Kenya’s Masai Mara at breakfast time.
One of the pioneers of this concept, Jake Grieves-Cook, a former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board, says the conservancies have achieved three things: “They have added protected habitats right next to the reserve, so wildlife numbers have increased; they allow the Maasai landowners to derive real benefits for setting aside land for wildlife conservation; and they give a more rewarding safari experience to visitors, who can see wildlife without minibuses. ”
Another key factor is your guide. For my two days at Topi House I was guided by a famous Maasai man of the bush, Jackson Looseyia. Jackson says that bad guiding is also a major contributor to the overcrowding: “A good guide will plan the day to avoid the crowds, leaving earlier. He will move off a sighting when other vehicles arrive. He will encourage you to get away from the Big Five mentality: ‘Go and see the birds. Go and smell the flowers. ‘
I was there during what Jackson called the mini migration, the March-April movement of some 300, 000 zebra and wildebeest from the Loita Plains. It’s not nearly as dramatic as the major Serengeti migration, yet Rhino Ridge and Topi Plains and large parts of the Olare Orok Conservancy were covered in zebras.
My final stop was an area known as the Mara Triangle, in the north-east of the reserve and across the Mara river. This is a particularly beautiful part of the Mara – it was here that some of the most spectacular scenes in Out of Africa were filmed – and has the distinct advantage of being relatively free of minibuses. There were more vehicles than I’d seen in the private conservancies but no more than you’d expect to encounter in Botswana or Zimbabwe. The two main camps here, Governors’ and Kichwa Tembo, are well designed, with tents tucked away in thickly wooded enclaves so that you get a sense of privacy that is lacking in those massive lodges-cum-hotels in the east.
The final word on how to avoid the crowds came from Stefano Cheli, owner of the 16-bed Elephant Pepper Camp in the Mara North private conservancy. Cheli suggests that travellers should avoid August and September because it’s the most crowded and expensive time. The best months for viewing over the past six years have been October and November, “when there are fewer tourists, the grass is short [best for game viewing] and the migration is still on”.
***Lamu. A tiny, pretty little Arabic town on the island of Lamu; narrow carless streets in use by donkeys, traditional Muslim locals, neo-hippies and affluent adventurers. Adjacent to some great beaches. So laid back it’s almost horizontal.
Nairobi. Would be a pleasant, lively, walkable town if not for the criminal element – particularly after dark. A couple of good museums and the usual market, of course. You’d probably have to spend some time here anyway.
*Mombasa. Hot, humid and stretches onto Mombasa island, with a big history, a small attractive old town and a small, unattractive terrorist cell.
Walking and Hiking
Mount Kenya is a common target, as are the few walking wildlife parks (see under ‘Where to go. . ‘ Mt Elgon and Ngong Hills are also good, less frequented hiking areas.
Watersports: windsurfing, snorkelling, and scuba all have excellent, varied locations.
Game Fishing: Malindi and south of Mombasa.
Airsports: ballooning & microlight available. And by the way, don’t expect your balloon flight to be quiet! (the burner is bloody noisy).
White Water Rafting: Athi and Galana River.
Walking with Wildlife
Mount Kenya Park (alpine vegetation)
Lake Bogoria (hot springs and antelope)
Hell’s Gate (scenic gorge and plenty of wildlife)
All are accessible by public transport from Nairobi.