The Best of Times in the Masai Mara

The man said to the waiter at lunch, ‘Can we have some raw meat this evening?’ I was taken aback somewhat because, though the Serena Hotels are well known for the variety of the food they serve – and their willingness to please their guests – I doubt if a request for raw meat comes up very often.

Later, I discovered that the guy was one of a crew filming wildlife. We – family and friends – were staying at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge. We didn’t hear whether the request was granted.

I have had the good fortune to stay in a number of Serena Hotels – in Nairobi, Mombasa, Amboseli, Ol Pejeta, Kampala and Entebbe. All are operating to a shared and very high standard. I would rate the one in Kampala as the most beautiful hotel across the whole of East Africa. But the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, opened back in 1971, has an imaginative and intriguing design.

Like Serena’s lodge in Amboseli, its shapes and its décor are inspired by the traditional manyattas of the Masai who live and herd their cattle in the surrounding lands. But the Mara Serena has an unparalleled siting. It stands, like grey rocks, on a wooded hill – an inselberg – and it has a commanding view of the greens of the savannah, the tree-lined bends of the Mara River, and the misty blues of distant hills.

The rooms, of course, have much more head room than the Masai manyatta! And you find in them many more amenities – wireless internet, coffee and tea station, mineral water and toiletries, laundry and shoe-shine, ceiling fan and mosquito netting. And the food is much more varied and complex than traditional Masai fare of meat, milk and occasional blood drawn off from the neck of a cow.

In fact, I reckon a Serena breakfast is unbeatable, offering an amazing choice of juices, yogurts, cereals, hot and cold meats, eggs done any way you can imagine, vegetables, breads, jams and condiments. I was introduced to the head chef, Anthony Kenga. He has a very happy face. I am not surprised.

I also chatted with David Kirui, the Assistant Manager. I asked him how he would ‘sell’ to Kenyans, the idea of a stay at the Mara Serena. He started by pointing out that already a good number do visit. He then emphasised, with great pride and enthusiasm, the many attractions of the place. He reminded me that, though there are a number of luxury camps in the Mara Triangle, the Mara Serena is the only lodge.

He then went on the list such things as the comfort of the rooms, the amenities like the swimming pool and sundeck, the spa and gym, the conference facilities, the ‘extras’ such as bush breakfasts at Hippo Pool, sundowners by a campfire, game drives with experienced guides – and so much more.

David also talked about the Serena standards. On this point, I mentioned just one matter in which I reckon the standard has slipped a bit with a few of the staff. Most are excellent in the way they go about their business and relate to clients. But for the few there is something of the ‘Jambo bwana’ style that you find in some hotels at the Coast: an off-putting chatty friendliness that goes over the top. Maybe it’s an aspect of tourist places that you can find anywhere in the world.

I have mentioned that the Mara Serena is in the Mara Triangle. This is in the western part of the Masai Mara National Reserve, and it is the part of the Reserve that is now very efficiently managed by the Mara Conservancy, which has instituted a modern, IT-based revenue collection system, maintained roads within the Mara Triangle as well as the access roads to camps and lodges outside the Triangle, drafted good regulations for game viewing, established cordial relations with the lodge and camp managers and the surrounding communities, and significantly reduced poaching.

This three-day stay in the Triangle has changed my opinion about the Masai Mara. Before, I was critical of the unplanned mushrooming of lodges and campsites and the poor ‘marshalling’ of guides and drivers in the Reserve. I have a number of photographs of lions and cheetahs being closely surrounded by a horde of minibuses and other vehicles. The regulation in the Triangle is that vehicles should keep their distance and there should be no more than five assembled at any one time.

In terms of the ‘score’, we had a very successful and uncrowded three days in the Triangle: 38 lions, two leopards, one cheetah, and more elephants, buffalos, hyenas and other plains game than we could count. And the landscapes in this western part of the Mara are magnificent.

So in the low season and outside the migration period is a good time to visit the Mara – and you could well get a very reasonable rate at the Mara Serena, too.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation