Kenya is almost synonymous with the Masai Mara, one of the world’s best known wildlife reserves, which is a quick flight from Laikipia. Tucked away discreetly amidst a lush jungle enclave of the Masai Mara, Sala’s Camp is not only set in one of the farthest reaches of the Mara – the Serengeti is within spitting distance of the camp, and you can easily end up crossing over to Tanzania by accident while on a game drive! – it is as remote as it gets. To enjoy the vast Masai Mara but escape from the busloads of holidaymakers – after all, on safari, the only herds you want to get close to are wildebeest or buffalo, not tourists! – this ‘hidden camp’ is the place to go.
One of the best times to visit the Masai Mara is of course, when the annual Great Migration moves here from the Serengeti plains, and this lodge is well positioned to offer incomparable access to this wondrous natural phenomenon – with the Mara river famed for its made-famous-by-Nat Geo river crossings just a short drive away, and massive plains thronging with the wildebeest during the season. But, there’s plenty of resident game and other attractions to tempt in visitors all year round as well.
Not least the actual camp. The unfenced tented camp blends in seamlessly with its surroundings, where you can expect to go to sleep lulled (!) by the sounds of lions roaring in the distance, and have the occasional leopard passing by at night; safety is of paramount importance though, so guests are not allowed to walk out of their tents after dark unless accompanied by a Masai guide.
They don’t exaggerate! Our first night there, I was disturbed by the baffling sound of some wood being sawed right outside our tent. When I asked the staff the next morning, bewildered, why on earth anyone would think that chopping a tree might be a good idea in the middle of the night, I was told that was actually a leopard’s call, which sounds like sawing of wood. The next night, I was convinced that I’d heard some lions outside our tent, and worried that my husband’s persistent snoring sounded too much like a mating call, I was up wide-eyed all night plotting ways to defend ourselves from a lion attack! True story!! A bit of lost shut-eye is a cheap trade-off though, for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the storytelling cred.
There were plenty of opportunities to relax here though, as, apart from the morning and evening game drives – which are inevitably exciting, with guaranteed sightings of big cats, hippos, rhinos, and vast herds of African wildlife; we even got to see a thrilling real-life hunt – you can spend your days dedicated to doing as little as possible, enjoying the hand-on-foot service throughout. This is ‘glamping’ taken seriously, where you’ll find yourself ensconced in luxury – not just the hot shower, proper toilets, and warm beds kind of luxury, but stylish Africa-inspired furniture and silk cushions kind of luxury. With the option of sitting out on your outdoor deck on a colonial-style armchair with a drink of your choice served whenever you feel like, you’d find it hard to tear yourself away. But when you do venture out, you’ll be rewarded with wildlife sightings that will excite the most jaded travellers, and incomparable vistas of the reserve.
One of the best ways to enjoy this vista is over sundowners, when, after an afternoon game drive, the driver parks on a raised hillock, pulls out a makeshift bar table from the back of the SUV, and chairs and tables, Mary Poppins-style, and serves up drinks and nibbles to enjoy while taking in the quintessential African sunset. These driver guides tend to be quite versatile folks, as, come morning, they are equally adept at turning chef, when they cook up a hot breakfast of eggs and bacon, for a bush breakfast in the middle of a long morning game drive.
But while eating and drinking in the middle of the wilderness has its own charm, the lovely alfresco lunches and social dinners in the mess tent – where each night the table is set up in a different theme, flamboyantly showing off African handicrafts – are the meals to really look forward to. In spite of being in such a remote place, the kitchens manage to produce gourmet meals, with the produce sourced as locally and sustainably as possible.
While sitting by the fireside swapping stories of the day before dinner is de rigueur, on some evenings, weather permitting, the camp staff even set up dinner on the riverbank the camp overlooks, to make for a truly magical experience.
Not everything always runs smoothly though. Be prepared, as, for all that it offers, Africa can still be unpredictable and disorganised in many ways, and some things we might take for granted in more developed countries, can’t always be taken for granted here (for example, flight schedules might change last minute, the wi fi can be unreliable…). But, to enjoy raw, beautiful Africa up close, and yet in a way where every effort is sincerely made to ensure you are as insulated from any possible discomforts as possible, it is important to put yourself in good hands. And to take things a little ‘Pole, Pole’ (‘Slowly, slowly in Swahili) – that is, after all, part of the destination’s charm.
A version of this feature was previously published in BBC Good Food ME.