It’s tough to imagine the space, and even tougher to imagine the numbers. The Masai Mara is 1530 square km, part of a protected eco system, the Masai-Serengeti, that covers an incredible 25,000 square km. The variety of wildlife that call it home are amongst the most abundant in the world. Lions, zebra, giraffe, hippos, antelope, gazelles, hyena, and most of all wildebeest – well over a million of the shaggy faced, skinny legged beasts. Their annual migration in search of food - north from the Serengeti, and later south from the Mara – is the largest single movement of animals on the planet. As our private charter flight approached the dirt runway of the Mara’s Kichwa Tembo camp, I could see wildebeests scattered all over the savannah, an invasion of ants on a never-ending carrot cake. Warthog were grunting on the runway, their aerial-like tails facing Allah, causing our pilot to brake hard and bounce the Cessna Caravan to a stop. Word Travels has been my ticket to a lifetime of experiences, and now it presented an opportunity to safari in one of the world’s most luxurious lodges. &Beyond’s Bataleur Camp in the Masai Mara recalls another era. Overlooking a vast plain, it offers five star tented accommodation, butler service, an all inclusive never-ending flow of fresh cocktails, and easily the best food I’ve had anywhere. Large leather sofas and fireplaces offer a perfect refuge to read classic National Geographic magazines from the 60’s and 70’s, while the dining is set just metres from a low electrified fence keeping buffalo, elephant, hippo and the occasional lion from wandering into camp. Two swimming pools allow you to swim and view wildlife at the same time, while the tents themselves have four poster beds, wooden desks, and leather seats on a patio facing the savanna. It’s not the first time I’ve stayed in a $1000 a night hotel (he says, knowing full well his backpacker, couchsurfing roots), but it’s the first time I’ve received such warm and welcoming service, in such a stunning and sweeping landscape. The staff remembered our names before we’d had time to finish our first Pimms cocktail, the ginger ale frothy with fresh cucumber. They’d tie themselves in a knot if it would make us happy, their smiles so wide I’d swear it would make them happy too. Paul and I shared a tent, splitting the bed, another case of my enjoying the most romantic place on the earth outside the confines of romance. While I grew up visiting game reserves in South Africa, this would be Paul, Sean, Cathy and Neil’s first safari experience. It was great to share their enthusiasm for finally being able to see animals in the wild. The tone was set on the runway, with champagne and snacks, and the sighting of giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, antelope and a pride of lions on our first drive to the lodge. As home to the Masai people for centuries (or forever, according to their legends), it’s odd to see tall, lanky figures herding their cattle, unprotected just a few kilometres from lions resting under a tree. Animals and Masai share this space, and while we are told they respect each other’s place, research suggest that animal numbers are dwindling as Masai communities continue to grow and develop. Research also points to the drastic decrease in cheetah numbers, primarily due to the disruption of tourism on their habitat. But while the drought continue to ravage the country further up north, the Mara is doing noticeably better, and both animals are people appear well fed. I ask Joseph, our safari guide, why the lions don’t attack the Masai, or their cattle. He points to the thousands of wildebeest, the sheer abundance of food available. Warthog: Lion sausage. Wildebeest: Lion Takeout.
As a Masai himself, he also discusses the fear lions have for their warriors, and the fact that for generations, young Masai boy would come of age by killing a lion. Lions have been trained to fear them. That being said, we are advised to walk around the camp at night only with an armed guard, and Masai villages are protected by a circular defence of thorny scrub. The famous Big Five are all found in the park: Leopard, Lion, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino. They got their famed moniker from English colonial hunters, not fans of modern wildlife photography. After lunch (pumpkin and coriander soup, herbed chicken, roasted vegetables), accompanied with South African wine, prepared and proudly detailed by our chef Joseph, (not just another Joe in the kitchen, I can assure you) we head out for our late afternoon game drive. Within an hour, we’ve seen 3 of the big 5, and by the next day, the crew see the final 2. A night safari yields dozens of hippos, 7km from the river, roaming the dark like ominous tanks. Hippos, after all, kill more people than any other mammal in Africa, save ourselves. We also get up close and personal with an elusive Aardwolf, a thrill for Joseph who has only seen one once before in all the years he has lived in the Mara. We almost catch a kill when the wildebeest roam a little too close to a pride of lions, but the moment is lost when a dozen Land Cruisers pull up, complete with obnoxious tourists yelling with excitement. There’s a lot of traffic in the Mara, and our camp is by no means the only luxury lodge around. The guides do share their information, but it’s not difficult for the cars to spook the animals. A large, muscular lioness walks right past our open-air lodge, just feet away from my legs. As long as you stay inside the vehicle, the animals will not pose a threat. The second you leave, as I tried to do with some giraffe, the animals see your form, and will either flee or attack. As the lioness pads by, she gazes directly into my eyes. It’s hard not to think just how easy it would be for her to leap up and have us all for lunch.
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