I looked over to Andy – a look of excitement and sheer terror stared back at me, reflecting my own. Our guide had just spotted a pride of sleeping lions and was driving straight towards them. Had we just got into the car with a madman?? He stops an arms width away as I began to brace for attack. I slowly open my eyes to see – they hadn’t moved an inch. We clearly have nothing to worry about, our knowledgeable guide knows exactly what he’s doing and at this time of the day, under the scorching Kenyan sun, these lions are only interested in napping.
We’ve been here all of 30 minutes at this point, having landed at a nearby airstrip and been picked up in our own Toyota Land Cruiser. We drive on slightly and after a quick check with the binoculars we’re told this is a safe place to get out for our champagne reception. As we sip our proffered bubbles we do our best to take in the slightly surreal situation we’ve found ourselves in. ‘Feel at home, away from home’ we’re told as we’re fitted with our ‘tracking devices’ – a beaded Masai bracelet and without doubt the chicest all-inclusive band I’ve had the pleasure of wearing.
To call Mahali Mzuri a camp is like calling St Paul’s a church. Sure, our room has canvas sides that can be left open to the elements (all the better for wildlife spotting) but that’s where the similarities end. Constructed on a wooden deck, with all the mod cons, we’d gladly trade our pad in East London for this ‘tent’.
Polished wooden floors are laid with rugs, the brown leather sofa beckons with its plump patterned cushions and the bathroom seriously outdoes itself with twin sinks, a rainfall shower and roll top bath. Moving out onto our huge private deck, there’s another sofa and sun loungers where we’re able to sunbathe, stargaze or animal spot. We find waffle robes, slippers, insect repellent and sunscreen in the wardrobe.
Yet despite the luxury, Mahali Mzuri manages to be sympathetic to its surroundings, discreetly set on a ridge above a wide valley that creates a natural amphitheatre for game viewing. We find the mini bar has been stocked with our favourite wine, including one which supports women in the nearby village – and I jump in the tub. I look up from the Masai rubber duck bobbing about (making a mental note to take him home) to clock Dumbo lazily making his way towards us.
We gratefully leave the grubby clothes we’ve been travelling in behind which we’re promised will be whisked away and washed, free of charge. They apologetically let us know that they don’t offer dry-cleaning yet but thankfully I’ve left the Prada at home. As delicious as the rooms are, it’s time for the afternoon drive.
Offered twice daily, each vehicle holds a maximum of 6 passengers (although the most we ever share with is a honeymooning couple). As we’re located in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, there aren’t any roads to stick too and the maximum number of vehicles allowed at any animal spotting is five – although it’s often just us. Having already spotted nearly everything we wanted to see on the drive over (elephants, giraffes hippos, ostrich, zebra buffalo, warthogs, lions) we can’t imagine what will top it. Sure enough, we end up chasing a coalition of cheetahs, who in turn are chasing a pack of gazelles. This time the gazelles get away but the thrill of the chase leaves us exhilarated. As if to make up for the lack of closure, the sky turns every shade of the rainbow as we speed back to camp for dinner.
We begin our evening in the impressively stocked bar, where staff will knock you up a cocktail but you’re equally welcome to help yourself to anything that takes your fancy.
I challenge Andy and Bob (our waiter during our stay) to make me a safari-inspired cocktail. Bob wins with flying colours, treating me to his take on a Dawa (a traditional Kenyan cocktail with lime, honey, vodka and Cointreau muddled with a wooden stick). Moving through to the candle lit dining room we start with freshly made bread to accompany perfectly seasoned soup, before devouring steak cooked just as we requested and finishing with a decadent dessert.
As someone who writes about food for a living, it’s rare, if ever that my next meal is far from my mind. Luckily I needn’t worry here as despite being in a truly remote location, the food does not stop. A brand new menu appears each lunch and dinner, providing ample choice – which is a blessing as there’s not another restaurant for as far as the eye can see.
Local rangers walk us back to base to ensure we’re not eaten by a lurking Lion en route. We find the clothes we’d excitedly half unpacked have been buttoned and folded and put in place, hot water bottles hidden away under the covers. In fact every time we return to our room the place has been spruced up, without us ever seeing the wondrous housekeeping team.
We drift off to the sounds of the bush and before we know it a tentative knock at our door alerts us that it’s 5.45am. Pre-game pastries & hot drinks await us, as do hot water bottles and blankets in the truck. After another heartwarming drive (this time a leopard mama playing with her cub) we return to a continental breakfast with the addition of a full cooked breakfast (for me) and pancakes (for him).
Finding ourselves with a bit of downtime we venture down to the spa to get pummelled and pulled in all directions. I’m pretty sure I hear someone snoring but he soon wakes up for the champagne we’ve been left to enjoy on the private deck after our treatments. We while away the rest of the afternoon around the infinity pool where a fully stocked fridge keeps our thirst at bay and towels, sun cream and aloe vera are provided.
The often muttered phrase ‘nothing was too much trouble’ isn’t quite accurate – here, service is taken one step further. The team actually anticipate what we’d like before we’ve even had the thought ourselves. Case in point – as we’re making our way down to the spa I spot Bob setting up a private table for two on the deck by the pool, complete with our favourite South African wine we’ve been drinking and a bottle of bubbly. ‘Ahh, how sweet’ I think to myself, someone is going to propose. We later find out that’s where we’re having lunch and neither of us has had to request it. We see how far we can push things and request a herd of elephants alongside our three courses – sure enough, it happens. We did look for the remote control but couldn’t find one. If Bob is trying to get us to stay forever, it’s working.
We gather in the main tent for afternoon tea and compare sightings with our fellow campers before heading out once again. It appears those sleepy lions have woken up because we witness them devouring a poor zebra. Never did I think I’d see the intestines of a zebra, but each day comes with a new surprise at Mahali Mzuri. With such an abundance of wildlife, we’ve quickly moved on from being delighted to spot the ‘Big 5’ to wanting to see them in action.
A few minutes pass before we hear the familiar sound off a cork popping (each truck has a fully stocked cool box).
After witnessing such a gruesome feast we vow to eat the vegetarian option tonight. However that promise is quickly forgotten as we gather around the campfire and smell the aroma of tonight’s BBQ. A mixture of East African traditional dishes as well as steak, ribs, pork belly, prawn kebabs, breads and curries. We’re pulled to our feet for a rousing game of who can jump the highest (er, not me) singing and dancing. We find ourselves still singing Jambo, Jambo Bwana (Hello, Hello Sir), long after we’ve left camp.
Before we know it our stay is over. I choke back tears as we leave, (no, I wasn’t thinking of the bill – we’d been reviewing the experience for Mr & Mrs Smith hotels and besides, the experience had been worth every penny) no, it was that every single member of staff had come to wave us off. We miss you Bob! Indeed I only managed to cheer up as we got to the airstrip – the sight of a man on his motorcycle chasing off zebras from the runway in order for our plane to land is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
Next stop – Watamu Treehouse.
Need to Know
You can fly to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with either British Airways or Kenya Airways. We chose the latter as it was an overnight flight, arriving early in the morning (5am) so we could maximise our time at camp. From here you’ll need to drive across town to Nairobi Wilson to catch an internal flight to a nearby airstrip. We can highly recommend Cheli & Peacock for the transfer who were incredibly professional (we paid $100). As we had time, our driver stopped at a hotel for us to have breakfast before our next flight. We’d been told so many times that the traffic in Nairobi was terrible so had given ourselves plenty of time and it meant we did have a while to wait. If there is space they will put you on an earlier flight though, which is good to know. It’s a tiny airport but has a good café and lovely staff! We’d booked flights with Air Kenya to the nearest airstrip which is Mara-Olare Orok – due to rain we couldn’t stop there so they just flew us somewhere else and told our hotel. It was literally the least stressful experience you could imagine – so remember if it happens to you, just go with the flow. Jambo! X
Rates include all of the delicious food, drink and game drives.