Photos attached :
After spending what felt like a whole month checking travel websites, we decided to make the trip to Kenya, departing 5 February. We had enough airmiles for two first class tickets and it seemed a shame to waste them ! This was our fifth trip to the Mara in as many years and this time we decided to try a new camp, Royal Mara Safari Lodge in the Koiyaki conservancy just north of the reserve. We had booked (before the troubles) direct with the owner for six nights and received a rate substantially below rack rate.
Our BA flight into Nairobi from London only had around 60 passengers (15% of capacity) on board – we were amazed they were still running two flights a day. On arrival we were met by the camp owners who drove us to the Fairview for an overnight stay. We were thinking of staying at the Serena but that hotel was convened by Kofi Annan and all the Kenyan politicians for the mediation process ! Nairobi was more quiet than normal with no sign of trouble whatsoever. The Fairview hotel was ‘ok’ – our room (a premium room) was in an annex over the road from the main hotel building. If I had my time again I would request a standard room in the main hotel building which was much nicer.
In the morning we learned that we had been bumped from Air Kenya to Safarilink for the flight to the Mara – the reason being that, apart from us, Air Kenya only had guests staying in the East side of the reserve. Even the Safarilink plane was less than half full (around 8 passengers).
We arrived at the Musiara airstrip for the short 45 minute transfer to the camp. Royal Mara is owned by a Greek American and only opened last July. All the staff (bar 2 or 3) are Masai and the owner has a Masai partner who found the location and arranged a 33 year lease on the land. The “tents” are the most amazing I have seen by far …much better than either Cottars or Mara Explorer - they are huge with fantastic wood carvings. To give some idea of size, I needed to take around 6 photos to cover it all ! On arrival we discovered that we were the first guest since 27 January although a Mexican couple would be arriving the next day. It was a little spooky being on our own (with 20+ staff !) on the first day although we soon settled in. The food was very good – four course meals for lunch and five courses for dinner. It was better than any camp we have stayed at bar Mara Explorer. The camp itself has a fantastic location on a bend in the Mara river. It is unfenced with around 150 hippos as neighbours. They visited the camp at night as did buffalo, baboons, vervet monkeys, zebra, a genet cat and, on the last night, some lions. The security is excellent so there was never any danger !
Our driver (David) has previously worked on Big Cat Diary driving Jonathan Scott and needed all his 4 wheel drive skills given the rain that arrived for an hour or so most afternoons. This area of the Mara can be very difficult to navigate when it is wet but we never got stuck unlike others …. If anyone thinks that global warning is not having an effect they should have seen our first day – at 1pm we were sunbathing in 30C degree heat, by 2pm we had hailstones the size of penny pieces !
The ‘trouble’ has taken a huge toll on tourism and I estimate that the camps that were open had around 15% occupancy but that some had closed altogether. Overall, occupancy is probably running at around 10% instead of the usual 90% at this time of year. As a result many staff are being let go with undoubted tragic consequences for their families. It’s amazing the effect that two egoistic politicians can have …
The game in the area was excellent although we had to look hard given the lack of other tourists ! We had heard that, at this time of year, the Koiyaki area had more game than the reserve and this certainly appeared to be the case. There was plenty of plains game and the cat sightings were excellent. Over the six days (12 game drives) we saw around 6 different groups of lions (many of which had very small cubs), 5 sightings of 3 different groups of cheetah (a sole female, two brothers and a mother with two 18 month old cubs) and a leopard with two 3 month old cubs. Even through it was difficult to get good photos because of the light early morning and late at night, the leopard sightings were probably the highlight – we searched for them on most of the game drives and found them on three occasions. The cheetah were much more photogenic ! It was definitely ‘baby season’ in the Mara because we as well as the young cats, we also saw some very young hyena (who tried to get past their Dad who would not let them out of their den), and numerous young topi and zebra. Another highlight was watching a wildebeest giving birth – around 30 minutes of labour with the calf on its feet within 10-15 minutes of being born !
We also went on a game walk one day which was very enjoyable – unlike previous walks we saw a reasonable amount of game but no predators (except a lone hyena). We had been walking for around two hours and were beginning to wonder whether we would ever turn home for camp when we were surprised to see one of the camp staff – the camp manager had brought out three chefs and many of the staff to serve a surprise bbq in the middle of the plains. With no-one else in sight it was one of the most peaceful and relaxing scenes I have ever experienced.
So another short but very enjoyable trip to Kenya. The effect of the recent problems has had a massive effect on tourism and the Kenyan people yet we saw no trouble whatsoever. In fact, if you want to see the Mara’s big cats without other vehicles, this is the time to go ! I would also highly recommend Royal Mara as an excellent small luxury camp.
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Feb 2008 Royal Mara Trip report and photos
Photos attached :