It has started, the most magical light is emerging from the night with roughly 30 minutes before sunrise. In the middle of the savannah, the fauna is already active. Dozens of strange sounds surround us, the air is crisp and fresh, silhouettes embrace our every sight. Magical! I had heard the rumors or even the promise that Mara North Conservancy was worth visiting especially if like me, you take both your photography and wildlife seriously and if you are looking for the ‘once upon a time’ Africa. The Africa where you do not have to fight for a spot amongst 45 safari trucks to simply look at a sleeping lion. An Africa where it was morally accepted and valued to impose the least amount of stress on the animals, to respect their habitat and most importantly their wild-life. An Africa where you felt more as a guest, less as a tourist, and definitely not an intruder. At last I was here.
Yes, I am clearly exaggerating . . . . You still can visit the great parks all over Africa and feel somewhat the same, but to do so you might want to avoid the high season.
Tangent aside, let’s get back to Mara North Conservancy. I had decided to come here for a few simple reasons.
Low Density Tourism
What initially seduced me to Mara North is the fact that the conservancy offers a less crowded experience than most great parks. With 30,000 ha of conservation-specific habitat, Mara North has created a low density tourism approach by allowing a maximum ratio of 142 ha per guest bed (350 acres per bed or one tent per 700 acres) to be utilized and therefore help minimize the impact on the environment and wildlife, an approach which is visually apparent. There are a minimal amount of vehicles on the road and animals usually present at wildlife sighting waypoints, a sometimes rare occurrence in most other parks. Additionally they limit the number of vehicles that are allowed to stay at these wildlife sightings to as little as five. Case in point, if you are at a wildlife sighting where there is a leopard (we saw 4 of them during the entire trip), only a maximum of 5 vehicles in a sighting are allowed and first vehicle to arrive at a sighting gives way for other groups to get close to the animal and appreciate the sight. For context during the whole week I was there, this scenario only occured twice. Frankly I was happy to leave a wildlife sighting for others even if it meant potentially losing out on photographing what could eventually be a rare behaviour from an animal if I stayed in one spot long enough. Too many times I have seen animals literally surrounded and suffocated by vehicle and human traffic to the point where the animal’s behaviour changes to reflect fear and vulnerability, this should NEVER be permitted!
Aside from low density tourism, I also loved the fact that the 12 camps you find in Mara North use environmentally friendly technologies such as solar panels, eco-burners, ‘green’ waste and wastewater management systems, organic composting for fertilizers or bio-gas, as well as the use of eco-detergents and sustainably grown firewood. I was really impressed particularly to visit the technological installations implemented at Karen Blixen Camp, where I stayed; they were some of the best I have seen in Africa so far.
Perfect for the Wildlife Photographer
The second reason I was drawn to Mara North Conservancy is the fact that you have better access to animals which for a wildlife photographer is of paramount importance. Usually in the national parks you are obligated to stay on marked roads. If say the cutest lion cubs are far away or if a lioness decides to go hunt 2 000 yards from the closest road, your capture opportunities are nil. Even if you try, you are unlikely to get an image that is worth the space on your memory card. In Mara North, you are allowed to go wherever your safari vehicle can take you. Of course you are permitted to do so with one caveat, don’t stress the animals. This is why limiting the number of vehicles on a wildlife sighting is so important. I can tell you that this rule when enforced made quite a difference for me. I like to spend quality time with an animal, travelling further away from a main road so that I can better understand the behaviour of the animal I am trying to capture through the lens. In this manner I can easily spend a day following cheetah brothers hunting (which I did!). So, Mara North gets several points for this in my book. And if you like that concept, other conservancies offer the same type of vision and experience in Africa. For example, Sabi Sands in South Africa next to Kruger National Park and Ndutu in Tanzania which I both visited and I absolutely loved as well. But so far, my best experience was visiting Mara North Conservancy.
Sharing the Wealth with Local Communities
The third though not the last reason for wanting to visit this conservancy is rooted deeply in my decision to spend a full week in Mara North, allowing me to experience the community vision behind the project. We have heard many stories of the tensions surrounding conservation areas between landowners who fear rightfully for their livestock. Conservation of wildlife is often conflictual with communities who need to make a living. This is a complicated problem which stretches past the simple boundaries of trying to tackle healthy wildlife populations while minimizing impacts on the economy of small community. Here in Mara North, they have tackled this problem very successfully.
In January 2009, 13 tourism organizations partnered with 800 Maasai landowners to create the Mara North Conservancy. They basically created a 50/50 partnership between the tourism and local community interests with a clear goal to make it work. Conservation of wildlife with long-term commitments to the environment and local communities is at the heart of this amazing project.
Even today Mara North continues to thrive with this philosophy as it literally leases land parcels from individual Maasai landowners who receive substantial and direct income from wildlife conservation. Together, the Conservancy and the Maasai community are implementing sound land management policies including controlled grazing and community land-use plans. The idea is that you can have livestock and wildlife cohabitating, if you plan well. For example during our week there, Simon our guide took the time to stop by a Maasai herder who was moving his herd through a grass field to warn him that a nearby cheetah was walking towards them. Right away the herder changed direction. It was a simple discussion which is at the heart of the healthy relationships and partnerships which dictate the success of the Conservancy.
For the People Too
As I tell anyone who will listen, Africa is a place where I find a lot of happiness. Nature and wildlife are important of course but the people I meet, just as much. I would like to introduce three people from Karen Blixen Camp who marked my trip this year. Each of them is a member of the magnificent Maasai tribe located in Kenya and Tanzania. The first is Simon, our very capable wildlife guide. Eyes of a lynx, a contagious smile, a formidable sense of humor and the patience of a monk. We spent dozens of hours with him and we enjoyed every moment! The second is Liliane, the camp manager. She is one of the first black women to hold such a position. I'm not surprised. This beautiful, dynamic and intelligent young woman operates the camp with a firm hand and with a smile. She meets and exchanges with each guest and put us at ease. We were with family here. No detail escapes her. Through Karen Blixen Camp Trust, she runs several community transformation investments for the locals. In addition to this full-time job she runs a social enterprise that offers solution to environmental conservation by providing sustainable biofuel. The enterprise employs 7 people from the local community. She is an impressive tourism manager who will succeed in an extraordinary way I am sure. We had the pleasure of dining with her and she accompanied us on safari for half a day. I learned so much with her and I am very grateful. The third, Wycliffe, is a very tall young Masai working at the desk but who is about to finish his studies to become a wildlife guide with a bronze awarded certification from Kenya. Together we explored the periphery of the camp to help identify some of the resident bird species. If you saw his smile on a photograph you would understand just how contagious it is and ever present. He was proud to speak to exchange a few words of French to me by explaining that he was going to become a great guide. What can I say except that I have a lot of hope for these people, their community and their country. Asante sana na Karibu Sana Kenya i.e., “thanks a lot and welcome to Kenya in Swahili”!
If you want to learn more about the Mara North Conservancy, visit http://maranorth.org/
For more information about Karen Blixen Camp, visit http://www.karenblixencamp.com/
For more information about Karen Blixen Camp Trust, visit https://www.karenblixencamptrust.org/
International visitors will fly to Nairobi which is major African transport hub. International arrivals usually land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Then you will have the choice to fly or drive to Mara North Conservancy.
Several Kenyan airlines use Mara North airstrip from Nairobi (Wilson Airport) including Safarilink and Airkenya.
If you are in for a road trip driving will take you about 5-6 hours to drive from Nairobi To Mara North Conservancy. Nairobi to Narok will take you about 2-2.5 hours on a beautiful and smooth road. In Narok there is a fuel station just across the river which is a great stop for food, toilet and snacks. Leaving Narok to Sekenani Gate will take you about 2-3.5 hours depending on the vehicle you are travelling with.
Where to Stay
You have a choice of 12 member camps, Karen Blixen being the largest one wuth 22 beautiful and large luxury canvas tents – each set on a beautiful wooden platform with a spacious verandah. http://www.karenblixencamp.com/.
For information on other camps see http://maranorth.org/member-camps/
How Long For
We chose to spend a full seven days in Mara North Conservancy and it was just perfect. However some will choose to split their stay between Mara North and Masai Mara National Reserve. It only takes about one hour to drive between the two reserves.
When to Go
The best wildlife viewing months are during the dry season, from late June to October. But you sure can visit Mara North during the low season or wet season from November to May. The Conservancy will be less busy, it will be dust free and green and you will get the best rates. There are plenty of resident animals and wildlife viewing is still good.
This article was initially published in Wildlife Photographic.