The Journey Matters - Kenya's Masai Mara Offers An 'Out of Africa' Experience
Text and photos by Mark Sissons
“The journey not the arrival matters,” T.S. Eliot wrote. Evidently, the great poet never had the opportunity to arrive on an East African grass airstrip in a small plane as warthogs scurry out of the way, massive elephants and towering giraffe graze nearby, and a battle-scarred lion dozes at the end of the runway.
A short ride by Land Cruiser delivers me to Mara Explorer, a permanent tented luxury camp situated on a thickly forested river running through the Masai Mara Game Reserve, the heart of Kenya’s big game country, 270 kilometres south of Nairobi.
Mara Explorer occupies a prime location from which to view a truly spectacular array of wildlife. Lions are found in abundance throughout the park, as are elephants, giraffes, gazelles, buffaloes, baboons, crocodiles, wildebeest and zebra. Rhinos and leopards are also regularly spotted.
So, too, are cheetahs, like the one perched atop a six-foot high termite hill barely ten metres away from me during my first game drive. The fastest, most graceful creature on earth, she remains oblivious to me as the land cruiser inches ever closer. Her caramel eyes are busy scanning the horizon for the slightest movement in the tall savanna grasses.
“She must be still searching for her dinner,” whispers my Kenyan guide, Elphas, as we creep even closer to the cheetah. “It’s getting late and very dangerous for her to be out. Cheetahs normally hunt by day, leaving the nocturnal shift to the lions. If they catch her they will kill her,” he adds.
For the next three days, Elphas and I explore Africa’s most famous game reserve. Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mara and its myriad inhabitants, my guide has long been the Safari Director with Micato Tours, a Kenyan family-run company voted world’s best safari outfitter an unprecedented six times by Travel & Leisure.
When not roaming the Mara’s hundreds of square kilometres of grass and woodlands in search of game, I enjoy hearty bush breakfasts, champagne sundowners on the hood of our land rover, and sumptuous multi-course dinners, accompanied by Elphas’s fascinating lectures on Masai culture.
And Mara Explorer, while rustic, is a truly elegant arrangement reminiscent of the romantic safari era of the turn of the 19th century. Think Out of Africa set decoration with all the creature comforts of a five-star hotel. A staff of five, including a European trained chef and my own personal butler, attends to my every need. There is even a camp guard packing an AK-47.
“Under no circumstances are you to leave your tent unescorted after sunset,” Mara Explorer’s manager informs me at check-in. Instead, I am to call the main lodge via my tent’s walkie-talkie to fetch my well-armed escort. “It’s because of the wildlife,” he explains. “There are no fences surrounding this camp and predators sometimes wander through at night.”
That evening as I lie in my elegant riverside tent listening to a nocturnal orchestra of belching hippos, laughing hyenas and shrieking monkeys, I wonder if I’ll awaken the next morning to find a pride of lions dozing on my porch.