Kenya has long been synonymous with safari. An early leader in the preservation of game and its natural habitat, the country now features close to 50 national parks, game reserves and private conservancies covering some 20 percent of its total landmass. The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) can all be found here, as do cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and many other carnivores and herbivores, large and small. 

Giraffes congregate around under a flat-topped acacia.

But so can herds of minivans filled with eager tourists, drawn to Kenya by visions of abundant game roaming across endless open spaces punctuated by flat-topped acacias, and proud Maasai in crimson robes minding their cattle in the distance. As Kenya’s popularity as a safari destination increased, the country has developed one of Africa’s most advanced tourism infrastructure, and with it the potential of a considerable threat to its environment and native cultures.

Playful Maasai children pop out of the bush to check us out.

These were the considerations that had kept me from realizing a long held desire to visit this iconic safari country. Until I came  across a local organization reputed for addressing the challenge of enhancing the tourism experience while giving local landowners a chance to improve their quality of life in the present, and preserve land and wildlife for the next generations.

 

Gamewatchers Safaris

Amboseli Porini lounge and dining tent.

With its four Porini (Swahili for into the wild) camps: Amboseli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, Gamewatchers Safaris offered small tented camps (between six and ten tents depending on the venue) on private conservancies located in close proximity to the famed Amboseli and Maasai Mara National Parks. The exception was Porini Rhino Camp, which was in the heart of one of the largest rhinoceros sanctuaries in East Africa, in the shadow of Mount Kenya. In these rigorously eco-friendly tented camps, power was exclusively solar generated, and great efforts were made to minimize the impact of the properties on the environment.

Kisonko Maasai welcome us to the Selenkay Conservency.

The host conservancies were on private land leased from the local Maasai tribes, who received financial benefits and employment opportunities as well as infrastructure development (such as roads and improved access to water). Local tribesmen also had access to training in various aspects of the tourism industry and employment at the camps. As the time of my visit, close to 90 percent of the camps’ staff came from local clans. 

Amboseli Porini

This elephant cow seems unconcerned by our presence.

A secluded camp under the giant umbrella of a cluster of thorn acacia trees within the Selenkay Conservation Area, a 15,000 acre (6,000 hectare) private game reserve at the northern edge of the Amboseli National Park, Amboseli Porini epitomized the timeless romance of Kenya. The distant Mount Kilimanjaro outlined the horizon as the land-cruiser that was delivering me there after a few days on the Indian Ocean seaside entered the Conservancy. A cheetah flashed across the track just ahead of us. A pair of elephant cows and their calves unhurriedly ambled by. Giraffes peered at us over the treetops and potbellied warthog piglets scampered behind their mother into the high grass. By the time we reached the camp, I had already enjoyed an exciting impromptu game drive.

A Maasai Welcome

Maasai mother and child.

Access to the local Maasai community was exceptional at Amboseli Porini. The camp was a cooperative venture between its owners, Gamewatchers Safaris, and the Kisonko clan of the Maasai people who who owned the Selenkay conservation land, which enabled guests to get a close up experience of Maasai daily life and culture. During my stay, I enjoyed nature walks with Maasai guides who introduced me to various aspects of their traditional lifestyle and highlighted how indigenous natural resources were used by the community. We also had insightful conversations about the tribe’s history, current life, challenges and aspirations. And I was introduced to people of the village, invited into their homes to observe the activities of their daily lives as well as enjoy their ceremonial songs and dances

Legendary Game Drives

A blue wildebeest shows its annoyance at our proximity.

Every subsequent drive in one of the custom-designed, open-sided land- cruisers was equally rewarding. A private four-wheel-drive track linked the Conservancy to Amboseli National Park, and the abundance and variety of wildlife in both the conservancy and the park was startling. We consistently came across lions, cheetahs, caracals, hyenas, buffalos, zebras, wildebeests and gazelles; and bird species too numerous to recall. Most thrilling of all was the dense elephant population. At most recent count, over 1,500 of the great pachyderms were said to live in the park, many of them on the move wherever we went; large swaying herds stirring red dust across the plain, unerringly heading toward the grassy swamp in the distance. Unconcerned by our presence, they sometimes came so close to our vehicle that I felt tempted to reach out to them.

The rare gerenuk (giraffe gazelle) is endemic to the Horn of Africa.

My stay at Amboseli Porini was everything I had envisioned a Kilimanjaro safari should be: legendary vistas and superb game viewing, enhanced by comfortable accommodations in an intimate, environmentally responsible setting. Now it was time to head northward to a much more confidential destination in the highlands of central Kenya.

The entire Kisonko Maasai village gathers to welcome us.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Amboseli Porini Camp was located in the Selenkay Conservancy, on the northern boundary of Amboseli National Park in southeast Kenya.. By road —From Nairobi  Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the entry point  for most International visitors to the sountry, it was a 170 kilometer (100 mile), 3-hour drive drive along the Mombasa Road to the Camp. From Mombasa, it was a 434 kilometer (260 mile), 6 hour drive to the camp. By air — Charter flights are also available between Nairobi or Mombasa and the conservancy. In all cases transfers can be arranged through Gamewatchers Safaris.
  • Gamewatchers Safaris, is one of the longest established safari outfitters based in East Africa. They also own and manage the intimate, eco-friendly Porini Camps in Kenya. For well over a decade they have been 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 have received the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Safety Stamp, and their teams have completed “Covid-19 Sensitization” training with the Kenya Red Cross Training Institute.

A herd of elephants on the move across the Amboseli plain.

Location, location, location!

Amboseli National Park