A trip to Kenya is not complete without a visit to the Masai Mara National Reserve, where the seventh new natural wonder of the world – the great migration – occurs annually. This was the last stop of our trip although we were a month or so too early to see the migration.
There is an incredible assortment of intimate camps to choose from in the Mara. We wisely chose Mara Plains Camp, located on the northern border of the reserve in the 30,000 acre Olare Orok Conservancy (land is rented from Masai communities). Our decision was based on a few factors: 1) the location is a buffer zone for wildlife migration and known as a haven for big cats 2) it is one of the smallest and most intimate of camps in the area and 3) it is one of a handful of camps run by Great Plains Conservation – a conservation organization that operates eco-tourism (versus the other way around!). It also includes acclaimed film-maker, Derek Joubert (big fan here) in its partner roster. If you haven’t seen his film The Last Lions yet, see it now!
We were greeted, upon arrival, at the small Mara airstrip by Daniel (a former Masai warrior), who would be our driver and guide during our stay. He would prove an excellent and patient guide during our stay, with a strong aim to please.
As we came to the Mara primarily to see prides of lions that the area is so known for, there was NO WAY we were going back to NY without seeing a few. Patiently, Daniel took us out on game drives for 6-8 hours a day in search of them, sometimes not even stopping back at the camp for lunch.
We did not leave disappointed (we were lucky to see the 3 of 5 members of the much-admired and well-known Notch pride above). One professional wildlife photographer, who happened to be staying at our camp, would suffer as a result of our persistence, however. He had been positioned in one spot all day on a hill waiting for an elusive pride of lions (all the way from Tanzania, presumably) to come out from a hidden area. As we caught up with him, Daniel moved our jeep to get a better angle…and promptly got stuck. Changing of wheels and pushing the jeep were required. The lions, disturbed from the noisy ruckus, scattered off in the other direction and the shoot was ruined. We felt terrible.
A 20-minute drive through spectacular scenery and wide-open vistas and we arrived at base camp where the staff waiting to warmly greet us. Mara Plains is accessed via a drawstring bridge over a small river that is home to resident crocodiles, Bonnie and Clyde, and enjoyed by boisterous hippos at night (it is with excellent reason children eight years and below are not allowed).
Lorna and Richard – a young couple – are the managers of Mara Plains. Only Lorna was there during our stay and she was a very gracious and warm host who joined guests at every meal. An experienced photographer, Lorna was also my savior in helping me get the right wildlife shots with my broken camera lens. You can see some of her incredible shots on the Great Plains Conservation website dispatches: BushBuzz.
The location of Mara Plains is hard to beat. One of the benefits of being located in a conservancy is the avoidance of vehicles that can overtake the Mara during high season, allowing for a more authentic experience. Each one of the seven guest tents at Mara Plains overlooks different scenery. Our tent and deck faced an expansive savannah with a lone wildebeest bull guarding his territory (he didn’t move whole time we were there – lonely guy!).
Mara Plains was similar to Sirikoi in that they both have many activities other than game drives (ballooning, village visits, riding) and meals are outdoor affairs, shared with other guests. At Mara Plains, cocktails around a fire preceded dinner, with our location moved to different a different spot each night. Candle-lit dinners were beautiful, delicious affairs. Still, our favorite meal was having a simple breakfast out in the bush, overlooking the plains of the Mara at sunrise.
As Mara Plains is unfenced and right in the middle of it all, it felt the most authentic of all the camps to me. Lion and cheetah regularly roam here and it is dangerous to leave your tent even a little unzipped (needless to say, you can not leave your tent unaccompanied by a guide). Every night we listened to the unfamiliar sounds of hippos snorting, hyenas cackling and bush babies scurrying on top of our tent. Of course, my husband slept soundly right through it each night – immediately into an almighty slumber the minute his head hit the pillow. Me? I had to take sleeping aids every night to even shut my eyes (I kept thinking a baboon was going to unzip the tent any minute and go loco on us). When we arrived, WiFi was down because “the monkeys ate the disc” – a normal type of occurrence here. Don’t even get me started about the the army ants that I got attacked by on our last night there (all I gotta say is watch where you walk at night). There are some minor mishaps one is bound to have when you are “one with nature” – but they make hell of a good story when you get home!
Note: Mara Plains closed down in January for a massive renovation and expansion and will re-open mid June as a whole new camp which will serve as Great Plains Conservation’s flagship property. During our stay, we watched the progress of a 3,700 square foot family unit being erected. By the looks of the photos on the website, it is completed and ready for lucky occupants – looking good!
When one door closes another opens: At the same moment that Mara Plains took down its last tent, Mara Toto – a new camp with 5 luxury tents – opened. No surprise that it looks incredible (Lorna and Richard are managing Mara Toto)!
After the departure from Mara Plains, we had several hours in Nairobi before our flight to the States. One of the best decisions we made, at the excellent advice of Uncharted Outposts, was to arrange a dayroom at the wonderful Ngong House where we could shower, relax and dine before an open fireplace before our long flight home. This lodge, whose accommodations comprise of six luxurious tree-houses (the epitomy of rustic chic) in addition to cottages and suites on 10 private acres, is located conveniently between the must-stop attractions of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Karen Blixen House (Out of Africa) and The Giraffe Center. Paul Verleysen, a Belgian ex-pat who opened the lodge, couldn’t have been a more accommodating host.