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

 

Kithaka comes of age

Kithaka, the spirited elephant orphan, who the Real Africa Trust adopted back in 2013,  has now moved to Tsavo East for the next phase of his rehabilitation back to the wilds of Africa.

I first met Kithaka 2 years ago. The staff at the nursery warned me, “He’s very mischievous, ” and described him as a “handful” but I was smitten from the outset.

Kithaka was plucked from the Imenti Forest in November 2011 by the dedicated Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant rescue team after being found wandering alone and bewildered without his herd. With no happy reunion on the cards, due to the dense forest habitat, tiny Kithaka, just a week old, was transported to the nursery unit where he has been lovingly cared for ever since.

Kithaka is now a thriving 4 1/2 years old – he’s grown tusks, an even bigger and bolder attitude and remains firm friends with fellow elephant orphans, Lemoyian and Barsilinga, who have been at the nursery for a similar time wuth him.

At the end of May, the ‘three musketeers’ made a big journey – from the nursery in Nairobi to the Ithumba Unit in Kenya‘s Tsavo East where head keeper Benjamin was waiting for them. The Ithumba unit has three categories – dependant orphans who are still given around the clock care, partially dependent orphans, who still return regularly to the stockades and sometimes require supplementary milk and finally the ex-orphans who roam free in Tsavo East.

The ex-orphans may be entirely independent, but still remain extremely attached to their human family and visit regularly. This allows the team to keep an eye on them, ensuring they are healthy and safe. It also means that the orphans arriving from the nursery unit can enjoy interaction with their wild friends and their young, who have been born wild.

I thought you might like to watch this lovely short film about the re-location of Kithaka, Barsilinga and Lemoyian.

 

By Sara White

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Arruba

The Real Africa Trust continues to donate money directly to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a pioneering conservation organisation working to protect wildlife and habitats across East Africa.  

The DSWT runs the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation programme in the world. The nursery unit, pictured above, is based in Nairobi National Park, Kenya and it was here that I first met Kithaka, the elephant Real Africa adopted back in November 2013. Kithaka continues to thrive and will soon be moving from the Nairobi National Park nursery unit to Ithumba, ready to be rehabilitated back to the wild. When we first met Kithaka he was so small and vulnerable that it is hard to believe he is about to move to the Ithumba unit, as a strong young bull elephant, and this is all testament to the work of the Sheldrick Trust. We eagerly await his progress. In the knowledge that Kithaka is about to move on to the next stage, we felt the time was right to adopt another elephant – a calf just starting their journey in the nursery unit. So, in the New Year we adopted Arruba.You can read Arruba’s story below.

In recent months, with poaching escalating once again in East Africa, the Sheldrick Trust has been called on to rescue many tiny distressed elephants. Without their help, these calves would have perished. We recently heard of a tiny newborn calf, Ndotto, who was rescued at just 2 days old from the Ndoto Mountains in Kenya’s far north. Ndotto was found very confused in a throng of sheep and goats.  Ndotto is now being looked after in the nursery. You can see three pictures of the rescue mission to the left. Even on New Year’s day the team were in action attempting to help an emaciated calf found trapped in a gulley in Laikipia – sadly help came too late and on this occasion, the calf did not survive for more than a few days. However the Sheldrick Trust successfully rescued three babies in January.  A tiny calf was rescued from the Sera Conservancy, Northern Kenya on January 3rd. Hamsini struggled with a terrible septic wound on his back caused from a torrid time while being trapped in a well. He also suffered terrible bruising from the fall, and a lung infection. It has been a tricky month for Hamsini but we are hopeful with the right care that he will start to put on weight and his condition improve ; another calf of around 15 months, name Boromoko (pictured bottom right) was rescued from the plains of the Masai Mara on January 5th and has settled in the nursery well, being exceedingly loving; and then, on the 26th, yet another orphan was rescued close to Narok, a heavily populated area.  Her name is Siangiki which means young girl in Masai.  She came in a collapsed state but thankfully the Trust has managed to retrieve her from the brink and she is now safely out with the others and beautifully settled. Often it is not clear how the calves came to be separated from their mothers.

 Arruba’s story

On Tuesday 28th May 2013 a young female elephant calf was sighted by the Kenyan Wildlife Service maintenance team who were erecting a new electric fence in the Aruba Dam area of Tsavo East National Park. The elephant calf was reported to be desperate, and quite evidently alone. Due to the new fence, the baby was trapped and confused.

The period the calf had been trapped within the fenced area was unknown, as is the fate of the calf’s mother and the rest of its herd. It is suspected that the calf and it’s mother might have strayed into the new fenced area and the mother somehow lost the calf on exiting the enclosure and was unable to find her way back in to retrieve her baby. Another possibility is that the calf is an ivory-orphan, as eight elephants were brutally poached in nearby Ndara.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Voi Stockades in Tsavo East were alerted. The head Keeper of the Voi Stockades contacted the DSWT Nairobi HQ that afternoon to make the arrangements for a rescue plane from Nairobi to come the following morning, as darkness was already setting in.

So the new calf, who was estimated to be approximately 8 months old, put up a huge fight when the Voi Keepers arrived at the scene, with Arruba escaping their attempts at rescuing her and reacting extremely aggressively to their presence. Yet the Keepers eventually succeeded in capturing her and loaded her into the waiting vehicle to be transported back to the Voi Stockades.
On arrival at the Voi Stockades, the calf began to settle down and thankfully drank, having arrived in a very dehydrated state. There had been no access to water within the fenced area where she was found. Apart from a few bruises and minor abrasions the calf was in good condition.

The presence of the other orphans at the Voi Stockades was a huge comfort to the new arrival who desperately needed love and reassurance. Shimba, who is recovering remarkably from lion attack injuries, was a great help in getting the calf settled down, stretching his trunk through the stockade fence to offer affection and encouragement and reassurance.

In Nairobi on the morning of the 29th, the Nairobi team and plane were ready to depart on their mission having been briefed the previous evening. Three of the Nairobi Keepers set off to Nairobi’s domestic airport at 9am to catch the rescue plane to Voi in Tsavo East where the Voi Keepers were preparing the calf for her plane journey to Kenya’s capital city.

After a smooth flight with clear views of Mount Kilimanjaro, the Chyulu Hills and the great expanse of Tsavo, the plane landed on Voi’s airstrip, which is located only a few kilometres from the Voi Stockades. On arrival at the stockades it was obvious that the orphan was going to be a handful to re-capture as she was still wild and fearful. Those who were still present to keep a careful eye on the new baby included some of Voi’s big ex-orphans including Emily, Lolokwe and Icholta.

The entire stockade’s workforce and the Nairobi Keepers were all needed to help to get the new arrival restrained and on the ground in order to brace her legs and keep her safe and secure during the flight. With all hands on deck the calf showed huge amounts of strength in managing to evade being taken down, yet after a few minutes she succumbed to the keepers, whilst ex-orphan Emily bellowed and stomped around the stockades concerned about what was happening to her.
The calf was quite a weight and again all hands were needed to lift her into the waiting vehicle and to get her to the airstrip. The transfer went smoothly and within half an hour the calf was being lifted into the plane, strapped securely inside with an IV drip administered to ensure she stayed hydrated during the flight, and a mild sedation to keep her calm.

Saying farewell to all of the Voi staff the Nairobi Keepers climbed into the plane alongside the calf, keeping her reassured and making sure she was as comfortable as possible during the journey. The orphan gave into exhaustion during the flight and fell into a peaceful sleep, awoken when the plane arrived back in Nairobi.

A DSWT vehicle was waiting at the airstrip and the calf was soon on her way to the DSWT Nairobi Nursery in Nairobi National Park. At 2.30pm she had finally reached her final destination and was carried into her stockade. After untying her, the Nairobi Keepers carefully lifted off the blanket covering her face, which was keeping her quiet and calm, and helped her up. Unsteady on her feet she stood, rather dazed, in the shade of her stockade eyeing the humans surrounding her warily yet being too tired to fight them off, she seemed to know she was in a safe place with caring people to look after her.
This calf was lucky to have been found alive and well as the area in which she was sighted is a favourite place for the infamous Tsavo lions.

It took Arruba a good few days to calm down and feed on milk, and once she trusted the Keepers enough to follow them she was let out of the confines of her stockade to join the Nursery orphans. By this time she knew them as they had been brought to her stockade for every feed time in an effort to coax her into drinking the milk formula that she seemed so reluctant to take.

Once out with the others elephant communication worked its magic yet again, and it was as if she knew the ropes from the outset – even venturing to the public viewing between 11 -12 with the others, seemingly unperturbed, a far cry from the frightened calf that only a week before was brought to the safety of the Voi stockades.

You can find out more about the DSWT here.

Many clients travelling with Real Africa to Kenya elect to stopover in Karen, a leafy suburb of Nairobi, for a night to enable them to visit the DSWT nursery unit in person. If this is of interest then please do let us know. There are two viewings, a public 1 hour viewing at lunchtime daily, and a private visit daily at 5pm, for those wishing to adopt an elephant.

 

By Sara White

 

Kithaka-the-elephant update

It hardly seems possible that it is nearly a year since I first met Kithaka at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust nursery unit in Nairobi National Park. Although showing signs of being a mischievous young bull elephant from the start, he was still very small and vulnerable and coming to terms with the loss of his elephant family.

It has been heart-warming to see him form bonds with his keepers and the other elephants this past year and to witness the extraordinary care and commitment of all the staff at the DSWT.

Kithaka is certainly far bigger and more boisterous today and a bit of a handful by all accounts. He increasingly enjoys his independence, typical of a young bull elephant, and wanders off into the bush to explore. He has now been moved from his stable to the stockade with newcomer, baby Kauro, moving into his place.

The stockade houses a number of ‘big’ elephants as they move on from the dependent infant stage. The keepers’ sleep nearby rather than in with them as in the stable. Then from the age of around two to three years, elephant orphans who are physically and psychologically stable will transfer to the Ithumba or Voi units in Tsavo East National Park to continue the rehabilitation process back to the wild. We are looking forward to hearing about Kithaka’s progress in the coming months.

During 2014 the DSWT has received 23 elephant orphans.

Kithaka in 2014

Kithaka still enjoys a good wrestle in the mud with his fellow orphans. He continues to be the naughty boy of the nursery, stealing milk, pushing small children during visiting time, surprising film crews by hiding in the bushes and then running out trumpeting, and most recently, harassing Maxwell the rhino. Here is an entry from the keepers’ diary:

“The orphans had a very amusing morning as once all the big elephants were let out of their stockades, Kithaka, Barsilinga and Lemoyian decided to pay Maxwell a visit. Maxwell was fast asleep lying along the gate to his stockade so he didn’t notice the three elephants approaching and very secretly feasting on his lucerne. The lucerne was a real treat to the elephants and their mission was to eat as much as they could get before Maxwell woke up. Once they had their fill, Kithaka and Lemoyian began pushing the gate and pulling sleeping Maxwell’s ears with their trunks. At first it seemed that Maxwell quite enjoyed all this attention as he was moving his head around to get the best angle to get a tickle from the two babies. However, it didn’t take long until Max was out of his sleepy mood and was quite annoyed with the three menaces. He head butted the gate making the three elephants run away trumpeting with happiness as they joined the herd in the forest for yet another beautiful day. “

 

By Sara White

Francis wins Guides’ Image Comp with gorgeous portrait of resting cheetahs

Francis is one of our safari guides in Kenya. During August he took a group on safari to Amboseli, Lake Nakuru and the Masai Mara – a classic safari circuit taking in three distinct landscapes. It was in the Mara that Francis and his guests stopped to observe these cheetahs relaxing in the shade. Francis took a series of wonderful images (below).

About Amboseli, Nakuru and the Masai Mara and why they make such a great combination

Amboseli, to the south east of Nairobi, ensures great sightings of elephants as well as wonderful panoramas of Mount Kilimanjaro. The park is very scenic with natural springs fed by Mount Kilimanjaro and habitats ranging from swampy, marsh areas – ideal for wallowing elephants, hippo, buffalo and a variety of water fowl – to dry savannah grasslands where antelope, zebra and other plains game congregate.

Amboseli boasts a number of lodges depending on your preferred style. These include:

Tortilis

Amboseli Serena

Ol Donyo

Satao Elerai

Ol Tukai

Lake Nakuru is one of the soda lakes in the Great Rift Valley lying 1754m above sea level in Kenya’s north-west zone. The lake is surrounded by woodland of yellow acacia and euphorbia,  and bushy grassland. The Great Rift Valley lakes are known for prolific birdlife, with around 450 species in evidence, including a wonderful variety of raptors including the African Fish Eagle. Waterbirds are a highlight – you can see Goliath Heron among others and depending on the level of the lake,  Greater and Lesser Flamingoes.

Importantly the area around Lake Nakuru is a sanctuary for endangered black and white rhino. The sanctuary was established in 1984 and now boasts 60 black rhino and 40 white rhino as well as Rothschild Giraffe.

We also love combining a stay at one of our lake properties for some R&R time in the middle or at the end of your safari. Many of our properties enjoy wonderful views, with perfectly placed decks for sitting and soaking up the atmosphere and fabulous log fires to ward off chilly evenings.

Our favourite lodges in the Great Rift Valley Lakes area include:

Flamingo Hill Tented Camp

Chui Lodge

Hippo Point

Lake Elementeita Serena

Loldia House

Sunbird Lodge

The Masai Mara is an absolute must-visit destination and among the world’s greatest wildlife reserves. For those short of time you can fly in, to connect with your international flight arrival. We recommend a minimum stay of three nights in the Mara but you can easily do more and stay at a combination of camps in different areas. Our tip – opt to stay in a private conservancy bordering the Mara, like Mara North, where Masai Landowners and lodges and camps work together for the good of conservation and there is a strict low density policy with 1 tent to 700 acres of wilderness.

The Mara is a prime area for viewing big cats, with the highest lion density in the world. The best time to view the Great Migration in the Mara is from July, when the Migration tends to arrive, right through to September/October time. However the Mara is a year-round destination,  and far quieter with regards to visitors at other times of year when special offers can be also be taken advantage of.

June and November are great months to visit while March guarantees the Mara minus the crowds with the Loita ‘Mini Migration’ in full swing, flowers blooming on the plains and trees around camps fruiting which in turn draws in the animals for really close encounters!

There are to many camps to name and which one to go for depends on the time of year and your preferred style and budget. However, here are some of our absolute favourites!

Alex Walker’s Serian Camps

Governors Il Moran

Karen Blixen Tented Camp

Kicheche Valley Camp

To see a sample itinerary taking in these three areas click below:

Kenya Express

Kenya Classic Lodge Safari and Zanzibar

All our safaris are tailor-made and can be put together to suit you so please give us call to discuss your plans on 01603 283 517.