Wednesday, August 5

Become an Explorer

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It’s like walking into liquid sunshine. The play of sunlight and the décor’s joyful colour scheme lifts your spirits and welcomes one with a warm embrace to the wild.

Mara Explorer is the height of safari chic, and is awash with a vibrancy and energy that crackles in the air,
setting the senses alight with rapture. This luxury permanent tented camp is designed to be airy, spacious and open to the sky, blending harmoniously with its vibrant surroundings on the twisting Talek River. The wind  whistling across the river is warm, and the lush green trees robing the opposite bank are dancing in the sunlight.

Edwin Nyamanga, General Manager of both Mara Explorer and its sister camp, Mara Intrepids, leads me down
a winding a tree-lined avenue on which African pots are arranged in tasteful groups at intervals. The birds are trilling joyously in the branches, and the heat is beating down as we arrive at the informal reception area.
Mara Explorer is the ideal getaway for couples and honeymooners, as children under 12-years-old are not allowed – the unfenced camp into which wild animals may wander and the hippo-filled river are too much of a security risk for the young ones.
To one side is a library of Africana and wildlife reference books, as well as novels in many languages. To the other is a comfortable lounge area and treasure trove of souvenirs for sale, but it is the stunning view that beckons. Leaning on the railing above the Talek River, the sun-washed view is spectacular: to the right, the river flows past boulders and a mongoose sunning itself on the sandy banks; to the right, tucked in a bend of the river, a large pod of hippos wallows in the shallow waters or basks in large family groups on an island sandbank.

Mariana Kathini, the gracious manager, explains the set up, and smiling says, “We do not consider our guests as anything but family!” The camp is run along strict ecoprinciples,and together with its sister camp, Intrepids, they run a Community Development Fund that channels a percentage of their fees into local community initiatives, including environmental awareness training, the establishment of medical clinics, and financial support for the local Talek Primary School.

Hippo Heaven The ten sheltered tents are set amongst the trees along the river, and are provided with walkie-talkies for summoning room service or a security escort during the night. A bathrobe, slippers, khanga and kikoi
are thoughtfully provided, as well as an ornate chest for locking up your valuables.

Declining the offer of a massage, I’m escorted to my tent – right atop the bathing hippos! Though the deluxe tent is comfortable and beautifully appointed, the deck jutting out above the massive beasts is even more inviting. The deep hippo snorts and grunts are a soothing melody playing on the warm breeze.

The massive beasts are crowded together, occasionally getting restless and shifting position, their mottled pink
bellies and grey hides shining wetly in the sun. Every now and then, one yawns, his gaping mouth and yellowed
tusks deadly looking against the deep green backdrop of fig, olive and pepper trees on the opposite bank.
A sporadic fluttering sound in the water gets me to my feet… I realise that the hippos are rapidly whisking their tails in the water in order to disperse their waste. Nearby hippos emit annoyed

grunts, and move away, the small, dainty calves staying close to their mothers’ fleshy bellies. grunt Eventually, the heat becomes oppressive, and I head indoors.

“Amazingly, Explorer has placed a
Victorianstyle bathtub with shower
attachment and clawed feet on the
open deck, overlooking the hippos”

Wrapping myself in the thoughtfully provided khanga (there is a kikoi, as well), I lie down on the cool bed and peruse the magazines and other literature from the writing desk. Before long, late afternoon shadows creep
along the verandah, and it’s time for a bit of self-indulgence before dinner… Amazingly, Explorer has placed a
Victorian-style bathtub with shower attachment and clawed feet on the open deck, overlooking the hippos! I can’t
resist, and step outside to the pathway where I plant the spear provided into a niche in the paving – as in Maasai tradition, this signifies that I do not want to be disturbed by my butler or any other person!

The breeze warm upon my skin, I sink into a hot bubble bath, alone and pleasantly secluded. It is a dreamlike
experience: covered in bubbles under a bright blue sky, the verdant trees whispering in the wind, sunlight sparkling on the Talek river where hippos snort and shift in the muddy water below…

Wild Times

I tuck into a delicious dinner of excellently prepared and presented lamb chops with fellow guest, famous wildlife photographer Roger Hooper and his companion. He is out from the UK on one of his frequent visits to Mara Explorer, his favourite haunt, where he
can meet and take special excursions with Paul Kirui, one of only two gold holders for guiding excellence in the country. Paul, whose passion is vultures, is the Mara Explorer resident naturalist and is internationally renowned, his exploits including stints with BBC and other documentary film makers.

Back at the tent, glow-worms pulse brightly in the dark foliage around me and moths flutter against the lantern. I cannot resist yet another satisfying bath on the deck. The night is exploding with sound – cicadas in full throttle, hippos softly splashing out of the water or making their way up the muddy banks. It’s like a jazz symphony, soft melodies floating on the night air, and the whole scene lit by a shining moon and glittering stars. At night it can get bitterly cold, but the hot water bottle keeps me warm under the soft, downy duvet, and I’m warmly cocooned under the mosquito net. Night birds are trilling warbling and twittering in the trees, and frogs are croaking on the riverbank.
A wild and soothing symphony to put me to sleep… In the morning I wake to the calming coo of doves, the trill of a francolin, and the soft splash of hippos making their way back into the river – massive grey shadows in the early dawn light.

Breakfast is prepared when I’m ready, and we set off an a mid-morning game drive. Leisurely trolling the rolling
grasslands, we spot a grey heron on the Talek banks, and lions splayed out under a ‘crouton’ tree, has insect repellent properties.

Walking with Lions

Paul Tanui, a Mara Explorer guide, takes me on a truly wonderful game drive in search of the big cats. We
are determined to spot a leopard, my favourite animal, and Paul does his best. We search single-mindedly along the river banks, where egrets and herons stand at attention in the golden sunlight. A large pack of baboons saunters past us in a leafy glade, their eyes watchful, the arrogant stares of the large grey
males a little intimidating.

We catch a glimpse of a crocodile slipping almost silently back into the murky water of the Mara River, and
shiver at the menace it seems to radiate. In a shady forest area, we come upon a family of giraffes, their limpid eyes black and lustrous in the sunshine and ringed by enviably thick, long lashes.

With craning necks, the adults reach for the highest branches, their tongues wet and glistening as they snap leaves off the trees, as their delicate babies on spindly legs browse on lower attractions. During our search, we admire the multihued copper, bronze and shimmering blue topi that graze the plains, and watch the antics of the amusing mongooses that dance across the grass.

Elephants, ostriches, buffalo and zebra dot the savannah in patches of black and white colour against the clear blue backdrop of the sky and undulating emerald plains that seem to stretch on for eternity.

We eventually spot a group of vans centered on a tawny shape in the grass. Approaching, we realise that it is
a lioness, and not far away her huge mate lies in the long grass above a riverbed. The lioness is serene in her
self-containment, happily enjoying the attention, and sleepily blinking in the sunlight.

The lion stretches, yawns, tosses his great black mane, and then languorously rises on his massive paws before loping towards us. His sleek, pale gold coat ripples with muscles as he passes within inches of our vehicle,
casting an indifferent glance from glinting amber eyes at the gawping tourists.

Further along, we spy two lionesses cuddled together in the tall grass, and then a pair of short-maned lions
sleeping off a heavy meal. All the lions are comfortable with our presence, and I recall a scientific study that explains the phenomenon: lions use the odour of the vehicles to mask their own scent downwind when stalking prey. This is symbiosis at work in the 21st century!

But what of the leopard? It is late afternoon, and I’m resigned to imminent disappointment, but Paul
has one last trick up his sleeve… Turning into a dense thicket of trees, he manoeuvres the 4WD behind another already parked, its occupants watching  something in a twisted tangle of bush. Keen-eyed Paul points, and as my eyes adjust to the gloom I see a leopard through my binoculars… at last! Her camouflage is perfect, and it’s only her eyes, fixed on us, that give away her position. She shifts, her body rippling with graceful strength, and we see that she is protecting a fluffy grey cub, surely only days old.

This is the magic of the Mara, and I have thrilling tales for the campfire dinner at Mara Explorer tonight!


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