Wake up just after dawn at a tented encampment near the chill shadowed slopes of Kilimanjaro, and it's impossible not to feel reborn. The air is cool, filled with the clatter of white-bellied ‘go-away’ birds, the ground moist with fresh dew. There’s a scent of raw nature, and a sense that time has been wound back centuries.
All around the tents are the smooth round footprints of an elephant herd. A Masai warrior bends down to examine them. His name is Jackson, and he works as a guide at the exclusive Porini Camp, located in the bewitching wilderness of Amboseli.
‘A big tusker’s been here,’ Jackson says surely, his finger slowly circling the enormous footprint. ‘He led the others through in the dead of night. By now they will be across the border, in Tanzania.’
We drive out in an open-top Land Rover, zig-zagging between thorn trees, and jolting over crags. Dressed in his traditional Masai costume, a tartan-like tunic, his neck hidden in bright bead necklaces, a straight-bladed knife at his waist, Jackson points to the distance.
‘There, d’you see?’
Straining forward, I shake my head.
‘Straight on… Look!’
I shake again, then crane my head to the left and squint.
Poised imperially among a copse of thorn trees, a family of giraffe are having breakfast. They stare down at us, so utterly elegant, so outrageously tall, their golf ball eyes fanned by the longest lashes imaginable.
Beginning with giraffe, the dawn game drive reveals a Noah’s Ark of creatures, from zebra and eland antelope to impalas, to warthogs, hyenas and elephants. Perhaps best of all is the fact that all we see are animals. There isn’t another tourist vehicle in sight. By nine AM we were back at camp, ready for a lavish breakfast of our own in the luxurious Porini camp. The mid-morning banquet followed by a piping hot shower and a quick siesta, in a tent worthy of Hemingway himself.
Established fifteen years ago, Porini is far more than a group of plush safari lodges spread out through ‘Masailand’. Rather it's a whole new way to approach the delicate balance between animals and the Masai, and between them and the land. Working with the tribal elders, Porini and its sister company, Gamewatchers Safaris, set out the boundaries of a vast conservancy zone.
The Masai agreed to graze their cattle outside the conservancy, allowing the native flora and fauna inside it to thrive without interference by the domesticated herds or by Man. In return, the Masai are provided a stipend and, members of the tribe are hired as guides and attendants within the camps.
The result is a 15,000-acre realm that belongs firmly to nature, in which only a handful of visitors are permitted to roam each day. The emphasis is not on the mass-tourism of Kenya’s past, but on a far more considered form of eco-tourism of the future. And, importantly, it's the Masai who benefit as much as anyone else, their role allowing them to keep their dignity and to make a living as well.
Porini's conservancies are filled with creatures far less used to seeing tourist vehicles than some of the main Kenyan game reserves. And, just as the animals can drift across the open border to Tanzania, they can ebb and flow in and out of the conservancies as well. It's a remarkable equilibrium, one made all the more special by the existence of a Masai village a few miles from the camp.
Visitors who stay at Porini are encouraged to see life in the village, where the majority of the camp's employees actually live. There's none of the frantic bustle to sell tourist knick-knacks found elsewhere. Instead, visitors find a sense of respect, heightened by the fact they already know some of the villagers by name.
After two nights at Amboseli, I was taken to a dirt airstrip between one rolling vista and the next. It was almost surreal waiting there for an aircraft to touch down. A stone's throw from the windsock, a herd of Cape Buffalo was cooling itself in the mud. Then, gradually, I made out the faint whisper of a propeller, a sound that increased in ferocity until the Safarilink Cessna Caravan was parked neatly beside my suitcase.
Serving game lodges across Kenya, Safarilink is a lifeline for visitors, making it possible to cover vast swathes of African wilderness in comfort, and in no more than the blink of an eye. Flying low over the savannah is one of life's greatest thrills. The herds of zebra and impala, wildebeest and buffalo, are peppered over the unending grassland, with bone dry rivers snaking their way from one horizon to the next.
A little later, I reached Masai Mara, the Kenyan share of the vast Serengeti Reserve. A magical land, peopled by the warrior tribe whose name has been linked to it since antiquity, Masai Mara is one of the most important game reserves on the continent.
As at Amboseli, the Porini concept of conservancies is in place, with three camps spread out among the Masai's ancestral lands. Again, the camps are staffed by Masai warriors, and the game drives led by members of the tribe. It makes complete sense because no one knows the flora and fauna better than the Masai themselves.
In the days I stayed at Porini's Mara and Lion Camp, I found myself reconnecting with nature in a way I hardly imagined possible. During the long dark nights I slept more soundly than I have ever done elsewhere and, through days filled with blazing African sunshine, I forgot all about email, deadlines, and the social media that cramps our lives.
On game drives through both the conservancy and the actual Masai Mara Reserve, I glimpsed a cornucopia of fauna – one pride of lions after the next lazing about after feasting, the cubs prancing about in play. There were cheetahs too: a mother with her cub, lean and proud; and a leopard up a tree along with the leftovers of a zebra, a hyena circling greedily round the trunk. I saw ostriches as well, hurrying as if to an urgent appointment, and a lone anxious rhino, and droves of wildebeest.
Down at the Mara River there were hippos by the dozen, their bloated tummies sunbathing in camouflage on the rocks. Equally disguised in the water was a family of crocs, their ridged reptilian bodies forming moving islands for the egrets.
The great thing about Porini (which means 'In the Wild'), is the way the luxury is understated, as if laying it on too thick would be at odds with the simplicity of the environment. The tents blend into the countryside, and are furnished well with large beds, comfortable chairs, a writing desk, and a bathroom equipped all mod cons. There is a resounding sense that the camp is in harmony with the land on which it stands; and that, if it were ever to be moved, there would be no trace of it left at all.
Once again I took to the limitless African sky, the Safarilink plane, bridging the expanse of the savannah with the lush farmlands surrounding Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Landing at Wilson, the little domestic airport on the edge of the city, I took a taxi to the elite suburb of Gigiri, where the UN is based, and which was once a sprawling coffee plantation. There, I stayed at Nairobi's most exclusive boutique hotel, Tribe.
With the slogan, 'One World, One Tribe', it sets a new standard for hospitality on the African continent. A unique blend of all that is African, the hotel is located behind the bustling Village Market, packed with shops, cafés and high-end restaurants.
The rooms are floored in hardwood, the walls adorned in stone and in fabrics, sculptures from across the continent dotted about, along with fresh flowers, candles and coffee table books.
While at Masai Mara my only worry was how I would ever re-enter the orbit of my urban world. But, thankfully, the experience was made remarkably enjoyable by the genteel luxuries of Tribe, and the extraordinary competence of the staff.
Lying on my bed, I closed my eyes and was miraculously transported back to Amboseli, where Jackson was pointing to the distance once again. This time it wasn’t giraffe but a huge male tusker. His ears were flapping to cool him, his small watery eyes peering in our direction. Jackson motioned toward the elephant and smiled.
‘Now you know all this is here,’ he said, ‘it’s just a matter of time before your feet step once again over Africa sands.’
Gamewatchers Safaris/Porini Camps: www.porini.com
Fly Safarilink: www.flysafarilink.com
Tribe, Nairobi hotel www.tribe-hotel.com
Win a Luxury African Safari Worth US$10,000
Villa Sabai Jai - Koh Tao, Thailand
The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
Mead Brown Costa Rica
Eden Roc at Cap Cana
Maikhao Dream Villa Resort and Spa - Phuket, Thailand
Qantas Vacations: New South Wales Essential Luxury
Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, Tanzania
7 Secrets Resort & Wellness Retreat - Lombok, Indonesia
Natai Beach Resort & Spa, Phang-Nga - Phuket, Thailand
Rancho Cielo - Luxury Villa Rental
Jade Mountain - St. Lucia
The NoMad Hotel - New York City
The Lodge at Torrey Pines
Boutique Hotels & Resorts