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Sala's Camp, Maasai Mara, Kenya

May 10, 2017

Located in one of the furthest, most remote spots of the Maasai Mara (very close to the border between Kenya and Tanzania), Sala’s Camp is a a tranquil haven located in the heart of the Mara. For someone like me – who loves nature just as much as I love high heels and lipstick – this is camping made perfect. A cozy spread of luxurious tents dotted between the trees, the camp is located where two rivers converge. The main mess tent overlooks the Sand River, and its green surrounds almost make you feel like you’re camping in a forest at times, with the gorgeous thicket of trees completely enveloping you in this beautiful little pocket of the Mara.  When I first read the description, I likened it to a “Harry Potter” style magic tent – and upon arriving, I could confirm that that’s exactly what they are. With every comfort you could desire, each tent is outfitted with hot showers, flushing toilets and running water, not to mention dressing gowns, a full range of toiletries and a seriously cushy bed (yes, actual furniture – you’ll find no sleeping bags here). Aside from the incredible tents (all the benefits of camping without any of the grimy discomfort) I also loved the fact that, while there are numerous lodgings dotted around the Mara, Sala’s is one of the furthest and it truly feels isolated from all of the rest (in the best possible way). Plus as a bonus, thanks to its location near the border, it’s one of the first places to witness The Great Migration as it begins each year, and it’s one of the last to see it before it goes, giving you the widest time range possible in which to see this amazing natural wonder of the world.

 

It’s incredibly peaceful at Sala’s. While armed guards patrol the site (to ensure the residents are kept safe from wild animals and poachers alike), they are all friendly and welcoming. At night, Sala’s doesn’t let residents/guests walk around on their own just in case they run into a stray hippo or some other wild creature, so every time we wanted to leave our tent for dinner we’d have to wave our torch up and down the pathway as instructed, and moments later we’d hear the clitter-clatter of feet walking along the path to signify the guard was coming to escort us to the main mess tent. Our tent was luckily just the second one away from the mess tent, so the thought of walking back there alone at night (in pitch darkness with only a torch to guide us) wasn’t too intimidating, but for some of the other tents that were further along into the camp and away from the main mess tent I wouldn’t even think of going alone. It’s perfectly safe, but you just have to be smart and follow instructions: If you’re told not to walk around at night without an escort, then don’t for your own good!

 

Meals are served communally, with delicious home-cooked dishes shared as a group in the main mess tent each day. We enjoyed a couple of delicious lunches with the other guests, where tables were set up along the banks overlooking the river, and wow – what a way to enjoy lunch. I couldn’t believe the view, and as I watched wildebeest grazing nearby and a herd of zebra make their way across the river just next to where we ate, I just wanted to pinch myself to remind myself it was real. You couldn’t ask for better surrounds. The food isn’t traditional Kenyan food – which I admit disappointed me a little at first as the foodie in me was desperate to try some authentic Kenyan dishes – but it is absolutely delicious, and I soon forgot my disappointment as I tucked in. Everything was just so wonderfully fresh, and really interesting, unique combinations that inspired me to try out a few new recipes upon my return home (beetroot cous-cous anyone? I hate beetroot, but that’s genius for everyone else!). I loved how colourful the dishes were, not to mention nutritious, and it was all so beautifully presented.

 

At night, dinners were also shared as a main group. Each evening, around 7pm, all of the guests would gather around the campfire, trickling in one by one to take their place around the fire as we sipped on sundowners and ate delicious nibbles like miniature pizzas, or crudites with an eggplant- and hommous- like dip. Evenings in the Mara can get rather chilly, but the campfire soon warmed us up, leaving us toasty in our snug sweaters before we headed into the main mess tent for dinner. And oh – what dinners! I was blown away by the elaborate table decorations, lit aglow by candlelight – on our first night, ostrich eggs and feathers were strewn across the middle, while on our last, beautiful spotted guinea-fowl feathers adorned a structure made of animal bones. The latter may sound grotesque, but it was stunning (not to mention fascinating when you realise what it’s made of). When I first arrived, I was surprised to see that the portion sizes were quite modest – and being the food-lover that I am I had been concerned that I would be hungry after all those excitement-filled days of driving around the Mara looking for game – but honestly, the most surprising part was that I was pleasantly full and satisfied after each meal. It just goes to show that in the modern, Western world, we do tend to eat more than we need to and when it comes down to it, we don’t usually actually need to eat as much as we think we do.

 

While I adored the big group dinners, with the interesting stories shared through getting to know the other guests and the warm conversation leading to a familial vibe, one of my favourite ways to enjoy a meal was through the bush breakfasts. Sala’s really goes all-out when it comes to eating in the bush, with hot stove plates worked into the back of their special safari vehicles that enabled us to eat out in the wild. It was simply amazing. The slab that we laid our feet on in the car slid out to be transformed into a table (genius!), while I was absolutely fascinated by the built-in stove. Cooking and eating hot scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages in the middle of the savannah with wildlife nearby isn’t an experience I’ll forget quickly – on our first bush breakfast, a curious giraffe was wandering around nearby, while during our second, we could hear the roar of hippos through the trees not too far off.

 

Sala’s excellent guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and will happily tailor your safari experience to your needs. We had the pleasure of having Onesmas as our guide and David (who is Maasai) as our wildlife spotter for a couple of days – what a charismatic, friendly and knowledgeable pair! I’ll miss them. We also had another David as our guide on our last day, and with his wealth of knowledge (he’d been a guide there for years and years) we saw some truly incredible things out in The Mara. The staff at the camp itself are also wonderful: friendly, sincere, and truly welcoming. The Camp also offers a fun range of activities for children, including a trampoline, learning how to make a bush toothbrush or cook in the bush, searching for glow worms at night, going out with a ranger to search for the “Little Five” and plenty more.

 

Each morning, we’d wake up to the call of the friendly staff from outside our tent, announcing that it was time to get up. I requested to take morning showers since, much to my chagrin, hairdryers aren’t allowed at Sala’s Camp (the electrical system can’t take it), and the lovely manager, Debbie, said it was no problem. It was an amazing way to wake up each morning – I loved peering out of the little “bathroom window” while I showered, enveloped in steam, watching the camp staff walk to the other tents carrying trays of coffee that clinked quietly with each step. Fortunately they didn’t see me, but I really enjoyed my secret hiding and watching spot – and one morning a bird was relaxing on the tree just outside of the shower window too! The water is heated in big metal ‘tins’ (I’m not sure what the best way to describe them would be), using fire to boil it, with one shared between each couple of tents. I always knew it would be time to get out of bed soon when I heard the crackle of the firewood as the staff prepared the fire every morning, and sure enough, a short while later the wake-up call would come softly through the tent walls. Waking to the sounds of the birds chirping and trilling through the trees was truly spectacular, and one in particular was especially intriguing since it sounded just like the call of the Mockingjay from The Hunger Games (well, the one they used in the movie anyway) – a few hauntingly beautiful notes, sung almost like a whistle, lingering in the air. Sadly, although I asked my travel companion (who is much better at whistling than I am – I can’t whistle to save my life) to mimic the sound for various different people, no-one seemed to be able to identify what it was. One guide, David, suggested that it might have been a whistling bat, or something called a “tinga bird”, but upon getting home I looked it up only to find that a tinga bird seems to be a fictional character from the Tinga Tinga Tales, a children’s TV series based on African folk tales. Nice one, David. 

 

Come bedtime, hot water bottles are placed under the sheets while you’re at dinner to keep you warm despite the chilly air. The bathrobes are pretty great too, since to my delight I discovered on my first night that they are thick, soft and lined with fabric that definitely helps to keep you warm as you patter around the tent. I loved snuggling under the covers and listening to the lions roar (or the occasional hippo or giraffe chomping on the grass) off in the distance

 

Run by The Safari Collection – which also owns Giraffe Manor, an excellent place to stop for lunch or a restful night’s sleep before having breakfast with its resident giraffes during your layover in Nairobi (which I will have to do a separate blog post on sometime soon!) – rates for Sala’s Camp run from Dhs1,500-2,160 per adult and Dhs880-1,400 per child, per day, depending on the season. This includes all transfers to and from the Keekorok airstrip, game drives, all meals, house wines, soft drinks, beers, spirits, laundry (with a same-day return), bush breakfasts and sundowners. The Camp is closed during the months of May and November, but as a permanent camp it is open throughout the rest of the year. While most people tend to focus on the game drives, I asked if it would be possible to visit a Maasai village and it was no problem at all – in fact, Onesmas was really pleased that we’d asked and shown such interest in it, and it was set up for us the very next day. You can also book a hot air balloon ride over the Mara if you like, which is run by a separate operator but Sala’s will happily arrange it for you (though you’ll have to get up bright and early at 4am in order to experience it!). Unfortunately, to stay in a camp, lodge or hotel in the reserve, park and conservation fees are charged at Dhs422 per person per night and are typically not included with the accommodation cost – it’s not included in the cost at Sala’s, for instance, though they can include it in your bill and take care of all the paperwork for you so you can pay it to them directly (which is what we and all the other guests did, as it’s much easier!). It is for a brilliant cause though, and when you see what you are conserving you’ll definitely not complain and deem it entirely worth it. When you count in the cost of staying there (pricey but at least it includes all food/drinks/etc.) plus the park and conservation fees, plus the internal flights, not to mention the flight to/from Kenya, it can add up to quite a lot but while it is fairly expensive, it really is absolutely worth every penny.

 

 

Photographs by Yi-Hwa Hanna

 

 

 

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