It is a few minutes past midday and Fig’s daughter is napping on a tree. Her food — a half-eaten Thomson’s gazelle — is tucked up in tree branches. We park our tour van and stare at its beautiful, clean, whitish velvety underbelly. She is the first leopard that I have effortlessly seen in the wild, just minutes after landing at ol Kiombo airstrip in the Maasai Mara.
She deliberately ignores us as if she is used to mingling with humans long before we came, and that this moment is not as significant to her as it is to us. So, she allows us to stare. We could have stared for as long as it comfortably slept on a branch, but we drive deep into the savannah to Olare Mara Kempinski, a boutique establishment on the banks of River Ntiaktiak.
As we drive through the grass among a multitude of wildebeest and antelopes, two zebras cross the road and our driver gives them right of way. Talk of zebra crossing! A few metres ahead, four giraffes give us way. It feels nice to be in the wilds where mutual respect is second nature.
The Olare Mara Kempinski, with 12 tented camps, feels like a place where epic film scenes are shot. At the camp, we also share pathways with wild animals. The only mini-fence at the lodge is a ‘bones wall’ with everything from horns, humongous teeth and skulls, hang on bamboo reeds.
The landscape around the lodge is quite unlike the rest of the Maasai Mara. Located in the 33,000-acre Olare Motorogi private conservancy with several other exclusive lodges, the environment is unspoilt and animals have not experienced the deluge of noisy tour vans and swarm of tourists. Hippos, antelopes and lions saunter leisurely down the unfenced lodge.
Geoffrey Ouma, the camp manager at Olare Mara Kempinski, says what excites tourists is being able to stay in luxury but in the uninhibited wilderness.
“We see quite a number of animals that walk through the camp freely. It is a thrill as tourists hear noises of the animals at night. Tracking ‘big cats’ is one of the interesting activities in Mara. Like last night, the lions were very close to the camp,” he says.
He remembers one time when a lioness gave birth under one of the tents.
The hotel may be built in the middle of nowhere but it attracts a sizeable number of tourists.
“We are usually at above 80 percent occupancy, save for low seasons, but we have also been lucky because domestic tourists then come during the school holidays and may take six out of the 12 tents,” Geoffrey says.
“The children get to visit the villages and jump with the villagers, throw spears and learn how to make fire without matchsticks.
“We also take them for nature walks with guides to identify unique plants and animal droppings… We also involve them in tree planting to help them learn conservation from an early age,” he adds.
When the daylight is fading, I sit at the private deck with wine in a crystal goblet to watch the grassy plains that spread into the horizon. As night falls, lanterns light up the pathways to the tented rooms like in a romance movie scene, malachite kingfishers whistle, antelope calves and jackals scamper around. I go into my room and zip up the tent.
As the wind roughly caresses my tent, I start wondering if ‘Fig’, whom we left sitting on an anthill waiting to pounce on easy prey, will visit the camp tonight in search of squirrels or out of sheer boredom.
I hear the sound of animals outside but I cannot make out which it is. I peer into the bush through the glass door. I hurriedly close the curtains, not that I have spotted any haunting eyes but I am scared to even cough least my voice irritates the roaming animals.
I am tempted to bathe in the shower area outside tucked in a corner near an overgrown bush, but as the saying goes, there is nothing wrong with cowardice as long as it comes with prudence. So I step into the indoor standing tub, fill it with warm water, close my eyes and start recounting conversations of my ‘jungle-mates.’
“Does Fig’s five-month old cub have a name?” a friend had asked Philip Mushaba, one of the more knowledgeable guides I have come across. He said they were still deliberating on a name.
On another evening we meet Simaloi, a young woman selling handcrafted Maasai belts, dog collars, wallets and jewellery in Maa Trust, a community store up a stone mountain. We named Fig’s other daughter Simaloi.