Dateline, Kenya: Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne while holidaying at the British royal safari lodge in the Mt Kenya foothills. The movie and stage play The Lion King is set in this east African nation renowned for its Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros. And the most Oscar-nominated actor Meryl Streep thrilled audiences with the romance of the savannah and the Kikuyu culture in Out of Africa …
Not surprising then that when billionaire Sir Richard Branson put his imprimatur to a select cache of the world’s most superb retreats he placed among them Mahali Mzuri safari camp, on the northern edge of the equatorial nation’s renowed Masai Mara game conservation area. The Branson group of resorts, known as Virgin Limited Edition, comprises just a handful of luxury destinations, notable for their intimacy of size. Among them: the Caribbean’s Necker Island, attracting celebs from Harry Styles to Barack Obama; exclusive Kasbah Tamadot, high in Morocco’s mountains; The Lodge alpine chalet in the world’s best ski terrain, Verbier in Switzerland; and a Spanish villa in Son Bunyola estate on the sun-soaked island of Mallorca.
The safari experience of Mahali Mzuri is not a ruthless track and trophy kill: the “hunt” is to capture exciting wildlife sightings, amid dramatic scenery. As well as the Big Five, there are the graceful giraffe, striking zebra, cheetah, wildebeest, impala and gazelle. “But that’s just for starters,” Mahali Mzuri boasts. “The abundant wildlife in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy” – the camp’s locality in the wider Masai Mara ecosystem – “is jaw-dropping and you don’t need to go far to see unforgettable sights. Our twice daily game drives” – in open stretch-4WD vehicles – “unfold the drama on your doorstep, in the hands of experienced guides.” There’s the annual Great Migration too: Branson, who’s seen a bit in his travels, says words can’t do justice to the majesty of this awe-inspiring spectacle. It’s the seasonal movement, around September to November in Kenya, of more than a million beasts from the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania through the Masai Mara region in search of fresh grazing, water and breeding grounds. Predators stalk the masses of animals, powerfully impressing human observers with the circle of life and with scenes of thick hordes of thousands of animals at a time, hide-by-hide, fording the formidable Mara River, the border between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. But game roam in abundance all year round in the Tanzanian-Kenyan region.
Guests for Mahali Mzuri fly in to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Int’l Airport from hubs such as Dubai, Qatar, London, Paris and Johannesburg and transfer to a domestic flight of about an hour over the 240km distance to one of two airstrips near the camp. The accommodation is striking: just 12 tents (pictured here at an angle) spaced across a ridge poised for a perfect view of the valley and plains. A main tent hosts meals, candlelit dining on the deck, is a base for barbecues, bush dining experiences, champagne picnics and sundowners. There’s a spa too. The description “tents” is understated: to my eye the dwellings reference the traditional rondavels of southern Africa, with elements of a round/oval pitched roof, use of natural materials, simplicity of form. It’s the remarkable counterpoints that so amaze: you sleep, albeit in crisp linen, under canvas … yet bathe in a, say, $10,000 oval tub set at an open air “window” at the edge of your tent … while, yet again, looking out over the raw, natural “Virgin” bush of the Kenyan grasslands and dispersed woodland. A bare-bones billionaire, say. The roar of a lion, the trumpet of an elephant. At night a canopy of stars. Take a community tour in the company of smiling native land owners in elaborate colourful traditional dress.Maybe learn a Swahili phrase or two. Indulge in the al fresco infinity pool. Snuggle into a leather sofa in the library with iPads, iPod docks, wireless internet, TV/DVD. It’s all an exceptional, unparalleled experience of the senses. See a captivating video at virginlimitededition.com/en/mahali-mzuri. Accommodation rates, meals and drinks included, seem reasonable for an outstanding quality experience, in comfort, in the bush. A random search reveals a rate this month around AUD2220 a night for two.
See travel agents, and the website for promotional offers until June or October-December dates, plus romance packages. Don your khaki and pith helmet, pack the binoculars (and the DEET: the dangerous species aren’t always the big ones!)
Travel Editor, Susie Boswell.