But it’s the Maasai Mara National Reserve that’s probably the most well-known safari destination in Kenya and therein lies the problem or, in this case, lack of a problem for high-end guests. “When you’re in the Maasai Mara,” says Ker & Downey’s Jones, “there are so many vehicles—there’s mass tourism in that park. There’s a reason why, because there’s a lot of wildlife. But the problem is, if you’re going there to have that ‘Out of Africa’ feeling and you’re sitting there at a pride of lions with 15 other vehicles, foreign tourists screaming—you kind of lose that feeling you were expecting when you came there.”
But, Jones adds, “On the outside of the Maasai Mara, they have several different private conservation areas and that’s where most of these luxury boutique properties are located, which helps the local people because they’re the ones who profit from them. But it also keeps the mass tourism out and yet it’s the same wildlife you have in the Maasai Mara. That makes it kind of special.”
Pinto of Micato Safaris couldn’t agree more. In fact, he says, there “…are incredible lodges and small luxury camps on private land where there’s a lot of wildlife that are not in the game parks. In fact, I’ve come to believe there’s more wildlife on private land than there is in game parks now,” he adds. His favorite though—while it doesn’t fall into the luxury category in terms of luxurious accommodations, it does fall into that “experiential” category so favored by high-end clientele—is called Rekero. “In many ways it’s not luxurious but it is tremendous, and what makes it so interesting is that the family that owns it has been in conservation for four decades or more. They all were, at one point, game wardens at some national park. They’re very familiar with conservation and they’ve got a great program that trains Maasai to become guides. So they’re really part of the fabric of the land and you really experience it, but not so much in the infrastructure, the people, the stories and their wildlife experience. They truly know the land, they know every hill, they know which cheetah gave birth to what cheetah and what year. They really know all about the animals and it becomes an all-encompassing wildlife, as well as a cultural experience.”
Stine of Cox and Kings has a recommendation, as well. “There’s also a really great camp in the Mara—there are about a million camps in the Mara,” she says laughing—“called Mara Plains and it’s also on a private conservancy. With luxury, of course, it’s all about exclusivity and not seeing a bunch of other people on safari. But Mara Plains is great because while it’s in the Mara, which is usually pretty crowded, it’s on a private conservancy so you can go into the Mara when you want and see the river crossing and the migration, or you can hang out and do night drives and actually walk in the private concession and the actual migration will also go through the concession.” But more importantly, she says, is the wildlife. Located on the Olare Orok Conservancy just north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve’s northern boundary, the Mara Plains Camp is surrounded by territories of a number of prides of lions. Rarely a night passes without lions roaring nearby, while leopards are regularly found to wander through the camp and cheetahs have established territories close by.
Cox & Kings will often send clients to the luxury Cotter Camp in the Maasai Mara, Jones says. The Cotter Camp, he explains, is a camp that’s all done up in period style—the classic safari camp right out of the early-20th century, right down to its safari vehicle. “The Cotter family are the descendants of Calvin Cotter, a famous big game hunter from that early-20th century period, and his family got involved in conservation in the 1980s,” he points out. “It’s a very famous family in Kenya and they have an impeccable product there—we send a lot of honeymooners there. It’s very romantic, they have a private dining experience or you can have dinner in your tent or breakfast outside in the park—there are all kinds of experiences.”
But there’s more to Kenya than the Bush experience and Kenya’s north coast is becoming more and more popular for high-end clients as an adjunct to their safari experience and a place to relax after—or even before—their safari adventure. Both Cox & Kings and Ker & Downey send their clients to properties in the Lamu area, primarily for the more private exclusivity that’s still available there, rather than the more mass tourism environment of the south coast.