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For all the animals I see in Kenya – the great herds of zebra and the dainty Thomson’s gazelle, mangy hyenas, all but one of the Big Five, dik-diks, vultures, jackals, a black mamba and a lost-looking domestic cat – there is one golden-maned beast that is conspicuously absent: the king of the corporate jungle and owner of the country’s newest safari camp, Sir Richard Branson.
It’s a tiny bit disappointing, because Mahali Mzuri (Swahili for “beautiful place”) is the latest jewel in the Branson crown, the highest of high-end safari “camps” (it’s “camping” in roughly the same sense that visiting the supermarket meat aisle might be considered “hunting”) and a sister property to Necker Island in the Caribbean, Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco and Ulusaba in South Africa. Disappointing because when Richard Branson launches something new, he tends to celebrate by wearing women’s clothing or jumping off something.
He’s there in spirit, though, we’re told – having personally chosen the name and soft furnishings – and there are Branson ambassadors in residence, including Liam Breedveld, an Australian operations manager who used to be a chef on Necker or, as he puts it, “the Branson mothership”. He has been schooled in the Branson way, he says, which is “very informal, we treat people like family”. Though I can’t imagine my mother acceding to Liam’s suggestion that he “spend all morning making sushi and then swim it out to you in the pool”, as he used to do on Necker.
But then, as it says on the side of the 4x4s, this isn’t just another safari camp, it’s “Sir Richard Branson’s safari camp”. And, there he is, grinning from ear to ear, in the welcome brochure in our rooms (sorry, tents), casually mentioning the fact that he was made a Masai elder in 2007, “an honour rarely bestowed on anyone who isn’t a Masai by birth”, which “reaffirmed my love for this beautiful country and culture”. (It’s a happy coincidence, of course, that the shade of red that the Masai favour just happens to be Virgin’s corporate colour.)
He’s right, though: it is a beautiful country and culture. Stunning, in fact. This is the Africa of the imagination. The hour-long journey from the Mara North landing strip (the only airport I’ve ever been to which employs a man to wrestle warthog off the runway) takes us bumping over hills covered with acacia trees and out on to the east African plains, a vast landscape dotted with game where the semi-nomadic Masai have grazed their cattle for centuries. Or at least they had – until the 1960s, when a national reserve was created and they were kicked off the land. They settled on the Mara’s fringes and carried on their traditional lifestyle, or tried to, until 2000, when a land reform act started subdividing the land.
Tarn Breedveld, general manager of Mahali Mzuri (and Liam’s older brother), explains the dangers: “People started fencing off the land, using it for ranching or charcoal production, potentially disrupting the entire ecosystem. The wildlife can’t roam, the cattle can’t graze, and the entire Masai culture comes under threat.”
Tarn (“my parents named me after a mountain pool”) is not your average hotel manager. He didn’t work his way up via the Ritz Carlton and the Holiday Inn. He spent five years sleeping in a tent, negotiating land rights with 270 Masai leaseholders and setting up a community trust. It was only a year ago that they finally broke ground and started building.
The result is the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, which seems to be a win-win for all concerned. A consortium of five safari camps lease the land, paying rent to the Masai, as well as a tax of $5 per person per night which goes to the trust. There’s a strict quota system. The land is protected, the Masai get paid and visitors get to see the Mara’s abundant game without the massed hordes of Land Rovers that afflict the reserve itself.
The camp isn’t too shabby either. But then that’s not a total shock given that it costs $995 per person per night in high season. There’s a spa, an infinity pool, a lounge and terrace that overlook a stunning river valley, and all the game drives and gin slings you can manage included in the price. There are just 12 rooms (sorry, tents) which are of a – how to put it? – unusual design. Inside they’re the last word in Out of Africa safari chic, all dark wood, low lamps and gauzy curtains.
Outside, on the other hand, they look not unlike an alien invasion marching across the landscape, with cantilevered steel arches and pointed structural PVC roofs. But, maybe that’s the price of modernity. Over lunch, Grace Naisenya, from the Olare Motorogi trust, tells us how life is changing in the Mara. “If you want to get the news out here, you put it on Facebook! Everybody is on Facebook here.”
Mobile technology is transforming Africa, and contact with the outside world is transforming the Masai. But I enjoy chatting to John Rendall, a trustee of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, who’s also staying at the camp and is an African hand of the old school.
He first came to Kenya (pronounced in the old style, “Keen-yah”) in 1970 after buying a lion cub in Harrods. “I was just wandering through Harrods and there were these lion cubs for sale so, of course, how could I not buy one?” It lived with him and his friends in a flat on the King’s Road and used to accompany them around Chelsea in an open-top Bentley until it was a year old “and we decided to bring him back to Africa”.
George Adamson, of Born Free fame, took on the cub and successfully rehabilitated him, a process that became the subject of a film, A Lion called Christian. Somebody fishes out an iPad and we watch an impossibly touching YouTube video of the moment when John and his friend, having returned to Kenya a year after Christian’s release into the wild, find him again. No longer a cute cub but a huge roaring lion, he throws himself at them and nuzzles their faces like an over-enthusiastic labrador.
In those days, John tells me, going on safari meant “jumping in a Land Rover at Nairobi airport and just driving north”. What were the camps like then? “Long drop toilets, bully beef from tins, and drinking water from the river,” he says, then pauses as we polish off the last of our dessert (strawberry and basil soup with a champagne sabayon). “God, it was great!” he says.
The bush, though, is the bush, no matter how many fancy African goddess facials you’re offered. On our second day, I’m relaxing with a cappuccino when there’s a commotion in the river valley. A mini-migration of wildebeest comes hurtling down the valley side and then, from out of a bush, a lioness appears.
“Look at her go!” roars Rendall. “She’s magnificent.” It’s a heart stopping moment.
“Behind you!” I find myself shouting at the wildebeest. They try to circle and get away, but the lioness pounces and it’s like being trapped inside a David Attenborough documentary as the wildebeest struggles and is deftly ripped to pieces.
Life, death, gore, wild African animals, the survival of the fittest – and cappuccino. You don’t even have to move off the sun lounger next to the infinity pool to see the circle of life playing itself out, though after about 12 hours of gourmet food and chauffeured drives, I start yearning for bully beef and long drop toilets, or at least to put one foot in front of another. We head off on a walk, just us, our Masai guides, who bring their spears, and a member of the tourist police equipped with an automatic weapon. (Overkill, I think, until we meet the black mamba, when I’d happily have had a rocket launcher on hand too.)
It’s so quiet out on the plains, just us and the animals. We round a corner and come across a forest of giraffe, or a “tower” to give them their correct collective noun. There are 14 of them who silently stare at us as we wander around them. It’s an otherworldly experience.
There seems no doubt that Mahali Mzuri is a model for free-market conservation. The concerns and interests of wealthy holidaymakers neatly align with those of the wildlife and the local people (”high value, low density” is the official description, or fewer people with deeper wallets doing less damage). It’s the ethical, aspirational, glamour end of the Virgin empire that adds lustre to all that awful cola and all those delayed trains.
“The Mara’s terrible,” John Rendall tells me. “The animals are there but you get 50 Land Rovers around a single lion. Whereas – forget all the fancy massage stuff – this is wonderful.” It is. Even the fancy massage is pretty good. Mahali Mzuri: basically it’s the anti-cola, everything that Virgin cola isn’t – just a tiny bit more expensive.
Carole Cadwalladr was a guest of Virgin Limited Edition (www.mahalimzuri.virgin.com); low-season rates start at $590 per person, per night, including daily game drives, all meals and drinks, transfers from the Mara North airstrip, and guided bushwalks
This article has been amended since publication. The original mistakenly said that Mahali Mzuri was the Masai translation of “beautiful place”; in fact it is Swahili.