Like many hopeless romantics I fell in love with the notion of safari after watching the 1985 movie Out of Africa. Who wasn’t moved to rush out and buy some khakis and a pith helmet after watching a young Robert Redford wash Meryl Streep’s safari-frazzled hair, smack in the middle of the Kenyan bush?
Part of the romance of that movie was the era of course, and the sense of adventure associated with sashaying out onto plains teeming with big game; the potent African night punctuated with the guttural grunt of lions rather too near camp for comfort.
These days Kenyan wildlife touring is a much safer proposition, but one company has preserved that sense of adventure, and the feeling of being truly ‘on safari' (albeit minus pith helmets and Robert Redford).
Founded by Tom Fernandes, Wildlife Safari has operated out of Nairobi for more than four decades (son Trevor handles business in Australia) and today the company is one of Africa's most respected outfits, customising its own safari-savvy vehicles and deploying a team of 60 at HQ.
Each Wildlife safari begins as it would have 40 years ago with a guide and driver meeting guests at Nairobi airport, not in a minibus or coach, but a safari jeep. And in our case it’s Head of Guides Andrew Kingori, in full safari kit, setting the mood immediately, if your appetite hadn’t already been piqued by the sight of zebras grazing on the airport apron.
A short Nairobi sojourn helps safari novices find their feet, and might include a visit to the famous Giraffe Centre, Out of Africa author Karen Blixen’s house or The Carnivore, a crazy restaurant where chefs crowd like hyenas around a roaring fire pit grilling all manner of meat skewered on traditional Maasai swords. Be sure to try the house cocktail, Dawa (‘medicine’ in Swahili), a remarkably addictive concoction of vodka, lime, honey and sugar.
Early on day three, Andrew rouses our small crew and we hit the road, snaking out of sprawling Nairobi, across dry hills and through verdant valleys planted with bananas, maize, mangoes and papaya.
After a relaxing stopover at the Mount Kenya Safari Club to gird our loins, we jump a series of small aircraft bound for the Maasai Mara. At the remote Ol Kiombo air strip we are met by another trusty wildlife safari jeep and without further ado Andrew pops on his hat, jumps behind the wheel and sets course for camp.
I’ve been on safari several times but nothing prepares me for the sheer abundance of life to be found on these golden plains. In a matter of minutes we are leaning out of the jeep, cameras cocked watching a large herd of elephants, just metres away, cross a river, young calves stumbling as grumpy buffalo look on. Several elegant giraffe saunter by; warthogs scamper off through the long grass.
At camp we are greeted by a troupe of Maasai dancers from a nearby village who, leaping and thrumming, guide us through the bush to Mara Explorer, a five star bivouac perched above a bend in the Talek River, the muddy dry-season waters stuffed with belching hippos.
What could be more Out of Africa? But don't imagine for one second there’s any question of roughing it. I have my own butler, the kindly Noor, and room steward Samuel and my large tent comes replete with a comfy king bed, campaign style desk and trunk, and ensuite. And there’s a claw-foot bathtub perched on the deck, perfect for apès safari soaks alfresco (glass of wine in hand).
The Mara Explorer lies smack in the middle of the action, unfenced and positioned to offer brilliant views of the great wildebeest migration between July and September. I need travel no further than my private deck to watch hippos and crocodiles in the river below and on one occasion am forced to rescue my teapot from a troupe of baboons.
After dinner Noor walks me back to my lantern lit tent and I snuggle down with a hot water bottle to listen to the roaring of lions and the somewhat less romantic emanations of the hippo herd. It’s difficult to imagine a more thrilling hostelry.
Each day at Mara assumes its own pleasant and unhurried rhythm. Bed tea is delivered early morning by Samuel, before we head out on safari with Andrew. Sometimes there’s breakfast in the bush, served at a long table dressed with Maasai blankets; sometimes a picnic lunch washed down with South African merlot.
Always there’s adventure: tracking a young cheetah; happening upon a lion crèche in the thorny undergrowth; sitting beneath an acacia watching a leopard with its kill; or giving a cranky elephant a very wide berth.
Oddly anthropomorphic secretary birds (who put me in mind of Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister) stalk the plains; enormous lappet-faced vultures, sporting pink shower caps, guard their nest; ostriches swirl burlesque feathers in a flirty fashion.
Come sundowners (the one meal you cannot miss on safari) we pull up beneath a solitary acacia tree and lo and behold the kitchen crew front up to serve cocktails and canapés while we stand around the fire watching elephants sail like ships across the horizon.
Back in camp dinner is served in the main lodge, simple, fresh fare washed down with South African wine, and while a large genet cat slips beneath the table, we swap tall safari tales (I came up trumps with the tea-swilling baboon).
Mara Explorer is a small camp comprising only ten tents, each with private river frontage, and this is its charm, however guests are welcome to pop over to the larger ‘Intrepids’ camp for a swim, to grab a massage or rootle through the large gift shop.
But you’ll soon come scurrying home to Mara, which wants for nothing. Except perhaps Robert Redford.
MOUNT KENYA SAFARI CLUB
I would recommend anybody heading to the Maasai Mara from Nairobi to allow for a couple of nights at the romantic Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki.
Founded by actor William Holden, this was once the ‘only’ place to be seen in khakis and the guest book reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s golden era: Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to name just a few. (Holden’s partner Stefanie Powers is still a regular visitor, frequently shanghaiing the be-suited GM into a game of tennis).
Recently renovated by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, this charming former club is set in 40 hectares of immaculately landscaped grounds at the foot of Mount Kenya. Most of the rooms and all the glamorous cottages feature long views of the cloud wreathed peaks.
The main building straddles the equator (a welcome ceremony celebrating this fact is conducted by Maasai warriors) and the resort’s handsome public rooms retain a clubby, early twentieth century elegance.
The food is good (curries are a feature) and much of the produce is grown on-site in the hotel’s kitchen garden.The neighbouring wildlife orphanage (also founded by Holden) is an added attraction.
MORE: Perth-based Wildlife Safari operates scheduled and tailor made safaris. Contact: 1800 998 558.