It happened just as Greg “Jackal” Bows and I were on an extended walking safari through Naboisho in Kenya. Jackal had just been saying how the lion population had been soaring in the area when the male lion, who had been resting behind a bush less than twenty feet ahead of us, jumped out and ran straight away into the bush.
“Did You Plan That, Jackal?”
“No, But I Wish I Had.” He Laughed.
Continuing our trek, Jackal and I followed our Maasai guide, Denis, and were trailed by Colin, the manager of the camp where we were staying. We slowly climbed up from the valley floor through a wooded, rocky area and into one of the massive plains that defines Kenya.
This was everything I love about Africa.
The wildebeest were slowly making their way across the plains. There were too many impala and Thompson’s gazelles to possibly count. Four large giraffe walked slowly by and everywhere the scene was dominated by the huge sky of the Mara. The only sounds were the wind and the occasional snorting of a zebra wondering what we were doing there.
We were now walking through the center of The Mara Naboisho Conservancy. Naboisho (pronounced na-bow-show and the bow sounds like the weapon) is one of the newest of the conservancies ringing the north of Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. These conservancies are now collectively protecting as much land as is in the national park — and they are doing it in a way that is far more powerful and sustainable. This partnership is truly positive for both the Maasai who live and breathe their land and and also for the tourists who visit.
Earlier that day, I had sat down and participated in the only board meeting of its kind in the world. (I was invited as a non-profit I co-founded is helping Naboisho with a number of projects.) The board consists of three of the top ecotourism operators in Kenya that run the camps here and three local Maasai leaders.
Words like ‘community’ and ‘eco-tourism’ have been cheapened by overuse which is a shame when you witness in person what they are truly meant to mean. I listened as Dr. Lars Lindkvist, a true visionary who has dedicated the recent years of his life to not only this project, but many more like it around the area, talk through the challenges and issues facing Naboisho.
Some were critically important — for example everyone wants to expand the conservancy to the north to the protect the plains where the annual migration extends — others dealt with charmingly minor but important issues such as the color of one of the tire covers on a vehicle that had driven through the area. The consensus was that it was too bright to be used here.
The Maasai own the land and always will as they always have. But instead of the land being chopped up into literally more than five hundred small plots, Naboisho has been saved for wildlife and the use of six small safari camps. The Maasai also maintain some grazing rights to the land for their cows, but in areas, and at times, that don’t impact either the wildlife or the tourists who travel to see it. The Maasai are not only retaining their land — they are keeping it as they wish it to be — open and free.
The camps then contribute back to the community at financial levels virtually unheard of in Africa. They also work with the community to make sure that the Maasai are supported and empowered by helping with everything from making money available for scholarships for gifted students to helping provide water in times of drought.
I asked Sean Anderson, managing director of Encounter Mara, one of the five camps in Naboisho, how decisions were made with a board consisting of an equal number of operators and Maasai leaders — as surely there must be conflict at times between the parties.
“We Make Decisions By Consensus. It’s The Only Way This Will Work.”
All too often the news from Africa is grim. It is seemingly the continent of endless wars, terror attacks and, of course, ebola. In fact, just as ebola showed up in the United States, I made my way to East Africa which has been and remains ebola-free. But here in an area that could easily have been lost forever, the story is positive — the future bright.
After our walk, five miles up and down through the terrain, an experience you can only have in a conservancy like Naboisho as you can’t walk in any national park, I went for a game drive with Jackal and our guide Dickson.
We stopped as we watched a lioness play with her three young cubs. We were the only car sitting with our engine off in a small grassy area by one of the streams that runs through Naboisho. I thought of all the times in parks all around Africa, when I had been fortunate enough to see a scene like this, it was always ruined as five, ten or more other vehicles pulled up.
Not Here. Not On This Night.
That evening in Naboisho, there were less than seventy five tourists in total in the whole conservancy. Even when every camp is fully booked, there are never more than 124 people roaming the 55,000 acres.
Eventually one other safari vehicle showed up. The six guests were delighted to see the lioness and the cubs. For them, whether they knew the story of how this place came to be or not, I could clearly see that it was the moment of their trip in their faces.
One older woman held her hands in front of her face in delight. The sun was setting over the hills to the west. Zebra were making their way down the hill to the water. And the cubs played and played and tumbled down the hill.
Our guide Dickson, whispered back to me in Swahili.
“Tayari?” “Are You Ready?”
I was a bit surprised that we were leaving so soon. It was such a perfect scene and moment, but Dickson started the car.
After we pulled away, I realized what Dickson, our guide, had wanted to do, and it made me smile. We had had the chance to be there alone in this special place, as the sun was setting in the quiet with the cubs. He was simply giving the other visitors the same remarkable, truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Someplace else, I might have insisted we stayed. But in Naboisho, a visitor quickly joins this partnership. It’s impossible not to feel what a special place this is and to want to be part of this collaboration that works so well. I was happy to drive away and let someone else have their moment with the cubs.
As we headed up the hill I remembered Sean Anderson telling me that in Maasai, Naboisho means ‘come together.’
In this incredibly important part of Africa, it most certainly is.
The Mara Naboisho Conservancy is a 55,000 acre community partnership just north of the Masai Mara National Reserve. There is more information here on both the conservancy and the six safari camps that support it.
Many of the photos in this article were taken by Whitney Warren who was visiting at the same time I was and graciously offered them for use.