NATHAN FONG tackles the great outdoors — in five-star comfort.
I WAS NOT QUITE SURE WHAT TO THINK when told cheerfully but in a serious tone, “The hotel is a very famous and beautiful city landmark… secured and safe, as all the windows facing the t main street are bullet proof.” I’ve visited many a city with hectic traffic and congestion, from Shanghai to Istanbul, but with its past political conflicts and terrorist attacks, I did feel uncertain landing in Nairobi at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and navigating through the chaotic, circulating traffic. But my discomfort quickly dissolved as our driver pulled into the secured driveway of the colonial-era c Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel, built in 1904 as a luxury haven h for early settlers seeking to escape the harsh conditions of Kenya’s K Maasai Mara, coastline and Great Rift Valley.
…We welcomed the shade of the massive canopy of acacia trees…
Built in i a signature i Tudor style, adorned with red clay roof tiles, The Norfolk sits amid some four acres of tropical landscaped grounds and poolside gardens. Newly renovated, this elegant oasis would be the launch point for our safari tours of Kenya’s remarkable national game reserves.
Following a much needed slumber after crossing 10 time zones, we headed out at sunrise to avoid the midday heat and flew out on a small twin-prop aircraft towards the heart of the Maasai Mara, the large Kenyan game reserve that is contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in neighbouring Tanzania. Flying over this vast landscape of varied terrain, from cavernous valleys to lush grasslands, we enjoyed magnificent views of migrating herds of wildebeests, giraffes and hypnotic striped zebras. Taking in these breathtaking views I imagined the initial horizons Karen Blixen must have viewed a century ago when she wrote her autobiographical epic, Out of Africa.
Landing on the grassy Ngerende airstrip in the middle of the Mara, a mud-thatched hut welcomed us to the wild environment and our first safari in this renowned reserve. I had previously experienced the Greater Kruger National Park with its South African colonial charm, luxurious camps, superb wines and traditional cocktail-laden ‘sundowners,’ but this was the first safari for my photographer husband. Like a kid in a candy store, he was eager to experience the wild animal kingdom that he had heard so much about. We were amused by the low tech of the ‘airstrip’ when a couple of adolescent boys went running down the strip with long white bannerflags to clear the pathway of birds for the solo plane takeoff. We were certainly in the heart of isolated grasslands… and the infinite horizon of wild animals.
Greeted by our very knowledgeable driver, it took us literally minutes to cover a short distance before stopping to capture shots of monkeys, warthogs, hippos and evil-looking hyenas. In the glaring heat-wave of the noon sun (and it’s their winter!), we welcomed the shade of the massive canopy of acacia trees marking the entrance to the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, an epitome of tented luxury. Surrounded on three sides by the Mara River, this unique setting houses a Main Lodge inspired by
Maasai tribal villages and 50 superbly furnished canvas tents with elegant draped mosquito netting, four-poster, pillow-top beds and verandas overlooking the hippo- and crocodile-filled river. You’re truly in nature’s wild when you’re woken up in the night by various animal sounds, including the enthusiastic hippos, a mere jaunt down the river bank below our terrace!
Located in the south-west region of Kenya, The Maasai Mara National Reserve is considered one of the Seven “New” Wonders of the World. It is one of the world’s richest wildlife reserves and home to an array of animals, from the “Big Five” (African elephant, Black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, African lion and African leopard), which we were very fortunate to see in a mere two days, to the other marvels of this vast savannah.
At early dawn, pre-sunrise, we set out on safari in the camp’s six passenger vehicles. In African mid-winter, the morning was relatively comfortable as we captured the tail-end migration of herds, mainly wildebeests and zebras, heading from Tanzania’s Serengeti plains to the grasslands of the Maasai Mara. Some two million wildebeests and other grazers make this the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world. The animals trek north after the rainy season, around May and June, and migrate in an enormous loop every year, heading back south in October and November. Even though I’ve been on an African safari previously, it was exhilarating to see the excitement of my fellow passengers and my husband’s amazement as we trekked through grassy landscapes, muddy creek beds and along paths of bush trampled by elephants, trying to catch sight of the area’s wild inhabitants. It got the adrenaline going as we ticked off the birds and animals on our list!
A cornucopian assortment of dishes awaited our arrival at the main lodge, located at the centre of the camp, when we returned exhausted after our early start. An array of international dishes arranged under the vaulted wooden beam ceiling was enhanced with local dishes influenced by traditional homesteads — from mishkaki, (small skewers of marinated local game meat barbecued over an open boma firepit) and ugali (a staple thick maize meal porridge), to hearty stews of goat, and vegetarian dishes like the fragrant maharagwe, made with dried beans, onions and tomatoes.
One of our most memorable experiences was the nightly presentation of tribal chorus and dance by the tall Maasai tribesmen, dressed in their traditional togastyle robes, who entertain guests with traditional chanting and rhythmic throat singing, accompanied with adumu, or “jumping dance.” This ritual style of competitive jumping by male warriors up and down in a narrow straight posture during the polyphonic singing is considered masculine and appealing to the opposite sex.
After enjoying this elegant tent camp, we flew south, crossing the border to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Serengeti in Tanzania and the luxurious Four Seasons Resort in the heart of this massive ecosystem. Opened just six years ago, this spectacular 77-room hotel is perched on a rocky highland overlooking endless grasslands and watering holes. The magnificent terraced rooms and private pool villas are designed for complete privacy with elevated walkways connecting them to the main lodge, keeping guests safe above the animals while providing a spectacular viewing platform.
On our first day, while resting on our spacious balcony, I was woken by splashing sounds coming from a large waterhole in front of our vaulted suite. Literally 100 feet away a herd of elephants were drinking and cooling themselves under the hot sun. We were fascinated observing their hierarchy and the dominance of the matriarch as she took charge of the group, including the adorable babies and a couple of adolescents flirting with each other. We were mesmerized as the herd started to head off towards the savannah horizon in an orderly fashion, and amused by the matriarch as she headed back to break up the couple still in a youthful tryst. During our stay we also saw groups of zebras and baboons coming to hydrate and slake their thirst in the arid heat.
The Tanzanian game drives were just as captivating as the ones in Maasai Mara, but more restricted as
vehicles are kept on the rough dirt roads, unlike the more relaxed off-road venturing in Kenya. As we returned each day from our Serengeti treks, the humorous doormen would ask “How did you like your African massage?” referring to the sometimes bumpy rides!
The stylish restaurants at The Four Seasons Serengeti Resort have exceptional views at every turn, from the sweeping plains and watering holes at the pristine main infinity pool’s Maji Bar and Terrace Restaurant to the dramatic and unique seating around the circular open fire pit at the Boma Grill, which features traditional and contemporary cuisines.
The Four Seasons is an exceptionally well designed resort, offering all the comforts and amenities in the heart of the wilderness. We were well educated at the property’s impressive Discovery Centre, where we learned the natural and cultural history of the surrounding heritage site.
After our long, tiring and dusty game drives, it was at the resort’s tranquil spa that we got to rehydrate, restore and re-energize for the next day’s exciting quests. Secluded and reach by the elevated walkway, the spa features a variety of Serengeti-inspired treatments tapping the benefits of local plants, minerals and healing rituals from the local nomadic tribes.
It was the perfect place to reflect on two magnificent countries, two spectacular safari resorts, each so different but with the same focus, ensuring comfort for their guests, many that have travelled from afar to venture into the heart of one of the world’s most treasured regions.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISESpa Treatment FROM TOP LEFT Bungalows, Four Seasons Serengeti; Game drive pride of lions; Game drive under Acacia trees; Cooking at The Fairmont Mara Safari Club; A pair of African Crowned Cranes; A zeal of zebras; Resting lions; Breakfast table; African ostrich; Yawning hippo; A tower of giraffes; Main lobby, Four Seasons Serengeti.