Kenya's Masai Mara - far from the madding crowds

by Kevin Hughes

The Masai Mara, thanks to countless films and TV shows, is a magnet for tourists wanting that real safari experience. But stay at a camp outside the Reserve and enjoy the wildlife without the crowds

A herd of around 150 zebra and wildebeest stand teetering on the high bank of the Mara River. As the excitement mounts, animals at the back surge towards the river until two zebras are forced forward, hooves sinking into the mud at the water’s edge, nostrils flared, ears pricked and eyes wide with fear. A ripple of anticipation sweeps across the herd as animals on the opposite bank neigh and whine encouragement.

The animals are nervous and with good reason. Almost submerged in the river, only their eyes visible, huge crocodiles lie in wait. One of the lead animals panics, rears up and tries to fight its way back through the herd just as the second animal launches forward kicking up spray as it struggles against the rushing water in its fight to reach the opposite bank. That is the signal for the rest of the herd to stampede toward the far bank and the promise of better grazing.

The river crossing is also the signal for the motor drives of a thousand cameras to whirr into action. And that is all too often the problem with Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve - people.

At its busiest, between June and August, more than 8,000 people can descend on the park at any one time. And that’s despite the best efforts of the Kenya Tourist Board which has tried, but failed, to reduce the number of visitors by controversially trying to ban so-called “budget” tourists. However, the environmental impact on the park’s fragile eco-system remains a huge problem with roads degraded, animals harassed, and off road driving destroying grassland vegetation.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to visit the Mara, view the amazing wildlife and yet see few other tourists - other than at river crossings which will always attract those hungry to see a wildebeest meet a gruesome end.

We travelled to the Offbeat Mara Camp, a small seasonal camp outside of the Masai Mara Reserve but with easy access to the park. The camp is tucked away miles from any other camp or lodge and offers a real taste of the Mara through a traditional, tented, safari experience. Only accommodating a dozen guests at any one time the service is personal and friendly. The tents are huge and have en-suite bathrooms, flushing toilets and massive, solid, hand-made beds.

Four course dinners are served in the mess tent while breakfasts and lunches are usually taken out on the vast Mara plains along with your guide. The camp works closely with the local Masai community and the majority of staff are made up of Masai men who dress in their colourful traditional robes.

We flew to the shared airstrip on a forty minute SafariLink flight from Nairobi. After collecting our baggage we were shown to our custom-built Land Cruiser by Joseph, our Masai guide. As we set off for the Offbeat Camp, a drive of around 45 minutes, Joseph pointed out a huge male lion lying under a bush doing what lions do best - sleep. I reached for my binoculars only to discover they were still on the aircraft which was now little more than a distant speck in the mid-day sky.

The binoculars were pretty cheap but the £300 in cash inside the case was not and I sat dismayed, craning my neck for a glimpse of the now disappeared aircraft as if I could will its return. Joseph could only laugh when I explained my predicament. “No worries,” he said reaching onto his bead-studded belt and producing a top-of-the-range Samsung which he used to call the camp asking them to e-mail SafariLink. How one can get a perfect signal in the middle of the Masai Mara while we often struggle in most European cities is beyond me.

However, as we arrived at the camp I was informed my binoculars and cash had been found and were now tucked away in the company’s safe in Nairobi awaiting my return in five days' time.

We spent some truly magical days around the Offbeat Mara Camp getting up close and personal with lions, cheetahs, buffalo, giraffe and a mass of other species of animal and birds. Just being on those vast plains  surrounded only by the wonderful wildlife and enjoying a cool drink while watching the sun dip below the horizon is a magical experience. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and in tune with his beloved homeland.

The Masai Mara, thanks to worldwide media exposure, has become a must see for those that love wildlife or who just want a safari experience. It has to be on the bucket list of most travellers. My advice is do it now while you still can.

However, visiting the Mara, or for that matter any of Kenya’s game reserves, is likely to involve a long-haul flight. Having negotiated passport control and customs at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport I would recommend an overnight stop to recuperate before heading to your safari destination so you arrive fresh and ready for the challenge.

Where to stay

The Panari Hotel (Mombasa Road) in Nairobi is only a short distance from the airport. Rooms are spacious and clean and the hotel has a fitness centre and swimming pool. The on-site Red Garnet Restaurant serves international cuisine of a reasonable standard. Although the hotel is advertised as a five star, remember this is Africa, and standards might not be the same as New York, London or Paris. Rooms cost around £150 Sterling per night.

The Fairview Hotel (Bishop Road), is on my list next time I visit Nairobi following several recommendations from fellow travellers I met in Kenya. The hotel is, I understand, spotlessly clean, with great food and superb staff. Rooms cost just £70 Sterling a night.

Where to eat

When in Nairobi, and providing you're not a veggie, there is one place that stands head and shoulders above the rest - Carnivore Nairobi and Simba Saloon in Langata Road. Not far from Wilson Airfield, this award winning, 420-seat restaurant serves up a mountain of meat barbecued over a huge open coal pit which is then carved at your table. However, if you don’t want to indulge in a meat fest of beef, lamb, kid, pork and even exotic meats such as farmed crocodile and ostrich, then the Simba Lounge offers pizzas, salads and light snacks.

This is one of Africa’s top culinary experiences and is not to be missed on any trip to Nairobi. It's a case of eat as much as you can for the set price of around £35 Sterling. Waiters will continue to serve you until you raise the little white flag at the side of your plate. However, one useful tip I would pass on is don't go mad at the start when they serve the sausages and hot bread. They try to fill you up before they bring out the best cuts of meat. Enjoy!

Kevin Hughes

I am a retired police officer who enjoyed a second career in journalism with a weekly newspaper. I now work as a freelance journalist concentrating on politics, sport and local issues. I also do some freelance photography.

I have a passion for travel and enjoy writing about my experiences - good and bad. I have had several travel features published in regional and weekly newspapers and some magazines but I'm hardly a professional travel writer although I certainly wouldn't mind doing more!

Married for thirty plus years and with three adult children and one grandchild my wife and I now have more time to travel. I generally shy away from package holidays finding it more fun to plan where I want to go, how I want to get there and what I want to see and do when I arrive. However, for me, the most important part of any trip is the local people I meet and interact with. It is they who give me a sense of what a place is really all about.

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.