Are you burned out? Do you need a break? Do you want total relaxation and rejuvenation? Or, perhaps you’re looking for adventure? Something new? Something different? If you’re anything like me, it’s a little of all these. Most of us are looking for that breath of fresh air, and that’s exactly what I found at Kicheche Mara Camp, nestled in the northern area of the Masai Mara, Kenya, in East Africa.
Once on the 45-minute flight from Wilson Airport, Nairobi, the Great Rift Valley opens out below. Herds of cattle and goats watched over by Masai boys near their villages dot the plains. You find yourself straining to catch sight of an elephant or giraffe, or perhaps a herd of antelope. Suddenly you think you’ve seen something… the anticipation & excitement are building.
When out of the airplane and on the ground, what seemed almost surreal from the air suddenly becomes your own experience. I was met by Boniface, a local Masai man, who was to be my guide for the duration of my visit. I knew the 20 minute drive from the airstrip to the Camp might be a new experience, but what I wasn’t expecting was to get "up close & personal" with a family of White Rhino in my first half hour! This special conservation project presented a rare opportunity to see them at close range… Wow! I really am in Africa!
A wooden sign by the road declared we had arrived at Kicheche Mara Camp… but where was it? A Masai man draped in red greeted me. As I followed him along a dirt path into the grove of African olive trees, the peaceful haven that was the Camp opened out before me. The Camp manager, James, met me with a cold drink. He immediately explained the layout and the very relaxed, flexible daily routine. I’d never been here before, but already felt at home.
It was late January, and fine weather cannot be guaranteed at this time of year, but under a blue sky the breeze rustled through a canopy of green – shade and cool to less than a dozen guest tents, a “mess” tent & the Nyati tent. A pleasant place to spend some time. There’s a library, local crafts and board games to enjoy with other guests. The Nyati tent also houses the (in)famous “Poo Corner”…you won’t find honey, but an interesting display of African animal droppings, and a great conversation starter!
The facilities and guest tents shattered my long-held belief that camping was a less than luxurious way to live. Each tent was spacious and tastefully furnished. Most were in private seclusion, overlooking the plains and grouped together, suitable for family and friends. A ‘real’ bed and en-suite bathroom with a flushing toilet made life in the bush an extremely comfortable prospect. Gauze walls allowed the scent and sound of the Masai Mara to drift through your tent by day. Zip-up walls insulated you from the cool of the evening, along with the very welcome added touch of a hot water bottle in your bed each night.
Kicheche Mara Camp is unfenced, and so “guests” of the animal kind often wander through. Although a little common-sense caution and the ever-vigilant askaris (Masai watchmen) ensure that risk is minimized & enhanced experience maximized. These animal “guests” are the true residents of the Masai Mara and are primarily why most of us make the journey to Africa – to see “The Big Five”. An expression I’m not particularly fond of as it derives from the days of big game hunting. Although I must admit, to glimpse lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino, are enough to get anyone’s heart racing. All this is possible within minutes drive from the Camp.
Dawn, and a soft voice outside the tent rouses you to the aroma of a hot drink and freshly baked biscuits before an early morning game drive. The sun begins to trickle over the horizon, and we marvel at newborn zebra and antelope wobbling beside their mothers on uncooperative legs. I see a spotted hyena skulking along in the background hoping for an easy meal, while under a tree in the distance vultures are picking at the last remnants of an overnight kill…by lunchtime not a trace will remain. These scavengers are chilling evidence of what must have been a busy night for the predators. I find myself scanning the thickets of bush, unsuccessfully on this particular morning, for a glimpse of one. I begin to look forward to the hot breakfast I know is waiting for me back at the Camp.
After relaxing in the hammock under the trees outside my tent, I enjoy a delicious lunch served al fresco, as all meals are (weather permitting) while we discuss the morning’s sightings. During the early afternoon I’m entertained by the birdlife surrounding the campsite. Africa has sparked in me an interest I’d never expected to have – bird watching. And on a sunny afternoon, when most of the animals seek shade, it is a perfect pastime. I also spent a few self-indulgent afternoons sitting with a cool drink in front of my tent reading, or simply gazing out across the plains…emptying my mind of the hustle and bustle of the outside world, soaking up the peace and tranquility that lay before me.
A reviving cup of tea or coffee & a slice of still-warm-from-the-oven cake is fuel for a late afternoon game drive. We were all hoping to see a “big cat” today. Our anticipation was to be well rewarded. Our 4-wheel drive vehicles were comfortable and open, causing no distraction at all, as we took countless photographs of the Kicheche pride of lions resting under an acacia tree. They slept, squabbled, stretched and yawned. In many ways they really were just big cats. A short drive back to the Camp at sunset passing by a herd of Cape buffalo…What an amazing day!
We chatted excitedly around the campfire that evening before dinner. Johnstone and Daniel made sure we all shared in the tasty hors d’oeuvres, then James and Penny hosted a sumptuous dinner by candlelight for 24 of us – almost a ‘full house’. A most satisfying end to a surprisingly full day.
James planned to lead us on a nature walk early the next morning, escorted by an armed ranger. After an early breakfast we walked out toward the plains. Along the way he drew our attention to flora & bird life we’d not even noticed before. As we stepped out into the open a feast of plains game lay before us. The crisp morning air punctuated by the short sharp cries of the zebra. Then the sound of breaking branches came from a clump of trees off to the right. Our hearts skipped a beat as we realized only a few meters away was a family group of elephants browsing on leaves. We quietly walked on, our eyes glued to the mammoths nearby, and when far enough away erupted into nervous chatter. This was the game experience on an entirely different level…literally!
That afternoon, a solitary storm sabotaged plans for a late game drive. A little disappointed, we consoled ourselves with hot tea & warm cake (others with a Gin and Tonic or cold beer) as thunder & lightning crashed overhead, and rain pummeled the roof of the mess tent…Not an unpleasant way to while away the time.
Wanting to make the most of every minute at Kicheche, a full day safari gave us about 12 hours of game driving – at least that was the plan! But then what would a safari be without the unexpected interruption of getting stuck in the mud? Thanks to the previous evening’s thunderstorm. Another vehicle came by and helped tow us out. We continued across the plains hoping to sight a cheetah, (unfortunately we didn’t) on towards the famed Musiara Marsh.
Can you imagine eating a picnic lunch on the banks of the Mara River? Hippo huffing & puffing in the raging torrent below…looking across the plains in one direction more elephant than you could count… and in the other a large herd of giraffe, two of them “necking”? For giraffes, “necking” is far from amorous. To the contrary, it is frighteningly vicious. Two males fighting for dominance use their necks and heads as weapons, the clash sounding more like the crack of gunshot! The journey home was just as eventful with a visit to a ‘manyatta’ (ceremonial village) not far from Camp. The sights, sounds & smells of the Masai culture brought to life by the welcoming people within the village walls.
My last evening was tinged with a hint of sadness at the prospect of leaving the Camp. At the same time combined with excitement as I planned one last game drive the next morning, with a picnic breakfast. It didn’t matter to me exactly what I did or didn’t see, I just planned to enjoy it!
After lunch I said my goodbyes, countered with invitations to return as I’ve yet to see a cheetah or leopard in the Masai Mara, then departed Camp for the airstrip. As that Air Kenya flight took off, I waved goodbye to my daily companion & guide for the past week. My heart ached, and I longed to stay in that distinctive & beautiful landscape that is the Masai Mara.
What were fragmented memories and emotions only now, weeks after returning from Kicheche, have formed into cohesive sentences. Although this type of experience may not be for everyone, a visit to such a place really does offer relaxation, rejuvenation…and adventure.
I very much hope to one day to return to Kicheche Mara Camp.