A place of vast, untamed magic

MAY 2015 – There are few places in Africa as awe-inspiring as Kenya’s Maasai Mara, where vast plains dotted with iconic umbrella-shaped acacia trees teem with a rich variety of wildlife. And the luxurious Mara Plains Camp has open access to it all.

It’s still pitch dark when a group of guests departs Mara Plains Camp for a hot air balloon ride over the mighty Maasai Mara. When dawn breaks, the game on these vast plains will be stirring – and the balloon will be high in the sky, giving all aboard a bird’s-eye perspective over this magnificent wilderness, one of Africa’s greatest conservation areas.

The 150 000-hectare Maasai Mara in southwest Kenya is an open reserve with only rivers as borders. There are no fences at all, so wildlife roams freely – even across these rivers and out of the Mara if they choose. But wildlife is safe here because the Maasai people understand the importance of all wild animals in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, and it’s against their culture to hunt or eat wildlife.

Mara means ‘dappled’ in the Maa language, denoting the sprinkling of bush and trees across these vast grassy plains. These are the same plains that host the breath taking action of the wildebeest migration every July and August. In this short period, over 1.2 million wildebeest, zebra and topi antelope cross the Grumeti and Mara rivers from the Serengeti in northern Tanzania to the plains of the Maasai Mara. Then the total wildlife population here swells to over two million animals, before instinct drives herds south again, in a clockwise direction back to the Serengeti. It’s the circle of life in action; and an endless journey following rain and grass. For nature lovers, it’s a spectacle that offers magical sightings everywhere you look.

As the hot air balloon drifts gently above the Mara, numerous gatherings of animals grazing and lazing are the view from above. But the long corridor of wildebeest appears particularly unusual from the air, almost serpentine as it winds slowly across the endless grassy plains. It’s October, so these are the tail-enders in the migration that recently passed through here en masse.

Photographers visit the Mara in droves during the migration to capture the mayhem of river crossings as the wildebeest traverse croc-infested rivers on their eternal journey. For guests journeying to Mara Plains, however, there is a far more genteel river crossing – and it is sans crocs, of course.

Mara Plains lies in the 14 000-hectare private Olare Motorogi Conservancy that borders the Maasai Mara in the north, and its entrance is truly evocative of its unrivalled setting. The camp is built on a bend of the Ntiakitiak River, and to reach it guests walk across a bridge over the river, through a thick, riverine forest, up a small slope to some giant steps, to be greeted by an endless horizon with one, single, flat-topped acacia tree directly in their line of sight. Renowned wildlife photographer Dereck Joubert, a co-founder of Great Plains Conservation with his wife Beverly, chose this approach especially for that quintessential East African view. And this is just one detail that sets Mara Plains apart and imbues it with a very special air of adventure, discovery and pure romance.

In a bid not to upstage its magnificent natural surroundings, Mara Plains – one of only five camps in the conservancy and with capacity for just 14 guests – has been sensitively designed and exudes a quiet, understated elegance.

The seven spacious tented suites are set on raised decks in an effort to minimise their impact on the sensitive environment – and could be removed without leaving any trace. In keeping with the group’s philosophy of leading the way in low-impact safari operations, solar energy is used throughout the camp and water is sourced from the local Loita Spring.

Inside the tents, the décor celebrates the diverse cultures that have touched East Africa over the centuries. Wooden doors from the coastal island of Lamu reflect the area’s Arab heritage, while deep red and purple accents honour the Maasai warriors who have roamed these plains for millennia. The rich leathers, copper and brass used in the campaign-style furniture – and the gleaming brass slipper baths and shower fittings – give a nod to the more recent colonial era, resulting in interiors that exude the romance of a Victorian expedition-style safari while offering all the comforts of 21st-century living.

To guests in the hot air balloon above, however, all this is virtually invisible because the camp blends into its lush, riverine setting. As they drift above, it is just a pinprick in an extended vision from horizon to horizon across one of Africa’s greatest conservation areas. This is a special place on the planet, which is why Great Plains Conservation is striving to secure landscapes such as these that are large enough to protect resident and seasonal wildlife populations.

The company identifies and selects key areas that are under threat, often adjacent to national parks and reserves, then acquires the rights to convert that land to a protected area with economic benefits. It leases the Olare Motorogi Conservancy in which Mara Plains sits from the local Maasai community, and conservation fees directly support more than 1 000 families. In this way hunting or agricultural land is transformed into a wildlife conservation area supported by photographic tourism. This is vital because, without large protected landscapes where migration routes can be maintained, wildlife will not stand a chance of long-term survival. Small pockets of conservation areas simply cannot sustain viable breeding populations of most species.

As the balloon flies gently where the breeze takes it over the Mara, game-viewing vehicles can be spotted traversing the plains below. They’re out on a morning drive to greet the Mara’s animal inhabitants as they go about their morning routines. In just a few days in the Maasai Mara, on morning and evening game drives, it’s possible to see and photograph plenty of wonderful sightings, including the Big Five.

Lion are plentiful and it’s not unusual to see large prides that include lionesses with cubs. Massive herds of buffalo and zebra, elephant and their calves carefully nibbling whistling thorn trees, and rhino silhouetted against the sunset are all in the mix, as is caracal, cheetah, wildebeest, topi, Thomson’s gazelle, impala, giraffe and hyena. For landscape lovers, there are iconic acacia trees and moody, brooding skies that build in the afternoons threatening rain, and promise magnificent, luminous light.

The hot air balloon, however, offers a completely different perspective on game viewing. It’s a little like seeing ‘the big picture’ of the Maasai Mara. Buffalo, giraffe, elephant and lion are all easy to spot from the air – and to photograph. This has to be one of Africa’s most evocative wildlife experiences – to look down on creation and marvel at the vastness, richness and diversity of this magnificent place of endless space. For the Maasai Mara Reserve is the home of the original African safari, and the spiritual home of all who love wild places and their creatures. This dappled land is still untamed and free, as all of Africa used to be.

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