Go glamping to Masai Mara for a fascinating adventure amidst wildlife, hot air balloons and bush breakfasts
After months of curfews and lockdowns, home-weary tourists and air nomads are finally letting out a sigh of relief as international borders have reopened.However, unlike the pre-COVID-19 era, one can no longer afford to hop skip jump cities like a frenzied tourist who gulps down a heavily packed itinerary without savouring the moment. Slow travel in remote areas and less frequented destinations is the new way to go. The Masai Mara in Game Country Kenya where safaris are starting next month is one such place. I visited the heavenly savannah landscapein March unbeknownst that the coronavirus in China would change the world slowly albeit drastically into a full-blown pandemic making this idyllic retreat feel like a distant dream…
Being a solo female traveller venturing into the heart of Africa’s densest jungles, finding a haven topped the priority list and a lot of research went into choosing the ideal pod. I narrowed down my focus to what really mattered: the endangered wildlife and luxury glamping. The northern conservancy of Masai Mara is East Africa’s best kept secret. A bumpy and arduous sevenhour drive over pot-hot tarmac roads and dust deep murram from Nairobi, passing wheat fields ploughed in pristine game country for kilometre after kilometre, the journey to Masai Mara isn’t for the faint hearted. Somewhere between cribbing about your back and winks of interrupted sleep, you arrive. The blue of the granite hills, the lusty green of ancient woodlands hugging the narrow track before opening up into broad vistas of endless land and fiery skies. But this was March. During the pandemic, large stretches of the road have been rebuilt making the journey a lot smoother. However, there are restrictions on the number of passengers per bus and private taxis are recommended as they have plastic partitions and shields. Time and budget per mitting, breaking the journey in Nairobi for a day or two followed by a scenic flight to the conservancy is well worth the investment.
Glamping at Mara
Set on the foot of Aitong Hills offering 51 luxuriously furnished tents featuring four-poster beds, en suite facilities and private decks overlooking the hippo filled Mara River, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club proved to be an oasis for sore city eyes. There are two-three lodges in the same conservancy, but they operate seasonally (during the Great Migration months) or have a limited number of rooms that are family owned and fill up quickly.Apart from the daily temperature checks and room sanitizers in every tent, the bar and restaurant seating have been rearranged (1.5 meters apart) to ensure maximum social distancing among guests. Other than being an epitome of luxury, this is the only place of the Masai Mara Game reserve that is not only privately owned but also where off road driving is permitted. Which means unhindered views (and clicks) of camouflaged animals nurturing their young calves from less than 10 feet away. This isn’t allowed anywhere else, not even in Serengetti National Park, Tanzania. They also host two of the only remaining highly endangered white rhinos (one of the Big Five) of the world in its natural habitat making it a priority for the wildlife enthusiast for me. Being offseason, the prices were unbelievably low including pick and drop from the airstrip, all meals, visit to the Masai village and numerous game drives which are resuming inDecember. All of this as well as the hot air balloon rides (these are not complimentary) will be available from December end. Factor in a tantalising menu hygienically prepared every day using locally sourced organic ingredients which is a gastronomical safari in itself and sunrise balloon rides with bush breakfasts it couldn’t get better!
Spotting the Big Five
Masks will be compulsory even on the safari but that’s a small price to pay to see the animals in all their splendour. Couples/families will travel now in separate SUVs for safari trips and not be huddled together in mini buses with other guests. January is a warm and dry month with little to no rains and plenty to see! Bird watching, lion prides, calves tagging behind their mothers and cheetah families are common sights as the grass is still short. The roads in the Mara are not trodden territory to the say the very least. With few tyre tracks and a repeated onslaught of rains in March that sully even the best beaten paths, you are on your own and must make your own way in the Bush. “Hold tight missy!” my driver cum guide cautioned me for the tenth time as I tried to hopelessly balance myself in the bumpy fast moving Landrover. As we waded through muddy streams and potholes, I would occasionally catch his eye in mirror and give a thumbs up. I doubt that the newly mandated plastic partition and mask would alter the experience. The reason for choosing the northern conservancy of the Masai Mara is simple. It is the only place that allows off road driving and lets you glimpse the animals as close as it gets. Animals don’t graze randomly— they smell the rain and follow a certain trajectory and are seen cyclically in the same parts of the Game country. In the sprawling sub Saharan savannah, the Big Five Game Animals (the one horned rhino, the Cape buffalo, leopard, elephant and the lion) can be easily spotted with their respective cubs in January as well as February. Though nothing prepares you when you see it—the first day itself we spotted a lioness eating with her cubs, a cheetah family on the prowl, herds of impalas, giraffes, zebras and ostriches going about their daily business unperturbed by our presence. Occasionally, we would slow down the car and let a herd of elephants pass by. Eyeing us with suspicion the matriarch was always alert and geared to attack at a moment’s notice. Get too close and the giraffes will run, the rhinos attack but the lion? Not him. Both offense and defence are beneath him. He circled our safari languidly, giving us the royal ignore as we watched with awe. It was as if he had an invisible crown signalling at all points as to who the real King was and who calls the shots.
One of our safari trips was to the Masai village. With their bright red clothes and three-inch-long earlobes adorned with beads, the Masai people can be spotted from away. They are genetically gifted high jumpers who sing and dance for tourists like me in hopes of a generous tip.I wonder how they will carry out all that singingand dancing with masks on! Perhaps social distancing will make them sing louder and a tad difficult to sell their handmade jewellery and wares that are up for sale at the end of the performance. I struck a friendship with the village chief and was lucky to get invited to the mud thatched Maasai Manyatta and mingle with people of the community. I learnt that the Masai are Native inhabitants of the Mara National Park who shave their heads, drink animal blood and are known to be fearsome warriors. They are great hunters of the lion, not only to protect their livestock but also because of a tribal custom that demands that a boy of age must spear the beast to prove his manhood.
I was speaking to them via a translator who told me about their peculiar customs and ceremonies. For example, what are the rites of passage that make you an official adult in your country? Depending on where you’re form, there are universally accepted signposts such as drink and drive at 16, vote at 18. Here,, a young lad must kill a lion with a spear and preserve its mane in the form of a beautified headgear with ostrich feathers to gain official ‘elder’ status. Whether you need a digital detox or a nature retreat, Kenya, will capture your imagination, steal your heart (if not passport) and enrich you with a whole new vision. Stay a while, soak in the raw and unadulterated beauty of the savannah, spot the animals and meet the long limbed Masai. Slowly fashion will start to seem banal and politics simply absurd. A lot of things previously taken for granted such as packaged milk, cars and food, or despised (including the extra kilos we pile on) will come across as a sheer luxury. Stay long enough and the realisation that a lot of our worries are imaginary constructs of an artificially construed modern world will hit like a bolt of lightning making you never want to go back.
The Masai Mara in Game Country Kenya is set to open for tourists in December 2020.