A seasoned safari man, David Marek, sees his old stomping grounds in a fresh, new light. Read the article here and in the current issue of QUEST magazine.
I had been to the Masai Mara in Kenya many times in the past. The sheer number of animals one can see during the migration is always astounding. For those that have been to other parts of Africa on safari, it seems that first trip to the Mara is like experiencing safari for the first time. All the films and photography on The Great Migration just do not do it justice. Still and sadly, with the great herds of animals come the great hordes of vehicles. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes—ranging from the minibus that picked up its complement of foreign tourists that morning, now sticking their iPads out the window to take a photo of a cheetah surrounded by 12 or more trucks, to the classic safari vehicle with its safari clients armed with their Nikon and Canon cameras and zoom lenses. Getting a shot of a cheetah or lion or a “crossing” is not a problem. Getting a shot without a multitude of vehicles in the frame is another story.
In search of the more private safari experience, I swore off going back to the Mara until somehow it changed. That change started in 2006 when 277 Maasai landholders brokered a deal with area conservationists to create the Olare Orok Conservancy bordering the Masai Mara Reserve. This conservancy model has since become the blueprint for sustainability of the great Masai Mara eco-system. Later the Olare Orok Conservancy expanded to include the Motorogi area and the conservancy changed its name to the Olare Motorogi Conservancy. Mara North Conservancy, Naibiosho Conservancy and other conservancies were developed on this same model and now the Greater Masai Mara eco-system spans an area almost twice its original size.
These conservancies have created a rebirth of the Masai Mara, in a sense. Through the removal of homesteads to peripheral areas, reducing domestic livestock herd size, and by utilizing rotational grazing practices, the area has rebounded and contains one of the highest cat densities in all of Africa. It was an amazing turnaround… or so I was told. But seeing is believing, so off I went with my bride in tow.
Our itinerary for this trip had us staying four nights with Great Plains Conservation, founded by Derek Joubert, a former award-winning wildlife documentary filmmaker. At last count, he has 22 films and 10 wildlife books. His wife Beverly is an award-winning photographer, with many of her images appearing in National Geographic magazine. Together, they have created innovative community/conservation partnerships, starting in Botswana and now spread across Africa. My wife Gana and I stayed at the Zarafa property in Botswana two years ago and we absolutely loved it. So their properties in the Mara, Mara Toto and Mara Plains, seemed like a nice fit. Add to that the fact that Mara Plains was just rebuilt and we would be the first clients in the new camp…the decision was a cinch.
Getting to the Mara from Nairobi is easy. To our particular area, utilizing the Old Kiombo Airstrip, it is a one-hour Safarilink flight. From the airstrip, it is a 30-minute drive to Mara Toto. That is, if you don’t stop to do any game viewing. Ever curious, we stopped often. The annual migration was just entering our area, so we were fortunate to be able to drive along the leading edge as it made its way west to the Mara River. The “migration” is very fluid, generally traveling clockwise as it enters Kenya from Tanzania, but once inside Kenya it will change course and head in any direction it believes to hold the promise of fresh grazing.
Arriving at Mara Toto we were met by property manager Kim, who is Kenyan by birth, and introduced to our Maasai guide Daniel. We were shown around the camp which is situated on a bend of the Ntiakitiak River. The tents themselves, if you can call them that, are exceptional. The floors are made of railway ties, polished to a wonderfully smooth finish. The furnishings give you the feeling you are on a safari from the 19th-century, complete with bucket showers and views of wildebeests on the Masai Mara. The flush toilets and Wi-Fi connections brought us back to our 21st-century reality. Everything at Mara Toto runs to perfection—the meals are splendid, the service is timely and the staff is genuine.
One of the truly unique features of all Great Plains properties is they provide each tent with either a Canon 50d or Canon 7d camera body along with a Canon 100–400mm lens and a wide-angle lens. They also provide a flash card, and every evening they will download your images to a CD to take home. In addition to the camera, Mara Plains’ co-manager Lorna is a professional photographer and easily offers first time users instructions on how to take the best images.
Activities at Mara Toto and Mara Plains include morning and evening game drives. I chose to leave early from camp and take a packed breakfast, greeting the animals with the first morning light, a prime time for some of the best photography of the day. We would generally stop around 10 in the morning to set up breakfast, looking over a river or on top of a hill with sweeping views. It seemed Daniel always picked an ideal spot for breakfast.
Other activities from Mara Toto and Mara Plains include early morning balloon flights over the Mara, wildlife walks with co-manager Richard, a visit to a remote Maasai village and a visit to a local school supported by Great Plains. Game viewing in the conservancy was, bar none, the best I have ever experienced. In the four days split between Mara Toto and Mara Plains, I saw lion kills, cheetah kills and leopard kills … and yes, they were all plural. Then, one day, we heard the wildebeest were about to cross the Mara River; so, we drove there to witness thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing the river. Of course, the crocodiles were there as well. A word of caution about river crossings: Although they are unbelievably interesting and unique, I could not get away from the sense of urgency and panic in the animals as they were getting up the courage to cross. At one point, 50 or so wildebeest crossed only to discover that their young were still on the far side of the river. All 50 promptly came back across the river to be reunited with their families. After once again going through their courage-building exercise, they crossed to the other side. It’s a remarkable event, but not for the faint of heart. Witnessing one crossing was enough for Gana and me.
After two days at Mara Toto, we transferred half a mile to Mara Plains. To access the camp, you park your vehicle on one side of the river and walk across a foot bridge to the camp. Lorna met us with a cold towel and refreshing glass of passion-fruit juice. Once again, we were blown away by the camp’s thoughtfully curated decor. Railroad ties (Lorna called them “sleepers”), lined the main tent area as well as the seven guest tents. Guest tents, again, have that wonderful campaign furniture; however, these tents are large—about 1,500 square feet of living space. Another upgrade at Mara Plains is the free-flowing water that has replaced the bucket shower. You have the choice of a shower or a beautiful copper bath tub to luxuriate in. Gana chose the copper tub. The family suite at Mara Plains consists of two full-size tents set close together joined by an extra-large deck.
Meals are served either in the main dining area or outside under the stars, our personal favorite. On our last night at Mara Plains, Gana and I returned from the game drive to find that dinner would be served on our private deck; obviously someone had informed them that we recently had an anniversary. What a great touch with the moon coming up over the horizon, wildebeest on the plains in front of us and hippo enjoying the pools on the river behind us.
During our stay at Mara Toto and Mara Plains, wildlife was all around us, day and night. On one afternoon, we decided to stay in camp to lounge and relax while watching the wildebeest in front of us. As we watched, we saw four cheetahs appear to the right and make their way through the herd toward our left. Then, one of the cats kicks it into another gear and flashes after its prey. The attempt failed to produce a meal, but it was exciting to witness the chase from the comfort of our private deck, while sipping an adult beverage.
One of the great things about Olare Motorogi and Mara North Conservancies is you don’t have to visit during the migration to see great predator activity. The predators are always here, as are the resident herds of antelope. The Marsh Pride, as seen on Big Cat Diaries, is only 45 minutes from the Mara Toto and Mara Plains camps. In fact, on our way to the river crossing we saw the Big Cat Diaries crew having lunch on Paradise Plains. In addition to the Great Migration, which starts in July, there is a smaller, local migration from the north called the Loita Migration, which appears in the area during the green season that runs April through June.
The rebirth of the Masai Mara is happening. And it started when like-minded conservationists teamed with local Maasai landowners desiring a way to preserve their lands. This hit home for me on my final morning. We drove along the river looking for a leopard mother and cub and within 30 minutes found them. I spent the better part of two hours with the pair as the cub climbed over, under and around its mother. Our vehicle was the only vehicle there. Within the Masai Mara proper, this sighting would have had a dozens of jeeps, vans and trucks surrounding it. But here in Olare Motorogi Conservancy, we had it all to ourselves.
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