The wonders of the Masai Mara
A combination of kind-hearted locals, epic wildlife and high‑end lodges make Kenya’s Masai Mara a winner
The sun sits low on the horizon, seemingly resting on the plains of the Masai Mara. It’s just before 5am and I’m in the back of a Jeep eagerly wondering what my first game drive in Kenya might deliver.
The 20-minute drive from my home – the recently refurbished Sanctuary Olonana – to the gates of the national reserve is a peaceful one, filled with hope: hope that we’ll see everything on our animal wish list.
As we approach the entrance, the peace is broken. We’re greeted by a horde of excitable Kenyan schoolchildren on their bus. “Jambo, jambo!” they shout repeatedly, almost in unison. Hands fling out of the window and the bus almost appears to lurch to one side as the youngsters run to the window to thrust their heads out and flash their beaming bright white grins at us.
As our Jeep overtakes the bus, one booming young voice stands out from the crowd. “Welcome to Kenya!” it cries, and with that I certainly feel at home.
This year, Sanctuary Retreats has focused on refurbishing its lodge portfolio almost in its entirety.
The changes at Sanctuary Olonana are particularly marked, with nothing left untouched. Previously a tented camp, the property now has 14 wonderfully modern glass‑sided suites overlooking the Mara River – home to a vocal family of grunting hippo, which are even chattier after dark while guests attempt to sleep.
Each riverside suite is located along a winding cobblestone pathway, along which guests are escorted after dark by the property’s security team.
Spread across two floors, each suite has ample space, with a sumptuous bed on the mezzanine level and a vast seating area on the lower level. Suite 12 was my little slice of heaven. The bed deserves further explanation. Yes, it was ridiculously comfy, with thick, crisp cotton sheets. But it was the heated mattress which caused me to roll around with excitement. Turning in for the night had never been better.
On safari, it’s often the case that guests fail to spend much time in their suites, keen instead to be out in the wilderness. Here, that would be an error. Every suite has a desk with writing materials for those who, like me, become inspired during their visit. Each also has a yoga mat and exercise equipment, which compensate for the property’s lack of a gym. And after your mini workout, you can raid your minibar, which is stocked with soft drinks, local beers (try the delicious Tusker) and South African wines.
Each suite also has a private deck area with a daybed, although my preferred relaxation spot was being submerged in the deep, freestanding bath, which offered equally wonderful views across the river.
Another new feature in the bathrooms is a three-headed ‘rain shower’. I couldn’t help but feel this wasted a lot of water, but I can appreciate its appeal to guests eager to get ready quickly ahead of an early-morning game drive.
The transformation of Sanctuary Olonana has also made the property more family-focused with the addition of three two‑bedroom suites. On the food front, Olonana exceeds expectations too, with head chef ‘Big John’ serving up exquisite culinary delights. However, breakfast is far outshone by the dinner offering.
Animal sightings come thick and fast on the Mara. For us, it started with a lone elephant, followed by a parade of giraffes lolloping across the plains, towering as high as the umbrella-like acacia trees that dot the landscape and give the Masai Mara its name (Mara means ‘the spotted land’).
Next, we saw several lone rhinos navigating their way through the bush. And we couldn’t move without seeing an abundance of topi, an antelope indigenous to the Mara and the neighbouring Serengeti. While the Mara is a complete delight, I was a little overwhelmed by the number of vehicles roaming around the open reserve, all vying for the best spots when an animal sighting was reported. This was particularly evident during a sighting of the wildebeest migration, something I’d always dreamt of seeing.
Our driver, Benson, had warned us of the human chaos that surrounds the migration each year. His own approach was to maintain a respectful distance to allow the wildebeest to roam freely. Other drivers, however, had a different tactic, opting for closer, more-intrusive positions so their vehicles could lurch forward as soon as the first wildebeest cautiously approached the river.
It was particularly disappointing to see how these overeager 4x4s, all jostling to get in place for the best photographs, even forced the wildebeest to completely change direction.
We chose to head away from the dramas of the migration. Instead, we set our sights on big cats – and were quickly rewarded. On one occasion we spotted an enormous lion, resting under a shady tree. Escaping the blistering midday sunshine, he wistfully rested his head on his gigantic paws. Soon, the reason for his exhaustion became clear as another furry face appeared: that of his beautiful female companion. “They’ve been mating,” Benson explains. “And now they’ll rest for some time before they get hungry.” But the highlight of our game drive was yet to come. After we’d munched on lots of tasty treats over a lunch in the bush, Benson bundled us back into the car. He’d heard lionesses were on the prowl. The engine started and we shot off in the direction of the last sighting, but the track soon went cold. Benson stopped the car and asked us to sit quietly so he could listen to our surroundings. Suddenly, from nowhere, a group of at least 10 lionesses and their cubs came into view through the thick reeds of grass. They strolled past our vehicle, so nonchalant they could have been on a fashion show runway. We sat in awe, so close we could hear them breath. As the lionesses began to disappear from sight, those of us in the vehicle let out our squeals of excitement. But Benson calmed us down. He’d spotted something else – one last cub slowly meandering along behind the pack. The youngster moved aimlessly, with barely enough energy to pick up each leg. We could see blood dripping from his mouth, and feared his lack of energy was due to injury. Benson, however, explained the cub had simply overindulged and eaten so much that his legs couldn’t carry the extra weight (much like I’d felt after the ample dinner served up the night before by Big John and his team). The cub’s mum returned to his side and encouraged him to speed up, knowing even lion cubs are at risk from predators in the wild.
The human touch
Animals aside, it was the people that made my trip to Kenya special. On a visit to the closest Maasai village to Sanctuary Olonana, I learnt from one of the village elders, sang with the women and watched male warriors spring up and down showcasing their jumping-dance tradition.
Eager to delve deeper into life here, I asked the lodge to arrange a visit to a local school. The lodge has a partnership with Enkereri Primary School – part of its wider aim to support the local community – and provides a healthy lunch for all the students each day. During my stay, fellow lodge guests expressed their delight that their visit was having a positive impact on the surroundings.
The schoolchildren, who had all finished their exams on the morning of our visit, were keen to practise their English skills by singing and asking us questions.
When I took my phone out to take a photo, I was mobbed by excitable students wanting to be in a selfie. And I’ll never forget the sound and sight of scores of happy children running alongside our Jeep as we waved goodbye and headed to the airport. It was a happy sight that will be etched in my mind for years to come, just like the sound of those children on the bus on my first game drive.
By embracing the culture of the Masai Mara, I discovered it’s not just visitors who give something back to the community here, but the kind Maasai people, with their excitable waves and bright smiles, who have a big impact on visitors too.
Nightly rates at Sanctuary Olonana start from $357 depending on the length of stay and the season.
PiETER VAN DER SCHEE - Global Sales Director, Sanctuary Retreats
Aspire asked the Sanctuary sales boss to reveal his three favourite aspects of the refurbished Sanctuary Olonana:
“The transformation has been amazing. It has been truly dramatic – changing from a relatively rustic, traditional tented camp to an impressive showcase of modern design with 14 suites, built of glass, steel and stone.”
“The single most exciting feature for me is the floor-to-ceiling glass walls which put you right in the middle of the lush woodland on the banks of the Mara River, which you can see from your balcony, your bed and your bath.”
“The Masai Mara is the most‑renowned safari destination in Africa, home to the big five and stage to the great annual wildebeest migration. Another wonderful feature of Sanctuary Olonana is dining on the deck of the main lodge, overlooking the river’s resident hippos. From there you can also see and hear all the exotic birdlife that’s all around, from falcons and storks to eagles and nightjars, in one sitting.”
Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.