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Issue 15
Africa Travel> Issue 15
UPDATED: May 5, 2015
Land of Milk and Blood
Kenya's Maasai Mara is one of the crown jewels in the African experience
By Jo Kromberg

Baboon and baby (JO KROMBERG)

I get a rude awakening as the sun blasts me full frontally. I was dreaming about dish washers or some such incongruous thing and my muddled mind takes a few seconds to realize that we have begun our descent on this early morning Kenya Airways flight into Nairobi. We quickly clear customs and my friendly driver Joseph picks me up and onward to Wilson airport, where my adventure will begin in all earnest. I'm going to the Maasai Mara!

The roads are clear and within half an hour we reach Wilson Airport, where I have coffee with the lovely Petronella from Basecamp Explorer, who tells me that almost all the game rangers at Basecamp are Maasai. "The people who know the area best deliver the experience," is her irrefutable logic. Safarilink Airlines get us to the Mara in only about 45 minutes and already I see the ground beneath me teaming with animals. The views are astonishing. Awash with recent rains, the savannahs and plains are green, green, green.

Teeming with game

My ranger Derrick – a Maasai from the area – picks me up in the typical Maasai red colorful garb and he says that the reason Maasai wear red is to be visible to animals from a distance and thus discouraging them from attacking. For the next two hours Derrick and share an adventure which I will never forget. At one point during our trip I suddenly get what all the fuss is about. To see so many animals together, roaming the plains in harmony is a shock and a spectacle. Elephant, impala, Red hartbeest, topi, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, Thompson Giselle, the list goes on… at one point we count six species all together on one stage.

The Mara National Reserve is 1510 square kilometers and consists mostly of open grasslands and savannah plains and as clichéd as it may seem, Out of Africa scenes are everywhere. The southernmost part of the ecosystem is the Serengeti in Tanzania, visible and fortunately with no fences.

As I watch in awe while we drive, Derrick explains the migrationary pattern of the animals when suddenly he stops abruptly and says in an even tone: "Do you see them?" See what? "There! Two lions." And there only a few meters away from us they are. Two lions, brother and sister, Derrick reckons. They are young, only about two years old and lying in the shade of a small tree, with Mum nowhere in sight. We sit and watch these amazing creatures for a while all alone, just us and them.

Later Derrick's eagle eye also spots a group of hyenas in the bushes, again only meters away. We arrive at Basecamp Explorer with me almost giddy with delight at this feast of game in the Mara, teeming with creatures big and small. Across a drawbridge over the river, you enter the Garden of Eden, literally…

Eager to please staff

The team at the lodge will bend over backwards to please guests. In fact I will never be able to say thank you to anybody ever again for anything. My life-time of thank you quotas has been used up by my waiter James, you see. Smiling, wonderful James, bless his heart, but just that smidgen too eager. Although there is definitely cognisance of comfort here, don't expect splash pools, monogrammed dressing gowns or a mini bar filled to the brim with premium scotch and champagne. The tents are huge and very comfortable, but the emphasis here is on rustic nature and everything works off solar energy. The environment is its own reward and luxury, a hundred times more than a 50 000 thread count duvet and pillow menu…In fact, Basecamp has been named as Kenya's most eco-friendly lodge.

No wonder Barrack Obama, wife Michelle and their daughters stayed here… The place is a veritable forest oasis and almost impossible to photograph, that's how well it blends into its environment. My tent looks out over the river and the peace and privacy is palpable and serves as an instant reboot for a jaded soul. The soothing river sounds embeds itself in your subconscious immediately. My huge outside shower is huge and the beds are ultra-comfortable. I meet founder and owner Svein for lunch, which has been set up for us under the trees on the river bank. What I immediately observe between Svein and the staff is a gentle, mutual respect. There is no boss/servant mentality here. There is buy-in from the staff and that makes them happy. And happy staff make for happy guests.

The tilapia is excellently prepared and tasty and some heavenly concoction of honey and macadamia cheese cake with raspberry coulis disappears quickly between my utterances of delight. Svein is a fascinating man. Clearly passionate about his camps, he explains his philosophy and vision. He acquired the camp site 17 years ago and entered into a long-term lease agreement with an old warrior Masai, with a promise to develop it by fully integrating the Maasai community in its development. And that is exactly what he has done.

But more about that later… I am exhausted so an afternoon nap is next on the menu. I fall into a coma-like state only to be woken up by the rumbling thunder and soft rains across the savannah and the fresh aroma of renewal of the earth. Under cold rain I take a hot shower and make my way to reception to charge all my electronic gear. There are no plugs in the rooms and even though I need my computer for obvious reasons, I suggest you switch off all electronic devices for the duration of your stay. Or throw them away. Or break them.

Svein joins me for dinner which consists of the most delicious cream of carrot soup, a scrumptious pork chop with silky mash and a decadent dark chocolate cake. We relocate to the fire where Africa's usual magic takes a hold and we philosophize about life, the universe and everything in between. By 9.30 pm I make my excuses since I am exhausted. I still try to read a couple of lines of my book but honestly I can't remember fading off into a calm, deep sleep. I wake up to a symphony of sounds of a million birds with a cup of the best coffee in bed, courtesy of James. Derrick and I set off on an early game drive at about 6.30.

Maasai men wear red outfits so animals can see them (BASECAMPEXPLORER.COM)

Totally eco-friendly

The day breaks crisp and fresh and if you are not a morning person – like I am not - prepare to be proselytized.

Because of the rain, we slip and slide this way and that and get stuck, but Derrick gets us out in an awesome display of deft driving. I have yet to see anyone maneuver a vehicle through mud like this man. Adroit is the word. We see the usual (hah! The usual!) array and density of antelope and all of a sudden we come across a giant bull hippo where we exit the vehicle and Derrick shows me the whole pod down in the river. We spot a lone hyena strolling mournfully across the plains and minutes later we come across a couple of jackal. Literally a couple. They mate for life, says Derrick.

Together the Serengeti and Mara comprise almost 30 000 square kilometers, the former being by far the larger of course, with the Mara having the densest wildlife throughout the year. The two regions share the same eco-system as part of the same area but the Serengeti is of course in Tanzania while the Mara is in Kenya.

Back at camp after a sumptuous hot breakfast, I meet with Richard, the community project manager and naturalist. He takes me to meet the beautiful Maasai women who make arts, crafts and jewelry from recycled materials. We also visit the recycling plants where they separate materials. The infernal plastic water bottles which one gets at every lodge and the bane of my existence, gets transferred to Nairobi where they are compacted into poles which can be used as building materials – amazing… He also tells me about the tree planting project where you can pay $5 to plant a tree. To date 70 000 trees have been planted since 1997 to the joy of about 300 species of birds here. Everything, but everything here is solar powered. There is a separate solar and water powered generator for only the fridges as well. There is even a water purifier. Nothing here is left to chance or glossed over so the complete cycle is fulfilled. It is so refreshing to see such a place in a world. So many claim to be "eco-friendly" but when you ask about a simple thing like what happens to their liberal supply of bottled water after use, you are met with blank stares.

Community projects

Basecamp Explorer is completely engineered around sustainability, the community and the environment and I have never seen anything like it. In the words of Big Moses, Co-Founder of Basecamp: "In Maasai we have a word – Enjoolata – that we use to describe the joy felt when something hidden becomes known, when something concealed becomes revealed. For me, Enjoolata refers to the thrill, the wonder, when coming round a riverbed, or emerging out from a thick wood, and there, suddenly, a hidden surprise, an unexpected awe, an unforgettable encounter. That is Enjoolata."

After a lovely lunch of bacon pizza and fruit Pavlova, Svein has to go back to Nairobi and I am left to my own devices. I decide to skip the game drive and relax in my tent and like the previous afternoon, the song of a myriad birds put me gently to sleep. Night falls and for my last supper I am spoiled rotten. The staff lay a candle lit table for me by the fire and as if on cue the millions of stars above me make their appearance. The crescent moon smiles down on me and all is good with the world. Camp manager Seif joins me for dinner which consists of excellent pumpkin soup followed by mango chicken and coconut tiramisu. I am regaled by his wonderful sense of humor and amazing knowledge about the Maasai and the environment.

He also tells me about his meeting Barrack Obama. I go to sleep to the sweet tunes of the African night quite early.

A lone hyena roams the vast plains of Maasai Mara (JO KROMBERG)

The community project is my next stop the next morning after breakfast with Community Program Manager Fred as my guide. It is less than a kilometer away from Basecamp and on the way Fred tells me that the pastoral, nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai has never been in conflict with wildlife. "That is for two reasons," says this well-spoken, lovely man with his gravelly voice. "The Maasai do not eat wild animals so they have never been hunters. They also don't grow crops so they have never had issues with the destructive nature of elephants for instance who destroy crops. They have always lived in total harmony with nature." We arrive at the so-called Green Centre which is under construction with the aim to teach surrounding communities about sustainable living. There is also a girls' leadership academy being built and they are in the process of creating a committee made up of teachers and other specialists to recruit girls from surrounding schools to benefit from this amazing opportunity. "Because the Masaai are traditionally a patriarchal society, girls don't often get the opportunity to achieve higher education. This project aims to change that." They also teach the community about solar power and its benefits – among them things you and I may not have on top of our list. "We tell them that solar lights will chase the lions away." Back at the camp after lunch the dark clouds play above us and before long, the showers come down violently since this is the April/May green season.

Eagle View Camp

I have to leave this place of splendor so after many fond farewells Derrick and I get on the road at about 4 pm – in the middle of the rains and head for Eagle View Camp. While we drive, the white clouds billow like cotton candy above the undulating blue mountains in the distance beyond the verdant valleys. The earth almost viscerally drinks in the rain water, presenting the dream green fields its color. We drive for about two hours among all the game and then there was Eagle View… Be prepared to have your mind blown as you step into reception, with almost the entire Africa as your vista.

While Basecamp blends into its environment like a shy chameleon, Eagle View is a study in earthy sophistication. There all only nine tents, three with family annexes and all with exquisite views over the escarpment and valley below. The en-suite bathroom has an inside and outside shower and the colors are olive green and the materials wood and canvas. The tent has indoor wrap around curtains to give it that extra-special luxurious feel. There are also sockets in the rooms here for electronic devices and wi-fi throughout.

Dinner is leg of lamb by candlelight –yum - and after the rain chases Seif and I away from the fire I decide on an early night.

I forgo the early morning game drive and sleepily I open my eyes to the sight of the entire Mara stretching out in front of me. I have my coffee in bed as I ponder this toe-curling amazing view. There is a soft wind coming in from the East, blowing all cobwebs away.

We go for a drive later and Derrick miraculously spots the remnants of a wildebeest under a bush and then the lions whose breakfast the creature was, lying meters away asleep. He shows me Wilderness Camp as well, the third of the camps to complete the trio. It's a rustic tented camp in the same eco-friendly vain as the others, conjuring up safari accommodation of yore without compromising comfort.

Derrick and I enjoy a lazy game drive later and spend the last hours of the day sitting watching a lioness and her three cubs mock-stalking antelope and horse playing.

Maasai women learn art and craft skills at Maasai Mara (JO KROMBERG)

I crawl into my nest of luxury just after dinner and dream of Africa. I say fond farewells to the wonderful team at Eagle View and Derrick and I set off to the airstrip. We have spent four of the most amazing days of my life together and an enormous sadness grips me when we say good bye. He is by far one of the most knowledgeable, gentle and wonderful human beings I have encountered in my life. Joseph meets me again at Wilson airport and takes me to the Nairobi International Airport where our vehicle is stopped and searched by very severe looking security. I feel safe because of it and it is clear that all over Kenya any threat to security is taken very seriously. In fact, safety threats to tourists have been much exaggerated and most of the insurgent activity occurs in the North East of the country, hundreds of kilometers from Nairobi. The Maasai Mara has never ever experienced anything even approximating an attack by militants. My flight is only at 10 pm the next evening and after checking in I step into the comfort zone that is the Simba Lounge, Kenya Airways' Business Class Lounge. The food is excellent and the lounge features a snooze area with low lighting and beautiful bathrooms with showers as well as a smoking lounge and laptops for your convenience.

I sleepily and sadly board my late flight for home.

No further adjectives available to me are adequate to describe my parting feelings about this land and its people so I will leave it in the capable hands of the band Toto:

"I stopped an old man along the way

Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies

He turned to me as if to say, "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"

It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you

There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do

I bless the rains down in Africa

Gonna take some time to do the things we never had…"


Basecamp Explorer


Eagle's View


Getting there:

Kenya Airways:

Kenya Airways currently flying Boeing 787 Dreamliner daily from Guangzhou to Nairobi, and 3 times weekly from Hong Kong to Nairobi, (total 10 flights weekly from China to Nairobi) connecting to 51 destinations worldwide, 42 of which are in Africa. The on-board service is renowned and the lie-flat Business Class seat on the B787 is consistently voted among the world's top10. Go to https://www.kenya-airways.com/ for more information and bookings.

Internal flights with Safarilink:

Safarilink is Kenya's premier safari airline with a network of connecting domestic scheduled services to all the best safari destinations within Kenya and across the border into northern Tanzania. From its base at Wilson Airport, Nairobi SafariLink provides daily scheduled flights to Tsavo West, Naivasha, Nanyuki, Lew Downs, Samburu, Lamu, Kilimanjaro, Loisaba, Amboseli, Migori, Masai Mara and Diani Beach.

Go to http://www.flysafarilink.com/index.asp

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