A passionate defence of the Masai Mara

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people who “know” Africa have told me they don’t do Kenya. “Too busy darling. Daphne told me at dinner it’s simply overrun these days.” As I smile and nod, secretly I think “Poor you.”

Yes, it’s true. You can buy a package holiday from Britain, Germany, and most probably Italy to Mombasa. Yes, there are lodges in certain national parks that are a touch “mass market”. So why do “all” these people keep coming to Kenya, even the experienced safari-goers, the ones who’ve done hundreds of luxury safaris? Because it’s utterly wonderful.

Sundowners on a Luxury Safari in the Masai Mara

Sundowners in the Masai Mara from Elephant Pepper Camp

If you’ve explored Kenya as much as we have, you know what to avoid, and where to go. East African beaches are glorious, a fraction of the price of the Caribbean, and wonderfully warm in October when the much of the rest of the world’s sandy shores are shivering under a monsoon. And safari: do all those people who say safari in the Masai Mara’s been “done” never stop to think why so many wildlife documentaries are filmed there, why people travel across the world to spend a few days there and why more than one wildlife expert would choose to do their very last safari there? Could it be because the game viewing’s some of the best in Africa? And let’s be realistic. The best in Africa really means the best in the world.

Wildebeest Migration in the Masai Mara

The Masai Mara (image thanks to the lovely people at Offbeat Mara)

I love Kenya. I adore the Mara. I’ve probably been on safari to 30 or 40 game reserves (and that’s not counting some of the privately-owned tiddlers that count themselves as a “reserve”) and I still adore the Masai Mara. If you think it’s busy, fair enough- head to the utter wilderness of a walking safari in Zambia, the exclusive privacy of Botswana or the remoteness of western Tanzania. But if you want to see the Masai Mara’s ravishing rolling landscape, and the vast volumes of game it at their best, steer clear of the wildebeest migration and the busy season, and go when the cognoscenti go. Pick June, pick January, or pack your raincoat and pick April, May or November. Who cares if you get a bit wet? You’ll have amazing photos with spectacular light under looming atmospheric rain clouds, and best of all, parts of the world’s finest game reserve to yourself. An April guest at Governor’s Camp (smack bang in one of the Masai Mara’s best game viewing areas) stayed with just nine other guests in a camp which has around 30 tents, and a staff to guest ratio of 3:1.

Game drive in the Masai Mara

A game drive from Offbeat Mara Camp (they’re not even paying me- they just have great photos and it really is this good!)

And that’s just the Mara. What about safari in Laikipia, Meru, the Matthews Mountains and Lake Turkana (bet Daphne from the dinner party didn’t go there)? So, for anyone who thinks Kenya’s overrun, that’s OK- I’ll keep her best bits for me.

Where to watch elephants

Ellies have a special place in my heart. You can keep your lazy lions, and boring buffaloes (though I’m sure anyone who’s been chased up a tree by an angry dugga boy would say they’re far from boring), it’s a sighting of an elephant that makes my safari.

Walking Safari with Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ellies have by far and away the most character in the animal kingdom, though I make an honourable exception for monkeys – anyone who’s ever had the sugar swiped from their morning coffee, or a triple-zipped tent miraculously burgled, can’t fail to admire their cunning. Back to elephants though. Watch an ellie for ten minutes, and we’d challenge anyone not to start anthropomorphising. I’ve seen them wipe their eyes when they’re tired, and stayed in camps where elephants drank from the outside shower. I mean, why would you bother going all of the way to the lake to drink when the water was suddenly on, and right there? In spite of their huge size, an elephant will tread delicately to avoid the smallest, most irritating stone, and frankly, when the hustle of the wildebeest migration‘s around, you’re unlikely to see too many elephants- why hang about with all of the noise going on?

Best of all, elephant memories are indeed long, and it’s not unusual for an ellie to recognise a familiar face from years ago. While safari guides tell the occasional tall tale (especially when a beautiful girl’s involved) I know at least one straight-talking bush lover who has sat in a vehicle and watched, astonished, as an elephant came racing forward, plunging straight into the vehicle with her trunk. Instead of attacking she felt gently round with her trunk to greet the guide, and returned minutes later, gently nudging her young calf forwards to meet a familar friend.

Have I won you over yet? Ooooh, I do hope so! I once planned a safari for an elephant lover, and if I could do so again, these would be my top picks:

Elephants Crossing the Zambezi, near Chongwe, Zambia

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania & Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
These two glorious parks are both dominated by their rivers, and a late afternoon boat safari is one of the great joys of a visit here. More particularly, the chance to witness elephants crossing the river. Several years ago, on a Tanzanian safari, I watched a family crossing the Rufiji River in the Selous. First came the naughty teenagers- rushing forwards to fill their trunks with water and spraying each other. Then, the nervous babies holding their trunks high to keep breathing. Finally, the mummies, hustling everyone forwards with their trunks and keeping the whole show on the road.

The Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

This comes with a serious warning. If you’ve never fallen in love, this could be your moment. The young elephants here have all been tragically orphaned, many by poaching, and all have heart-rending stories. We can add a day in Nairobi into any Kenyan safari, and at 11 each morning you can visit for an hour, watching the ellies as they come out for their morning play. Our top tip? We’d seriously consider fostering an elephant. Not only are you helping to support these tiny, brave little fellows, but also, sponsors are often given the chance to visit again in the afternoon, without all of the other tourists.

Walking with Elephants on a luxury safari in Botswana

Stanley’s Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s fair to say that a safari in Botswana doesn’t come cheap, but the chance to walk hand in trunk with an elephant as he goes about his day? Well, as MasterCard might say, priceless. As an added extra to a stay at Stanley’s (if you talk to me, I’ll tell you it’s mandatory), you can spend a morning wandering through the bush -or having lunch- with orphans Jabu, Thembi, and Morula, and their adoptive human parents, Doug and Sandi.

Still not sold? Try reading the autobiography of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who’s devoted much of her life to elephants.

The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls

Swimming in the Devil's Pool, Victoria Falls, Zambia

Sadly, we can’t be in Africa all of the time. Well, we could, but the Extraordinary Africa dog is probably a little too small to take on a lion, though he’d like to think he could.  When we’re in the UK, we’re keen swimmers- in fact, Alex, our founder, has an ongoing project to swim down the Thames. So needless to say, this article (hiding behind the paywall sadly) from the Sunday Times, caught our interest right away.

But we were sad to see a gaping omission in their list- one of the world’s greatest swimming pools, which re-opened this week: The Devil’s Pool, right on the edge of Zambia’s Victoria Falls. This is not for the faint-hearted, and only opens each year when the water’s low enough – when it’s high, the flow’s powerful enough to sweep an elephant right over the falls.  You need to be a strong swimmer- this is definitely on the adventurous end of the spectrum, but it’s as close to Victoria Falls as you’re likely to get!

When is the Devil’s Pool open?

Usually late August/September until Mid-January.

How do I get to the Devil’s Pool?

Take a boat out to Livingstone Island, and follow your guide carefully across the rocks, and he’ll show you exactly where to jump in.  We can book this for you, but as it depends so much on the water levels it’s usually best to book with your lodge when you’re there.

A recipe for a perfect sundowner

  1. A view. Essential, but can be adapted to what you have available. You need a beautiful spot, with something to watch that’ll stir your soul- a hundred acres of wilderness teeming with wildlife, a fire to stare into, a waterhole that turns scarlet as the sun goes down, or (given that you can’t be in Africa all the time) a bench in a quiet corner of the park.
  2. Company. Not to talk to, mind you. Just someone who’ll sit there peacefully beside you, perhaps point out the odd thing to look at, and who’ll quietly appreciate that all is good with the world.
  3. A drink. Ours is usually a G & T, or, at a push, an ice-cold Tusker, but being British, we’ll allow that the soothing properties of a cup of tea at the end of a long day are really quite miraculous.

Timing is crucial, it’s vital to ensure you take a moment for this at the end of each day. Combine all three, sit back and enjoy!

Our top sundowner spots?

Five of the best safari honeymoons

Every time we go back to Africa, we get swept up in the romance of going on safari. There’s just something so impossibly lovely about being out in the wilderness- magnificent animals, incredible starscapes, and sunsets to die for. Safari is a perfect adventure to start your lives together, and having been on a fair few, we’ve picked a handful of our favourite safari honeymoon spots.