Under canvas – guest post by Tasha Turner

The season of the wildebeest migration in July of 2023 brought me to the rolling plains of Amboseli and the pale-gold grasslands of the Maasai Mara in Kenya, East Africa. A friend with a heart and soul for adventure had fallen in love with Kenya in his early 20s and had since built a life in the Mara, carefully crafting a safari experience for like-minded souls with exclusive boutique safaris. 

In 2019, in our own equally remote island home in Far North Queensland Australia, Howard Saunders was visiting with his wife Steph and their two children Oliver and Halina. As so many like-minded adventurers do, Howard struck up a friendship with my parents Anna and Roy.

Upon finishing my law degree at Oxford, I yearned for a change of pace and reached out to Howard with an interest to come and help on his safaris. As Covid cooled and travel picked up again, Howard would be hitting the ground running in the season of 2023, and my passion and experience in cuisine and high-end hospitality would be a welcome addition to his team.

Within half an hour of touching down in Nairobi, one of Howard’s team had whisked me through immigration and sped me to Wilson airport, where domestic and private air travel go through. I met Howard on the tarmac and we took off in his Cessna 182, flying over the Great Rift Valley to his home near the Enonkishu Conservancy. We would spend a few weeks here; For Howard, Naretoi (the 1000 acres which borders Enonkishu) is home. For me, it was a wondrous place to acclimatise, learn my first phrases of Swahili, and get to grips with the complex safaris we had in store.

As the end of June approached, we returned to Nairobi. Nairobi is the beating heart of Kenya and the connective base where the mechanical pieces of a safari are put together. The office of Ker & Downey Safaris, the parent company founded in 1946 and hailed by many as the inventors of the modern-day safari, is situated in the Nairobi suburb of Karen. During the months of June through September, K&D is a bustle of activity as entire mobile camps are carefully planned and packed into enormous trucks, ready to be driven out to remote safari locations. Howard’s is one of only a dozen exclusive safari operators under the legendary K&D name.

From Nairobi and garbed in khaki, I began the long drive out to Amboseli, where we would be spending the first three nights of the trip. 

The Amboseli National Park sits on the border of Tanzania. Characterized by its flat and often dry expanses, Amboseli provides a dramatic backdrop for the elephants, wildebeest and zebra which roam its vast plains. The dust swirls and is carried into the atmosphere, creating a whimsical and rather romantic vista. Rolling into Howard’s camp, the looming outline of Kilimanjaro extends up into the sky above us. A few hundred feet away, a large bull elephant walks slowly past the camp, its heels creating silent puffs of dust which eddy in the fading light.

We are met by Mike, Howard’s camp manager, who offers to show me to my guide tent to wash off the dust. My canvas home sits nestled under the shade of a twisting Acacia tree. A small silver basin, filled with inviting fresh water, is propped on a little trivet outside the tent. The ‘windows’ are fly-screen mesh, allowing the breeze to keep the tent cool whilst deterring unwanted insects.

Meanwhile, Howard’s crew are in full motion. His team are a well-oiled machine; together, they work seamlessly to turn the stretch of trees and grassland into a fully-fledged canvas creation. 

Camps like Howard’s are the luxurious tip of the East African safari iceberg. Clients can expect a truly personalised, once-in-a-lifetime, guided experience in rustic luxury – and in close proximity to the Kenyan wildlife. 

Like the most intricate and elaborate of pop-up cards, Howard’s mobile camp unfolds before my eyes. Tents, furniture, linens and lights spring out of the trucks and into splendid being. By evening, a mess tent, guide tents, a kitchen and the luxurious client accommodation are ready, the latter with colourful bed linens smoothed and flowers arranged neatly by the wash basins. 

Walking through camp, and taking care to avoid the vervet monkeys which seem to find visitors most intriguing, Mike offers me a tour of the kitchen. Let me say, just once, that this is perhaps one of the most unique “kitchens” I have laid eyes upon. Two metal-topped tables, made of polished steel, one gas cooker, and the piece de resistance, the “oven” – a hot metal box on which coals are snuggled under and above. This camp kitchen is connected to a small canvas pantry where produce is carefully organised to maintain its freshness. The produce must last until we next make a trip to Nairobi to re-supply.

I pass the first night in my canvas home, listening to the grunting roar of a lion some ways off in the distance. A pearl-spotted owlet hoots from the branch above my tent, like a feathered sentinel. Sound travels far here, over the flat lands of Amboseli, and the nights are filled with activity and intrigue.

The next day, and with the guests arrival by small charter plane, our group is complete.

The day starts early on safari; Woken as the first red rays glow through the mesh of the tent, a tent attendant delivers a thermos of hot milky chai (a deliciously creamy tea made with hot milk instead of water) to your door. Wrapped in warm “shukas” (the traditional colourful shawls of the Maasai) to keep off the morning’s chill, we trundle out of camp before the sun has fully breached the horizon.

Our destination this morning is a nearby Maasai village, where Howard’s close relations with the local Maasai afford his clients a rare peek into the villagers’ extraordinary lives. On route however, our spotter’s eyes detect lion tracks – fresh enough that the dust has not had time to soften the imprints. Our two safari jeeps veer off the path and head into the scrub where the tracks lead.

This thrilling unpredictability, where the mornings and evenings are dictated by the exhilarating and capricious goings on of the wildlife, is what makes the safari so alluring: a lion making a kill of a wildebeest, a cheetah spotted with four cubs, flocks of flamingos taking flight from their aquatic oasis. The cycle of life runs, moment-to-moment, on its own rhythm out here, and for one week with Howard we are lucky enough to experience a part of it.

After our three nights are past, I hug the guests goodbye as they fly off to a lodge in the Borana Conservancy. I will be heading back to Nairobi with the crew for a re-supply, and will meet them in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

In contrast to Amboseli, the Mara is lush and vibrant in its flora. Big cats (lions, cheetah and leopards) roam the grassy savannah where there are prey in their hundreds. Kiboko Camp, where we are settled, is set on the banks of the Mara river. Thirty feet below us, crocodiles and hippos lazily wallow in the flowing currents.

Independent of the extraordinary proximity of wildlife that is so captivating, I found myself both surprised and delighted by the culinary side of Howard’s safaris. Here, meals are memories. After a morning’s game drive, breakfast is often taken under an acacia tree. We are rarely alone in breaking our fast – a herd of almost one hundred zebra and wildebeest graze nearby, intermingled with a family of warthogs who are foraging on bended knee.

In the evenings, clients can wander over to the “mess tent” which has been beautifully lit with hurricane lamps. A long table, clothed in African linen, has been artfully decorated with guineafowl feathers, twisted wood and local flowers gathered from around the camp. Light flickers from candles glowing within large pearly ostrich eggs. We can hear the whoops of hyenas and – disconcertingly close – the trumpet-like grunts of hippos wallowing in the river below.

Dinners are served in our canvas sanctuary. Freshly baked dinner rolls, topped with rolled oats and sesame seeds, are present at every meal. The first course might be a sumptuous spinach and cheese souffle, or a chilled avocado gazpacho. This is then followed by a large cut of beef, marinated in ginger and soy and cooked over the hot coals of the oven. The meals display an artful mastery of fresh spices, honey and herbs. Drawing influences from Indian cuisine, curries are sumptuously seasoned and served with chapati – a flat bread made with flour and oil and lightly fried.

There is an innate and intuitive understanding of heat and gastronomic chemistry which belongs solely to these safari chefs, and in particular to Tom and Anthony. To produce some of the most divine and complex cuisine in difficult conditions, with rudimentary equipment, is an extraordinary feat; To eat their food – a humbling experience. 

The end of the safari comes too soon and we all exchange (tearful) goodbyes at the Mara airstrip. There is something here, something in the warmth of the people and in the cool evening air, which captures one’s heart. These stirrings are felt, and not forgotten. One simply has to return to feel it again.

The Great Migration is still the greatest

One of the wonderful things about planning a private mobile camping safari is that we get to position ourselves right amongst the action in the Mara. Whether our setting is amidst some particularly social lions, or adjacent to the best viewing spot for the wildebeest as they begin their inexorable streaming across the mighty Mara River, choosing our particular campsite based on the current conditions allows us to be immersed in the wildlife wonders my guests have come to see.

It’s hard to know what to leave out, so here’s the best of the past couple of months in the Mara:

*Finding a pair of mating leopards – two days in a row!

*Being out at first light to witness ten thousand wildebeest, and a good number of zebra, take a dawn plunge into the danger-filled river. This only got better when we had lions, leopard and a hyena all ambushing the exhausted animals as they emerged on our side. 

*An entire clan of spotted hyenas feasting on a hippo they’d killed. This was so close to camp that we were able to revisit daily and see the incredible speed which these predators devour their prey, even 3,000 kgs of hippo!

*Driving on and on through an endless ocean of wildebeest, themselves lost within the great savannah grassland.

*A 45 minute battle between a monstrous Nile crocodile and a crossing wildebeest, who finally broke free from the croc as darkness fell, only to face the perils of the night time carnivores.

Sometimes it seems that all the odds are stacked against the gnus (wildebeests). However, their sheer numbers tells us they’re doing something right, as over a million of them trample through these great plains that feed them. For it is only a fraction of the million or so that get eaten each year, and they manage to breed successfully in what is regarded as one of the most dazzlingly synchronized reproductive systems of any large mammal. Several hundred thousand baby gnus are born within a few weeks of one another and by flooding the market with their calves, they ensure most make it through. 

Thanks to Matthew Savitt for these wonderful images taken on safari with me last month.

Too many lions to count!

As the safari season kicked in this past month, I’ve had some of my best ever lion viewings. Always one the most charismatic characters of the African “big game”, lions offer everything you’d want to take away from time on safari. Their size and power, their regal beauty, and the primal energy we experience when close to one stirs some deep inner animal instinct within us. It is a raw, wild feeling of connectedness to the African bush.

At first light in the Masai Mara, we drive out from our camp along the banks of the Mara River, hippos snorting their welcome, and the sun rising over the great plains. As we emerge we find three of the finest male lions in the Mara, part of an ever larger coalition of five that dominates the northern half of the western Mara Triangle. Striding along like the jungle kings they’re known as, they run into the one species that won’t get out of their way; elephants. We then get to see who the real kings are (or queens as it happens!), as the elephant matriarch and her sisters stand firm and watch the lions meekly take a wide detour around them. What a thrill watching such an encounter with colossal wildlife!

On to the Chyulu Hills, where, twenty years ago, lions had been persecuted and severely reduced in number. In one of the great success stories of Kenyan conservation, the combined work of the Lion Guardians program and Big Life Africa have led to the rebound of lions, back to their place as an apex predator in this ecosystem. Another morning drive with stunning dawn light and we find three magnificent sub-adult males. They are not quite ready to take their place with their own pride, but old enough to have to fend for themselves and hunt their own food. Watching these future kings as they set out from the security of their natal pride makes us realize what an enormous challenge it is to enter the sometimes savagely competitive environment they call home.

And in what now has to be my grand finale to any lion tales, at our final safari location this month we witnessed a lioness stalk and take down a fully grown wildebeest. Taking place mid morning in our own private 30,000 acre Kitirua Wildlife Conservancy in Amboseli, we were observing this lioness as she digested her last meal, thinking that she and her pride mates couldn’t possibly fit any more in their bursting bellies. Yet on seeing some wildebeest move into the longer grass, that hunting instinct took over, and as she passed within meters of our safari jeep we saw that primal look come into focus in her amber lion eyes. Stalking with utter patience and stealth, this seasoned lioness was able to close in on the unsuspecting prey and take it down. It can be hard to watch nature unfold in the raw, but the ever present circle of life closed this day, and the pride’s cubs enjoyed this next meal, bringing them one day closer to successfully moving through their own tenuous journey to adulthood.

Kids on safari!

Perhaps some of the most rewarding safaris I’ve led have been those during which families are brought together in novel experiences here in Africa. Having brought up my own kids here, with so much time on safari, and seen many other youngsters immersing themselves in the great outdoors, I feel it has such wonderful effects on their developing minds. Their curiosity is immediately piqued, and they can never ask too many questions. It really is the ultimate classroom.

There is such a range of new sights, and so many exotic and wild things to smell, touch, and explore. And every day we witness the great diversity of animals feasting and chasing and swimming and sleeping – all those storybook creatures, including the colossal frames of the elephants and graceful gaits of the giraffes, to the ever-interesting dung beetles, superb butterflies, and everything in between.

Sometimes we view this from our safari car, and sometimes we experience it as we walk through the wilderness, or ride horses, or catch a train of Samburu camels. Seeing the wide-eyed joy of children riding their sturdy Ethiopian ponies alongside a herd of wild zebras or their pride when they catch a Mara River catfish on a hand line are always the best moments on a family safari – for both me and their parents! 

The personal interactions we have with Maasai and Samburu people can also have a significant impact. Our friends in the communities we visit continue to live traditionally in many ways. For kids growing up in the fast paced 21st century, the grounding insights from time amongst such proud and noble people is as valuable as ever. And this isn’t a stand back and watch experience; kids jump right into soccer matches with the locals and learn how to throw spears and clubs in the Maasai Olympics in camp. Everyone always enjoys the singing and dancing, and we have had plenty of attempts to jump as high as the infamous Maasai warriors!

As a parent, I believe we have some special windows of time with our children, to share with them some of the wonders of our precious planet. Africa provides such a magnificent space in which to be a kid, and the impact of this kind of journey lasts a lifetime.

The Maasai Mara – still the ultimate

There is simply no place better than the Maasai Mara when it comes to wildlife observations and photography. After all of my years on safari across the African continent, nothing beats a sunrise game drive here. The thrill of lions and hyenas fighting over a kill right next to the car, the tenderness of a cheetah mum grooming the morning dew from her cubs’ fur, or the peaceful sounds of chewing and tummy grumbles as elephants graze along the grassy tracks. The chorus of birdlife provides the idyllic backdrop for all of this as well as the giraffe, zebra, eland, and gazelles that are so often in view. The Mara is a year-round paradise, with something always happening. While the annual wildebeest migration is a highlight between June and October, the carnivores are all here year-round and there are thousands and thousands of resident animals to enjoy.

I think one of the benefits of traveling on safari with me is the ability to quickly get in sync with daily rituals that most suit your interests. While I can use my experience and offer recommendations, everything is still tailored around you. Working together, from the initial planning stage to actually being out on safari, we have the most fulfilling days and get the best results, whether you want ideal photographic opportunities or just feel like relaxing amidst it all. Regardless, we always feel like we need more time in the Mara, to soak it all up and then to share our experiences back in camp by the fire each night.

The exotic isle of Lamu, Kenya

A recent visit back to Lamu reminded me of how unique this place is. Relaxing into rooftop yoga before breakfast, winding through the car-less alleyways of the small Swahili town of Shela, sipping a Pimms at the infamous Peponi’s Hotel while looking out over the Indian Ocean, and enjoying a sunset cruise on one of the traditional Dhow sailing boats are just a few of the highlights of this laidback yet exotic archipelago.

What I love about Lamu is that since I first began traveling here in the mid 90s it has kept its charm and traditional atmosphere. The uniqueness of the Swahili architecture and cultural heritage brings out so much of the flavor, and my guests continue to enjoy the low key feel of the whole place. Our kids love fishing in the channel, exploring the mangroves for crabs and birds, hitching beach rides on donkeys, and meeting the alley cats that invariably cross our paths. After almost three decades it is still my first choice on the East African coast, and the perfect way to finish a safari.

Ol Malo lodge in Kenya

This month I’m showcasing an old favorite safari lodge. Ol Malo is owned and run by Andrew and Chyulu Francombe, good friends of mine who both grew up in Kenya and truly know how to bring their patch of wilderness to life. With unique and exhilarating helicopter tours, horse riding safaris amongst the giraffe and zebras, as well as invigorating hikes and breathtaking views across to Mt Kenya’s 17,000-foot peaks in the distance, Ol Malo is an enduring highlight for any safari. Set amidst the privately managed wildlife ranches of Kenya’s Laikipia Conservancy, Ol Malo has provided many enjoyable and memorable moments on safaris in recent years. 

With two Raven 44 Helicopters based right at the lodge the scenic flights in these fantastic machines is made especially accessible during our stays here. You can see highlights from a recent flight in another blog post – Helicopter safari to Lake Turkana. And here is a selection of images from myself and Ol Malo that I think gives you a pretty good feel for what our time there is like! Enjoy a little bit of a virtual safari from wherever you are in the world…

Helicopter safari to Lake Turkana

One of the highlights of my most recent safari was our day exploring the vast, spectacular landscapes of northern Kenya by helicopter. Setting off early, we flew over the rolling contours of the Mathews mountain range before dropping to palm tree level and gliding down the dry sand river “luggas” that bring this landscape to life. 

An impromptu stop above an ancient riverbed for morning tea provided a chance to walk through this country and admire up close the magnificent desert rose flowers and fossil-rich riverbeds.

The diversity of this great wilderness was magnified as we flew over remote hot springs, the croc-filled rivers of the Suguta Valley, and the dazzle of hot pink flamingos on Lake Logipi. Finally landing on the shores of Lake Turkana, on a volcanic sand beach, we leapt into the welcome waters of the mystic Jade Sea; a 200-mile inland sea so remote it was only first documented for the outside world in 1888. Stretching from the Ethiopian border and filling a mighty wedge of Kenya’s northern Rift Valley, the lake and its storied shores resonate with stark beauty and history. We felt privileged to see so much of this land that for centuries was an inaccessible, unknown place on the map. 

Safari photo diary – Botswana and Zimbabwe, May 2021

A three-week safari odyssey through the highlights of Botswana and Zimbabwe last month immersed us in the fascinating wildlife and stunning scenery of this region. 

Here is a series of images from this epic trip.

Spending an evening with the habituated meerkats of the Kalahari was an up close and personal experience! Watching them socialize, dig for grubs and scorpions, and then retire into their burrows for the night to keep warm was a delightful and memorable wildlife encounter.
Mombo’s legendary leopard lineage showed off the new generation with two playful cubs contesting with their mother for the spoils of their impala food store. Observing them in the crisp morning light, and once again that same evening, rated as one of my top leopard viewings ever.
Everywhere you travel in Africa, the impala make up a healthy part of the herbivore count. Perhaps the most graceful of all the antelopes, even their great agility can’t keep them from the clutches of big cats, wild dogs and sometimes hyena.
These playful hyena cubs we found at their den while staying at Mombo entertained us with their inquisitive nature and determined bouts of rumbling with their siblings. They will take four months or so to molt out of their black natal coats and into their namesake spot patterns which mark them for life.
Flocks of tens of thousands of red-billed quelea fly in a mesmerizing, synchronized flight over woodland around Mombo Camp. Much like a school of fish they shimmer and swerve through shafts of light.
The elevated wooden track into Mombo Camp.
Mombo Camp’s stylish interiors provide the ideal place to rest up after a morning’s game drive.
As we journeyed into the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta, our time in Selinda produced spectacular lion action with a pride of 14 demonstrating these big cats at their most cooperative and competitive as they tore into a wildebeest kill one morning.
Red lechwe moving through the delta.
One of the highlights in the Okavango Delta was seeing this bull elephant effortlessly move through these channels. Confident of being left alone by the big crocs and feisty hippos who call these waters home.
Wild dogs showing their close bonds as they rest up in the Selinda Reserve, Botswana. This endangered carnivore exhibits some of the most interesting behavior and we were able to witness lots of cool interactions in this pack of 12.
Sleepy Simba in Selinda.
A hungry cheetah in Selinda Reserve scanning the grassland one evening.
Victoria Falls in high flood following good rains in the Angolan highlands catchment area several months and 1,500km away. Combined with some fascinating insights about the life of David Livingstone by local history buff Chris Worden, this was an amazing and memorable visit.
Enjoying a buffalo herd’s visit from the pool edge at Linkwasha Camp, Hwange National Park.
Mother and calf white rhino graze in the sanctuary of Malilangwe Reserve, Zimbabwe.
This Nyala bull near Pamushana Lodge was one of the most photogenic species we saw. The stunning, spiral horns and captivating white facial lines made this individual a favorite subject to train our cameras on.
Curious cubs near Pamushana Lodge, Malilangwe Reserve. Waiting for their turn to feast on the buffalo kill the lionesses have made overnight.
The exquisite view from Pamushana Lodge, over the 130,000 acres of wilderness at Malilangwe Reserve.

Report from the Indian Ocean

Ollie reeled in his first sailfish!

Following the big run (UltraMARAthon), we were all ready for our sore feet to be soothed in the sand and sea, so I flew the family to Watamu the next week. We had plenty of time to soak up the Indian Ocean vistas from our sundowner deck and enjoy a few fun activities. A sunset cruise with friends aboard the tradition Swahili “Monangu” dhow offered fun for kids and adults alike. I joined Ollie on the good ship Alleycat for some deep sea fishing one day, and the joy of Ollie’s success pulling in his first 50-pound sailfish was matched only by the exhaustion after the half-hour battle to reel it in. And while the great blue marlin eluded us that day, we also caught a giant trevally, and I am sure we’ll be back for another round soon!

I also had the excitement of taking Ollie for his first scuba dive. It was action packed with green turtles, octopus, and thousands of stunningly colored fish all around. Ollie took to it like, well, a fish to water, and I’m looking forward to our next diving adventure.

Ollie’s first scuba dive in the Indian Ocean.
We predict Ollie will end up working in the ocean one day….
Ollie with his first giant trevally.
The kids spent plenty of time searching the tidal pools for cool creatures.
A well-camouflaged crab.
Tiny starfish.
A speckled moray eel.
It is always fun to try to catch these crabs with their bright red eyes!
Enjoying the warm waters of Watamu.
Jumping off the dhow during a sunset cruise along Mida Creek.