Depending on how much you have drunk, Mahali Mzuri — Sir Richard Branson’s 12-tented luxury safari camp in Olare Motorogi, Maasai Mara — looks like a fancy tarboosh from afar. Co-owned with The Gehlot family, who also own Finch Hattons, Mahali Mzuri rises elegantly from the landscape, camouflaged yet also standing apart from nature.
When Sir Branson is away doing the edgy things that floats Sir Branson’s boat, he rests knowing that the camp is in good hands of Wilson Odhiambo, the General Manager who for the past 17 years has worked for Sarova Group, Bluebay Beach resort in Zanzibar and Singita Luxury lodges in Tanzania.
Mahali Mzuri is six years old now and Wilson is their first Kenyan general manager. He met with JACKSON BIKO at the camp over a scotch.
Why do you think people pay a lot of money to live in a tent and stare at a lion?
(Laughs). As human beings, anything that draws us back to nature or to our origin like the Garden of Eden, we will pay for it.
Actually, studies have shown that as the years go by, people will pay even more to come to a place like this where they are in touch with nature in a more private and intimate way. Nature takes you back to where it all started, to your roots.
Before this place was, quite honestly, unreachable for most Kenyans, cost wise. It was a province of the international, or foreign market. Why are you guys seducing residents now with your reviewed rates? What changed?
Growth is gradual and the truth is we realised that we should expose this product to more Kenyans as possible because, anyway, this is our land and it doesn’t serve us well if few Kenyans don’t know the place or can even access it.
Thus, we came up with a rate that would be affordable for nature and wild lovers to come and experience it. We are not just here for the international market, we are opening it up to the local market, to Kenyans and especially for those who love nature and appreciate nature.
We want everybody to come and reconnect with their roots.
When you were growing up, was there anything that indicated that you’d be here, in the bush?
Not at all. I wanted to be a doctor. I was sponsored by a German lady called Mrs Walters who paid for my secondary school education. I did very well but I missed medicine degree with three points instead I was called to study a Bachelor of Science in Medicine.
I thought nah. I was one of the best students in the country in French language in 1994. Mrs Walters thought I’d be great in hotel management because I was great in foreign languages so I gave it a shot. I speak French, German and a little Italian.
What spirit animal are you?
I don’t know. Having been in the bush for eight years now, I have fallen in love with so many wildlife. I have studied different animal behaviours for every species. (Pause) I tend to like giraffes.
They are composed. It’s very hard to see a giraffe attacked by a lion because lions fear them.
I think it’s because they have that self confidence and knowing that they are tall, they reach the sky and grab whatever they want. Giraffes inspire me the most; they reach the highest shoot and feed themselves. I think I’m like that. I’m a go-getter.
How’s Sir Richard Branson like, is he as quirky in person?
He’s very humble. He’s real. He’s human. You forget he’s a billionaire when he’s talking to you. He pays attention to small details that you wouldn’t imagine would interest him. When he’s talking to you, he gives you all his attention, like what you are saying is the most important thing he’s heard. He’s very curious. He’s big on family, always asking how mine are doing.
Speaking of which, you are here for six weeks at a stretch before you go back to see your family in Nairobi. How do you keep a marriage when you are gone for so long?
(Laughs). That’s tough one. (Pause). I think …(sighs). I think all the credit will go to my wife. I wouldn’t take the credit.
You require a woman who believes in you and who knows that you’re out here to fend for the family and whatever you’re doing is good for the family.
(Pause). Actually that’s the biggest challenge I have in my career; balancing family and work. I used to work in Grumeti Game Reserve in Serengeti and I’d be gone for three months before I go home for a month. I did that for six years. When I joined my son was only three years, when I left he was nine and he would ask me tough questions. So, I thought no, I need to come somewhere closer.
Are you afraid that your son will grow up and not have a strong bond with you?
No. I’m not. One thing I do is that when I’m at home I spend quality time with my family.
My son now knows that daddy has to go to work and I think he understands that. But I have been there as much as I could; taught him how to skate, cycle, driving … boy stuff.
As a Kenyan GM, and a black one, are you pressured to make this work because if you fail you would have failed all black Kenyans. Sir Branson might think, ah, I tried a local and it didn’t work.
(Laughs) I’ve been here two years now and I think I’m doing just fine if I may so-so myself.
First, I think it’s just feels good when foreign guests come to the camp and find a Kenyan GM. It gives it that Kenyan touch.
But my role is not only running the camp but also interacting with the community who are actually our stakeholders.
This land belongs to the community, so you need to be able to interact with them, understand the social and cultural issues here in a more intimate level and also connect to their aspirations. I think they also see me as one of their own.
What’s the most common request you get from guests when they come?
Guests generally want to see wildlife. They want to see the lion. Everybody wants to see the lion.
How do you handle the sense of isolation; just being holed up here alone for weeks?
There is no time to notice the isolation. I get so busy I never have time to feel lonely. I sit on the board of the conservancy on top of my duties here.
There is community engagement and also interaction with guests to also fill my time. For exercise, we have a volleyball pitch; I love playing volleyball with staff. There is also a soccer pitch.
When you retire and grow old, sitting on your veranda, telling your grandchildren tales of the wild, what’s the one thing you will miss most about this place?
My interactions with people from all walks of life and all over the world. I can’t imagine myself somewhere in the village retired.