East Lothian Courier

Safari saviour of Masai Mara

Having celebrated its 10th anniversar­y last year, Mahali Mzuri is continuing to improve the lives of its local community, endangered species and wildlife-loving guests. By Sarah Marshall

- Pic: VLE/PA

KIDS, cubs, kittens or calves, no matter the species, small creatures love splashing through puddles. Jumping energetica­lly between pools of rainwater, tiny lions from the Hamerkop pride have turned the Masai Mara’s soggy grasslands into an aquapark.

Close by, their sleepy-eyed mothers lie in a huddle, only stirring when a majestic male strides over and drenches everyone with a shake of his mane.

After several years of worrying drought, Kenya has been hit by a deluge of heavy rains, a consequenc­e of this year’s El Nino phenomenon.

A challenge for drivers navigating the black cotton soil roads, which turn into a sticky goo when wet, it’s transforme­d the landscape into a Pantone palette of olive, emerald and avocado greens. The lions are having a fantastic time, proving rain doesn’t always stop play.

Although numbers of the big cats have fallen dramatical­ly by an alarming 90% in the last century, prides in the Masai Mara’s conservanc­ies are booming.

“We’ve seen a huge growth in lion population­s,” explains John Kaleo, head guide at the Mahali Mzuri camp in the Olare Motorogi conservanc­y, one of several community-owned conservati­on areas neighbouri­ng the Masai

Mara National Reserve. One theory for the explosion in numbers is improved protection and a preservati­on of wilderness areas. It’s also a result of human encroachme­nt, pushing animals into a smaller space.

Launched in 2005, the conservanc­y idea evolved when Maasai landowners banded together to lease their land to tourism partners, providing a more intimate and exclusive experience

for guests, while simultaneo­usly directly benefittin­g communitie­s financiall­y.

The concept gained global mainstream attention in 2013 when Virgin entreprene­ur Richard Branson built his futuristic, ultramoder­n camp Mahali Mzuri (meaning ‘beautiful place’ in Swahili) on the slopes of a granitestr­ewn valley in Olare Motorogi (named after the area’s abundance of salty water and Egyptian geese). He was drawn to the project after visiting Nairobi in 2007 and hearing about the importance of the area as an important migration route for wildebeest moving between Tanzania’s Serengeti and the Mara.

A decade on, I’ve come to see what’s changed in the area and take a look at the impact the camp has made.

From the very beginning, Branson wanted to employ local staff and many of the original team – including John – still work at the luxurious camp that forms part of the Virgin Limited Edition portfolio. During our drive back to camp, John entertains us with tales of Branson’s escapades.

“He loves lions,” says the accomplish­ed guide, swerving

along muddy roads as clouds in the sky part like curtains to reveal patches of silky blue. “No matter what time of day, he wants to jump in a vehicle and look for them.”

Back at the camp, it’s easy to understand why Branson fell in love with the location. Twelve vaulted canvas suites reminiscen­t of Bedouin marquees horseshoe along the ridge of a deep valley spliced by a stream and covered in a cascade of hippos, wildebeest and buffalo-hunting lions.

Branson later tells me over the phone: “The camp has a front-row view of the wild and roaming game of the Great Migration – it’s such a spectacle. You wake up to wildlife wandering past your tent and you have the same view for lunch.”

Next year, the Mahali Mzuri will be renovated with additions including hot tubs on private decks and an interior redesign. The completion of a solar farm will provide 100% of the camp’s energy, while a larger garden aims to supply the kitchen with fresh vegetables and herbs.

Aside from the view, the spa and infinity pool, it’s the hospitalit­y of the staff that’s responsibl­e for so many repeat bookings. Head waiter Bob Miinta has been with the

company since the very beginning, starting as an askari (night security guard).

“This place has been really good for us. It’s given the community employment and salaries,” he says, when I join him for a coffee in the camp’s brightly coloured lounge area, decorated with Maasai beadwork.

He says the opportunit­y to grow and the camaraderi­e of staff is what’s kept him loyal to the company.

It’s a similar story for Betty Maite, one of the first female guides in the Mara. When she started, few other women were on the plains and she admits dealing with the prejudice of other male guides was challengin­g.

“Sometimes I’d cry, but then I’d gain courage and tell myself that one day I’ll be better than them,” says the 38-year-old mother of two young children. Having mastered driving – one of the biggest challenges in this difficult terrain where off-roading is allowed – she is looking forward to walking safaris, to be introduced to Mahali Mzuri next year.

At the Maa Trust, which Mahali financiall­y supports, we learn about projects to introduce family

planning, provide better healthcare for pregnant women and get more girls into education. On a visit to a local manyatta (Maasai homestead) on the fringes of Olare Motorogi, I meet Soloman, a cattle herder and student studying wildlife management at the Mara’s new Pardamat College, and an example of a new generation of Maasai with a passion for conservati­on.

We also participat­e in a tree planting project – part of Kenya’s promise to plant 15 billion trees in the next 10 years. It’s a grand ambition, but a lot can be achieved in a decade. Mahali Mzuri’s own success is testimony to that very fact.

 ?? ?? A sunset game drive at Mahali Mzuri and, inset, a lion cub playing in the Olare Motorogi conservanc­y
Main pic: VLE/PA, inset pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
A sunset game drive at Mahali Mzuri and, inset, a lion cub playing in the Olare Motorogi conservanc­y Main pic: VLE/PA, inset pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
 ?? ?? A zebra with her new-born foal near the Mahali Mzuri camp Pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
A zebra with her new-born foal near the Mahali Mzuri camp Pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
 ?? ?? Maasai dancers performing in a manyatta on the fringes of the Mara’s Olare Motorogi conservanc­y Pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
Maasai dancers performing in a manyatta on the fringes of the Mara’s Olare Motorogi conservanc­y Pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
 ?? ?? Sarah planting a tree in the grounds of a school supported by Mahali Mzuri Pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
Sarah planting a tree in the grounds of a school supported by Mahali Mzuri Pic: Sarah Marshall/pa
 ?? Pic: VLE/PA ?? A family tent at Mahali Mzuri
Pic: VLE/PA A family tent at Mahali Mzuri
 ?? ?? Betty Maite, one of the Mara’s first female guides
Betty Maite, one of the Mara’s first female guides

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