African Diaries – Kenya’s Magical Mara
I was into the second week of my journey around Kenya, a country I had approached with some trepidation because of its established reputation as one of the premiere safari destinations in Africa. This popularity had long attracted hordes of tourists, a situation at odds with my predilection for off the beaten track places. Fortunately, in the early stages of planning my trip, I had come across Gamewatchers Safaris and their four, intimate Porini (Swahili for “in the wild”) Camps. Now, after memorable stays at the Amboseli and Rhino camps, I was headed for the legendary Maasai Mara.
Named for its ancestral inhabitants, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is surrounded by a number of conservancies. The total area under conservation covers 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) to form the Greater Mara ecosystem, locally known simply as The Mara. It was deep into one of these conservancies, just northeast of the Reserve, that I was now landing.
Mara Porini Camp
The Safarilink Cessna made a quick stop for me at the tiny Siana Springs airstrip, where my guide and spotter awaited. Within minutes, the three of us were rocking along a rough dirt trail and across streams swollen by the early onset of autumn rains. This was iconic Maasai country, dotted with bomas, the distinctive hamlets of squat, flat-roofed mud huts within their protective circle of thorny fences.Tall men draped in flowing crimson shúkàs went about daily activities. Children waved as our Land Rover drove by, before returning their attention to the cattle they were minding. Soon signs of human activity faded away and the prairie morphed into wooded rolling hills. Cattle was replaced by antelopes, giraffes and zebras.The short ride to the camp was stretching into a game drive.
Nestled within a grove of soaring yellow-barked acacia, in a vast area set aside by the local Maasai landowners of the Ol Kinyei Conservancy for the exclusive use of the guests, the intimate Masa Porini Camp had the charm of a timeless well-kept secret. While my spacious, eco-friendly tent featured solar electricity, a private bathroom with hot showers and flush toilets – the norm in all Porini Camps – everything blended seamlessly into the rough hewn decor. My large veranda overlooked a permanent brook where a large harem of impalas, its dominant buck in the lead, visited frequently during my stay.
A Resident Pride
Games viewing opportunities were many, both within the conservancy as a destination onto itself or as a drive through on the way to day-long drives into the Maasai Mara National Reserve a mere 17 kilometers (10 miles) away. In addition to the constant sightings of a wide variety of grazing animals and smaller predators, the most remarkable moment of my stay at Mara Porini was and encounter with a large resident pride of lions. We came across a dozen of them, lazily rousing from their afternoon siesta in the high savanna grass.
Suddenly they began rising to attention in a slow, intently coordinated move, as they sensed an approaching herd of zebra. It was fascinating to observed them stealthy come into a stalking formation, until some indiscernible alert sent the herd fleeing at a gallop. The zebras managed a narrow escape and the lions returned with feign nonchalance to their grassy lounging spot.
Porini Lion Camp
My next destination, and the last stop of my trip, was Porini Lion Camp, some 15 kilometers (10 miles) further west in the Olare Orok Conservancy, on the immediate northern border of the National Reserve, an area reputed for its abundance of “big cats.”
Strung along the bank of the Ntiakatiak River, a seasonal river with some permanent hippo pools, Porini Lion featured oversized tents of the latest design. All outer walls were floor to ceiling zippered panels that could be completely open from inside the tent to reveal mesh panels for outstanding light and air circulation. The clean-lined pale wood furniture in a contemporary Italian design style enhanced the serene atmosphere of the camp.
The frequent sightings here included not only lions but also and most notably a cheetah and her three tiny cubs, and the occasional leopard on the prowl. We also came across a mating pair of black rhinos, an especially exciting encounter as the population of rhino had been poached to near extinction by the early 1980, having dropped as low as 18 individuals. A effective rhino surveillance unit was subsequently established and the Mara had then become the only protected area in Kenya with an indigenous population of black rhinos. Numbers had been slowly increasing to an estimated 35 at the time of my visit (n.b. today’s estimate is around 50).
However, the most unforgettable moments of my visit to Porini Lion came from an encounter with a breeding herd of elephants. I had the amazing privilege to witness a newborn calf, barely one-hour old, take its first unsteady steps, and its efforts to figure what to do with its unwieldy nasal appendage before it finally began suckling. A few feet away, a sturdier week-old cousin was trying to uproot a twig, before loosing interest and taking off, puppy-like, in hot pursuit of a bird.
With its exceptional game viewing, excellent accommodations, and as with all Porini properties, superior guiding and service, Porini Lion was the ideal grand finale to my Kenya adventure. One that I yearn to repeat once the current global health emergency has abated.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Porini Mara Camp is located the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, northeast of the Masai Mara reserve in southwestern Kenya. The nearest airstrip, Siana Springs, was nine miles (15 kilometers) away. The Ol Kinyei Conservancy was 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Nairobi by road, a journey that was estimated to take four to five hours. Porini Lion Camp In the Olare Orok Conservancy on the northern border of the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya. The nearest airstrip, Ol Kiombo, was eight miles (13 kilometers) away. Olare Orok Conservancy was 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Nairobi by road, a journey that was estimated to take four to five hours.
- Both camps and their host conservancies were cooperative ventures between Gamewatchers Safaris (Porini’s parent company) and local Maasai landowners. The majority of the camps’ staff were native tribesmen.
- One of the longest established safari outfitters based in East Africa, Gamewatchers Safaris also own and manage the intimate, eco-friendly Porini Camps in Kenya. For well over a decade they have been and remain frequent recipients of “Best Green Tour Operator” and “Best Social Impact” awards at the annual Eco Warrior Award event held by Ecotourism Kenya. They are also internationally recognized, with many awards such as National Geographic “Top Ten Safari Outfitters”, and “Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award 2019 and 2018” in the World Travel Awards.
- WTTC Safety Stamp and WHO Covid-19 Safety Standards — The Porini Safari Camps were among the first in Kenya to be checked and certified to re-open with new Covid-19 safety standards in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Kenya Ministry of Health requirements. They also have the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Safety Stamp and their teams have completed “Covid-19 Sensitization” training with the Kenya Red Cross Training Institute.