Elephants of Maasai Mara

Travel Story: Travelling with Atelier Africa Safaris


Southwestern Kenya, on the border with Tanzania and with the Kilimanjaro as snow-covered supreme god,
is a wonderful backdrop for those who love safaris with a multitude of animals – especially during the
migration period, the largest animal relocation in the world – and want to combine this seamlessly with a
final beach vacation. Jambo!

Bush & Beach in Kenya

Hello, Sir! Karibu, welcome! There are regular days, and there are Nairobi days. Early this morning we landed in a typical African twilight at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, where the Boeing Dreamliner of Kenya Airways fully condensed due to the temperature difference. Now we are thundering over a highway that is unworthy of that name in the direction of Nairobi Wilson, the city airport, from where a small aircraft will take us to Kichwa Tembo airstrip. The traffic is bad, as it is everywhere in Central Africa. Motorcycles, decrepit buses, overloaded trucks, jeeps, dogs, and thousands of people along the road…

For every centimeter they are fighting and honking. But with the motto that good cars like ours are only driven by good drivers, we ignore the chaos and count on the sweet man in the front who goes into battle with both hands on the wheel. The domestic airport of the Kenyan capital Nairobi is an organised chaos. Aircraft are parked so close to each other that you think it’s a joke. It’s not. Somehow we checked in on time and then take a seat in a neat Cessna Grand Caravan. The aircraft leaves perfectly on time and an hour later, after a large exploratory turn skimming over giraffes, drops us off with a kiss landing in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We see one off-road vehicle, one driver and twenty zebras. Good morning everybody!

Cessna in Kenya

Blending into the landscape

The Maasai Mara is a nature reserve in southwestern Kenya. It is 1700 square kilometres in size and it borders the Serengeti plain. The big attraction for safari lovers is the massive seasonal migration of the wildebeest and zebras. “Within the park there is an extensive network of unpaved roads that can be driven by all types of cars in the dry season,” explains driver and guide Richard, en route to our home for the next three days: the charming Kilima Camp. “But in the rainy season the roads are difficult even for an SUV. Fortunately, tourism is limited in this period.”

Although it is already late in the morning, we notice the cold. Not suprisingly, as Mare is at an altitude of 1500 to 2100 metres. After a first introduction to the lodge and a lunch under the patio, we set off. The landscape consists mainly of grassy plains with occasional acacias and river forest. “Two important rivers flow through the park,” Richard explains. “The Talek and the Mara.” The latter in particular is famous for migration. Most rain falls in the northern part of the park and that also means that the density of game varies considerably from time to time.”

Maasai as a police

Short-sighted luxury aficionados will snub at Kilima Camp. Who would sleep in a tent? Except when the tent is sixty square meters in size and is equipped with a rain shower. Genius in its simplicity. Call it ‘staying in Out of Africa style’. Moreover: what a view! The panorama from the terrace of our luxury tent is breathtaking. We overlook the savannah for miles, the Mara river shines in the sun. Nothing is as delicious as breakfast in the morning chill of the jungle, with hot coffee in high jugs and a freshly lit campfire as a comrade.

Remarkable is the presence of the Maasai (also written as Masaï or Massai) that appear everywhere as trained bodyguards. Sweet, but ubiquitous. Maasai is the name given to a largely nomadic people in East Africa, mainly living in Kenya and Tanzania. The total population of the Maasai is estimated at 900,000, half of that in Kenya. Exact data is not available since there are no accurate censuses taking place, but above all: they do not have national borders. Livestock is essential for the Maasai. They eat the meat, drink the blood and the milk, and use the skins for houses. And from the bones they produce tools and combs.

The Maasai succeeded, despite the growing modern civilization, to preserve their age-old traditions. For various reasons, however, this traditional way of life is under strong pressure nowadays. For example, the government of Kenya wants to take parts of their pasture for cattle to join national parks like Serengeti and Masai Mara. “A few dozen Maasai are indirectly involved in this village,” the lodge manager explains. “It secures our past and gives us a fair future. Moreover, we appreciate that they are actively involved in tourism.”

All critters

We spend the next three days on true safari work, the main reason for the trip. Goal: to see a part of the migration. That means: touring, stopping a lot, observing. Safari therefore means ‘journey’ in Swahili. We get ourselves into slow mode and try to live to the rhythm of the jungle. Do not worry about what you would like to see, but be happy with what you get served. Nesting in the silence. As Karen Blixen – the Danish author of ‘Out of Africa’ who spent years in Kenya and ran a plantation – once wrote: “…For me, visiting a park is like being in an Earthly Paradise… The air of the African highlands rose to my head like wine, I was slightly drunk all the time, and the joy of that period was indescribable…”We drive along the border of the Serengeti, probably the most famous park in Tanzania.

The name is derived from Siringet, a Maasai word that literally means ‘endless plains’. It is a region of savannas and forest landscapes, spread over northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. The total surface area is 30,000 square kilometres, of which 80 percent are located in Tanzania. Around 1.6 million herbivores and thousands of predators live in the area. But the region is best known for migration. Almost two million wildebeest, gazelles and zebras migrate from the Serengeti Park to Maasai Mara in Kenya every year. And back. It is and remains one of the most spectacular animal migrations on the planet. To do so, they have to cross the Mara River, and that’s guaranteed to be a spectacle. For the crocodiles, it’s an unmissable annual party.

Kenya Great Trek

Flirting with crocs

The Great Trek of the grazers of the Serengeti National Park is, to put it prosaically, walking in rounds for a year. From late spring, the animals head north from the south of the Serengeti in search of fresh grazing lands and water. A few months later, they all move back south, again to the grassy plains of the southern Serengeti, where it is basically green again by November, depending on rainfall. We miss out on the first day, and on the second. Are we just too early in the season? Or are we in the wrong places? Richard starts to worry, he wants to be able to show us a crossing, his pride as a guide and tracer is at stake. But in the morning of our last day we hit the jackpot. As if it was an agreed signal, we are witnessing a herd of zebras suddenly wading through the river, among hungry crocodiles. That often produces dramatic images and wesee it happen right in front of us.

About five crocodiles, each in turn, strike, but miss. “Zebras stomp dangerously with their hind legs, because that’s what the crocodiles try to grab,” Richard explains. “And that often helps.” The herd reaches the other side without shedded blood. Phew! Though, the crocodiles are likely not very happy. What an experience, a wonder of the world at our feet. Richard steers our Toyota back onto the rugged, unpaved road to the lodge. He is satisfied, the goal has been achieved. In the afternoon we settle on the terrace with some reading material. While the sun dives towards the horizon and the gas lamps are lit in the camp, we take a shower. Afterwards, we join the other guests in the boma for a big fire, all travelers who still intensively enjoy the unique decor. A nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon appears in the wine glasses. In the distance rumbles a first thunderstorm.

Crossing zebras

To the Elephants

We start the new day with a small ritual in front of the shaving mirror. When the legendary explorer Henry Morton Stanley wandered through the dark jungle of eastern Congo – beset by diseases, wild beasts and hostile tribes – the man had the discipline to shave every morning. If necessary, with cold water and a dull knife. He survived the expedition, while eighty percent of his men died. Safe and sound – thank God – we departed early in the morning from Kilima, flew on to Amboseli airstrip, and are now driving on a freshly sand road – short rain showers are pure poetry in Africa – to Tawi Lodge.

The Toyota lives up to its 4×4 reputation. This lodge is of a completely different order: no tents, but thirteen cottages, a large swimming pool in the middle overlooking the Kilimanjaro and an encapsulated bar under the largest tree. We are welcomed by lodge manager Peter. “Be careful with the monkeys,” he says. “Before you know it they are inside.” In the evening we toast around the campfire with the other guests. For some, the journey is over, we are halfway there. Peter discreetly entertains the international company at the long table with a great deal of humor and a strong hint of irony.

The pure savannah

Amboseli National Park is a conservation area with an area of 392 square kilometres, located in the Kenyan district of Kajiado. The Kilimanjaro lies forty kilometres south of the park, just across the border with Tanzania. The mountain watches, oversees and follows you wherever you go. Amboseli is the most popular national park in Kenya after Maasai Mara, which is why it also has a small airport, which makes a smooth combination of both possible. The Maasai have been living in the park area for thousands of years. They called it the Empusel region, which means “salty, dusty area.”

In 1883, the British geologist and explorer Joseph Thompson was the first European to visit the area. In his reports he described the great biodiversity and the great contrast of the dry area and the fertile swamps. In 1906 the area was designated by the Germans as a reserve for the Maasai. In 1948 it came under the control of the British colonial government and became a… hunting reserve, called Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve. The area was classified in 1974 as a national park managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service. At the end of 2005, the Kenyan president stated that from now on the park would be managed by the Maasai in collaboration with the district administration. Since then peace has reigned.

“Short rain showers are pure poetry in Africa.”

Living in the shade

“The park is part of an ecosystem of savannas and marshes, which covers an area of about 8,000 square kilometers and extends beyond the border with Tanzania,” the young guide/driver Ron explains to us the following morning. “There are two of the five main marshes of this eco-region in the park, which are largely irrigated by water from the Kilimanjaro. As a result, the park has a relatively large biodiversity in an area where there is little rainfall. There is also a dried-up lake from the Pleistocene in the park.” It soon becomes clear to us that living in the shadow of the mighty Kilimanjaro is both hard and wonderful. The marshes in the park are visited by a large number of animal species. But the park is famous as the best place to see wild savanna elephants, and they clearly claim their place. “You always have to watch out with elephants,” smiles Ron. “The population is actually bursting at the seams and that creates tensions.”

Kilimanjaro in the clouds

Indian ocean as a shower

After days of lots of dust and elephants in various scents and sizes, the ocean beckons. A final flight takes us to Diani Ukunda and from there it is another half hour by car to the ultimate place to wash off the dust of the savannah. Belgian citizen Frederik Vanderhoeven opened his dream house ten years ago on the Indian Ocean, in Kwale on the southernmost tip of Kenya, a stone’s throw from the border post with Tanzania. Msambweni Beach House, a white building in Lamu style, in other words: a marriage between Swahili-look and Arabic architecture. A beach house on a twelve-meter-high chalk cliff, but also a home away from home, with only three oversized rooms, three detached villas (all with private swimming pools) and one Ocean Suite, Robinson Crusoë genre. It soon became a popular place for no-nonsense value seekers to end a safari.

The almost thirty employees (dressed in white djellaba’s and sandals) make the guests happy, we immediately learn. For example, we eat whenever and wherever we want. Time does not apply here. We get cosy around the central XL infinity swimming pool, drink bitter Kenyan coffee and eat fresh mangoes and paper-thin pizzas baked in the wood-burning oven. It feels like a Moroccan riad, but a bit more southerly. Our snow-white room is very sexy and spacious. Mosquito nets, a spacious terrace and ceiling fans give the whole a colonial atmosphere, the vintage wooden furniture does the rest. On the advice of other guests, we order a massage in the beach cabin and enjoy the luxury.

We contemplate: this is rural Africa, authentic, sometimes a bit slow and sloppy, with a nod to Belgian cuisine and so many square metres that other hotels would turn the same into ten rooms. It is not surprising that this accommodation is popular, just like the entire region where it is located. Because what did the former top man of the sportswear brand Puma buy as a country retreat? A mountain in Kenya with 500 hectares of land. “The wild paradise,” he called it. Who contradicts him?