Off the Grid: Rustic Luxury in the Maasai Mara

When was the last time you sat down to eat with an interesting mixed group, surrounded by wide-open plains, the stars blazing overhead, and not a single distraction? This is standard mealtime at Naboisho Camp, an all-inclusive safari camp inside the 55,000-acre Mara Naboisho Conservancy, within Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.


Our safari began in earnest when, dressed in standard Maasai checkered shuka, our guides Wilson and Benjamin greeted us at the Mara Serena airstrip. Piling into the open Land Cruiser, we set off on the 45-minute game drive that would lead us to Naboisho Camp. The intimate nine-tent camp is one of just seven housed in this exclusive conservancy, which is community-owned. It’s part of the Greater Mara Region and borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Less than 10 minutes into our drive, with Wilson and Benjamin’s keen eyes on the bush surrounding us, we’d spotted a sounder of warthogs, which led us all to think fondly of Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog from The Lion King. Just ahead was a striking Acacia tree from whose branches hung a few dozen nests belonging to the social weaver. By the time we pulled into Naboisho Camp, we’d seen a few giraffe, a zeal of zebra, a gorgeous lilac-breasted roller (Kenya’s national bird), and a herd of antelope—and that was all before lunch.


Meals at Naboisho Camp are a communal affair, served either outdoors in the shade of a big Acacia tree or on a long wooden table in the dining room. There is no Internet (in emergencies, the office computer can be used) and this renders mealtimes full of good conversation. Camp managers Helen and Roelof Schutte sit down to dinner nightly with guests; on our first night at Naboisho, over a salad of snap peas and tomatoes, we learned that after college, Helen worked at Disney World, inside the Animal Kingdom park. On the second night, we spoke with Roelof about his experiences growing up in South Africa.



After dinner, our group retreated to the fireplace to continue our discussion over drinks, but guests tend to turn in early at Naboisho Camp, happily worn out from a day of game-drives. At night, a ranger accompanies each guest back to his or her tent, though tent really does not do justice to the accommodations at Naboisho Camp. This is glamping in the truest sense of the word. Each of the nine tents (two of which are for families) has a verandah with day bed, wicker chairs, and an infinite view of the bush. Ensuite bathrooms have a flush toilet and hot running water shower; towels are thick and plentiful. The plush beds are a most welcome respite after a day in the Landcruiser. Rangers patrol the property all night, and on the desk in each room are a flashlight, an air horn, and a walkie-talkie whose calls go to the staff. In the morning, we watched the sun rise over the grass, sipping coffee and munching a few biscuits that had been delivered at our requested wake-up time.


Days at Naboisho Camp start with either breakfast in the main lodge or with a morning game drive and bush picnic. Sitting in the shade of a tree, sipping Kenyan tea and coffee and tucking into a veritable feast is a lovely way to begin a day of activities. Naboisho offers game drives and bush walks and can easily arrange visits to a nearby homestead, where you can meet a local Maasai family. We had picked up a soccer ball in Nairobi, and as the sun set over the plains, we kicked it around with the half dozen kids in the homestead. It’s hard to decide which is a better way to end a day at Naboisho Camp: watching pint-sized locals trying to score a goal, or having a sundowner around the roaring bonfire while listening to the guides’ stories. Luckily, you don’t have to choose.

Safari to Kenya’s Ark

When you pass elephants, cheetahs, and colobus monkeys before you’ve even arrived to the safari lodge, you know you’ve picked the right place. The Ark is tucked deep into Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, a wildlife reserve spanning 300-square miles and three ecosystems. Starting in a tropical forest, ascending to the bamboo groves, then misty moorlands, we reached The Ark. Inspired by Noah’s legendary boatful of animals, its built like a ship with the liveliest watering hole at the helm. From full-service game drives to elephant watching from the sun-deck, The Ark knows how to Glamp.
Instead of just driving the main road and dashing past the gorgeous scenery, The Ark has a few creative ways to approach their lodge. We choose to meet at their sister property, The Aberdare Country Club, and set out on a safari and waterfall excursion for the most unforgettable commute.

98% of Aberdare National Park is covered by trees and bushes making for lush scenery and intense animal sightings. Just when you think all is calm in the woods, a leopard will dash across the road or a massive elephant like this will pop its head out of the trees a few feet from your vehicle. There are 2,000 Forest Elephants in the park each eating 250-300 kilos a day…good thing there are enough trees to go around!
Resembling something out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, the Giant Forest Hog is as ugly as it is adorable. Everyone wants a piece of this big bacon but this 250+kilo beast will never run away from its predators–it charges! We were incredible lucky to spot this rare and threatened species and admire its quirky ways.
The park is said to have some of the best waterfalls in Kenya. The towering Chania falls was the first fabulous stop on our three-cascade excursion.
Next we went to the top of the three-tiered Karoo Falls for views that will make your stomach-drop and heart soar. Trees dripping in moss added to the surreal beauty.

07 Queen
For the Queen of England to go on safari, the park better be top-notch–which is precisely why Elizabeth II headed to Aberdare. (Little known fact: She was a princess when she arrived in 1952 but her father passed away during her stay in the park, so she technically became Queen of England in Aberdare National Park). While here she stopped to picnic at Magura Falls and to take a peek at its mystical cave, now aptly called Queen Cave.
In our final stretch to The Ark, our expert guide spotted this beautiful young leopard crouched in the bushes (see opening photo). What a find! As if one cat sighting wasn’t enough for the day, ten minutes later we came across this beautiful beast. This leopard was like no other we (or even our guide) had ever seen. Its bright orange coat, piercing blue eyes, and enormous size had us frozen in our tracks. (For Napoleon Dynamite fans out there, it was definitely a Liger).

09 Ark Kenya
After one incredible day, we finally reached The Ark. Perched above the forest floor, the rustic and self-admittedly quirky lodge seems to float over the trees.
With expansive balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows, the hotel design is all about connecting guests with the great African outdoors. The watering hole that sits at the helm of the hotel attracts countless elephants, warthogs, zebra, buffalo, leopards and much more to its shores. Staring out the window from these cozy sofas was like being on the comfiest safari possible.

To get a glimpse at the kind of animal action and fun we had from the comforts of The Ark, watch this unbelievable elephant bath-time video.

Spotting wildlife from the hotel balconies, sun room, or ground-level observation bunker, you feel as if you are watching a National Geographic special play out right in front of you. The Ark was one of our most engaging hotel stays, with the journey to get there being half the fun.

Anne and Mike Howard are creators of the around-the-world honeymoon blog and Long Term Travel Coaches for anyone looking to travel the world safely, affordably and off the beaten path. You can follow @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Glamping Review: Grootberg Lodge, Damaraland, Namibia

I had been told that the view from the award-winning Grootberg Lodge was spectacular, but when I got there it wasn’t. Granted, I arrived there in the dark of night after a dusk drive up Namibia’s Skeleton Coast — part of a custom itinerary organized for me by CW Safaris — and the non-descript patches of nature that I could make out in the near distance were only made visible from the short, confined beam of a flashlight.


However, even without the view of the Klip River Valley yet visible, I was already impressed with this lodge on the edge of the Etendeka Plateau — particularly with its story. Unlike many safari lodges in Africa, Grootberg Lodge has been operated by the local community for almost two decades now, with over 95% of the staff coming from rural villages. This is part of the efforts of the ≠Khoadi //Hoas Conservancy, unifying two thousand local community members who not only operate the lodge and prepare the meals, but run the education and conservation programs to protect the region’s wildlife.


With that said, some members of the conservancy know a thing about animals, especially the desert elephants of their Damaraland wilderness — in fact, “≠Khoadi //Hoas” in the local language of Khoekhoegowab translates to “elephant’s corner.” (The punctuation marks denote different click sounds.) Grootberg Lodge offers elephant tracking excursions for you to encounter them — with the caveat that there’s no guarantee of any actual sightings. Desert elephants are elusive after all.


On the morning I set out to find one of the trunked beasts, I didn’t set my expectations too high. The group that had gone out the day before hadn’t encountered any pachyderm, even after a long day of searching. Driving around in a Land Cruiser, my guide looked for clues in the wild — footprints, the freshness of dung, and impressions in the shrub and trees — just as the guide did the day before without any luck. For a couple of hours, we drove around the desert, shrubs, and thickets — two hours seemed like an eternity without a sighting — until, around a bend, stood an old lone bull munching on a tree.


Being only several yards away from him was a thrill, but my guide suspected he wasn’t alone and assured me that others had to be nearby. With a little more driving, we encountered the rest of the herd: young elephants, mothers with their babies, all getting in their morning routine and making their way across a valley. Driving in slowly and cautiously, we had quite an intimate experience with the herd from the safety inside our vehicle. In fact, a few curious elephants curled their trunks on our antenna, trying to play with a big, unusual metal creature.


Close encounters weren’t exclusively animal affairs in Damaraland. For me, nothing could have been more intimate than watching an old tribal elder woman in a hut, “bathing” herself in incense. However, this was not an act of perverted voyeurism; it was part of another excursion you can arrange from the Grootberg Lodge, where guides bring guests to see how one of the few remaining traditional tribes around live: the Himbas. The incense, along with otjize — a natural all-body ointment made with ochre and butterfat — keep the tribespeople clean while protecting them from mosquitoes and the sun.


Because of their nomadic behavior, the Himbas’ aren’t always in the same place, but fortunately venturing to them in a gas-powered vehicle can get you to wherever they relocated on foot. When stationary, the tribal community maintains their traditions: cattle farming, building shelters from mud and cattle dung, and their traditional attire and dance. The Himbas I visited performed their traditional dance for our group, which was like a Soul Train dance off. From my observations, the women dominated.


With these tribal visits and tracking excursions for elephants — or rhinos if you wish — you’d think there was plenty enough for me to be impressed with at the Grootberg Lodge. However, back at base, when I gazed out from the veranda of my solar-powered hut with a comfortable bed, nothing beat the view of the Klip River Valley — that is, when it was finally illuminated by the sun. With a poolside view like that, it almost made me forget that there were excursions available.