On a mis­sion in the Ma­sai Mara

Aus­tralian broth­ers are a driv­ing force be­hind Richard Bran­son’s new lux­ury camp in Kenya

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Adventure - ADAM MCCUL­LOCH

OF all the strange things I ex­pect to hear in Kenya’s Ma­sai Mara, ‘‘G’day’’ is not one of them. I have trav­elled thou­sands of kilo­me­tres, been ever so rudely awo­ken by guf­faw­ing hip­pos and de­layed by lions on the land­ing strip, but the Aussie salu­ta­tion still takes me by sur­prise.

Tarn Breed­veld jumps from a Land Rover at the edge of the mid­dle-ofnowhere airstrip wear­ing a well-loved kan­ga­roo-skin Akubra and in­tro­duces him­self as the gen­eral man­ager of the Vir­gin Limited Edi­tion prop­erty Ma­hali Mzuri, my lux­ury tented digs for the next few days. Even given the Aus­tralian pen­chant for far- flung travel, Kenya is a long way from Tarn’s home town of Winchelsea, Vic­to­ria.

‘‘How did you end up here?’’ I ask as we pre­pare for the game drive to camp (here ev­ery drive is a game drive).

‘‘Be­cause of my brother,’’ he says. ‘‘You’ll meet him at camp.’’

As we fol­low Tarn’s ve­hi­cle through a stand of whis­tle-thorn aca­cias, my Ma­sai guide, Dixon, tells of the chee­tah kill he re­cently wit­nessed. With hushed at­ten­tive­ness we weave through a herd of still-ner­vous gazelles and into a ravine, the trees bear­ing re­cent signs of ele­phant van­dal­ism. On the es­carp­ment, our camp has com­mand­ing views over the same ravine and we spy a herd of ele­phants weav­ing a leisurely trail of de­struc­tion be­low.

At re­cep­tion — a ca­sual open-air af­fair — Tarn’s younger brother Liam, in a match­ing Akubra, greets me with the same easy wel­come. As op­er­a­tions man­ager he’s in charge of run­ning the camp, but I’m the re­sort’s first guest and the chef is yet to ar­rive, so Liam is also stand­ing in as cook.

In a style be­fit­ting Richard Bran­son’s flair for drama, the ac­com­mo­da­tion is not so much tent-style as some­thing re­sem­bling space-age gaze­bos. Ev­ery lux­ury has been con­sid­ered, from claw- foot bath­tubs to WiFi, cham­pagne and hot-wa­ter bot­tles.

I join the broth­ers for lunch at an el­e­gantly set ta­ble on the deck, where I learn how they went from shar­ing a pa­per round as kids to set­ting up Ma­hali Mzuri. Tarn fin­ished up with de­grees in en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment and an­thro­pol­ogy from Melbourne’s La Trobe Univer­sity.

Liam took the op­po­site ca­reer path. ‘‘I had grand as­pi­ra­tions of be­ing a doc­tor,’’ he says, set­ting down a bowl of salad plucked from the re­sort’s gar­den. ‘‘When I was 14 I started cook­ing in a mate’s restau­rant to earn a bit of pocket money. I was head chef be­fore I fin­ished high school and be­tween trade school and high school and cook­ing, I never re­ally made it to univer­sity.’’

Drinks in hand, we stroll along the board­walk con­nect­ing the pub­lic ar­eas. A con­ver­sa­tion pit cen­tred around an open fire over­looks the fer­tile val­ley and fur­ther on, there’s a hori­zon pool, and a tented lounge room with tele­scope and espresso ma­chine, on which Liam crafts the per­fect Mel­bournestyle latte. Hos­pi­tal­ity comes easy to this af­fa­ble Aussie: he worked in some of Lon­don’s top restau­rants be­fore be­ing lured to Necker Is­land in the Caribbean. Not only is Necker Is­land one of Vir­gin Limited Edi­tion’s flag­ship properties, it’s the Bran­son fam­ily home, so Liam was firmly in the in­ner cir­cle. When Bran­son started talk­ing about do­ing some­thing in Kenya, Liam speed-di­alled his brother.

Nine years ago, the pair was man­ag­ing a night­club on Hamil­ton Is­land when Tarn dropped ev­ery­thing to join an anti-poach­ing out­fit in Tan­za­nia. He’s been liv­ing in a tent since. The years seem to have leached any fear from him. ‘‘One night a big male lion started roar­ing just out­side my tent,’’ he says. ‘‘I could feel the vi­bra­tions in my chest. It wasn’t scary. It was beau­ti­ful.’’

The light is fad­ing and in th­ese parts that means game drive time. I catch up with Dixon to search for lions. In the dark­en­ing gloom two pairs of eyes watch our ev­ery move. I swing the spot­light to­wards them and dis­cover two men tend­ing cat­tle in the shad­ows. Ma­hali Mzuri is not in a national park: rather it sits out­side the Mara, on the Mo­torogi con­ser­vancy, which along with a few sim­i­lar pri­vate con­ser­van­cies adds 63,000ha of pro­tected land to the Ma­sai Mara (roughly 50 per cent of its area again).

As dusk de­scends over the sa­vanna, we ar­rive at a blaz­ing bon­fire to find Tarn and Liam tend­ing a makeshift bar be­neath the aca­cias. Sun­down­ers are a tra­di­tion on sa­fari, and twi­light only en­hances the thrill of al­fresco cock­tail hour. (Ex­ag­ger­at­ing the amount of game that you have spot­ted is an­other tra­di­tion.) While the 25 — OK, maybe 17 — gi­raffes don’t go un­men­tioned, our con­ver­sa­tion soon re­turns to the camp. Bran­son’s mis­sion is fo­cused on con­ser­va­tion: not just of an­i­mals but of lo­cal cul­ture.

‘‘It took a lot of time sit­ting un­der the aca­cia tree with the Ma­sai and re­ally nut­ting it out,’’ says Tarn, as hye­nas lope in the shad­ows and the sun dips be­low the hori­zon, turn­ing the sky a car­niv­o­rous red. The par­ties agreed that pro­tect­ing the im­me­di­ate re­sort area would be use­less if the sur­round­ing land was sold for char­coal pro­duc­tion. To Bran­son (and Tarn) it was im­por­tant to make sure the lo­cal com­mu­nity was a gen­uine stake­holder, so rather than buy­ing the land, the con­ser­van­cies pay an­nual rent of 200 mil­lion Kenyan shillings (about $2.5m) to the Ma­sai, which is dis­trib­uted to more than 1550 fam­i­lies. There’s also a new bore, school and pro­gram to im­prove the qual­ity of the cat­tle.

‘‘We now have ac­cess to lo­cally pro­duced prime beef,’’says Tarn, though this has ap­par­ently been the source of cross-cul­tural amuse­ment. Liam then ex­plains that to the Ma­sai, the most prized cuts of meat are the gristly bits that take the long­est to chew. ‘‘Ten­der cuts like the rump are not sought af­ter be­cause you only en­joy it for three chews and it’s gone,’’ he says.

The com­mu­nity has been very sup­port­ive — some­times lit­er­ally. ‘‘We were due to in­stall the kitchen and the truck driv­ers were stuck 30km away,’’ re­calls Liam. ‘‘Ten Ma­sai walked out to the stranded truck, put ev­ery­thing on their heads and brought it back across three swollen rivers.’’

The pro­ject is a gar­gan­tuan ef­fort for just 12 tents, but the re­wards ap­pear well worth it. Bran­son may have a knight­hood, but in th­ese parts he’s been awarded a far higher, and rarer, hon­our. It turns out that he’s an hon­orary Ma­sai el­der, fol­low­ing a cer­e­mony in 2007. The Breed­veld broth­ers can’t be far be­hind. Adam McCul­loch was a guest of Mi­cato Sa­faris.


Ma­hali Mzuri’s ‘‘tents’’ re­sem­ble space-age gaze­bos; broth­ers Tarn (left) and Liam Breed­veld

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