I have never been so happy to be in a packed airport lounge as i was on this particular Friday. It was two days to the general election date and going by the chaos that marred the 2007 elections, i was happy to see international visitors still eager to tour Kenya. The Safarilink lounge at Wilson Airport was full with visitors heading to places like the Mara and Amboseli which are very popular with tourists.
I was in a group of journalists heading to the Ol Seki tented camp in the Maasai Mara that is managed by Hemingways Group. Shortly after ten we boarded our flight to the private airstrip at Naboisho which is managed by Hemingways and is exclusively used for their visitors. The flight took about 40 minutes after which we were warmly welcomed at the airstrip by James Maina the manager at Ol Seki and his team.
After the meet and greet and refreshments at the airstrip we left for the tented camp which i was happy to note was only about five minutes drive away. "Previously we used to use another airstrip that is about an hour's drive away. Now that we have this airstrip for our use, its more convenient for our guests," Maina says.
The Ol Seki camp is part of eight luxurious camp facilities owned by various investors within the 50,000 acre Naboisho conservancy. Though expansive, the small group of hoteliers have forged a community-like business network that also allows guests booked at the neighbouring tented camps to use the Naboisho airstrip.
The conservancy is one of the most highly protected in terms of tourist traffic and endangered animals like elephants. The number of tourists at a time within the area is closely scrutinised so as not to overwhelm the animals. Its made from contributions of 500 land owners. For instance the Ol Seki camp houses is also home to the Marcel Romdane who runs the fly4elephants foundation that conducts patrols on air to check on elephant herds.
Marcel first came to Kenya as a tourist and wildlife photographer in 2005 but when he returned last year, he was perturbed by the incidents of poaching in the country and decided to start fly4elephants. He now flies his little aircraft at least once daily-depending on the amount of donations available- checking around Ol Seki and the greater Naboisho area if the elephants have encountered a problem. This has detered poaching and increased the elephant population around this Mara area, according to rangers and Ol Seki manager Maina.
"But i am not here because Kenya is a country with a high number of poaching cases. No. If it was for the number of poachings then i would go to Botswana or Tanzania. I am here because i love this country," explains the German born Marcel.
Though the Mara area has no official patrol flights, the private planes like Marcel's that patrol the area help tented camps keep the wildlife allure intact. "Elephants feel safer around here, that is why when they try and move further away and are attacked, they run back here because of the patrols," Marcel says.
The area therefore is prime for tourism and supports Hemingways Group's decision to take over the management of the Ol Seki recently when it debuted into the country. Ol Seki has eight luxury tents for guests and a family tent for those visiting in a small group. Tourism activities in the area range from the daring but thrilling guided walks in the wild where armed guides take visitors for short walks within the park. Here you literally walk with the animals.
"We have guides who look at the animal prints on the grounds and knows which routes to take and which not to take," reveals one of the game rangers called George. Also of interest in this camp is the many different bird species that would marvel those keen on bird watching.
And lastly, what better way to tell you are in the Mara if not for a hot air balloon excursion? For visitors to Ol Seki the excursions are charged at half price of the prevailing rate. The nearby maasai village from which some of the Ol Seki workers come from (out of the 33 staff members, only four are not locals), also offers some entertainment and shopping area where visitors can buy various traditional artifacts and ornamnets. The village men and women double up as the dance troupes that entertain guests from time to time during their stay at the camp.
Apart from the Mara experience, Hemingways, a fairly new entrant in the local tourism market, is set to open up a 45-room boutique hotel in Nairobi's Karen area to cater for high end clientele. In Coast area, the international hotel management group has picked Watamu, another prime location especially for snorkeling fans, to host its guests.
Back to Ol Seki, if your an adventurous kind of person who gets a thrill out of getting so close to the wild animals, you will be pleased to stay at this camp. I still have not gotten over my first night at the camp when as soon as i came back from the sundowner drinks, some lions decided to sleep outside my tent's porch! The feeling was as thrilling as it was chilling. But then again, that is what bush safaris are all about.