Kenya’s Maasai Mara is full of surprises 36 years later

Zebra males fighting, Maasai-Mara Game Reserve, Kenya - Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Zebra males fighting, Maasai-Mara Game Reserve, Kenya – Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Watch out for baboons, especially at breakfast. I learned this in 1986 while traveling around Kenya with Roger, a law student. We were there for three months and had very little money. We paid £110 per person to join the camp “safari” in Nairobi. The bus was overheating every 10 miles and there was nothing to eat but bread and beans.

The monkey moment still stands out. Those animals knew exactly what to do. While our group was distracted, they raided the kitchen tent. Now I can imagine them: 20 raiders scurrying through the grass with a packet of bread under each arm. Roger and I did nothing to stop them. This was partly because we were lying on the floor, unable to laugh anymore.

John Gimlette and Roger Stewart, Kenya 1986

John Gimlette and Roger Stewart, Kenya 1986

Thirty-six years later, I decided to return to the Masai Mara. It would be a very different trip. Back then we were given a bucket and an old army tent and we woke up covered in ants.

This time we were going to be with the Great Plains. Owned by filmmakers and photographers, the company has become a safari art. Expect antiques, sculptures, goat cheese and artisanal gin. Every camp is like a Claridge’s-in-canvas.

The client was also different. In 1986 we met with backpackers of all kinds (some newlyweds and an Australian with so much disease that we called him “The Dewdropper”).

This time it would be just me, my wife and our young daughter Lucy. I noticed Lucy looking thoughtful as we boarded our little safari plane. He had obviously seen my photos from 1986.

John Gimlette and his family in Maasai Mara, Kenya

John Gimlette and his family in Maasai Mara, Kenya

I was also curious about Mara and how she had changed. Everything seemed healthy enough as we raced down the Great Rift Valley, over that magnificent rift on our planet.

But since I was last there, Kenya’s population has more than doubled (from around 21 million to almost 56 million). Meanwhile, Nairobi was five times its previous size, and my old corrugated iron hotel (which had doubled as a brothel) had long since disappeared under concrete and glass.

How did the animals survive all this? Were the grasslands now covered with cities?

I soon realized that I didn’t have to worry. From 10,000 feet, the savanna looked as pristine as ever. I always thought England would look like this before people came in with their fences and roads. It was green, luminous and endless. No wonder everything wants to be here, in this enormous salad.

Over the next five days, we would see literally thousands of animals running through the hills – trails of antelopes that looked like zebras and ants as far as the eye could see.

Humans made little impact on the landscape. There was nothing on the runway but a dustbin, a row of horns, and our guide, Stephen. He turned out to be an extraordinary friend.

Although the national park was the size of Hertfordshire, Stephen knew not only every valley and great beast, but also all the warriors and clans that roamed the plains. It helped that his father was a local chef with 10 wives and 62 children.

Takeoff airstrip in Masai Mara, Kenya

Takeoff airstrip in Masai Mara, Kenya

Two things happened at this point. Giant animals appeared first. There are always large grunting creatures within sight or within earshot of the Mara. This is a success story that is getting better every day. Rhino hunting has been almost completely eliminated.

Meanwhile, Kenya currently has more than 36,000 elephants, 12 percent more than in 2014. Therefore, there is always something huge in the landscape – or heavy breathing in your ear.

The other big improvement was the hospitality. Great Plains knows how to perfect a moment. Everything appears just when needed: powerful binoculars, a gin and tonic or a collapsible sink.

Like all Maasai, Stephen enjoyed being a host. When he was young, he worked as a shepherd, fighting lions. Now he loved putting our Land Cruiser among the prides, introducing the cats as if they were family or friends.

All this was just the beginning of the glory to come. Our first camp, the Mara Expedition, was magnificently Victorian. It was as if an elite delegation had brought everything with them up from the plains: chandeliers, rugs, leather armchairs, huge cabinet chests and campaign tables.

They even brought the plumbing and each tent had a huge brass shower. Only the animals were unaffected, and at night hippos and giraffes roamed the grounds as if we weren’t there.

Mara Plains Camp in Kenya

Mara Plains Camp in Kenya

Our second camp, Mara Plains, took all this to the extreme. It had a treetop library, spa, living room, two suspension bridges, and a river. Arranged along a walkway of recycled railway sleepers, this was no ordinary glamping site but a stately tented home. Each suite had a terrace and a giant copper bathroom. One of these pavilions, the Jahazi, was so large and aristocratic that it could easily swallow a conservatory or several ballrooms.

The staff has always been marvelously attentive in their khaki drills. Whenever we arrived or left, they lined up Downton Abbey style. However, they can also be talkative and charming. Waiter Amos was horrified at the thought of snow and not having our own herd of cows.

Robinson, meanwhile, had a spear and looked after us at night. Then there was chef Timothy. He prepared the best dishes (perhaps pomegranate salad or passionfruit sherbet). How does he produce such things in the wild?

One night we had a small earthquake. Far away, hippos grunted and lions groaned. Few of us woke up at camp, however, and the only sound was the botanical gin as bottles jingled against each other in the bar.

Five days shot. I had forgotten how dramatic life on the plains can be. We would lose ourselves for hours in this big biological theater. First, it can be an elegant zebra cabaret. Then a lion would appear, like Coriolanus, whose huge, furry head was matted with blood and flies.

We would see ostriches as well as soldiers in a tutu. There were also minor returns from the Ugly Five (hyena, boar, gnu, vulture, and crocodile). But the most fascinating were the cheetahs. Everything seemed to stop as they passed by, the supermodel is cool.

Masai warriors still do their traditional jump dance - Miha Krofel / Alamy Stock Photo

Masai warriors still do their traditional jump dance – Miha Krofel / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s not just animals competing for attention here. Some plants, like Euphorbia candelabrum, seem strangely devout; or a plain stock like a pajama lily.

There’s also a character from a pantomime called the sticky purple mouse mustache and the so-called sausage tree that always makes you laugh. But it’s not all about the show. Some acacias communicate using pheromones, and their leaves turn bitter when giraffes attack.

Once we came across a skeleton hanging from a tree. “An antelope,” said Stephen, “killed by a leopard.” He reminded me that savannah life is usually short and not very sweet, and that everything—even humans—the Maasai leave their dead outside to be picked up by scavengers—finally eaten.

I was still trying to craft this idea when Timothy showed up in his white chef’s hat. He had set up tables by a pond and had linen and porcelain over them. “Welcome to Saltlick,” he said. “The full Kenyan breakfast?”

Before leaving, I asked if I could visit a village. Stephen led me to a round compound with a thick hedge of thorns. It was called Ole Polos (“Between the Streams”), and I recognized that name.

It was funny to think that the kids I saw in 1986 are now warriors and chiefs. However, unlike their fathers, they no longer carried weapons or sold things made of leather and horn. There was also much less garbage than I remembered (in 2017 Kenya banned single-use plastic bags).

Other than that, little has changed in the last 36 years or the last 5,000 years. Construction was still seen as women’s work, and all houses were made from twigs and dung. The diet hadn’t changed much either; still blood, milk and some meat. The Masai also have a different attitude towards rustling because they believe that all the cows in the world belong to them.

Baboons appeared on our last morning. “Oh no,” I thought, “we’re starting again.” But they didn’t loot croissants or raid prosecco. Instead, they climbed over the library and into the treetops in search of monkeys and figs.

This is typical of Mara. It’s different every day. Sometimes the hyenas win, sometimes the jackals. Elephants look gigantic one moment, defenseless the next. We even saw a herd of guinea fowl stripping a leopard once.

With such pristine beauty, the Masai Mara remains as attractive as ever. Naturally, I don’t miss the buckets of my youth (and I loved the copper bath and the tented palace). The drama of all this is still extremely compelling. I don’t care what animal action I’m watching, whether it’s a “Big Kill” or a mongoose show. Just being there, on that extraordinary, endless stage, is enough.

John Gimlette traveled as a guest of Mahlatini Luxury Travel (028 9073 6050; and Great Plains (020 3150 1062; The cost of a six-night holiday, four nights at Mara Discovery Camp and two nights on the Mara Plains, starts at £5,500 per person, based on two shares. Price includes international flights from London, all domestic flights, transfers, plus all meals, beverages and scheduled camping activities.

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