From the cockpit of the Cessna tearing through the cloudy morning sky on its way to the Maasai Mara, the Ol-Kiombo Airstrip looks like a bar of chocolate laid out on a bottle-green napkin.
There are no tarmac runways in the Mara and planes have to make do with the earth-red runways. On one side of the airstrip, near the one-storey control tower, a row of about ten green and brown four-by-fours crouch in the grass, like safari ants contemplating the bar of chocolate; only they have no such menacing motives.
They are waiting for tourists to come down from the sky before they can embark on a tantalising journey of discovery, especially if they are making their way to the the Olare Motorogi Conservancy.
Victor, dressed in an orange T-shirt and beige Khakis and cap to match, is standing between two of the Four-by-fours. It is recommended that you commit his name to memory the first time you meet for two reasons. First, laid out in front of him is a table with glimmering, long-stemmed glasses half-full with champagne.
Secondly, if you will be staying at Olare Mara Kempinski, the five-star hospitality establishment in the heart of Olare Motorogi, you will meet him on one too many happy occasions.
It could be a breakfast by the river, a sundowner in the expansive savannah or a semi-formal dinner under a star-studded night sky. If, by this time you are on a first-name basis, you will have more than enough reason to be mellow by the time he makes the last call in the wee hours of the morning.
Sitting there blanked by the open skies, kept warm by burning logs, swapping stories about everything under the sun, the guest is reminded of Billy Currington’s words that “God is great, beer is good and people are crazy”, especially when they do not to appreciate the grandeur that is the African wild enjoyed in comfort of a camp surrounded by wild beasts.
But this is the Mara. Let us not overtake ourselves just yet.
The ambitious game spotter is invited to raise the bar the moment you drive into the conservancy. Chances are, within the first 15 minutes of arrival, you will meet Fig, the resident leopard, nestled up a thorn tree.
Seeing him there, napping in the canopy of the thorn tree reminds you why there is literary no hurry in the wilds of Africa.
Time is a mere point on a continuum as vast as the plains that stretch all the way South to Tanzania. Next to him is a gutted gazelle. That was his breakfast. He is keeping some for lunch. And death here is not a tragedy. It is a way for everyone to get by, just one more act in the grand theatre of survival for the swiftest.
Fig is proof that what you see in the wilds is not what you will always get. Sleeping there placidly, peace and quiet written all over him, surrounded by the serenity of the African wilds, might create the illusion that he is a pet to be petted. Nothing can be further from the truth.
No animal, not even the mildest herbivore, is to be trifled with. When push comes to shove, they will flex their sword-sharp horns, bare their knife-edged claws and, if their lives depend on it, bite more than they can chew. That is how the balance of terror is maintained in the wilderness.
The earth road leading to the Olare Mara Kempinski is rugged, and the four-by-fours lurch this way and that, crossing a ford here, climbing a steep incline there and circling a swamp further on as the passengers see-saw in their seats.
“This is part of the experience that tourists come here for,” says Charles Lemiso, the manager of the 33,000-acre Olare Motorogi conservancy that is shared between nine tented camps, including the Richard Branson-owned Mahali Mzuri, although the land is wholly owned by the local community who are mostly herders but who had the foresight to rally their resources with the twin aim of conserving nature while earning sustainably from it.
According to him, making the earth roads rugged is not only good for the wild animals which roam the plains, it also means that they remain motorable without interfering too much with the natural order.
As the 12 tented camps of the Olare Mara Kempinski come to sight, a group of middle-aged Maasai men emerge, their sonorous songs rising in the afternoon heat. Their guttural voices are deep and the acapella music signals to the visitors that they have arrived.
And just as with Victor, it will pay to make a quick acquaintance with the band of sturdy men. After all, they understand the behaviour of wild animals much more than the newcomer does, and they take nothing for granted when it comes to the safety and security of tourists. Their music is only a side hustle.
Their main responsibility is to keep the camp, and its visitors safe by mediating between fun-seekers and predators.
The camp, which offers both the experience of the wilderness as well as European luxury, has won awards for its eco-friendly approach to tourism. For instance, it generates its own green power, runs an organic garden that supplies its kitchen with fresh vegetables and condiments and blends into the environment in a way that does not interfere with the free movement of wild animals.
The deco is stylish and the chef can whip up a menu from any corner of the world, be it traditional African dishes or a Mediterranean offering. The show-stopper is, without a doubt, the honeymoon suite which overlooks the seasonal River Ntiaktiak, home of a large clan of hippos.
According to Kithure Mwingirwa, the Marketing & PR Manager of the Villa Rosa Kempinski and Olare Mara Kempinski, guests with deep and audacious pockets will once in a while hire the entire camp, say for a week, for wedding or honeymoon ceremonies and after-parties.
And many are the repeat customers. Geoffrey Ouma, who manages the camp for the Villa Rosa Kempinski, said that while we were there, there were three guests who had made more than five previous visits to the camp.
“Some stay for ten nights and above,” he said. Never mind that the rates for a two nights’ accommodation inclusive of return flight can range between Kshs 129,470 per person sharing a tent to Kshs 199,550 single tent occupancy during the high season that starts July-September and December to January. And because Kempinski is a well-known brand globally, this has been it much easier to market the establishment. In July and August, 2019, they were expecting a 90 per cent occupancy rate.
“We are busy throughout the year,” he said. “We get a lot of repeat clients and we do not only depend on the high season.”
The high season comes during the Wildebeest migration between July and October. But one does not have to wait for these months to see the wild animals up-close. You can do this on any morning.
And on the really lucky days, the guests will not have to go out to see the animals because the animals sometimes just show up the camp. Not long time ago, a lioness gave birth under one of the 12 tents, and the guests thought they would literally see heaven!