Walking with Maasai
Back in July 2011 Linda and I were lucky enough to experience a small-scale community ecotourism initiative in Loita Hills, Kenya. So here is my belated account of a truly great experience!
Walking with Maasai is a non-profit organisation established by and for the Maasai communities in the Olorte region of southern Kenya. As a business venture run by the Maasai, income generated will go directly back into the community to improve facilities and to assist those who most need support. The business model also aims to create much needed employment opportunities. We didn’t experience all the projects that were underway, but we did spend a few days at their remote eco-camp.
For sustainability the eco-camp aims to remain small in size, and will eventually consist of just 6 permanent safari tents set on wooden decks and a lounge overlooking the Loita Hills and the Olkeju Arus river and gorge. When we were there the camp was still in development, but there was already an intimate atmosphere as you made your way along trails through the bush to each tent. While all the tents are in close proximity to one another, they have been carefully placed to allow for maximum privacy. Even though the tents are furnished and very comfortable, the camp itself definitely has a rustic feel, and you really get a sense of living in the bush without the restrictions of fences and other barriers. This can feel somewhat unnerving when you are told buffalo may move through the camp at night, but any nerves I had soon faded as the camp staff imparted some clear instructions on the best way to get around the camp after dark. In the end we had no close encounters, but we did hear the distinct sounds of elephants late one night.
While bathroom facilities are not usually an area I take great interest in, these bathrooms were architecturally excellent! Each tent has access to an outdoor bathroom located close by. A curved wall of branches leads you into a secluded inner circular area with a dry toilet and an enclave with a hot water ‘bucket shower’ (although this may be a solar powered system now). It is secure and private, but allows enough space to really feel like you are out in the open, with the vast blue sky as your roof!
There is an outdoor kitchen next to the ‘boma’- a large communal area encircled by a fence of intertwined branches. At the centre is a large fire where we ate and socialised. Here the staff cooked our meals right on the fire, and I can safely say they did an amazing job. The experimental ‘pot-lasagne’ was one of the best I’ve ever tasted!
After taking a refreshing dip in what I can only describe as a magical little lagoon tucked away at the foot of the hill the camp sits on, we made our way into the surrounding bush on a ‘walking safari’ under the care of local Maasai guides. Unlike more traditional safaris where you are constrained to the confines of a jeep this was a refreshing way to stretch the legs and explore the bush. We were able to get a close look at different animal tracks and follow ancient elephant paths through the dense bush land. Our guides also took us to see a young elephant that had been killed the day before by poachers. This was a very confronting experience, the carcass had been colonised by thousands of maggots and the stench was thick in the air. It was a grim reminder of the prevalence of poaching in the area. I can only hope that initiatives like Walking with Maasai and other innovative community programs will have the potential to create, and continually develop, alternative income opportunities other than poaching.
With mixed emotions over the rotting elephant carcass and all it represented, we were suddenly pulled to our senses as we finally got that close encounter with some buffalo. Luckily we were in the safe company of our guides who made sure we passed clear of them, avoiding any potential danger. As the adrenalin passed we set off at a steady pace away from the baking sun and entered the cool shade of denser forest. Soon we came to a secluded lagoon inhabited by two large hippos. It was exhilarating to be standing right at the edge of the lagoon with nothing between us and the hippos wading through the water. From here we continued to snake our way up a trail out of the forest passing the occasional band of feisty baboons until we reached a vast plateau revealing a Maasai community. This was home to our guides and a great place to relax and drink some chai. The community is remote and it was a privilege to have been afforded a moment, albeit a brief one, to experience the daily motion and rhythm of Maasai life.