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Why a Kenyan safari should be on your 2016 bucket list

“Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”

This quote was written on a card next my bed the first night I arrived in the Masaai Mara. They are the first words of Out of Africa, a memoir by Danish writer, Karen Blixen, who ran a coffee plantation in Kenya in the early 1900s. Though the quote is dated, the sentiment still resonates. There is something about this place, the landscape and the purity of being in the middle of such surroundings that make you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere special; somewhere you belong.

Kenya has been at the top of my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. Through pictures and books like Out of Africa, I easily fell in love with the Mara knowing one day that the idealized image I’d created in my head would be shattered by reality. Somehow it wasn’t. For five days, I let myself get lost among the wildlife, the rugged landscape and the privileged few who get to experience this place – even if just briefly.

Despite my excitement, I’ll admit there was some hesitation. Since 2011, a number of attacks have terrorized Kenya – the most recent being in April 2015 at Garissa University, where 147 people were killed. Currently, the Canadian government has a number of travel advisories for Kenya, warning of everything from fraud and armed robbery to kidnapping and terrorism. It’s been deemed a country where you should “exercise a high degree of caution,” but the minute you arrive at the Mara, this is all but forgotten.

A zebra runs alongside a herd of wildebeests in the afternoon sun (photo: Simone Olivero). 

The Mara feels like it was plucked from a dream. Vast stretches of green, dotted with umbrella trees and tranquil little camps tucked away out of sight. When our plane first touches down on the savanna, I practically squeal when I spot a zebra out the window, only later realizing that these are one of the most common animals found in the Mara – an average of 200,000 graze throughout, depending on the season. But that doesn’t matter. Even after seeing more animals than I can name during my stay, that feeling of discovery never gets old or boring.

The animals

No doubt, the main reason people come to the Maasai Mara is for the animals. At an eighth of the size of the Serengeti, it offers a manageable space to explore and is home to all of the “Big Five” – including the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino – as well as a host of other African animals like giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, wildebeests, hyenas, warthogs, a variety of gazelles, crocodiles, hippos and 470 different species of birds. It’s like “The Lion King” come to life right before your eyes.

Three young male lions huddle under a bush during a light rain. (photo: Simone Olivero)

On the outset, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re on a well tread route where animals have been strategically placed for your viewing pleasure. But on day two, as our guide Newton tears off the gravel towards a grassy hill where we spot not one, but two highly endangered black rhinos, you know it’s for real.

We have similar encounters with lions, leopards and cheetahs, some of the most difficult animals to spot on the savannah. We witness a lioness’ failed attempt to pluck a zebra from a herd and the less fortunate plight of a baby topi who finds itself up a tree in the jaws of a leopard. When our jeep gets stuck in the mud one morning after a night of rain, a gathering of nearly 20 giraffes wander over to peer at us with curiosity. 

From our guides we learn about harems, why some animals are cast off during adolescence and the matriarchal society of the lion pride. It’s a better education than you could ever get from a book. We joke and sing songs like “The Circle of Life,” but a visit here has a surprising way of putting life into a new perspective.

The sunset over the savanna. (photo: Simone Olivero)

The camps

My first home in the Mara is Sand River, a secluded camp on the southeastern edge of the park, along the muddy river that borders Tanzania. Part of the Elewana hotel group, the camp was designed to look like the type of dwelling Blixen may have encountered in the 1920s. A luxury tent – that could hardly be called a tent – with raised wooden floors, multiple rooms and Old World touches like a canopy bed, brass-encased tub and a crystal bar set – complete with aged cognac. This is colonial Africa at it’s best. 

My bed shrouded in mosquito netting. (photo: Simone Olivero)

We are assigned two guards who walk us around the unfenced camp at night should we encounter a local – most likely a lion from the nearby pride – as well as a butler and room attendant. By day, we head out in the jeep to explore, returning at night to incredible three-course meals prepared by the highly skilled staff. While sleeping outside may seem rustic, this is easily one of the most luxurious accommodations I’ve ever stayed in.

Similar camps are found on the other side of the Mara in the more dense Mara Triangle where the Bataleur Camp becomes our second home. This side of the Mara is less secluded, with more jeeps and other tourists from Europe, South Africa and and the United States. Here, in close ties with the Masaai community, the animals are less fearsome and more accustomed to the jeeps, allowing you to get incredibly close. The staff welcomes us as if family and even throws me an impromptu belated birthday party – Masaai-style, complete with singing and warriors.

Fresh shrimp roll with roasted squash, stuffed tomato and quinoa salad. (photo: Simone Olivero)

Getting there and around

Located in the western corner of the country on the border of Tanzania, the Mara is most commonly reached via Nairobi or Mombasa. 

By car

Arriving by car is the most economical way to get to the park but the road can be slow and bumpy. Same goes for getting around the park once you arrived. That said, this is most scenic route and most camps are equipped with high powered jeeps that are built to stand up to the terrain – and give you an excuse to stop for a picnic. 

Stopping for lunch under an umbrella tree on a drive across the Mara. (photo: Simone Olivero)

By plane

If you’re moving large distances between camps you may want to consider flying. Scattered through out the park are a series of airstrips where small propeller planes land twice daily. 

These are the most common flight providers: 

Safarilink: Between Nairobi and the Mara
Air Kenya: Between Nairobi and the Mara
Mombasa Air Safari: Between the Mara and the coastal cities

While you’re there

While the safari is the real draw for most North Americans, another area worthy of exploring is the coastal region. 

Watamu beach. (photo: elicippi/Instagram)

From Mombasa to Malindi, there’s a vast stretch of white sand beaches along the Indian Ocean that are dotted with resorts, lagoons and coral reefs. With direct flights out from the Mara it’s the perfect place to get some sun and relax before heading back home. 

The writer was a guest of the Kenya Tourism Board. It did not review or approve the story.