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

 

Focus on: The Mara North Conservancy

A rolling savanna of more than 28,000 hectares; the Mara North Conservancy is home to a spectacular array of plants, reptiles, birds and mammals, including elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard and massed concentrations of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other migratory wildlife. It is home to some of the finest camps in the Masai Mara region and their strict game-viewing policy ensures that the experience you get is authentic and exciting. The partnership of Masai villagers and the camps is a great example of how tourism can help the Masai people as well as the animals themselves, the villagers help the camps and the animals and the animals benefit from a safe and protected habitat.

In their own words:

Year round, the Mara is always outstanding.

December to January 

The savannah is green and lots of new born gazelles make an easy prey for the big cats.

Credit: Mara North Conservancy

February to April 

The savannah is drying up and thousands of wildebeests are born daily in the month of February. This is a favoured period of the big cats.

April to June: Loita wildebeest migration

The rain brings life to the savannah with an abundance of game seeking areas for grazing. The Loita Hills migration especially makes gamedriving fantastic since thousands and thousands of wildebeests and zebras come to the area. Hefty rains with thunder usually occur in the late afternoon or late at night. The grass is growing longer and longer as if the plain prepares itself for the wildebeest migration. This is a period of stunning scenery with amazing game viewing.

June to November: The Great Migration! 

‘The best time to see the migration is from end September until early November’

For countless years Africa’s big migratory herds of wildlife have roamed across the open savannas with the seasons.

Many people ask, when is the best time to see the Great Migration and witness one of the famous and dramatic wildebeest crossings? The general rule of seasons is as follows:

Over 25% of the wildebeest and zebra population are resident year out in the Masai Mara. From June their numbers are augmented by over 1 million wildebeests and zebras following the lush grazing to the Masai Mara in search of greener pastures and to reproduce. In their thousands the wildebeest cows and bulls meet on the plains of Mara to mate. Later, in mid October to December when the grass is short many start to head south.  If you wish to see the famous and drama-filled river crossings, then NOW is the season to visit the Masai Mara ecosystem.

Avoiding the busy holiday season of July and August, means the Conservancies and Reserve are quieter and more private.

Winner of Geographical Magazine competition announced

As a Corporate Member of the Royal Geographical Society, and with a Fellow of the RGS within our ranks,  it was with great pleasure that Real Africa teamed up with Geographical, the magazine of the RGS this autumn to offer their readers and supporters the chance to win a fly-in safari to the wonderful Masai Mara in Kenya.

Many of you read Robert’s article on private conservation in the Mara, Nature in the Balance, which appeared in the September edition of Geographical and in turn, many  of you entered the competition to win a safari which closed on 30 November. The prize,  a 3 night fly-in safari to Karen Blixen Tented Camp in Mara North Conservancy, the conservancy discussed in Rob’s editorial piece, gives the winner the opportunity to witness private conservation first-hand, and also to gain further insight into the running of the conservancy when meeting with Justin Heath over sundowner drinks, manager of Mara North.

All you had to do to be in with a shot at winning this wonderful prize was to name the animal lurking in the long grass…

Did you get it right? It was of course a lion, or as many of you pointed out, a lioness. We did get a few tigers and leopards (mainly from those entering late at night) but on the whole the animal was identified correctly.

We can now announce that the winner of the Geographical/Real Africa competition is Mr C.Wilson from London. Many congratulations!

When the team spoke to him to tell him the news his response was, “This is an absolute shock and a lovely Christmas present. I’ve always wanted to go to the Masai Mara and getting to see such a new part of it looks amazing.”

We hope you have a fantastic trip Mr Wilson, see lots of lions and we can’t wait for you to report back on your experience. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Karen Blixen Hospitality School Diaries – Week 12

Each week we follow the students at the brand new hospitality school at the Karen Blixen Camp in the Masai Mara, Kenya. This school provides vital training and job opportunities for local youngsters in an area with high unemployment and Real Africa is proud to be supporting them.

Pork and bacon in the professional kitchen

The week was about pork. This is a surprisingly big topic as the students learned all about different cuts, the huge variety of breeds, quality control, ham, bacon and fat. Rune Eriksen the Head Chef and tutor at the school is Danish and Denmark is one of the world’s best pork producers so naturally the topic is close to Rune’s heart. He discussed how pork is raised in Denmark and how the farmers operate as well as how the butchers offer a huge range of cuts and pork products back in Denmark. In Europe pork is extremely popular and there are a huge range of recipes to make the most of this productive and versatile animal. However life in Kenya is very different and Rune started by asking the students if they knew any pig farmers or if they had even come across pigs where they lived. None of them had as the conditions in Kenya are much more suited to pastoral farming with livestock such as cows, goats and sheep being the main source of meat. In fact none of the students had even tasted pork before so they really were starting from a knowledge base of zero this week! Rune remarked it was completely different for his students then how it had been when he had done his chef training in Europe.

A Typically Danish Lunch

The week started off on Monday with the pork chops being prepared, cooked and tasted. Also they planned the rest of the week around a Danish style lunch for Karsten Ree and family on Wednesday to be followed by a bush dinner on Friday. So Tuesday and Thursday was spent learning all about with pork production and even more theory about pork. Rune was happy to be teaching his students about Danish food and being on home territory so to speak. He also got the chance to cook some good old fashioned Danish food for once. He likes classic Danish food, especially the type of dishes with some heavy sauce, potatoes and braised meat, not something you get in Kenya! He has always been more interested in traditional hearty fare than fine dining with titbits on the plate! After a few days of careful consideration Rune decided on a menu for the lunch to include fried fish fillet with remoulade served with lettuce leaves and white bread as a starter. The main course would be labscoves, a type of meaty stew, with Danish rye bread, pickled beetroot, chopped chives and cold butter. Dessert would be an old fashioned apple trifle. The students and Rune started right away in the morning with the cooking and Rune was delighted with the stew which is tricky to source in Kenya. Even the students loved the three dishes for lunch and more importantly so did the clients.

A Bush Supper

Friday was the day the students were cooking up another fantastic a bush supper for the main camps clients. This one was much larger though. Usually the average number for supper is 8 but today’s bush supper was to be for 18! The time constraints meant that the students had to cut back the normal 8 dishes on the menu. Normally 8 dishes work perfectly as there are 8 students and they are all responsible for one dish. This time however they had only 4 courses to prepare and the students worked in pairs on the dishes together. One of the guests at the bush supper was celebrating a birthday so that also had to be incorporated into the menu for the evening. Keeping to the Danish and pork theme of the week the students made a soup for the starter, a whole roasted meat for the main course and a traditional Danish layer cake for dessert. The final dish was to bake various cakes and cookies for the after dinner tea and coffee.

Waiting Service

The clients were delighted with their bush supper and as usual the students had to mix with the clients as they served the food as well as cooking it.   Working as waiters and having client contact is a very important part of the learning process. The fact that there were 18 people to serve made it quite tricky for them so they had a trial run through of how to wait a table of 18 people at midday so they had plenty of time to practice first!  Every student was given two plates and they walked around the kitchen and the bush supper site to practice holding the plates steady whilst walking. They also planned which seats the students would each be serving so that they wouldn’t crash into each other during service. Despite a few little mistakes the students have now learned to plan their bush suppers properly and to serve like a professional waiter would by carrying two plates on one arm. Next time the students host a bush dinner they will also be responsible for setting the table as presentation is another very important skill.

Posted by Ruth Bolton