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Sanctuary Olonana, Maasai Mara, Kenya
Photo by Hideaway Report editor

Maasai Mara: Exceptional New Tented Camps

February 2, 2014

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Kenya’s Most Celebrated Reserve

Maasai Warrior Spot Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve is overcrowded and poorly managed, but despite its well-publicized problems, it remains a place of breathtaking beauty with an astonishing concentration of wildlife. On my recent trip, during the transfer from the airstrip to camp, we saw a pride of lion, three cheetah and a herd of elephant. Only in the Mara!

The international border between Kenya and Tanzania, an arbitrary line drawn by colonial cartographers, is all that gives the 600 square miles of the Maasai Mara their separate identity. The reserve is really just the northern tip of the Serengeti ecosystem. Unlike much of the Serengeti, however, the Maasai Mara has a year-round supply of fresh water. The Mara River never runs dry, and the richness of the grazing supports a huge resident population of herbivores and the predators that feed on them, as well as attracting the Great Migration for its annual sojourn from August to October. Surveying the Mara from the top of the dramatic Siria Escarpment that defines its western boundary — a setting that devotees of the movie “Out of Africa” will recall as the place where the lions come to visit the grave of Denys Finch Hatton — it really can appear that the Ark has just opened its doors.

Surveying the Mara from the top of the dramatic Siria Escarpment, it really can appear that the Ark has just opened its doors.

This natural abundance, plus the reserve’s proximity to Nairobi — 45 minutes to the northeast by scheduled flight — attracts many thousands of visitors. The Mara is not a national park, and the land still belongs to the Maasai, with much of the reserve being under the control of the Narok County Council, an organization that is the bête noire of conservationists. Visitors pay an entry fee, and the council has long sought to maximize their numbers, and hence revenue, with reckless disregard for the environmental consequences.

Fortunately, the outlook is not entirely bleak. The western part of the reserve, the so-called "Mara Triangle," is ably managed by a nonprofit organization on behalf of a second Maasai council. The most encouraging development, however, has been the recent growth of “conservancies,” areas of land contiguous to the park that their Maasai owners have elected to devote to wildlife tourism. Combined, they are already nearly as extensive as the reserve itself. Conservancies can make responsible rules about the numbers of visitors, channel profits into schools and clinics, and administer a sensible compensation scheme for the owners of livestock killed by predators.

Mara Plains Camp

The 35,000-acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy lies on the northern boundary of the national reserve and contains just four small camps, with game-viewing reserved exclusively for their occupants. Located on the tangled banks of the Ntiakatek River, Mara Plains Camp is accessed by a pedestrian bridge. Although screened by trees and virtually invisible from most angles, it nonetheless commands a spellbinding view of the plains. A leopard lives nearby, and cheetah sometimes chase gazelles to within a few dozen yards of the camp boundary. Part of the Great Plains organization, co-founded by wildlife filmmakers and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Mara Plains reopened in June 2013 after a comprehensive redesign. The magnificent new property comprises just seven lavish tents and is similar to the group’s superb Zarafa Camp in Botswana, which I had the pleasure of reviewing in the February 2012 Hideaway Report.

Tents come with canopied canvas ceilings, king-size beds, wooden floors, brass accents, private verandas and spacious baths appointed with glamorous copper soaking tubs.

Both the tents and the public areas are set on a raised deck, which provides an element of security, as well as enhancing the view. A lounge contains a small library and is decorated with leather sofas, Oriental rugs and African artifacts. The atmospheric dining room is centered on a massive wooden table and is illuminated by oil lamps and a brass chandelier, with electric lighting provided by solar panels. Tents come with canopied canvas ceilings, king-size beds, wooden floors, brass accents, private verandas and spacious baths appointed with glamorous copper soaking tubs.

At Mara Plains, each day’s events are tailored to the preferences of the individual guests and to the wildlife-viewing opportunities. A location on a private conservancy means that the camp is exempt from reserve regulations, so, for example, night drives and bush walks are permitted. During my all-too-brief stay, the food was excellent, and the service, from the camp manager to my utterly delightful Maasai game scout, was charm personified.

AT A GLANCE

LIKE: Secluded location; magnificent view of the plains; spacious and stylish accommodations; exceptional game-viewing for big cats.

DISLIKE: The fact that I can’t be resident here for about six weeks a year.

GOOD TO KNOW: Aside from game-viewing on the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, it is possible to traverse the adjoining Mara North Conservancy, as well as to enter the national reserve.

Mara Plains Camp 96 Tented suite, $2,730 for two, all meals, house wines and game drives included.

Mara Toto Camp

In a similar location, just a few minutes’ drive away, Mara Toto Camp is under the same ownership, having opened in January 2013. (Toto means “baby” in Swahili.) With just five spacious and comfortable tents, it is more intimate but slightly less luxurious than Mara Plains. Mara Toto is calculated to appeal to experienced safari travelers who enjoy the ambience of a classic tented camp and close proximity to nature.

AT A GLANCE

LIKE: The intimacy of the camp and the sense of immersion in the wild (which is not for everyone); congenial management and staff.

DISLIKE: The tents are surrounded by trees and hence lack views.

GOOD TO KNOW: This is an extremely good place to see cheetah, which are endangered in much of Africa.

Mara Toto Camp 94 Tented suite, $1,710 for two, all meals, house wines and game drives included. TEL. (27) 21-434-5208.

Sanctuary Olonana

For the past 15 years, the Mara property that has found particular favor with Hideaway Report subscribers has been Sanctuary Olonana located on the banks of the Mara River just outside the northwestern boundary of the national reserve. The camp's 14 tents are set within a wooded enclave protected by an electric fence, which means that guests can move around without having to be accompanied by a ranger. Amenities include a swimming pool and a small spa. On a recent visit, I found that camp to be as comfortable and well-run as ever, and was pleased to learn of impending upgrades to the baths and the main public areas, both of which were starting to look a little dated. The only drawback to Sanctuary Olonana is its proximity to other properties, including &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, which can accommodate up to 80 guests. (Olonana's safari drivers generally head deep into the Mara Triangle in search of relative solitude.) Solitude Olonana may lack the romance of Mara Plains, but it remains a distinctly superior camp that is ideal for a first-time safari.

 Sneak Peek

This article appeared in The Hideaway Report, a monthly newsletters exclusively for members.

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