Watch out for baboons, especially at breakfast. I learned about it while traveling in Kenya in 1986 with my law school friend, Roger. We were there for three months and we had little money. In Nairobi we paid 110 pounds each for a “safari” at a campsite. The bus overheated about every 10 miles and there was nothing to eat but bread and beans.
The baboon moment still stands out. These animals knew exactly what to do. While our group was dispersed, they barged into the cooking tent. I can already imagine them: 20 invaders tearing through the grass with a packet of bread under their arm. Roger and I did nothing to stop them. This was partly because we were now lying on the ground, helpless with laughter.
Thirty-six years later, I decided to return to the Maasai Mara. It would be a completely different journey. Then we got a bucket and an old military tent and woke up covered in ants.
This time we would be from the Great Plains. Owned by filmmakers and photographers, the company created the safari art form. Expect antiques, carvings, goat cheese, and artisanal gin. Every camp is like Claridge’s-in-canvas.
The clientele was different too. In 1986, we were thrown together with various tourists (including several newlyweds and an Australian who had so many diseases that we called him “The Germinator”).
This time it would be just me, my wife and our teenage daughter Lucy. As we boarded our little safari plane, I noticed that Lucy looked thoughtful. Apparently she’s seen my photos from 1986.
I also wondered about Mara and how she had changed. Things were looking pretty good as we sped across the Great Rift Valley, over this fabulous fissure on our planet.
But since the last time I was there, Kenya’s population has more than doubled (from almost 21 million to almost 56 million). Meanwhile, Nairobi was five times larger than before, and my old corrugated iron hotel (which had been used as a brothel) had long since disappeared beneath concrete and glass.
How did the animals survive all this? And were the meadows now covered with cities?
I soon realized that I needn’t have worried. From 10,000 feet up, the savanna looked as pristine as ever. I always thought England would have looked like this before people came along with their hedges and roads. She was green, luminous and endless. No wonder everything wants to be here in this huge salad.
Over the next five days, we saw literally thousands of animals fill the hills – zebras as far as the eye could see and wildebeest tracks that looked like ants.
Man has had little impact on the landscape. There was nothing on the runway but a trash can, horns and our guide Stephen. He turned out to be a great companion.
Although the national park is the size of Hertfordshire, Stephen knew not only every gorge and great beast, but also all the warriors and clans that roamed the plains. It helped that his father was a local chief who had 10 wives and 62 children.
Two things happened at that moment. Huge animals appeared first. There are always large, grunting creatures within sight or hearing in the Mara. It’s a success story that just keeps getting better. Rhino poaching has almost been eradicated.
Meanwhile, there are now over 36,000 elephants across Kenya, up 12 percent from 2014. That’s why there’s always something huge in the landscape – or heavy breathing in your ears.
The other big highlight was the hospitality. Great Plains knows how to perfect a moment. Things appear just when you need them: a powerful binocular, a gin and tonic, or a collapsible sink.
Like all Maasai, Stephen enjoyed being a host. As a teenager, he worked as a shepherd, fighting lions. Now he liked to drive our Land Cruiser among the herds, introducing the cats as if they were family or friends.
All this was just a prelude to the coming greatness. Our first camp, the Mara Expedition, felt wonderfully Victorian. It was as if some illustrious delegation had marched across the plains, taking everything with them: chandeliers, rugs, leather chairs, giant cabin trunks, and polling desks.
They even brought plumbing, and each tent had a colossal brass shower. Only the animals were unimpressed and at night the hippos and giraffes roamed the grounds as if we didn’t exist.
Our second camp, Mara Plains, took it all to the extreme. It had a treetop library, spa, lounge, two suspension bridges, and a stretch of river. Set along a walkway of recycled railway sleepers, this was no ordinary glamping, but a stately tent house. Each suite had a terrace and a huge copper tub. One of these pavilions, Jahazi, was so vast and aristocratic that it could easily have engulfed a conservatory or several ballrooms.
The staff was always wonderfully attentive, in their khaki drill. Every time we arrived or left, they lined up, Downton Abbey style. But they can also be talkative and charming. Amos, the waiter, was terrified of the snow and the fact that we didn’t have our own herd of cows.
Meanwhile, Robinson had a spear and looked after us at night. Then there was Chef Timothy. He conjured up the most wonderful dishes (maybe pomegranate salad or passion fruit sorbet). How does he produce such things out there in the wild?
One night we had a small earthquake. In the distance, hippos grunted and lions moaned. In camp, however, few of us woke up—and the only sound was botanical gin as bottles clinked against each other on the bar.
Five days have passed. I had forgotten how dramatic life on the plains can be. We would lose ourselves for hours in this great biological theater. First, there may be a gentle cabaret of zebras. Then a lion would appear, like Coriolanus, with a big shaggy head covered in blood and flies.
We also saw ostriches, like soldiers in tutu skirts. There were also small phrases from the Ugly Five (hyena, warthog, wildebeest, vulture and crocodile). But the most amazing were the cheetahs. Everything seemed to stop as they passed by, supermodel super.
Here, not only animals compete for attention. Some plants look strangely religious, such as the Euphorbia candlestick; or just plain dippy, like a pajama lily.
There’s also a character that could come from a pantomime called sticky purple mouse whiskers and the so-called sausage tree that always makes you laugh. But it’s not just about display. Some acacias communicate using pheromones, and their leaves turn bitter when giraffes attack.
Once we came across a skeleton hanging from a tree. “Gnu,” said Stephen, “killed by a leopard.” It was a reminder that life on the savannah is often short and not too sweet, and that everything is eventually eaten – even humans (the Maasai leave their dead for the scavengers to pick up).
I was still trying to process the idea when Timothy showed up wearing his white chef hat. He set tables by the watering hole and set them with linen and china. “Welcome to Saltlick,” he said. “Full Kenyan breakfast?”
Before leaving, I asked if I could visit the village. Stephen drove me to a circular compound with a thick palisade of thorns. It was called Ole Polos (“Between the Streams”) and I recognized the name.
It was funny to think that the boys I saw in 1986 were now warriors and chieftains. But unlike their fathers, they no longer carried weapons or sold items made of hides and horns. There was also much less garbage than I remembered (in 2017, Kenya banned the use of single-use plastic bags).
Other than that, not much had changed in the last 36 years, or the last 5,000. Building was still considered women’s work, and all houses were made of branches and dung. Diet hasn’t changed much either; still blood and milk and some meat. The Maasai also have a different attitude towards rustling because they believe that all the cows in the world belong to them.
Baboons showed up last morning. Oh no, I thought, here we go again. But they didn’t loot the croissants or raid the prosecco. Instead, they just scrambled through the library and into the treetops looking for monkeys and figs.
This is typical of Mara. Every day is different. Sometimes hyenas win, sometimes jackals. Elephants look gigantic one moment, helpless the next. We even saw a flock of guinea fowl attacking a leopard once.
With such pristine beauty, the Masai Mara remains as attractive as ever. Of course, I don’t miss the buckets from my youth (and I really liked the copper bathhouse and the tented palace). The drama of it all is still completely convincing. I don’t even care what animal action I’m watching, whether it’s “Big Kill” or a mongoose show. It is enough to simply be there, on this extraordinary, infinite scene.
John Gimlette traveled as a guest of Mahlatini Luxury Travel (028 9073 6050; mahlatini.com) and Great Plains (020 3150 1062; www.greattainsconservation.com. A six-day holiday, including four nights at the Mara Expedition Camp and two nights at the Mara Plains, costs from £5,500 per person, based on two shared tours. The price includes international flights from London, all internal flights, transfers, as well as all meals, drinks and scheduled daily camp activities.