Room service: Mahali Mzuri, Kenya
Virgin territory in East Africa
Ben Ross is Head of Travel at The Independent. He has worked for the paper for over a decade, and began reporting on travel in 2001. Before joining the travel desk full time, he ran The Independent's special projects department. He started his journalistic career at the BBC working for its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
Saturday 29 June 2013
Lunchtime. A herd of wildebeest thunders down the hill opposite us, a lioness in pursuit. We leap up from our seats on the veranda, fighting over the binoculars. There's a bottleneck of 'beests at the river just below us, and some panicked animals scythe away to the right, but it's too late for one youngster. The lioness takes it down at the water-crossing, then drags the body out of sight behind a patch of shrubs, where she's joined by her cubs. So, as they begin a meal of wildebeest done rare – or at least wildebeest a little rarer than they had been a moment before – we turn back to our own plates. The broccoli, mushroom and goats' cheese salad really is jolly good around here.
It's a pleasing coincidence that in this, the 200th anniversary year of David Livingstone's birth, another British maverick is once again stamping his mark on the African continent. In August, Mahali Mzuri – Sir Richard Branson's Kenyan Safari Camp (to give it its full title) will open its tent flaps for business, luring khaki-clad travellers to a location just north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, 150 miles due west of Nairobi.
The camp joins a cluster of luxury boutique properties marketed under Branson's Virgin Limited Edition label. These include Necker, his private Caribbean island (the Great House of which is due to be reopened this autumn after a catastrophic fire in 2011); the Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa; The Lodge in Verbier; and the Kasbah Tamadot in the Atlas Mountains. It's an eclectic collection, forged in the same magpie spirit as his portfolio of Boeings-to-broadband business ventures.
Livingstone – fêted by the Victorians as the ultimate explorer-missionary – came to the "Dark Continent" to improve the lot of Africans through Christian teachings. In this, he was notoriously unsuccessful, managing only one convert, who later lapsed. Richard Branson's mission – high-end tourism – is rather different. However, the creation of this new lodge is also part of a wider regional initiative designed to improve living standards.
Mahali Mzuri, which means "beautiful place" in Swahili, is set in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, a tract of private land a bit bigger than the city of Manchester. Until recently, the area was divided into uneconomical smallholdings, owned by more than 250 Maasai families. Now these have been combined to form a larger co-operative, in partnership with a select group of safari-lodge operators. The thinking goes that if Kenya's most valuable tourism asset, its wildlife, is encouraged to flourish, more value can be delivered than from traditional cattle farming.
Guaranteed monthly rents are paid to the local landowners, on a 15-year lease. Investment in infrastructure – bore holes, school rooms, education programmes – is being undertaken by a newly formed trust. Grace Naisenya, herself a Maasai, is its outreach officer: "People were worried that education would mean people moving away, but it hasn't happened. We want to increase living standards, not change the Maasai culture."
The Virgin Group boss has form where Kenya is concerned. In 2007, he was made a Maasai Elder, a title bestowed on him for inaugurating Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Nairobi. Yet, like Livingstone, Branson too has tasted failure. With unfortunate timing, the loss-making route was finally axed last September, and guests arrive on Kenya Airways or Sir Richard's voracious old adversary, British Airways. Nevertheless, a five-year project is now bearing fruit: Branson is back.
Mahali Mzuri is reached by an hour-long flight from the capital's domestic airport, Wilson, to the Mara North airstrip. You then need to brace yourself for a further 45 minutes of bumpy driving. On the journey, you'll see what the conservancy model brings to the landscape, as grazing land laid almost bare by domestic cattle gives way to more carefully managed territory. Suddenly, the animals you came to see are there in abundance: water buffalos, giraffes, antelope, ostriches.
Set on a ridge above a wide valley that creates a natural amphitheatre for game viewing – including my unusually dramatic lunch-time encounter with lions – the lodge itself consists of a series of permanent tents that stretch out like shiny studs pressed into the fabric of the hillside. In fact, to call them tents feels slightly misleading. The walls are made of fabric, but the roofs are taut skins of PVC, held in place by lattices of steel girders tethered to concrete footings.
As Tarn Breedveld, the camp's Australian-born general manager, puts it: "They're the only tents I know of that need four-metre long pegs to hold them down. You could drive a 4x4 across the top of them, they're so strong." They look stunning, too, like space invaders: alien, yet organic.
The goal of the conservancy is "low density, high-value tourism". That means visitors won't experience the scrum of Toyota Land Cruisers that often marks a big-game sighting in the Maasai Mara National Reserve – which also bans the game walks that are a highlight of a visit to Mahali Mzuri.
A hike taken in the company of Lenkoko Kituri, one of the lodge's Maasai wildlife experts, plus an armed guard, yielded a close encounter with the deadly black mamba, plenty of antelope and wildebeest, and a graceful tower (yes, that's the collective noun) of giraffes.
"The idea," says Breedveld, "is that you could take the property anywhere and people would still want to stay in it as a destination itself." All the traditional elements of a luxury safari camp are present and correct: colourful fabrics hang from the wall; beds are clad in exquisite white linen. It isn't opulent – these are still tents after all – but as you listen to the shrieks of hyenas while gazing across the valley from your roll-top bath, you'll realise that you're being thoroughly spoilt. There are only 12 guest tents, so a maximum of 24 adults can be accommodated at any one time (although two tents can also host children if required).
At the heart of the camp there's a central viewing deck with a hearth for a fire. Dinner is taken at a gracious glass table suspended over a grand tree stump in the dining tent, or under the awning, or even out in the bush, for a champagne barbecue among the wildlife. There's a cosy bar, too, complete with telescope for star-gazing. Steps lead down to the valley floor, past a dazzling infinity pool, to the Nasaro spa tent (the signature treatment is a "healing journey" involving rose quartz and amethyst).
Operations manager Liam Breedveld (Tarn's younger brother) sees to it that sumptuous meals are conjured up: risottos, complicated salads, slow-roasted beef, all served by welcoming Maasai staff. During last weekend's preview visit, there was a general sense of relief that a steep learning curve was being successfully negotiated on a box-fresh property. By the time September comes around and Branson himself makes his first visit since completion, everything will no doubt be purring along like an overfed cheetah.
Bizarrely, the Wi-Fi here is super-fast. And you can get a phone signal practically everywhere, even miles from the lodge. Which might come in handy. That lion looks awfully hungry. It can't be lunchtime again already, can it?
Mahali Mzuri – Sir Richard Branson's Kenyan Safari Lodge, Olare Motorogi Conservancy, Kenya (020 8600 0430; mahalimzuri.virgin.com)
Three nights with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels (0844 573 2460; vhiphotels.co.uk) including Kenya Airways economy flights from Heathrow, internal flights, transfers and accommodation at Mahali Mzuri on an all-inclusive basis, starts from £2,599pp, with twice daily game drives. Prices are based on November 2013 departures.
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