“Seriously Jonathan, are you sure this is safe?” It’s 5 pm and I’m standing in an open-sided Land Cruiser in the Maasai Mara, four feet from a pride of wild lions.
Granted, the two males and three females seemed more interested in the antics of their seven cubs than portioning me up for dinner. Even so, I thought it was worth a second opinion. “Perfectly safe in the vehicle Andy. Just don’t even think about getting out.”
Yeah right. My Attenborough moment is just fine from in here thanks.
My lion encounter is the obvious highlight of my game drive, a daily occurrence at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. Planted at an elbow of the Mara River in the north-west corner of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the Club is made up of 51 luxury riverside tents and the main lodge. This is glamping but not as you know it, Jim.
This goes much further. Each tent contains a four poster bed, hand-woven rugs, full en-suite facilities with hot and cold running water, electricity, in-room safe, wireless telephone and, in my case, a completely private outdoor shower. I have my own private deck of course, with an unobstructed view of the river and just hippos and crocodiles for company.
We had flown in earlier on a 12 seater Cessna direct from the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, landing gently on the makeshift grass runway and excited to tick off my Big 5. Just the short drive from the airstrip to the Club offered up a herd of Zebra and a family of warthogs so my hopes were high for plenty of wildlife encounters.
The main lodge of the Mara Safari Club is just as impressive as the tents. There’s no doubting the classic safari theme here; vaulted wooden ceiling, African furnishings and beadwork, deep leather chairs, huge open fireplace and a welcoming wooden bar. Outside, the deck is cantilevered over the river, so no excuses for missing out on the hippo watch. There’s even an outdoor swimming pool complete with sun beds and umbrellas for those who need a lie down after all the excitement.
We arrive just in time for lunch. An impressive buffet spread across the terrace and an army of chefs on hand to help any struggling diner make their choices. I take a table overlooking the river and spot a hippo poking his head out of the water eyeing me up. For a second I visualize myself as a hippo buffet, but then I remember my floating friend is vegetarian and I suspect it’s my salad course that’s of more interest.
The afternoon game drive out on the adjoining Mara is momentarily spoilt by a brief rainstorm but my hopes are raised when driver Jonathan tells me. “Rain is good, it will bring everyone out.” My epic lion encounter is still to come but there is no shortage of support acts. It’s like watching a parade of central casting for The Lion King. A large family of warthogs run across in front us “Pumbaa!” we all shout. Three hyenas just like Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed sit under a tree on the lookout for dinner. But the wildebeest and zebra herds are magnificent, the giraffes graceful and the topi and eland elegantly stylish and colourful.
The Mara is a magnificent stage, endless savannah dotted with those telltale umbrella acacia trees offering up countless Kodak moments.
Safely back at Mara Safari Club bar tales are told of everyone’s adventures. The hot air balloon group arrives back too with their own adventures. The Mara from above, a different spectacle for sure. For me though, my pride of wild lions is my own personal keepsake locked away in my memory vault.
Night falls and after another epic meal, I return to my tent and simply sit and listen to the sounds of darkness and watch the night sky offer up a stellar show. I fall asleep to hippos swishing about in the water below me and dream of lions.
A new day dawns and I’m woken by a hippo bellow so deep it literally makes my tent shudder. I’m on an early game drive before breakfast and I give driver Jonathan his orders. “We have to top yesterday, so nothing less than an elephant please.”
I sense Jonathan offering up a silent prayer.
Well, it may be 6.30am but the animal kingdom is already up and about getting breakfast or avoiding being breakfast. No elephants sadly, but we stop at a Fairmont sponsored sanctuary for two white rhinos Elizabeth and Kofi Annan who are far too busy walking around eating grass to be bothered by me standing next to them for a picture. The white rhino population is in grave danger from poaching and this work is invaluable to the well-being of these huge beasts.
We return to the Club for another epic breakfast before setting off for a visit to the local Maasai village. As we pull up, it seems the entire village is out front to welcome us, forming a circle and singing a traditional welcome song. Although they have regular tourist visits, this feels much more authentic than a simple tourist attraction. This tribe has lived in this part of the Mara for over thirty years. As we watch a traditional warrior-jumping competition and tour their Inkajijik huts made from mud and cow dung, the chief’s son explains how they manage to exist in the modern world. “We still live a traditional life here, trading cows and chickens for the beads we use in our handicraft. Each family makes and sells its own products.”
The Mara Safari Club has been an extraordinary experience. I can only imagine what it must be like to be here during the phenomenon of the annual wildebeest migration.
As I await my Cessna to take me back to Nairobi and the welcoming arms of Fairmont The Norfolk for a few hours before my flight home, I yearn for one more wildlife glimpse. Branches rustle behind me and I whirl around.
It’s Jonathan with my luggage.
Images of wildlife, Maasai and Mara (c) Andy Mossack.
Tell me more about the Fairmont Mara Safari Club
Fairmont Mara Safari Club, Maasai Mara, Kenya
T: +254 717 969611
The Mara Safari Club has 20 4 x4 land cruisers on site, each of which can seat 6 people in window seats – six beneath the opening hatches. besides the driver-guide. These are used for transfers to and from the airstrip, as well as for game drives.
The Fairmont Classic Bush Safari (2 nights at The Norfolk, 2 nights at Mount Kenya Safari Club and 3 nights at Mara Safari Club) – approx £5,400 per person sharing – full board accommodation inclusive of local flights and transfers.
Getting to Kenya: British Airways offers direct flights to Nairobi with fares from £474 return and includes its new World Traveller catering.