Most travel stories you read in newspapers and magazines – with notable exceptions – are the result of press trips. These are fully funded holidays for small groups of journalists paid for by tourist boards, airlines or resorts (or a combination of the three). It’s not an ideal situation – the hacks tend to be spoiled rotten in the hope they will write nice things about the destination – but the good ones still find a degree of objectivity.
There are some destinations, though, where you’ll rarely find a fully-funded press trip; places that tend to be filled to capacity year-in, year-out, so why go to the trouble and expense of hosting a group of entitled hacks, one of whom is guaranteed to moan the entire way through the trip? One of these destinations is the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the safari gold-standard, the go-to area for those in the money and in the know. In terms of the density of game you’re likely to encounter – especially big cats – it’s as good as it gets.
So I was surprised when an invitation arrived in my inbox. I rarely accept places on these trips these days, but the Maasai Mara? I’ll have some of that.
There is, of course, a reason. The Kenyan tourist board has had a tough old time of it recently. The Westgate shopping mall attack in the Kenyan capital Nairobi this time last year left upwards of 80 dead and made the global news. This year there have been at least six terrorism-related attacks, one claiming more than 50 lives, all taking part along the coast or in Nairobi. A Foreign & Commonwealth Office warning against travel to certain parts of the country made matters worse, and a World Health Organisation statement in August saying Kenya is at risk of ebola – reiterated by the World Bank last week – can’t have helped, either (there haven’t been any cases there yet).
God, after reading that last paragraph, I’m not sure I would want to go, either. The travel warnings, though, apply to a fraction of the country; all the safari areas have the green light. When you fly towards the Maasai Mara (via a light aircraft which you transfer to within the confines of Nairobi airport – no need to set food in Nairobi city), you can see why: there’s nothing but plains for hundreds of miles around. You could stage a pretty effective terrorist attack against a heard of wildebeest, but that’s unlikely to gain you much political currency.
The decline in visitors has been a major blow for a country where tourism is the second biggest industry, and a source of major grief for the owners of safari lodges. From where they’re sitting, way out on the plains, events in the cities are a world away, the equivalent of sitting in a bothy in the Highlands and worrying about the attack on the London Underground; it’s horrific, but it poses no immediate threat. As one lodge owner put it: “Out here, you’re more likely to get hit by a meteor than attacked by a fanatic”. It’s true – when you’re sitting under a tree watching the sun set over the African plains, the overwhelming feeling is of blissful isolation.
The Chyulu Hills are a 90 minute light aircraft flight south east of Nairobi. From here, on a clear day like the one on which I arrived, you can see Mt Kilimanjaro over in neighbouring Tanzania. Pockets of forrest break up the dusty brown landscape, attracting bull elephants, who do their best to tear down any trees in sight. Here lies Ol Donyo, one of the world’s most luxurious safari lodges. The hilltop site overlooks a watering hole that attracts wildlife from hundreds of miles around – three bull elephants guarded it when I arrived, eventually leaving the dregs for the amassed zebra, warthogs, gazelle, onyx and giraffe (you can get close enough to smell them thanks to a nearby wooden hide; the elephants in particular have a powerful fetor).
Ol Donyo can arrange walking tours with Maasai guides (local tribesmen, recognisable by their colourful shawls), or you can take a jeep, mountain bike or horse safari, the latter allowing you to get up-close and personal with giraffes and gazelle (and is suitable for novices). But you won’t want to spend too long away from the lodge – the giant suites come with plunge pools, views over the watering hole and both indoor and outdoor beds. The “star” beds are completely open to the elements save for a mosquito net – from here you can hear the barks and howls of hyenas and other unnamed beasts as they crash through the darkness under an endless blanket of stars.
On the outskirts of the Maasai Mara itself – a short charter flight away – is Encounter Mara, the most rough-and-ready of the lodges I visited (if you can call sinks, toilets and double beds decked out in Egyptian cotton “rough-and-ready” – it’s certainly at the higher end of “glamping”). Encounter is all about spotting game. Early rises are encouraged (game drives are best at dawn, approximately 5.30am) and a short, bleary-eyed drive past a crocodile and hippo infested river (you really don’t want to stray out of the compound on foot) takes you to the plains where, within less than five minutes, we’d spotted a female cheetah with its cub. The big cats are so used to the jeeps they seem completely oblivious, allowing you to get within feet of them.
Further into the conservancy – green and woody, in contrast to the brown and orange of the Chyulu Hills – we came across a pride of lions, including cubs and two extravagantly maned males, who obligingly roared for us (surely one to tick off on safari bingo). To come within metres of these vast, lithe predators is a strange experience – I’d like to say it was humbling, or life affirming, but part of my brain refused to accept they were wild, instead insisting that this was some vast zoo; Mosley Safari Park with a make-over. It’s only after repeated exposure – more lions, more cheetah, more water buffalo – that it starts to sink in: this is actually real. The jeep itself, though, does somewhat shatter the illusion of being alone in the wilderness, even given the rules about how many can circle the animals at a time. Still, with teeth like those, you ain’t going to see them any other way.
One of the most spectacular sights in the natural world is the migration of the wildebeest from the Maasai Mara to the Serengeti in Tanzania, and the most spectacular way to see it is from a hot air balloon. I set off at 4.30am to get into the balloon in time for dawn, gliding noiselessly over two million wildebeest and accompanying Thomson gazelle and zebra, all snaking in single-file like braying ants. From the air, you get some idea of the sheer size of the plains, and the number of creatures who live on them, many thousands of which will shortly meet a messy end in the jaws of a crocodile as they attempt to cross the river on their pre-programmed commute.
Mara Toto lodge is nearby, a large and beautiful complex of palatial tents housing nicer furniture than most hotels. Ginger rodents dart across the periphery of your vision and chilled wine is just a holler away. It achieves the neat trick of feeling both comfortable and wild. A river winds behind the tents, from where crocodiles regard you with a passive malice. This is a land of vast, ancient beasts, creatures that inspired myths and legends – and they are right there next to my freaking tent! Phrases like “bucket list” and “trip of a lifetime” are thrown around too lightly, but not in this case; there are few superlatives you can’t apply to this impossibly beautiful part of Africa.
My advice: book now. Literally, right now. You’ll probably never get a better rate on the trip of a lifetime.
Need to Know:
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com, 020 8283 1818) operates daily overnight flights from London Heathrow to Nairobi from £732.41
Boskovic Air Charters (boskovicaircharters.com) can fly up to 12 passengers from the Chyulu Hills to the Maasai Mara from $3,082
Air Kenya provides a services throughout Kenya and the East African region (airkenya.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ol Donyo Lodge, Chyulu Hills: from $615 plus $116 Big Life Foundation levy per person per night sharing. Stay 3 nights and fly for free, valid 1 November 2014 to 31 May 2015. (greatplainsconservation.com; email@example.com)
Encounter Mara: from $450 per person sharing a double (encountermara.com; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mara Toto: from $625 plus $100 park fee per person per night sharing. Stay 3 nights and fly for free, valid 1 November 2014 to 31 May 2015. (greatplainsconservation.com; email@example.com)
Balloon Safaris from $450 per person for a one-hour flight (balloonsafaris.co.ke, firstname.lastname@example.org)
For more information on visiting Kenya, contact the Kenya Tourism Board on 0207 367 0931 or visit magicalkenya.com