Broadly speaking, my recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania elicited two contrasting reactions. Some people questioned my sanity and furthermore suggested that I was being irresponsible in ignoring the government’s advice not to travel. But another group insisted that encouraging fully vaccinated people to reengage with the world was commendable and that helping to revive East Africa’s tourism industry, as well as restart the flow of money into wildlife conservation, was a highly desirable objective.
At the time of writing, the State Department’s website is still uncompromising about the risks of travel to Africa. And given the dearth of vaccines, the situation for the local inhabitants, especially for those living in crowded cities like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, remains fraught. But the countries are open to American visitors, and despite some restrictions, it is feasible to move around without difficulty. Originally, I was motivated by the fact that the entry requirements for Kenya and Tanzania did not seem particularly onerous. And I felt that the threat from COVID-19 would be minimal on a safari spent outdoors in sparsely populated places. Also, I wanted to take the opportunity to revisit popular destinations like the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti and to experience them as they had been before the advent of mass tourism. I went to Kenya and Tanzania for the first time 40 years ago, and that’s when I fell in love with the wildlife areas of Africa. Back then, I saw only a handful of other vehicles in the Mara, while on the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti I had the 2 million animals of the Great Migration virtually to myself. And because few Americans and virtually no Europeans are traveling, these are experiences that, at least for a while, can be replicated.
Equipped with a negative COVID test and a QR code from the Kenyan authorities that would allow me to enter the country, I boarded a Kenya Airways nonstop flight from New York. Fourteen hours later I was in Nairobi, where the airport was surprisingly busy. Happily, the immigration formalities took only about 30 minutes longer than normal, and soon I was being transferred to the domestic Wilson Airport 12 miles away.
Nairobi, the principal gateway for East African safaris, is nowadays a chaotic and disagreeable city. Four decades ago, it had some 900,000 inhabitants, but this number has since risen to 4.4 million. (In the same period, the population of Kenya has more than tripled from 16 million to 53 million.) At the beginning of the 1980s, Nairobi was a place chiefly of low-rise buildings, while many of its streets were lined by scarlet flame trees. Every morning, Land Rovers would pull up outside the venerable Norfolk Hotel, the lobby of which was full of suntanned khaki-clad men waiting for their safari clients. Today, the prevailing style of architecture is high-rise concrete; and the highways are customarily gridlocked — as was Mombasa Road on the morning of my arrival. Hemmed in by unmoving trucks, I vowed that on a future trip I would fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport in northern Tanzania instead, which is served by KLM from Amsterdam and Qatar Airways from Doha.
Eventually, we arrived at Wilson Airport, which is also chaotic, but in a delightfully atmospheric way, with literally hundreds of light aircraft parked haphazardly on its cracked and weathered aprons. There, we boarded a 12-seat Cessna Caravan, operated by the local airline Safarilink. As soon as we were airborne, skimming over the giraffe in Nairobi National Park, I experienced the rush of exhilaration that I always feel when setting out on safari.
An hour later we landed on a narrow dirt strip a 15-minute drive from Ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills, a range of volcanic peaks in southeastern Kenya that extends for 60 miles along the country’s border with Tanzania. A vast grassy plain that stretched to the north was empty aside from scattered acacia trees, a sprinkling of antelopes, a dark-green open-sided Land Cruiser and James, my Maasai safari guide. Floating serenely above the horizon, some 40 miles distant, was the stupendous snowcapped cone of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Ol Donyo is not a new camp, but it is one I have long intended to visit. Built in 1987 by well-known conservationist Richard Bonham, it was converted into a luxury property in 2008 by its current owners, Great Plains Conservation. Rather than proceeding directly to check-in, however, James suggested a preliminary game drive, and no more than 10 minutes later we were watching a male cheetah attempting to sneak up on an unsuspecting group of impala.
The terrain around Ol Donyo is particularly interesting because as well as windblown grasslands, it has pockets of thick bush and forested hillsides. As the land is relatively dry, it cannot support large herds of buffaloes or wildebeests like the well-watered Maasai Mara, but it does sustain a wide variety of species and abundant birdlife. Lion sightings are frequent but cannot be guaranteed, and the highlight of many game drives is an encounter with the unusually large elephant for which the region is renowned. A resident male, affectionately known as One-Ton, sports prodigious tusks, each weighing around 175 pounds.
Game drives, walking safaris and horseback-riding excursions from Ol Donyo all take place on a private concession within the 430-square-mile Mbirikani Group Ranch, a tract of land owned by Maasai pastoralists, parts of which they have set aside for conservation and wildlife tourism. (The ranch abuts Amboseli, Tsavo West and Chyulu Hills national parks.) The Maasai receive a percentage of the revenue from each guest at Ol Donyo, and the lodge provides employment. In addition, they benefit from the work of the Big Life Foundation, a partner organization that was co-founded by Bonham, American entrepreneur Tom Hill and photographer Nick Brandt.
Constructed from volcanic stone and thatch, Ol Donyo Lodge extends along a forested ridge that affords a hypnotizing view of Kilimanjaro. (The sky was clear during our entire stay, but usually the mountain is visible for only two or three days a week; during the seasonal rains in April/May and November, it is obscured by clouds.) On arrival, we were escorted to an open-sided lounge with a stone floor, tan leather armchairs and sofas, patterned rugs and outsize black-and-white photographs. The design of the public areas is traditional, and their atmosphere is private and calm. From the terrace, a small group of elephant could be seen standing impassively next to an artificial water hole.
Ol Donyo’s six spacious cottages and one two-bedroom family suite all have a Kilimanjaro view and are likewise decorated in a classic safari style with dark wood furniture, polished floors and king-size beds swathed in mosquito netting. The accommodations are not air-conditioned — one entire wall is screened — which means that they can be rather warm in the afternoon, despite being shielded from direct sun by an overhanging roof. At night, fans provided sufficient ventilation. There are no phones, but the Wi-Fi works well. Our huge bath provided a walk-in shower area, a soaking tub (which took an eternity to fill) and an outdoor shower on a small separate deck. From the bath, large glass doors opened onto a private terrace with a plunge pool and two sun loungers. Steps led up to a platform where a sky bed can be erected for those who wish to sleep beneath the stars. Overall, the cottages at Ol Donyo are atmospheric, peaceful and extremely comfortable. They are not as overtly luxurious or technologically sophisticated as the suites at the various Singita properties — with which many members will be familiar — but they are attractive, well-maintained and possess a distinctive character.
One of the consistent pleasures of Ol Donyo is the food. Our first lunch was served outside beneath an umbrella next to the main swimming pool. There, we were presented with a colorful array of dishes that included turkey skewers accompanied by a spicy satay sauce; kidney bean cakes with harissa; sweet potato wedges with feta and black currants; okra salad with sun-dried tomato, preserved lemon and an infusion of star anise; and a green leaf salad with roasted pumpkin seeds. These were followed by a plum galette with strawberry ice cream. Accompanied by a bottle of chilled white wine, it was a perfect menu for a hot day. Meals at Ol Donyo are served in a variety of venues, and that evening we enjoyed a private dinner in the lodge’s candlelit wine room.
Morning and evening game drives are, of course, the principal activities — these are taken aboard comfortable Land Cruisers with leather-trimmed bucket seats — but Ol Donyo offers a wide range of experiences. These include strenuous hikes to lava tubes in the Chyulu Hills, visits to local communities and riding excursions suitable for all levels of equestrian ability. For the adventurous, it is even possible to run or mountain bike on the plains, accompanied by Maasai bodyguards!
Maybe it was the glorious weather and the soul-stirring views of Kilimanjaro, or perhaps it was having the private concession and its wildlife virtually to ourselves, but our days at Ol Donyo were intensely enjoyable and will live long in the memory.
Exceptionally comfortable and spacious accommodations; delicious food; charming staff; the range of activities; the lack of other camps and lodges nearby; the glorious view of Kilimanjaro.
Although the area has abundant wildlife (including lions), big cat sightings are not guaranteed.
The hottest month is March; the best wildlife sightings are said to be in October.
Having returned to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, we walked directly across to another Cessna Caravan for the 50-minute flight down to the Maasai Mara. A 580-square-mile reserve in southwest Kenya, contiguous with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the Mara is justifiably famous for its year-round profusion of wildlife, the abundance of big cats (including an estimated 900 lions) and the tumultuous crossings of the Mara River each August and September by thousands of wildebeests during the Kenyan phase of the Great Migration. In recent times, the Mara has also acquired a less enviable reputation as a kind of East African Venice, being sensationally beautiful, badly managed and disastrously overcrowded.
For many years, the Mara lodge favored by Andrew Harper members has been Sanctuary Olonana. Set amid forested grounds, it extends along a high bank overlooking the rapids of the Mara River, where resident pods of hippos provide an evocative soundtrack. In its previous incarnation, Olonana offered spacious tented accommodations with a mostly traditional green and khaki décor. In response to changing tastes, these have now been replaced by 14 glass-sided air-conditioned suites, each of at least 1,400 square feet. (In addition, there is the lavish two-bedroom Geoffrey Kent Suite, which comes with a dining room, private chef, its own swimming pool and a dedicated vehicle and safari guide.) The reinvented lodge, which bears little resemblance to its predecessor, opened in 2018.
From the nearest airstrip, it is around a 30-minute drive to Olonana. At the entrance, we were greeted effusively by the manager and his staff, who led us along a path through the forest to our air-conditioned suite. This proved to be far more opulent than I had anticipated, with a large bedroom, a lower-level lounge area with a semicircular sofa overlooking the river and an enormous bath with a walk-in shower area, a freestanding oval tub and twin rectangular sinks set in marble. Glass doors opened directly onto a private terrace with a screened two-person daybed. The color scheme was a neutral one, chiefly of gray and cream, augmented by expanses of pale wood and honey-colored stone.
In appearance and atmosphere, the suite seemed to belong at a lavish resort, and despite one or two Maasai-inspired decorative motifs, it seemed to lack a sense of place. It was chiefly the Mara River visible through the windows that served to remind me that I was still on safari. Although it was impossible not to admire the sophistication of the new design, I found myself slightly nostalgic for Olonana’s former identity. However, despite a personal preference for more-traditional surroundings, and a more direct connection to nature, I am fully aware that many Harper members will feel differently. What is beyond dispute is that Olonana now offers peerlessly comfortable and luxurious accommodations. I have little doubt that the lodge’s popularity will continue.
The secluded location overlooking the Mara River and its hippos; the friendly and highly competent management and staff.
The new design is extremely opulent, but to some it will seem to lack a sense of place.
Children are welcome at Sanctuary Olonana — at many places they are not — and the lodge offers special guides and activities, plus a children’s menu.
The next stop on our itinerary, Angama Mara, turned out to be an easy 35-minute drive from Olonana, both properties being located close to the western boundary of the reserve. Despite their proximity, the two lodges could scarcely be more different. Olonana’s personality stems from its riverside position and a feeling of intimacy engendered by the surrounding forest. Angama Mara, on the other hand, is perched 1,000 feet above the Mara plains atop the Siria Escarpment with an astounding view that extends for 20 or 30 miles to the northern edge of the Serengeti. (It is a view that will be familiar to anyone who can recall the concluding scenes of the movie “Out of Africa.”) The name “Angama Mara” is a Maasai phrase that is generally translated as “suspended in midair.”
Angama was the brainchild of Nicky and Steve Fitzgerald, who for 15 years presided over Conservation Corporation Africa, a distinguished company that was later renamed and is now part of the well-known &Beyond brand. Together, they played a leading role in the development of the modern luxury safari. Apparently, the couple had long identified the escarpment as a near-perfect site for a lodge but had been unable to persuade the owner of the land to grant them a lease. However, one day the phone rang with an offer and the Fitzgeralds gleefully signed up. Leading South African safari lodge architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, were engaged and Angama Mara opened in June 2015.
The approach to Angama is through woodland, and little prepares arriving guests for the impact of the view from the lodge’s sweeping terrace. The panorama is stupendous. Vast green savannas, adorned with dark stripes of forest that follow the meandering course of the Mara River, extend to a hazy horizon, while far below it is possible to make out groups of elephant that, from this elevation, appear to be little more than children’s toys scattered across an expanse of lawn.
Angama comprises two separate camps, each of which has 15 tented suites, plus its own dining room, bar and library. An imaginative shared central complex includes a horizon pool, a glass-fronted gym, a photography workshop, a map room, a boutique and a Maasai design studio. Having been welcomed by the ebullient management team, we were escorted to our suite. Behind a red-brick exterior wall, we found a large canvas structure with a 36-foot-wide glass front that opened onto a private terrace. Before unpacking, we sat outside on rocking chairs gazing in rapture at the emerald landscape below.
The interior of the 1,075-square-foot suite was open-plan, with a king-size bed, a sofa, two sinks set into white marble and a soaking tub concealed by an elaborate screen that was clearly intended to resemble a Maasai shield. A large walk-in shower was hidden behind an interior wall. Rush matting covered the polished wooden floors, and a long writing desk was equipped with an impressive array of sockets. An iPad provided details of amenities and services. The decorative scheme of the suite reflected the brilliant colors, chiefly scarlet, of Maasai clothing and jewelry. Grace notes included a selection of books about East Africa, complimentary decanters of gin and whiskey, Italian glassware, Maasai plaid throw blankets, Africology toiletries and a pair of Nikon binoculars. At an elevation of 6,100 feet, air-conditioning was superfluous, and ceiling fans provided sufficient ventilation.
During our stay, the food was consistently imaginative and attractively presented, with many of the ingredients coming from the lodge’s own 1-acre shamba, or kitchen garden. Guests can enjoy a private lunch there, after picking their own fruit and greens for salad, while accompanied by a gardener. And barbecue dinners are served regularly in a nearby forest glade, illuminated by candles and hurricane lanterns. Angama Mara is a one-of-a-kind property that reflects the Fitzgeralds’ many years of experience. (Sadly, Steve Fitzgerald passed away in October 2017.)
The Maasai Mara is divided into two principal areas, the National Reserve and the Mara Triangle. (All the land still belongs to the local Maasai, which explains why the Mara is not a national park.) In addition, there are a number of conservancies that are private lands that the Maasai owners have chosen to set aside for wildlife tourism and lease to specific companies. (This is the same arrangement as the one at Ol Donyo, and indeed Great Plains Conservation has a Harper-recommended sister property, Mara Plains Camp on the Olare Motorogi Conservancy.) Most of the lodges in the Mara are in the National Reserve, and it is there that the worst of the overcrowding occurs, especially in the high season from July to September, which is the European holiday season and the time of the wildebeest migration. Both Olonana and Angama Mara take their guests on game drives in the 197-square-mile Mara Triangle, which is managed by a not-for-profit organization, the Mara Conservancy. Separated from the National Reserve by the Mara River, the Triangle is less crowded for much of the year.
It took around half an hour for our Land Cruiser to descend from Angama Mara to the plains, which lie at an elevation of approximately 5,150 feet. Along the way, we saw large numbers of giraffe and zebras, as well as a solitary hippo wallowing in what appeared to be his own private pond. The primary purpose of our drive was to inspect the site beside the Mara River that has been allocated to the new Angama Safari Camp, a sole-use tented camp for up to eight people. (By the time this article is published, it should be in situ.) Moses, our driver-guide, was in no hurry, so we stopped to watch a herd of around 30 elephant, members of which approached peaceably to within 30 feet of our vehicle. A couple of spotted hyenas ambled past. It was a typical afternoon in the Mara, with hundreds of grazing antelopes and buffaloes dotted across the lush grass.
In normal times, we would likely have encountered more than three dozen vehicles. But in the first two hours of our game drive, we saw just three. The years fell away, and I vividly recalled my first visit to the Mara 40 years ago. Without the crowds, nothing appeared to have changed. That this magical experience was only made possible by the pandemic is, of course, problematic. But for the duration of a glorious sun-drenched afternoon, my decision to return to East Africa seemed to have been entirely vindicated.
The stupendous view over the Maasai Mara; the exceptionally imaginative design; the seductive tented suites; the consistently delightful staff.
The expense; having to leave.
The new Angama Safari Camp beside the river will provide a wonderful contrast to the main camps high on the Siria Escarpment.