodges have pools perfect for afternoon down-time and large gardens or grounds to run around in.

Highlights

Etosha National Park

One of Africa’s most famous parks and Namibia’s first conservation area.  Plentiful waterholes within Etosha means that as the dry season progresses you can see exceptional game by simply staking out a waterhole. All the big game converges including elephants, rhino, buffalo along with the big cats. Etsoha  is well sign posted and has good roads if you do want to self-drive. However in order to get the best experience we recommend staying in one of the upmarket lodges and going on game drives with a guide.

Sossusvlei

Deep in the Namib-Naukluft National Park the soaring dunes of Sossusvlei are a must-see. Located on the Tsauchab River the dunes are among the tallest on earth and have formed spectacular classic desert formations over millons of years. A visit to the dunes at sunrise or sunset combines well with a stop at Sesriem Canyon where cool pools of water refresh weary travellers.

The Kalahari Desert

Offering a complete contrast to the sand dunes of the Namib Desert, the vegetated dunes of the Kalahari support a fascinating diversity of wildlife.

Skeleton Coast

The remote north west corner of Namibia known as Kaokoveld and home to the Himba people offers windswept beaches strewn with shipwrecks and seals. You can get a taste of the Skeleton coast by driving north from Swakopmund to the large Cape Fur Seal colony at Cape Cross before turning towards Damaraland.

Swakopmund

Namibia’s adventure capital and the springboard for many trips and excursions, this seaside resort is beautifully manicured and has a lovely relaxed atmosphere. Adrenalin charged activities include parachuting, quad biking and dune surfing. Neighbouring Walvis Bay is the best place to take a boat trip to see seals and dolphins in the lagoon. Southern Right Whales are in season in October and November, and occasionally humpbacks. You can also hire kayaks and paddle out towards to Pelican Point and Bird Island. 4×4 vehicles can also drive around the lagoon.

Damaraland

This beautiful landscape is home to the famous desert adapted elephants, incredible red rock formations at Spitzkoppe and ancient Bushman art, the most famous examples of which can be viewed at Brandberg Massif.

Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon is an impressive sight – measuring 27 km wide and 550m deep it is officially the world’s second largest canyon.  You can hike in the canyon during the cooler months (May to September) but most people content themselves with marvelling at this natural spectacle from the various viewpoints and spending a night on the edge!

Waterberg Plateau

This dramatic sandstone plateau with fresh water springs and woodlands is a hikers paradise. There is a good density of wildlife including eland, sable, roan, buffalo and rhino (black and white). You can also visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund Education Centre where you can see resident cheetahs, learn about the programme and see feeding.

Caprivi Strip / Zambezi Region

In the far north east of the country, offering waterways and abundant birdlife, this narrow panhandle which juts out east from Namibia was officially renamed the Zambezi Region in 2013 but is also known as the Caprivi Panhandle or the Okavango Strip. It’s a unique area with five protected parks and reserves boasting big game. It feels more like Botswana than Namibia and it certainly takes some getting to. You can do a circular Windhoek to Windhoek self-drive with time in Caprivi, coming back via the Kalahari Desert in Botswana (15 day itinerary) or a one way Windhoek to Livingstone in about the same amount of time. If this is of interest then please give us a call.

To see a sample self-drive tour of Namibia including stays in Etosha, on the Skeleton Coast, in the Kalahari Desert, at Sossusvlei and in the Fish River Canyon and to see some of the accommodation we offer please click here.

By Sara White

 

A Family safari one year on. What do the kids remember best?

Its nearly a year since our family safari to Kenya. We’ve just loaded a short video I’d made for our friends onto our popular YouTube channel as it gives a read insight into such a holiday. It’s obvious as you watch it that all the children (and adults) were having a great time, something that was evident at the time and upon our return.

To watch our family safari video, just click here.

A year later what can they remember? It’s a consideration many people have when trying to decide when to take the family on a big holiday. The children have to be old enough to enjoy it, young enough to want to be seen with their parents but old enough that they will remember it for longer than the wheels touching the tarmac back in the UK.

We had five kids with us, ranging from 6 to 13. The friends we travelled with were over for a meal last weekend so I took the opportunity to ask them what they remembered as the best bit of the holiday.

The two thirteen year-olds thought about it the most, reminiscing about several things. The boy enjoyed the time spend with our guide. He always sat in the front of the safari vehicle with him, asking him lots of questions and enjoying the conversations they had. In fact they are still in contact via the lodge Facebook page so that his knowledge of the African seasons, flora and fauna had continued to grow. I think we have a safari guide in the making.

The thirteen year old girl had different memories. She’d loved the tents, most of the soaps and small bottles of shampoo ending up in her luggage. She had loved visiting the Sheldrick elephant or phage, especially when we’d been allowed to walk with the babies as they went out to forage. She too had enjoyed the game-viewing, one moment in particular when an old lioness from the Marsh pride had walked past our vehicle, its eyes fixed on her. She remembered how cold and ruthless its eyes were.

Next to be asked was the 10 year old girl. She replied immediately. It was the visit to the school. Its a school that Real Africa helps finance and the children spent an hour with some of the pupils doing a reading lesson in the library. One thing had really surprised her; not all children in Africa are starving or ill. These children, while not at all “rich”, were well fed and happy. Brought up on a diet of Comic Relief campaigns and Children in Need appeals (both worthy causes) her mind had assumed that the images they showed were universal.

The nine year old boy went for something else, the game-drives. He’d loved seeing the leopard kill – what 9yo boy wouldn’t – but he had loved the experience of driving. In a big 4×4, open sided, sliding in the mud (we went at Easter which is the Kenyan wet season). he vividly remembered an afternoon squall that had blown in one canvas side getting everybody drenched.

Last but certainly not least was the 6 year old boy. He informed me that he’d liked the baby zebras and the fact that he could drink as much lemonade as he wanted as it was free. A sensible choice, based on the fact that his father and I both appreciated the fact that the Simba beer was free too… He’d also likes the giraffe centre as their tongues were black.

As you can see, they all remember the trip. As we sat around the table lots of memories were talked about and chuckled about. It was a trip they all enjoyed and will continue to do so, I suspect, for many years to come.

By Robert Ferguson

How old should children be to enjoy a safari holiday?

Parents often wonder about the best age to take their children on safari. They want to be old enough to enjoy the experience but young enough not to spend the week plugged into their DS or iPod, displaying teenage indifference.

There is no right or wrong answer, as all children are different and will vary in their interests and attention spans. As a general guide however, children will get enjoyment and excitement from their safari if its the right place and done in the right way.

My eldest daughter did her first safari aged two, staying at a private reserve in South Africa where young children are allowed. Does she remember anything now a decade later? Of course not. Did she have a good time? Absolutely, her excitement at seeing elephants and giraffe is a happy memory my wife and I will share forever.

So when are children old enough to have memories of a safari holiday. I did an experiment. My youngest daughter was six when she went on her first safari. She is now 10. I asked her to write down what she could remember of the experience:

I really enjoyed my safari trip in South Africa. It was the best trip of my life. The landscape was beautiful and the animals were amazing. I remember clearly the time when we were in our truck and an Elephant came up to us and sniffed my sister’s face. The guide, Derk, was great. He kept her calm for the few seconds it was sniffing and when it had gone away she was fine. I also remember when there was a thunder and lightning storm. The rain was warm but we all sheltered in the living room. As the lightning ran across the sky again I noticed a giant shape out of the window. When there was another flash we all realised that it was only an elephant trying to find food. I don’t know why but we all found this hysterical and burst out laughing, I guess it was because I was so scared.

It was around Easter time while we were there and I was disappointed that I was going to miss the Easter bunny (I was only young), so our guide put out some mini packets of chocolate for us in the garden so we could find them. He was good like that. Another time was when he let us toast some marshmallows on are fire. They were delicious.

While in the truck on day there was a male lion just lying in the middle of the track, sun bathing I suppose it was. I don’t know how exactly but they did eventually shift him of the track. There was also a small heard of giraffes that for a while followed alongside us. This was my all-time best holiday. I really enjoyed it and hope that I can do it again.

I knew she’d remember the chocolate and marshmallows… She also charged me a Magnum ice-cream to write the above for me.

We sent a friend on holiday with his 11 year old son last year and it was interesting to talk to him on his return. He was old enough to read up about things before he went. He had spotting lists for the animals and birds which he loved trying to complete. The travelling between parks and on all the game-drives passed without moaning. He loved it when the guide took him tracking and looking at termite mounds. He wants to go back asap…  Have a look at the Safari video he made for us when he returned, it shows his excitement and enthusiasm.

If your child loves animals, they will love safari. If very young they may not remember it when they’ve grown up, but  that doesn’t mean that both they and you don’t love the experience at the time. Its such an exciting activity it leaves strong memories that will stick from a young age (like my six year old) and soon they know more about what to see and where to go that you do.

Choose the right trip – with swimming pools, shorter drives and safe camps, and all children will love to search for African animals on a safari. To give you an idea, check out our Kenyan Family safari and take it from there, we’ed be happy to advise.