On a mission in the Masai Mara
Australian brothers are a driving force behind Richard Branson’s new luxury camp in Kenya
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