Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Better than Perfect: East Africa

“Better than perfect.”

It was right there in the guest book. Heady praise to bestow upon the luxury camp named for a legendary Masai leader, but don't take a mere mortal's word for it. The landscape and its inhabitants support the sentiment visually by daylight, audibly confirming it at night.

Migrating Lions

Olonana, a permanent tented camp, is one of Abercrombie & Kent's (A&K) exclusive properties in East Africa. Sitting on enviable acreage at the base of the Siria Escarpment, it overlooks the bank of Kenya's Mara River—and resident hippo pod. Each of the 12 spacious en-suite accommodation tents are completely private, and well staffed. In addition to the housekeeper, your butler/houseman brings breakfast trays with a wake up call in the early dawn, picks up and delivers laundry, replaces the refreshments post-safari, and turns down the canvas windows at night. Indigenous baskets sit alongside exquisite bedding. A writer's desk with accompanying stationary complements the books available in the library. The main cottage's lounge and dining area evokes a family feel enhanced by the hosts and resident Safari guides.

Singer from the Masai Village

Olonana Porch overlooking
Kenya's Mara River

The Masai Mara, or "spotted land" is so called for the Acacia trees that dot the landscape rather than canvas it (from the air they look like frisee reaching for the sky). Not only are the 320 square km. of the Mara Triangle, Oloolola Escarpment and rivers inspiring scenery—Out of Africa was filmed there—the open savannah and woodlands create an eco-system which supports huge numbers of bird and mammal species. The low altitude flight from Nairobi, does nothing to prepare you for life on the ground. A maiden trip to Kenya will make even the most jaded traveler believe they were cast as an extra in a Jurassic Park-esque movie. But this is the real deal. From the airport, the 10 minute ride to Olonana stretches into 35 as the true citizens of the Mara take a stroll through their property. Cape Buffalo, eland, impala, warthogs and thompson gazelle gracefully ignore the vehicle as viewers, wide-eyed and drop-jawed, practice Masai-like silence.

Olonana's Main House

Cheetahs perched on the border

Elephants grazing in the early evening

Your experience in the Mara is only as good as your safari leader, and Masai warrior Pius, is no other than Prince Charles' favorite. He knows the land intimately and can translate its unique language with an impressive English vocabulary. Dedicated to the elder position he holds in the village, Pius is also a highly regarded escort (and followed at a respected distance) by other guides. He can navigate off-road terrain in the opensided 4x4, and scope a rare sighting. He also lays out a perfect breakfast spread, finding an elusive shady spot 10 km. from the Tanzanian border. This is the man that can lead you to not one, but two maternal lion prides in a single afternoon. Pius will explain the "Maltese Peace Association"—where grand gazelle, buffalo, zebra, and bird life live in harmony due to their "Grazing Strategy." The animals are not in conflict with food sources or supply, as they eat various types of vegetation. Their unique viewing capabilities allow them to alert each other early to prey. He describes the difference between Bushel and Gravy zebras, and points out the symbiotic relationship between the tiny yellow-beaked ox-backer and the thundering cape buffalo.

Walking safaris are a great way to see animals, but better yet to learn about plant life. Munge, a junior warrior equipped with a bow and poison arrows to protect against predators, can comment on just about every species of foliage. The Croton tree is most used in the Mara. It has a reflective, almost aluminum leaf that is fire-retardant and termite repellant—a necessary material for hut making. The Gardenia tree is widely believed to help treat malaria. Walking sticks and other weapons are carved out of the hardest wood derived from the African olive tree. Munge will happily demonstrate how to use the African pepper tree as an effective toothbrush: strip approximately an inch of bark off a twig, chew the end of the spicy/minty stalk until it is splayed, and brush. Top to bottom.

Not only is the 320 square km. of the Mara Triangle, Oloolola Escarpment and rivers inspiring scenery—Out of Africa was filmed there—the open savannah and woodlands create an eco-system which supports huge numbers of bird and mammal species.

Part of Abercrombie & Kent's Global Foundation's Indigenous Tree Planting Project encourages tree cultivation and preservations on Olonana's property. The arboretum at the entrance is impressive and inspiring to see. Silver tags, attached to the saplings, name the guests who have participated. Official documents bearing species, dates and names make thoughtful dedication gifts to those who are waiting at home.

Olonana is also at the forefront of eco-tourism in Kenya. Solar power and bio degradable products are relied upon. Which is why laundry must be turned in the day before departure—it is naturally sun-dried. An ingenious wetlands project allows for all used water to be totally recycled. A series of five manmade pools allow for the filtration and cleaning of fetid water by virtue of plants and a limited amount of safe disinfectants. Remarkably, the last pool is a playground for frogs and fish, a watering hole for birds, and testament that the process is complete. After being pumped back into the river, the water supply for the camp is renewed.

The Masai village is walking distance from camp. The tour begins with a welcome song for visitors and many questions from the ladies; "How many wives do you have? How many cows did you pay for her?” Co-wives are part of Masai life, and indicate the wealth of the family. The first wife decides when (usually after bearing a couple of children, in as many years) and whom she wants as her co-wife. The idea is to lessen the burden, and to live peacefully and productively. Guides explain the housing system and act as interpreter so that you may ask a few questions of your own. The village leader will make a blazing fire out of straw and wood in about 6 seconds flat, while the women create jewelry, baskets, and mats in intricate bead work for their on-site market.

After early morning and afternoon safaris, village visits and escarpment hikes, there is nothing more welcoming than a "Jambo" from your personal server. They are assigned to you for the duration of your stay, and they know better than anyone that you prefer a Tusker (local beer) or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc to ease you into the evening's recounting of who saw what, where and how close. Describing the Mara from a hot air balloon's aerial viewpoint, is typical cocktail conversation. Meals at Olonana are gourmet and offered within a 2-3 hour window for leisurely dining. They may be tailored to your dietary needs and tastes, as the chef is familiar with making adjustments for his international clientele. The wine list boasts some of the best kept South African secrets. Cordials and spirits are available in the library. If you didn't take your sundowner by the fire at the top of the escarpment, don't miss the chance to experience a nightcap on your private porch. Enjoying a civilized glass of port or cognac while listening to the hippos 20 yards away—or the not-so-far-off laughter of a pack of spotted hyenas after poaching a pride of adolescent lions kill—is surreal. Then look up. The new moon reveals stars so bright, they drip like diamonds descending through an hourglass until they kiss the earth. Now you can divine Olanana's spirit in the Masai proverb: "Melankua Ang' Inchu" "Home is not far when you are alive."

— Helen Gifford

Photos: Greg Demirjian

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