When people ask about our favorite place we have visited, Peter and I in unison will respond, Mahali Mzuri which is Sir Richard Branson’s Kenyan Safari Camp in the Maasai Mari. As such, I find this post to be the most daunting to write about.
We didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare and looking back, we never could have. From the safari drives in the African bush, to the surprises around every corner at Mahali Mzuri and the over-the-top service where you leave feeling like you’ve developed friendships, not just staff relations, it was all so great. Even just going through the gazillion pictures and choosing which ones to share is a challenge. I hope that I can properly capture our highlights of a most magical trip.
Peter and I found ourselves in the Wilson Airport lounge basically smiling at each other with excitement. I think we were trying to get the Kenyan smile down. How’s this for a happy guy? He had done all the planning so had more of an inkling of what we were about to embark on and it shows in his excitement.
After a quick coffee we boarded a small 13 passenger plane to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the famous game park in Kenya.
We received quick safety instructions from our captain and we were off for a 45 minute short plane ride. The plane stopped in various dirt landing strips in the Maasai Mara and our stop was the last. This made Peter very happy, a lover of planes. We had the joy of multiple take-offs and landings on true African dirt runways and really seeing a lot of the Kenyan landscape. At each stop, new passengers would join our plane having just ended their journey and I noticed that the people that we picked up were all bear hugging their guides. I was hoping this was fortuitous and we would be engaging in the same sort of happiness when we left 5 days later.
As we approached the runway for our stop, we noticed a number of giraffes at the edge of the runway grazing on trees. As we lowered our elevation and the propeller noise was amplified at ground level, the giraffes went running into the distance. It was the best landing we had ever seen. We disembarked on the dirt runway and were greeted by one of the Mahali Mzuri guides, Jackson. He led us to a safari jeep, loaded up our suitcases and we were off. Or so we thought. He quickly pulled around the corner, under a beautiful tree where Jackson explained that he wanted to give us a celebratory welcome drink but didn’t want to do so in front of other passengers staying at different resorts. Just another example of courteous service of the Kenyan’s. A bottle of champagne was popped.
Here is Jackson and an example of that Kenyan smile I have been mentioned a few times. See what I mean? A smile with not just his mouth, but his eyes and heart too. You can’t help but be happy around smiles like this.
We were off again – this time with a glass of champagne in us and a beer for the road. Why not? We were celebrating after all. It wasn’t long until we started seeing glimpses of wildlife. A couple conversations we had with Jackson went something like:
“Where are we?
Jackson, with a chuckle. ”Heaven.”
“This place is unbelievable.”
Jackson with calm confidence. ”Yeah. It’s a very special place.”
The drive from the runway to the resort took about 45 minutes as we traveled into complete exclusion. How on Earth did Richard Branson find this place, we wondered.
When we arrived to our home for the next five nights we were greeted by a cast of characters. Kim, the young attractive British manager with a winning personality. Frieda, the hostess with the mostess. Our esteemed chefs as well as the Masai Mara warriors that walked us to our room at night offering protection from the animals.
Here’s Kim. Notice what she is holding. One of the many reasons I loved this girl. Oh and is that a ghost in the picture?
This is Frieda.
A few things about Frieda. First, I feel that I am rivaling the Kenyan smile in this picture. Also one of the first conversations I had with Frieda went, “Wow Frieda you have the best laugh. I bet a lot of people tell you that.” With another laugh and a hand on her hip she smiled even bigger and replied, “Of course AND they like my smile too.” This was immediately followed be an eruption of laughter at her own comment. Don’t you love her? On top of that she wore the best outfits. One day it would be a beautiful colorful dress. The next a bright gold shirt with a smart skirt. I could barely contain myself around her. I invited Frieda to visit us in California. Fingers crossed.
After some introductions and another glass of champagne we were escorted to our room. By room, I mean a tent and by tent I mean a tent that is actually a suite. It is like nothing I have ever seen or known to exist. They call it “glamping” which is a play on words meshing up ‘glamour’ and ‘camping.’ We had a large room with separate bathroom which included a tub overlooking the valley where you could watch animal life as you soaked. A private deck where you could relax or practice yoga all while scanning the landscape for lions. The resort only has 12 tents which just adds to the serenity and tranquility of the atmosphere. Another bonus for us, traveling during the low season, we had the entire camp to ourselves a couple nights and shared it the other nights with just one other couple.
The private deck got a lot of daily use. The view alone was enough to leave us captivated for lengths at a time. And hands down the best scenery I have ever had while doing yoga. The hotel was equipped with WiFi and I would often catch Peter laughing and saying something like, “I’m writing ads while looking at elephants grazing next to impalas.” He was happy.
The majority of our time was spent going on safaris. We would typically go on two a day. Our morning games drives started at 6:30 AM and the evenings drives started at 4 PM. These would last anywhere from 3-4 hours and were surprisingly pretty tiring.
Our first game drive was the day we arrived for the evening tour. That’s when we met our eagle eyed guide, Vincent. Vincent was our guide for our entire stay which made each safari excursion very personalized. After a couple days Vincent knew what we had seen and what we were hoping to see so he could cater specifically to us. By the end we felt like old friends. How can you not when someone gives you an experience of a lifetime day after day. Quick note on Vincent. He had a calm confidence to him and a serious professionalism. He didn’t have the gregarious personality of some of the other locals we met, but that was alright. Your life is kind of in this guys hands so seriousness is appreciated. He could also speak to the animals with all sorts of noises and could triangulate sound from miles away to know exactly where the action was taking place. You could tell he was happiest in the bush amongst the animals.
Here’s Peter and I with our friend Vincent. You can see what I mean from his expression.
We went on many memorable game drives all unique, educational, and thrilling. The following are highlights from each.
As we started our first game drive we didn’t know what to expect, weren’t really prepped on what to expect and had zero expectations. Its mother nature you’re dealing with and we have had the privilege of game driving in South Africa so knew that some drives are great and some are dry. However, the next thing we know was that we were pulled up next to a couple cheetahs lounging in the sun. We pulled up close. Real close.
Shortly after having our minds blown by being up close and personal with cheetahs, Vincent got a call from another guide and we were off. This time to see a pride of lions feasting on a buffalo. We were in deep and we never looked back. This was legit wildlife safari stuff and we were having the time of our lives.
As Peter and I were sitting, watching, trying to process what was going on, literally listening to lions ripping off buffalo skin and feasting on the meat, Vincent offered me a glass of wine and peanuts. It was an IMAX theater experience in real life. We settled in, poured some out for the buffalo and toasted the lions on an entertaining evening.
Bravo Richard Branson.
The other lions in the pride that weren’t feasting provided cuter entertainment. Particularly the cubs.
That first night we were treated to an exquisite sunset. There is truly something special about the expansive African landscape and the sunsets. Extra bonus to have a pride of lions be a part of our first safari sundown.
When we got back to the camp the staff were eager to to hear all about our time in the bush. We were given a cold towel and escorted to the lounge where we were served a drink and everyone regaled in our stories. Everyone seemed genuinely interested and excited for us. Just another example of the stupendous service and kindness of the staff.
Our next safari was another evening drive. Again we were on our own with Vincent.
And of course the animal kingdom.
Look at that giraffe. How can you not feel joy when that majestic creature is looking at you like that so close?
Or a herd of elephants including babies.
Or a sleeping King.
Like the night before Vincent received a call and we were off. This always raised excitement for us because we never knew what we were going to to see, but by the speed he was driving, we knew it was going to be good.
This time it was the elusive leopard. This nocturnal animal is challenging to get a glimpse of during the day and typically remains hidden in trees and bushes, camouflaged by the leaves until they come out for a kill. They are strong, quick, and utterly beautiful. And there one was in throwing distance from our car. Peter and I were besides ourselves.
In the last picture where you can see the leopard gets up. He walked (a leopard’s walk deserves a cooler name than just walk) towards our jeep and along side it. Without knowing it, I reflexively jumped on my seat fearing danger. Vincent informed me that I needed to “sit down.” It was at this point that I felt the need to have a conversation with Vincent about the animals and our safety. Vincent assured me that “as long as you are in the jeep – safe. Not in the jeep – not safe.” And when the animals are close, we shouldn’t make any big sudden movements. Apparently the animals are use to to the jeeps and it is never a problem of safety as long as all body parts are inside the open aired jeep. I took his word for it.
As if seeing the leopard wasn’t enough. A handful of minutes later the leopard darted off and came up with a kill. The leopard moved swiftly up a tree with a baby impala where he hung his kill on a branch. Vincent at one point shook his head in disbelief and said to us, “you are so lucky.” Its really hard to spot a leopard and to witness a leopard’s kill was even more rare.
Of course all of this was enjoyed with a sundowner (a sunset drink). Sundowner is officially my favorite new word.
After sunset we headed back to the resort but not without a bit of drama. Our jeep encountered a flat tire. Recall the conversation I had with Vincent about safety. Well now here he is jumping out of the jeep to fix our tire in the dark. Being trapped in the bush in the dark was a little nerve-wrecking. Impressively he did so effortlessly and with quick precision.
A couple skipped heartbeats later and we returned to our quarters. We were greeted as always with smiles, enthusiasm and eagerness to hear more about the leopard spotting. Peter and I enjoyed a quite dinner on the resort deck. We had the entire place to ourselves.
The next day was our first morning drive. Waking up to a wildlife sunrise is one of the better ways I have ever started my day. The jeep was supplied with a packed breakfast, blankets, and hot water bottles to keep us warm. The mornings were chilly and we would literally roll out of bed and load up into the jeeps.
We started the morning by observing some of the behaviors of a pride of lions. At some point in a young male lion’s life he is chased out of the pride by the mother and or father so that he can stand on its own, find its own territory and start a family. We were witnessing the mother aggressively roaring and chasing away its two sons from the pride. The boys didn’t want to leave and laid down in protest. It wasn’t long before the mother used our jeep as a shield so she could sneak up behind and surprise the two sons lying down with terrifyingly scary roar. If we were those boys, we would have been in half-way to Tanzania shortly after the first roar.
In the distance we saw the feared one approaching, the male blacked maned king.
He was coming straight for us! Peter switched the camera to video mode….
The rest of the pride of females watched as the king of the jungle successfully scared off the young lions with a simple slowed paced walk and look.
Just then we got a call and were off to our next adventure. The leopard from the night before was stirring. On our way we came across this cheetah who was enjoying his breakfast.
Then it was on to the leopard. It felt so odd leaving a cheetah eating its prey for something better to look at!
Once again we were given a show by the leopard as he walked out of the bush, leapt and climbed up a tree with the quickest of movements. The leopard then proceeded to “play” with his dead prey from the night before by boxing it till the baby impala fell out of the tree. Just as quickly as the leopard climbed the tree he maneuvered back down collecting his prey and disappeared into the thick bush. What a morning!
To top off our morning we enjoyed a packed breakfast right there in the bush with the animal kingdom, Vincent on lookout.
This breakfast is when we learned a bit more about Vincent, the Masai Mara people, and some of the vast differences in our two cultures.
And this amazing story….
In the Maasai culture there is a transition into manhood. This transition is achieved by the tradition of the boy stealing the prey of a lion. Yep, you read that right. A group of boys will approach a lion or group of lions feasting on a prey. They will then cut off the limb of the prey and take it back to the village as a symbol of manhood. Knowing this culture, we asked Vincent if he had stole the prey of a lion when he was young. And despite his stoicism, his lips lifted into a subtle smile and he shook his head in the affirmative. Peter, filled with intrigue, asked Vincent what the trick is. “Never hesitate,” Vincent replied. “Whatever happens, do not hesitate. No matter how loud the lion is roaring or looking like they are about to pounce, do not hesitate. Make yourself look big and walk directly without hesitation.”
And I thought Alaskan men were tough.
Interestingly enough I later read in a book titled An African Love Story that unless lions are the aggressor they are actually quite cowardly. Hence the saying, cowardly lion. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that stealing from a lion is extraordinarily brave (and crazy).
We asked Vincent if he has ever been in any scary situations with the animals.
He relayed a story to us about herding cows away from the predatory animals in the Maasai Mara, his job before becoming a safari guide. One day he had seen a leopard in the distance, but continued with the cows nevertheless. Shortly after spotting the leopard he looked down and noticed his leg was bleeding accompanied by a sharp pain. Without noticing the leopard had come up to him and bit him around the leg. It all happened so fast and Vincent believes his body went in a state of shock in which he blacked out the experience. After he finished his story Vincent put his leg on the dashboard and puled his pants to his knee where he revealed bite marks that wrapped around his entire leg. Vincent is lucky he didn’t loose the bottom part of his leg in that leopard fight.
When we later spoke to the British manager, Kim, about Vincent and the leopard she told us she never knew that story. Talk about a humble guy. If I had ever been bit by a leopard everyone would know that about me.
The next story was a test of recognizing cultural differences. We got into a discussion on celebrities because Richard Branson’s properties are frequented by the famous. We asked Vincent if he had guided celebrities and he acknowledged that Demi Lovato, Christian Aguilera, and a some Middle Eastern prince and been in his jeep. When we asked who his dream celebrity would be he told us, “Celine Dion.” We certainly weren’t expecting that answer from a 26 year old Kenyan. Somehow the conversation then turned to the topic of divorce and how so many celebrities seem to have broken marriages. Vincent shook his head and said “there is something wrong with those people.” I asked him about divorce in his village.
Vincent explained that the entire village must agree to a divorce between a couple and it has to be due to something really bad.
“Like a man beating his wife?” I guessed.
“No. A man beating his wife is normal,” he replied. “Um, a man beating his wife is not normal,” I quipped back. “People getting so many divorces is not normal” was his response.
I realized at that moment that Vincent and I were both judging cultures and we were both right and wrong. It was a strange feeling. I felt very unimpressed with Vincent for a few moments thinking he might beat his wife and realizing at the same time he was looking down at America for being seemingly callous and aloof about the sanctity of marriage, something his culture takes very seriously. It takes the entire community to get a divorce in Maasai Mara, meaning it basically never happens. They take marriage as seriously as the U.S. takes assaulting women. It was best to move on and ask him about what other kinds of music he likes in addition to the Canadian crooner. A much lighter conversation.
That evening we set out on our evening safari and once again were not disappointed despite the new guest at the resort, a Scottish man, who amused himself by producing a number of terrible jokes about Americans. He started with, “I’m not worried about the animals because they will go after the Americans first.” We laughed, but the America bashing wouldn’t stop. “Your Presidents have really messed up the Middle East, haven’t they.” It went on and on as if we were the decision makers of the planet and the punching bag for all anti-American jokes and commentary. Every story seemed to begin with an ignorant American he had met while managing his business. It was all together startling and offensive. We chose to ignore and and pay attention to the animals.
We started off with a bang with a cheetah and a double rainbow.
We checked in with our pride of lions.
And ended with giraffes on the horizon of the African night sky.
That night we had dinner with the Scottish couple, Robyn and Mena, where Peter and Robyn spoke geopolitics, Sunnis and Shiites, Ottoman Empire history and much more. I think it was at this point that Robyn discovered we weren’t dumb Americans and possibly gained a little respect for us. Either way we did have a nice evening with them.
Vincent mixed things up the next morning as he knew we had seen most of the highlight animals so took us to the hippo pond. But just looking at the hippo pond wasn’t going to be enough for Vincent. He took the jeep to a crossing in the pond and drove right into the water putting us up close and personal with the hippos in our invisible shield (hippos account for the most human deaths in Africa).
We also saw a pride of lions staring down a buffalo though no action.
The highlight of the day, however, occurred on our drive back to the resort after our evening drive. The resort had set-up a special dinner for us in the bush. We were completely surprised! The staff had put together an outdoor restaurant with a huge bbq, a fully stocked bar, bonfire, dinner table and even a portable toilet covered by a tent that created a bathroom. It was such a special treat.
It was fantastic. Peter and I sat around the bonfire with Kim, Robyn, and Mena chatting about our game drive when suddenly there were a group of Masaai Mara men wearing traditional clothing gathered around the fire. They went into a performance of song and dance.
I am a huge fan of song and dance and to see traditional Maasai culture in the bush, it couldn’t get much better. And then it did. As the dancers started to circle the bonfire in chant and dance, they grabbed me to dance with them around the bonfire. I was beyond thrilled.
I later told Peter they knew a good dancer when they see one.
We sat down in the bush for dinner with Kim and our new Scottish friends. Unfortunately Robyn continued to air his American hate until we politely called him out on it. A little defensiveness was followed the next morning by apologies and all was well and good again. Peter and I both feel that our time away from the US only makes us more patriotic and reinforces the gratitude we have for being American. We figuratively hugged it out with Robyn after he “deeply apologized” and we even snapped a picture with our new friends.
That morning game drive was mellow but a beautiful way to start our day. We also saw our first hyena and I decided they are the ugliest animal on the planet. Vincent told us they eat their prey alive. Most predators will pin their prey down and suffocate them until they die and then eat. Not hyenas. They literally will eat your face off as you are screaming or be half way down with consuming your body before you die.
I also decided on this drive that cheetahs are terrifying, mainly from this picture.
Our next game drive was our last evening drive before we left the next day and it was magical. Robyn and Mena had decided to sit this one out. For some reason when it was just Peter and I we had really, really good drives. We called it “good safari mojo.” I think the three of us (Vincent, Peter and me) were in tune with the animal kingdom energies on our drives. Vincent never mentioned it, but with his eyes he said something like, “you and Peter are animal spirits.” Or something like that. Poor Robyn. All he wanted was to see a leopard and on this drive we saw him for the third time with another kill.
We also saw our first kill and what Vincent called a prey poach.
A jackal had injured an impala and was trying to finish him off just when a hyena showed up. When the jackal spotted the hyena he ran away from his prey (hyena’s have bad eyesight) hoping the hyena wouldn’t see the impala. What was even crazier is that the impala laid motionless, playing dead, despite it still being alive. The hyena knew the jackal was on to something and eventually sniffed out the impala. Right when the hyena got close to the impala it ran for its life. But the hyena easily caught the impala and disgustingly devoured him alive. It took me a bit to reel back from watching this. It’s a mystery to me how I use to shoot ducks with the men in my family.
If you look closely at this first picture you can see the jackal in the background watching the hyena take its kill bite.
I asked Vincent to lighten the mood if he could find us a baby giraffe because my niece wanted a picture of one. Of course he quickly delivered.
Most night drives ended with the main event. Where we would enjoy a sundowner and maybe some snacks. It’s like happy hour but with live animals doing unpredictable things. This last main event was surely the oddest thing we saw in our time spent in the bush.
We gained more insight into lion behavior and it just got weirder and weirder.
In this particular pride the King (male lion) had recently been chased out by another male lion who now runs the show. The problem is that the previous King’s wife had just birthed cubs and will not having any sexual interest in the new King while caring for the old King’s cubs. The new king therefore was out to kill the cubs to win the affection and attention of the female. Vincent told us it was a matter of time until the cubs were killed by the male. However, in a weird game of distracting the male, the older daughters of the female would appease the lion by having sex with him to calm him from killing the cubs. To put it in other words, the Mom pimps out her daughters to be raped by the new King in an effort to protect her babies. During this battle once again our jeep was used as a shield in between the lion and lioness. It was bizarre and simultaneously very scary. We were literally between a mother lion fighting for her babies. Not a place I really want to be. At one point Vincent moved the jeep so I asked him, “was that getting dangerous?” “No. I just wanted to get a better angel.”
Peter turned the camera to video mode again (sorry its a bit shaky, but ya know….)
That night we returned to our camp a little disturbed and puzzled about the events we just witnessed. But to distract us from the weirdness of the Animal Kingdom, Kim hit a home run for us. The resort is all inclusive and I had spotted a bottle of Veuve Clicqout in the bar area refrigerator and mentioned to Kim that it was our celebratory drink so she had it on ice when we returned from our last evening game drive. We enjoyed the bottle before dinner and then were given another bottle on ice at dinner. Feeling good from two bottles of Veuve, we walked back with our Maasai to our room only to find a third bottle awaiting in our room on ice. What divine service! We saved the third bottle and enjoyed it on my birthday the following week. I should have told her I also enjoyed gelato as a nightcap to see where that would have got me.
Our last drive was in the morning before we had to catch our hopper plane back to Nairobi. It was a fairly calm morning until we came across a huge pack of hyenas feasting on a buffalo. There was also a small army of vultures ready to clean up the scraps while airing out their wings while waiting. Quite a sight.
We headed back to camp where we enjoyed our last breakfast and conversations with all our new friends.
The entire staff gathered around and waved as we drove off in our jeep and admittedly I got choked up. I didn’t know it then but I do now - that time out in the bush had opened our eyes to an entirely different world of people and animals that had touched us in our souls and our hearts. It was an absolutely priceless experience that we both feel so blessed to have shared together.
Our African journey continues in Zanzibar.