I always believe there is something special about waking up early, wrapping up in a Masai shuka, before heading out to find some game in the bush, away from the stressful realities of everyday life.
Karen Blixen once said, “There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne — bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.” And I could not agree more.
Never being able to refuse a good Kenyan safari, I was immediately onboard when Saj and her family suggested we visit the epic Masaai Mara on their recent trip to Kenya. And I was especially excited as Dad booked with Discover Kenya Safari and opted to have us stay at the Offbeat Mara Camp, after enjoying their sister camp in Meru (which has now unfortunately shut down).
So one Monday (yes! No Monday blues for us), we left home at 7:30AM to beat the traffic. Several hours and one pit stop at the Rift Valley Viewpoint later, we stopped at the Narok Hindu Sanatan Temple at 11AM. Apart from getting to stretch out after a long drive, we dived into plates of fresh, hot food – fluffy puris and cups of chai. Plus, my aunt had carried some jalebi ghathia (sticky spiral Indian donuts served with a popular deep-fried dough-y teatime snack) with us to round out the quintessential Gujarati brunch.
Bellies full, we headed back on the road. As we neared Mara, the road became bumpy as the surroundings looked dry with lots of brown grass and very little greenness. Outside Lemek, we met Richard, hired by Offbeat Mara Camp, to guide us to the camp in the depths of the Mara North Conservancy. The road to the camp was unmarked so it was impossible to find the way there without any assistance.
Mara North Conservancy is a private conservancy of more than 74,000 acres. Bordering the Maasai Mara National Reserve from the north, it is a vital part of the Maasai Mara ecosystem. Formed in 2009, the conservancy is a joint venture formed among eleven member camps and over 800 Maasai landowners. To form the conservancy, Mara North leased land from individual Maasai landowners. This marks the first time that these Maasai landowners have received substantial and direct income from wildlife. This partnership has yielded solid land management policies including controlled grazing, holistic management practices, low volume and low impact tourism.
We arrived at the Offbeat Mara camp, located in a valley by the Olare Orok River, around 2PM. Chania and Jesse, the young, welcoming camp managers, along with some staff, welcomed us with fresh cold towels and some refreshing fruit juice.
We headed to the heart of the camp to the main ‘mess’ tent. We sat in the sitting room where Chania briefed us about the camp, its rules, its commodities and our planned activities. The camp while luxurious has a minimalistic layout with the sitting room with sofas for lounging, a writing desk, and a fully stocked bar. The mess also had a communal dining area. Close by were separate tents for a gift shop and a library with a Wi-Fi and charging station.Once we were briefed, we headed for late light lunch of assorted salads, vegetable quiche, bacon quiche and some bread rolls. This delicious lunch was ideal for us — filling but energizing after a long trip. Then, came dessert – pineapple topped with toasted coconut shreds. Light, refreshing and perfect to end lunch with.
After lunch, we were escorted to our tents. I struggled to get there as the terrain wasn’t too wheelchair friendly and at one point, there was a steep area that I needed some assistance with. Soon after a short struggle, I reached our tent. The tent was on a wooden deck accessed through two steps, so again, I needed some assistance.Dad had booked two family tents between us. The Offbeat Mara Camp is exclusive and so only has seven tents: four double/twin en suite tents and three family tents with double and twin beds and an en-suite bathroom. Thus, the camp can only accommodate up to 20 people at once.Our tent, a family tent, had a huge double bed in the center of the tent, and two twin beds in another section (divided by curtains) with a set of shelves. The tent also had a wardrobe by the double bed and an en-suite bathroom with a modern toilet, washbasins and a safari bucket shower.Like the camp in Meru, the tents do not have running taps, but instead of jugs of water to use: clear jugs for drinking and brushing, and metal jugs for washing up. To shower, it is necessary to pre-plan and inform the staff who would then bring buckets of up to 20 liters of hot water to bathe with, which is then released once you press the shower switch.
We quickly freshened up and at 4PM, tea and coffee arrived on the deck outside the tent. As we sipped on the hot drinks and enjoyed the views of the open unfenced plains, it started to drizzle. Jesse brought the car over to the room, and dad showed Chania how to operate my wheelchair in case it rained and they needed to take it to the main mess. We were reunited with our driver from Offbeat Meru – Stanley, who immediately took us for our first game drive.While it has been pretty dry this Kenyan summer, the Mara North Conservancy had recently been getting some rain, so it was quite lush and the grass green, meaning there was plenty of food for the game.
We crossed the rather dry Olare Orok River and soon saw some game. We started off with the usual – Thompson’s gazelles, impalas, zebras, wildebeests, topis, and Masai giraffes.Then, we saw some of the most handsome striking lions I’ve seen. These adults, Frank and Jesse, of the Offbeat Pride, were just lounging.Look at that luscious mane. I had to resist the urge to stroke their hair😛
Stanley then stopped the car at a random spot (away from the lions, don’t worry) and we had our sundowner. Stanley had carried a cooler box full of drinks and snacks. I will admit that there’s nothing like a gin and tonic in the wild. The camp had also sent some tortilla chips to snack on.Then, right before a spectacular sunset, we spotted some jackals, and then the younger sub-adults and females of the Offbeat lion pride. All the lions, actually all of the animals, were huge and all seemed hale and hearty. No one seemed to be fighting for food, as there seemed to be an abundance of food.
After savoring the stunning sunset, we drove back to the camp, where the car dropped me off at my tent, literally by the doorstep. The camp crew had already taken my wheelchair to the mess area, so after quickly freshening up, the car dropped me off at the main mess. We regrouped there and enjoyed some cocktails – I got a Bloody Mary while chatting with Chania and the other camp guests.The camp only offers free Wi-Fi from 6-8pm, so after updating our social media, we went for dinner in the dining area.
Unlike the informal buffet lunching, dinners at the camp are three-course dinners with communal seating, so all the camp guests sit together and dine with the camp managers. I loved this setting as it allowed us to carry on conversations that we started at the pre-dinner drinks, plus we learned so much from the other guests.
We started off with a delicious aubergine (eggplant) tart. The aubergine filling was delectable and had complementing notes of sweet and sour that balanced the crusty tart. Then, for mains, we had two curries – a vegetable curry and a chicken curry that were served with rice and chapattis. Since I’m vegetarian, I had the vegetable curry with some rice. The curry was filling and flavorful and the rice was perfectly cooked. To end the meal, we had some apple crumble for dessert. I’m a sucker for any dessert that has apples, and man, this was incredible!
After dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open, so I headed back to my room, leaving the wheelchair at the mess (as I didn’t need it in my room), and winded down on the soft beds after a long day.
A good night’s sleep later, we got up at 6AM, got ready, drank the tea and coffee delivered to our tents, and went off on a game drive.After crossing the river again, we immediately saw ample zebras, giraffes, topis, Thompson’s gazelles and impalas. Adding to the list, we also saw a lone buffalo and some hirola. Hirola, also known as Hunter’s hartebeest or Hunter’s antelope, are the most critically endangered antelopes with only 500 left in the wild. Their numbers have dwindled due to several factors including poaching for meat, drought and habitat loss. If extinct, they will be the first African mammal on mainland Africa in modern human history to go extinct.
Then, we headed to a hippo carcass that a pride of lions had been chowing down on the previous day, but we found a pack of hyenas devouring the leftovers. When I heard one hyena crush on a bone, I literally felt shivers down my spine.
And then just as I was complaining about how I hadn’t seen any elephants, we spotted a matriarchal herd with the cutest babies ever! They were so graceful and came so close to the car.
Stanley told us that recently due to human-wildlife conflicts and poaching, some elephants had been born without tusks due to natural genetic modification. I had never heard of this, though had read it could be a possibility so I am not sure if this has negatively impacted their lives but at least it may save them from poachers.
Read on to see what we saw next…more here.
Photos, unless stated otherwise, are by Diva Shah