Depending on who you talk to, Kenya’s Maasai Mara is either the very best, or the very worst, location for a first safari. Arguably the most recognised safari location in the world, “the Mara” – as hardened regulars like to call it – is renowned for its population of lions, cheetahs and leopards.
The very same national park which is the scene of Big Cat Diary – the beloved, long-running BBC documentary – it’s images of these plains which have shaped travellers’s ideas of what a modern safari is. Many still claim the Maasai Mara is the best place to catch big cats up close and personal in the world.
But with such notoriety comes a cost; there are more than 100 camps and lodges in and around the 1,500kmsq park area, and on any game drive you’re likely to encounter many more cars than cats. The ideal may be empty plains, but for many, the reality is crowds and commotion.
It was the elephants that made me miss my deadline.
As fanciful excuses go, this sentence is up there – but that doesn’t make it any less true. I really, genuinely, wanted to return to my tent, collect my laptop, and knuckle down on some copy. But there was an elephant family in the way, blocking my path.
A hulking, five tonne mother and two smaller children – toddler elephants, if you will – were happily munching on the lawn, between me and the place I slept, and there was clearly nothing I could about.
There was also little the camp managers could do, either. After more than three hours stuck in the communal mess, the family were eventually scared off “with rocks”, apparently.
Serves me right for planning to work in “the bush”. As safari experiences go, this was about as genuine as I could hope for – or perhaps stomach. Read what you will, nothing quite prepares a city dweller for waking in the night to the sound of hippos and hyenas scratching around a few metres away, with just a thin layer of fabric between your skin and the beasts’s teeth.
An unashamed safari beginner, I’m based at Sala’s Camp, which aims to reconcile a genuine outback experience with creature comforts. The property certainly has a prime spot: While the vast bulk of accommodation options are spread around the north of the national park, Sala’s eight luxury tents are set at the opposite end, just 500m from the border with Tanzania’s neighbouring Serengeti National Park.
The closest camp is 7km away and, set on the banks of the slow Sand River, Sala’s boasts first view of the fabled Great Migration, which sees more than a million wildebeest and 250,000 zebras – and all of their assorted predators – trek north through the plains every July. When they return in October, Sala’s can then boast Kenya’s last migration view of the season.
It’s this four-month spell which typically marks the best time to visit Kenya – although those wary of crowds might want to consider the winter dry spell in January and February, the time of my weeklong visit.
On day one, I start before dawn, riding in an open-topped 4×4 with local guide Stephen at the wheel, while spotter David stands on the back seat, for hours at a time, his head poked over the parapet surveying the long flat plains so characteristic of the Mara. I’d met both a day earlier, when they picked me up from the airstrip at Keekorak – little more than a patch of sand, a single armed guard lounging in the shade the sole concession to formality. Driving to camp Stephen pointed to the waist-high grasses lined either side of the tracks, which had sprouted up in recent weeks following a burst of rain. “This year we have something to celebrate – in five years, I’ve never seen the grass this long.
“Good for the Maasai,” he said, speaking of the brightly garbed native tribe from which the reserve takes its name.
“Bad for us.” In such long grasses spotting game will be especially difficult.
After two hours bumping around without seeing more than the flash of a skittishly skipping impala, I was contemplating an early dinner. My gaze started to waver, overwhelmed by the the vast, undulating plains on all sides. Then the car slowed to a halt.
“Look out to the left,” ordered Stephen, a chime of pride in his voice.
Nothing can quite prepare you for coming face-to-face with a wild lion. Anything you’ve been told, dreamed or planned instantly evaporates when you meet the cold stare of a pure predator’s gaze, locked eye-to-eye. It wasn’t fear – something about the easy laugh of the guides puts terror far from reach – so much as deep disbelief. It was just there, perhaps three metres away, glaring at me with the weary contempt of a predator.
The car’s presence was viewed with the weary familiarity of a minor disturbance, the mechanics of the modern day safari creating a kind of uneasy truce between car and cat. Eventually she gets bored of eyeballing us and wanders off. She collapses into the grass next to three more napping adults, all of who don’t seem remotely phased as I frantically snap away.
On the way back to camp, we encounter a lazy family of elephants strolling calmly through the planes, shadowed in the golden haze of the setting sun.
Satisfied with a successful first day, I dine in the communal mess with the camp’s manager, Mark Boyd, a wiry, energetic 31-year-old Brit, and his two visiting friends. Over an excellent risotto, perhaps naturally, the locals’s conversation frequently returned to wildlife, and its welfare. Earlier in the day, planes whizzed overhead and rangers buzzed around as part of an ongoing government rhino census, which aims to microchip every one of the great hulks, as well as sawing off half a tusk – although no one at the table is quite sure why the last part may be necessary.
Poaching is reportedly at record lows, but remains a real and present danger. Boyd claims there are just 54 rhinos living in the Mara and among such a small population, even a couple of cases of poaching a year can wreak havoc on the mating cycles. And whatever safeguards authorities put in place, with rhino horn currently selling for as much as $60,000 a kilo – a single horn can weigh more than 6kg, and they have two – for the ethic-less opportunist the gain might always outweigh the risk.
The next morning I hit the tracks again at dawn. Even without spotting anything, it’s a humbling experience to be out alone in the plains, feeling the day hazily gain consciousness; the shivering stillness of first light slowly gives way to a burning sun, and by noon skin starts to scorch.
After around three hours we spot a grumpy cartoon face, peering ominously from behind a tree. The African buffalo looks nothing like the conventional American bison, with a black body and an ugly visage capped by magnificent, curved horns, which spiral from the forehead like the bottom of a judge’s wig. Less than 24 hours in the Mara, and I’d ticked off three of the “big five”, the classic set initially coined by game hunters, which includes lion, elephant, leopard, and the ever-endangered rhinoceros.
Soon after we track down a cheetah – a markedly more depressing experience. I don’t doubt Stephen or David’s talents for a second – but it was a semi-circle of more than a dozen 4x4s and minibuses arched round a remote tree which alerted us to the fact there was a cat enjoying some R&R up top. Still, another box ticked.
Talking to other travellers, it became clear this was by no means an unusual experience. Yet compared with Kenya’s tourism heyday, just five years ago, we’ve got it good. The country welcomed 1.75 million visitors in 2011, a figure which slid to 1.26 million in 2014. And while the number of camps continues to expand, things are only getting worse for the tourism market, with official figures reporting a 25 percent decline in visitors between summer 2014 and last June.
The drop off is blamed primarily blamed on the rise of terrorism. Since 2011 Kenya has been shaken by a long list of terror attacks linked with the militant group Al-Shabaab. In 2013 six British nationals were killed in an attack on a shopping mall. In June and July 2014 at least 85 people were gunned down, in popular tourist costal areas in Lamu and Tana River counties, including travellers who were watching World Cup matches in bars and hotels. In April 2015, 147 people were killed when four gunmen stormed a university. Today the UK government warns against a “high threat” of both terrorism and kidnapping. It’s this kind of media coverage which has seen the past few years cripple much of the tourist industry. When I stop at a shopping centre it was jarring to have a guard thrust open my door, without pausing for permission, and check the glovebox on a hunt for concealed weapons.
Back at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport I board a flight heading an hour north to Laikipia, part of what was once the Rift Valley, a ragged plain split in half by the equator. Around 500km northeast of the Maasai Mara, it could be another planet. The landscape is an epitome of scorched earth, instead of the rolling grasses I had encountered in the Maasai. I step off the plane onto bright orange sands, left to question whether anything can survive in this desolate terrain.
The answer is a resounding yes. While my time in the Mara was defined by long, sun-baked days gazing hopefully at the plains – the thrill really is in the chase – here I am met with an abundance of animals. In a single day I spot a pack of grazing zebras, scurrying gazelles, jackals, antelopes, waterbucks, and a lone lion. Set amid the bright-neon, sandy backdrop, this is the image of east Africa familiar from a thousand primary school textbooks and Hollywood movies.
For the second leg of my trip, I am staying not on a national park, but rather a privately owned conservancy, lending itself to an easier game spotting experience. Sosian is a working ranch, established by Italian artisans back in 1940s, and currently home to 1,500 cattle. After falling into decay, the estate was rescued by a consortium of investors at the turn of the millennium, and revamped to offer a luxury, family friendly getaway. It’s this – and leasing the land to the British Army for training exercises, I find out later – which keeps the ranch afloat.
Being on private land has its perks. Much of the local lion population has been collared with a transmitter – by American and British university researchers, I’m told, but also to help alert local communities about threats to their cattle – which makes tracking big cats down an imprecise science of waving a radio beacon around hunting for their signal. It’s rather less romantic than a Mara game drive, and doesn’t always yield consistent results.
Which is why, “just sometimes”, the ranch leaves dead meat out to tempt the cats into easy view. According to the hotel literature, this only happens when cattle die of natural causes – a “turnover” of two percent means 30 cattle die per year – but that wasn’t quite the whole story heard from guests and guides. The baby calf left up a tree one evening, just a short drive from the camp entrance, certainly seemed like a slightly-too-convenient way to attract a leopard mum and her cubs out for a late supper. And so this was the way I ticked off the fourth of the big five (never did find those pesky rhino).
Yet Sosian is about far more than game drives. Styled as a “home in the wilderness”, its popularity with visiting European families is down to both to the hosts’s charming hospitality – managers Rosie Constant and Simon Kenyon are a couple who met while volunteering at Sosian – and the wide-range of activities on offer; trekking, tracking and birding, as well as tours on horseback, camel rides and fishing. The grounds also boast a swimming pool and tennis court.
An affluent, post-colonial atmosphere presides; guests congregate for long, lazy communal breakfasts in the bush, and lunches round the pool, while evening meals are served around a long dining table. In fact food in a big deal here. One of the great incongruences of safari is that the concept counter-intuitively goes so hand-in-hand with luxury. Rather than embracing the deprivations of “the bush”, the pastime has historically been one of minimising them as much as possible. The safari was pioneered by very affluent white visitors employing, and relying on, a huge staff of local guides, cooks, and the like. Today that tradition is kept well alive in Sosian, particularly if you opt to take dinner under the stars, where a team of five will serve you a three-course meal on a raised woodland platform in the wilderness. There are few experiences more memorable, but some might find it hard to stomach such indulgence.
It’s this combination of hospitality and luxury which perhaps makes Kenya the ideal destination for a first safari – the industry and infrastructure has existed for so long, that all manner of travellers are famously well catered for. And while there are widespread hopes tourism may be healing, there’s still a long road ahead – two separate industry sources shared optimistic hopes that 2016 will bring tourist levels back to “60 to 70 percent” of peak, pre-terrorism rates.
All of which makes this year a potentially golden time to visit. First off, such a lack of demand means accommodation rates are at record lows, with more competition for your dollar than ever. But more importantly, right now you can expect a more authentic experience, with less 4x4s clogging the plains – something which could be set to change fast if industry hopes are justified.
After a week of safari, it’s easy to feel that initial thrill start to wane. The surprise, adrenaline and fear of getting up close to a wild beast begins to fade. Spend enough time on a luxury bush retreat, and the sense of mankind’s superiority over the natural world actually starts to grow.
Exhausted, overwhelmed and heavily sunburnt, I return to the capital for a night of R&R before flying home. I check into the luxurious Hemingways Nairobi, an unashamedly colonial-inspired retreat in affluent Karen suburb. The next morning I pick up the paper from outside my door. The front page tells me the capital has been placed on high alert after “several” lions escaped from Nairobi National Park, which borders the city. Despite being loose for several hours, luckily, no one was hurt. But riding back to the airport, I was reminded of the words the same driver met me with just nine days earlier: “Nature is unpredictable, nature is unforgiving, if you violate nature – then it will get you back.”