Safaris top many people’s bucket lists and for those looking for a truly unforgettable experience, luxurious glamping is often the preferred choice.
I’d never quite fancied backpacking, sleeping bags or making my own dinner on an open fire (in the UK or anywhere else!), so when my husband, Tom, and I finally jetted off on our dream safari holiday, we pulled out the stops.
We had our hearts set on East Africa – the region where the concept of safari first began – and decided on Kenya, partly because it offered the best value for money.
Ol Seki Mara, which we’d booked for a five-day stay, was located at the heart of the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, just outside of Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park. And it was also a luxurious camp with massive marquee-esque tents, gourmet food and even its own spa therapist. Now this was my kind of camping.
We flew nine hours from London Heathrow to Nairobi and unfortunately didn’t have the best start to our trip. Our luggage came off the carousel late in Nairobi and our transfer vehicle to Wilson Airport, where we were due to pick up our flight onwards to the Masai Mara, got stuck in traffic (be warned, the Nairobi road system is a nightmare so leave extra time if you can).
On arrival, we were ushered through quickly and immediately boarded the plane… Not exactly how we’d envisaged the first part of our dream adventure to Africa. But we were determined not to let it put a dampener on things.
Twenty minutes into our Safarilink flight and our stresses were soon forgotten, though, as we gazed down on the wide, open African plains, marveling at the iconic umbrella-shaped Acacia trees we’d only ever seen in David Attenborough documentaries.
The view from above
Nothing can prepare you for the moment when your plane comes in to land in the African wilderness. From the window, I spied the ‘landing strip’ – a plot of brown earth, surrounded, not more than a few yards away, by herds of zebra, wildebeest and ostrich.
There was no airport – just a lone figure in a striking red Masai tribal cloak standing nearby, in the shade of an Acacia tree, awaiting our arrival. He hurried over as we disembarked, introducing himself as one of Ol Seki’s guides, Rafael, then showed us to a bench beneath the tree where we were treated to ice cold drinks while we adjusted to the muggy temperature and took in all the wonderful animals grazing around us.
A very different kind of landing experience
Tom, with guide Raphael
Then, an open-top jeep arrived and we set off to the camp, getting our first taste of the safari experience. The ride was bumpy to say the least, and I hung on tightly as the vehicle swung from side to side and up and down, navigating rocky terrain and climbing steep slopes, while animals darted out of the way in front of us. En route there, we saw more herds of zebra and wildebeest, and even glimpsed a giraffe peeking at us above the trees.
A friendly zebra we spotted as we enjoyed a chilled drink by the landing strip
A giraffe pops up to say hello as we make our way to camp
It took us no time at all to reach Ol Seki, where we were met by Manager James Maina. He gave us a brief overview of the camp and explained that the name ‘Ol Seki’ means sandpaper tree – a tree that symbolises peace and harmony for the Maasai people. And everything about the camp really is intended to bring the same peace and harmony.
CAMPING… BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
We followed James down a polished wooden catwalk, then onto a paved pathway to our ‘Nina Tent’ (named after the architect’s daughter), emerging onto a huge, curving verandah with the most breathtaking views. The camp is set in an elevated spot, on a rocky promontory, and every one of the 10 guest tents (six standard tents and two larger, interconnected family suites) benefits from wrap-around private terraces with 270-degree panoramas; it really felt like we were on top of the world as we gazed down over the vast Mara plains and snaking Isupukiai River.
The wow factor continued on inside, as we took in the high domed ceiling over the double bed and bedside tables, the comfy seating area – where flowers and a bottle of champagne had been laid out – and the old-world style chest and writing desk. The rear section of the tent housed the en-suite bathroom and dressing area.
I’m not the best person at dealing with creepy crawlies and one of my major reservations about safari was that I’d be roughing it in a tent full of insects. But I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the tent’s huge flysheets, protecting the canvas body of the main structure, and mosquito net-covered windows and doorways. They could also be zipped up fully without obscuring the wonderful views or preventing the cooling breeze from coming through. And in the evening, gathered drapes could be pulled for privacy. Needless to say, my first sleep that afternoon was a restful one!
The pathway down to our Nina tent
Our luxurious bedroom/living area
Our shower and bathroom at the rear of the tent
The view from our terrace
After our power nap, we headed to the dining tent, a minute’s stroll from our own along the wooden catwalk, to enjoy a late lunch. There’s one large table in the tent where all guests sit, which encourages a sociable atmosphere; however, the camp was never full while we were there and we often had this all to ourselves.
With a maximum of 10 tents to cater for, the service is top notch and James often popped by while we were eating to have a chat. He’d recommend trips and excursions, talk to us about African culture and all the wonderful animals in the conservancy and Masai Mara.
The dining tent
All guests stay on a full-board basis, but given how remote the camp is I hardly expected a lavish, five-star all-inclusive. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Homemade muesli, eggs and bacon, and exotic fruits were offered at breakfast, with three courses being served up at both lunch and dinner – all international cuisines and with a huge amount of variety. The wine was also a pleasant surprise, with the white and red house varieties always of an incredibly good standard and paired to the dish we were eating. Afternoon tea is available, too, if you still have room!
After dinner, we would retire to the library tent for a digestif; it was such a beautiful spot, aiming to capture the essence of yesteryear safari – think chunky wooden chests, paraffin lanterns and tribal-print rugs and throw cushions. And out on the deck, the stylish touches continued with classic director’s chairs and a telescope for wildlife watching.
The library tent
One night, the staff lit a fire pit on the lower deck and we sat there gazing out into the dusky wilderness, taking in the hypnotising buzz of the animals beyond. And on another night, we were treated to a private dining experience on our own terrace.
Game drives typically take place early in the morning (we’re talking 5.30am starts) and late in the afternoon (around 4pm), as this is when the animals tend to be the most active.
Like mealtimes, you have to share the vehicle with other guests, but because the camp was so quiet we were lucky enough to have our guide, David, all to ourselves on our drive that first afternoon.
It was an unforgettable experience from the moment we set off, with David managing to track down some mud-covered hippos emerging from a river as well as two young male lions basking in the late afternoon sunshine.
Safari jeep selfie
The hippos and young male lions we spotted on our first game drive
Despite how close the animals got to us, I never felt afraid, though. David explained that you’re only at risk if you get out of the van, as the animals are now so used to the safari vehicles that they barely take notice of them.
Every game drive ends with a sundowner – that is, an alcoholic beverage in the van in the most picturesque spot your guide can find. On that first night, it was watching the sunset with two lions not more than 100 yards away, snapping photos on our cameras while sipping chilled white wine and gin and tonics that David had packed for us in a cool box.
We found the whole experience of wildlife watching in the conservancy wonderful. As it is private land, the only vehicles allowed are the safari jeeps belonging to the seven camps that reside here, and as a result of fewer traffic and footfall the wildlife thrives. It has a higher density of animals than the Masai Mara, and, interestingly, the highest density of lions in the whole of Africa.
We were lucky enough to spot four out of the ‘Big Five’ (that is, the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) during our short five-day stay. The leopard was a particular highlight; each day, we’d circle the same area, where David said it had most recently been seen, peering into clumps of thick brush, hoping to spot those piercing eyes looking back out at us.
Then, on our third day, there it was: not hiding away in the bushes, but basking in the sunshine right out on the open plain.
An elusive leopard poses for the camera
WHAT TO SPLURGE ON
We fancied venturing into the main Masai Mara Park on one of the days, which took us around an hour to get to from our camp. The trip was not included in our package, unfortunately, and cost US$130 per person for the day. But we thought it was worth splashing out on.
The Mara is a vast area and the animals are much more spaced out than in the conservancy, so you have to drive for a while to track them down. But it was a wonderful day and is definitely worth making the effort (and paying the extra money) for.
We spied two adult cheetahs with their cubs shading under a tree, which our guide – Raphael, that day – told us were actually famous (their names are Kidogo and Fundi), having been featured on the BBC series Big Cat Diary. We also saw a buffalo taking a mud bath and came across a family of elephants (a mother and her two babies) striding through the long grasses.
A cheetah family resting in the shade
A female elephant leads her young
Rafael found a safe spot for us to have lunch in the early afternoon and set up a table in the bush, where we ate picnic foods and sipped white wine in the sunshine.
If you can afford the eye-watering price (around £600 for the two of us), I’d also recommend a hot air balloon flight (Hot Air Safaris). After a gentle ascent at sunrise, you glide peacefully over the plains, while you take in the panoramic views over the Masai Mara and the thrilling wildlife dramas playing out below.
It’s not a scary experience at all – in fact, it was such a smooth take-off that I didn’t realise we were actually in the air. And while the landing was slightly bumpier, it certainly wasn’t alarming. It’s a fantastic way to see the animals from a different perspective and a romantic thing to do as a couple, especially as the experience is followed by a champagne breakfast in the bush.
The most spectacular views of the sunrise on our hot air balloon flight…
Rounding off a trip of memorable experiences was my hour-long massage in the comfort of my own tent. Ol Seki’s dedicated masseuse came to our Nina tent with a portable massage table and opened up the sides of the tent so I could enjoy the breeze and animal chatter beyond, while I enjoyed 60 minutes of pure relaxation.
Invest in a good camera for your trip and, if you can, a zoom lens – we found ours invaluable and it helped us to capture so many amazing, up-close images of the animals in action. We bought ours, but you can also hire camera equipment.
A trip to Ol Seki Mara really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and, in my opinion, is worth every penny. The accommodation is beyond beautiful and the location is spot-on, too, ensuring the best possible game-drive experiences. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
TAKE ME THERE…
The best wildlife viewing months in Kenya are during the dry season from late June to October. Booking.com currently offers a three-night safari at Ol Seki Mara for £3,561, based on two people staying on an all-inclusive basis.
Author: Kirsty Nutkins
Kirsty is an experienced journalist and travel writer, currently working on a national newspaper supplement as Features and Travel Editor. She is the founder of TravelLuxe.co.uk.