Soaring through the sky several thousand meters in the air riding in what can only be described as a tin can of a plane, I was overcome by feelings of excitement and terror. The beautiful Kenyan landscape below me changed quickly from residential neighborhoods, to the green Ngong hills, to a savannah landscape. As my stomach bounced between my abdomen and throat, I wondered if I’d die of a heart attack (or at least pass out) if the tin can suddenly lost altitude and the 10 passengers and two pilots hurtled to the ground. Morbid, I know, but I’m not a fan of confined spaces especially when they’re airborne and the situation is out of my control.
Thankfully, I never had to address my worry and as the 45 minute flight passed, I became less and less terrified. It felt surreal to finally be heading to the Maasai Mara, I hadn’t been there since I was a little girl and don’t remember much from my trip. Then one day I was approached with the opportunity of a lifetime, an all expenses paid trip to the Sarova Mara Game Camp on my first #SoniSideUpAdventure with Jacquie.
As the little plane skidded down the runway, I peaked out the window to see a row of Land Rovers awaiting passengers arrival. Tucked between two Land Rovers were a cluster of men behind a tabled lined with white linen. As the plane taxied, and the pilots hopped out to attach the dinky staircase to the side of the plane, the men behind the table slowly approached. Lodge Manager Kioko was the first to introduce himself to Jacquie and I as he ushered us both towards the table.
As we got closer, the white linen was being lifted off the table to reveal an array of dishes and beverages. Head Chef John introduced himself and the dishes before us: chicken wraps, veggie wraps, fresh fruit skewers and assorted biscuits and biscotti. As if to mimic my excitement, as Chef John ended his description of the dishes, a bottle of champagne was popped.
We had made it.
What an incredible welcome for a foodie like myself (or anyone, really). Jacquie and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of champagne and a few of the bitings in front of us as we got to know Chef John, Kioko, Daglous, and Ken (our guide for the weekend).
The chicken wraps were a perfect snack; light and fresh. Combined with the home made mango coconut dipping sauce with a hint of chili, I couldn’t get enough. I told Chef John he might as well start bottling that sauce and selling it. I’d be first in line to buy it.
I tried to live tweet the experience but signal was hard to come by which in hindsight was a blessing and a curse. As much as I wanted to Snapchat and Tweet from the road, it was nice to be disconnected and enjoy being in the moment.
After about thirty minutes of unwinding, we piled into the Sarova Land Rover with Ken at the wheel and took a mini game drive to the Sarova Mara Game Camp. Seeing small game such as zebra, antelope, kudu, and buffalo in the Mara is equivalent to seeing cows and goats on a farm. Initially Jacquie and I would yelp with excitement when we spotted game and ask Ken to stop for a photo, but we quickly realized they were simply a part of the scenery, much like trees in a forest.
As we cruised through the park, Ken told us about what we could expect to see while in the park and a little about the recent slump in the tourism industry. As much as international tourism to the camp has slowed, local tourism has gained traction in recent years. Peak occupation for local tourism tends to be around the Christmas holidays. I thought back to my weekends in Nairobi spent doing (for the most part) the same routine. A simple hours drive out of the city can completely change your surroundings. Whenever I come back from being out of the city, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. Going on a quick hike, or a tour of a different town clears my head and engages my senses in new ways.
My mind was running at a mile a minute wondering about campaigns like #TembeaKenya and affordable ways to get out of the city when the car slowed to a stop. We were surrounded by buffalo, as far as the eye could see.
Ken estimated about 1,000 buffalo in the herd before us. We shut off the car and listened to their grunts as their beady eyes stared at us curiously. Jacquie nervously laughed and asked if they were aggressive. Ken assured us they are only aggressive when provoked. A few minutes passed and most of the buffalo went back to lazily grazing on the golden grass.
Seeing the animals was great but I was ready to get to the game camp. With each passing sign post I got more and more excited, like a child on a trip to Disney Land.
When we entered the gates of the camp, I could see a few brightly coloured individuals standing by the entrance. As we got closer, the Maasai chanting began, low, slow, and rhythmic. Now, I’m not one to enjoy an “all eyes on me” experience but when one of the Maasai men extended his hand as if to welcome me, I happily joined along.
When the dancing stopped, we were ushered to the lobby to check in, drop off our bags, and head to lunch. Emelda, the hostess of the Sarova dining room, introduced us to the buffet which had an overwhelming choice of salads, soups, cook-to-order pastas, freshly baked breads, rotating cook-to-order Swahili menu, and hot main dishes.
We chatted, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, then headed back to the room to settle in and relax for an hour before meeting in the lobby. When Jacquie and I got to the lobby, Ken, Jimi and Kioko were there waiting for us. We followed them blindly to our surprise destination. As the sun set, we drove out of the gates and through the Mara for about 30 minutes before arriving at our destination.
A bush sundowner. This is a unique experience that only the Sarova Mara can offer. They provide sundowners, dinner, and breakfasts in the bush. At the bush sundowner, an assortment of your choice of beverages and bitings are served as you overlook the Mara landscape.
We had just had lunch but the food looked undeniably tempting. Shrimp skewers, bruschetta, fried chicken legs, sticks of olive, cheese and cherry tomatoes, freshly cut fruit, and shortbread biscuits. I was amazed by what this team could pull off in the middle of nowhere.
As per Jimi’s suggestion, I grabbed a cold tusker to “clear the dust” from my throat and sat down by the roaring fire to enjoy the sound of silence which was only occasionally interrupted by the crackling fire. As the dusk settled and the beers began to make their way up my spine and through my mind, the conversation began to flow.
It didn’t feel like we were talking for long before the stars were out and the fire began to die down. This was our signal to head back to the campsite to change and head out for dinner. The turn around time between leaving the sundowner, and getting changed was quick. Soon, we were all back in the Land Rover on the way to dinner in the bush.
Again, we were welcomed by singing Maasai dancing around a seven foot tall fire. The flames seemed to echo the Maasai’s dance moves as they pushed their chest and heads forward with every step.
With one rotation around the fire, the dancing was over.
Directly ahead of us was a tent with what looked like a buffet table in front of it. Chef John motioned for us to head towards the table where he introduced us to the menu for the evening. It was a four course meal accompanied by a wine pairing. When we sat down, the waitstaff began their service as security guards stood at a distance keeping an eye and ear out for any potentially threatening animals.
Our starter for the evening was a crusted duck thigh over a bed of salad and edible flowers. The duck thigh was succulent and the crust added crunchy texture to it. The thigh was meaty, much like a chicken leg and marinated in a sweet sauce that was reminiscent of teriyaki sauce. The salad and flowers were bright and fresh. Like all the vegetables served at Sarova, they were freshly picked that day from the sustainable garden.
The second course was an interactive soup paired with a dry white wine. Skewers of pork, chicken, and shrimp were on the side of a steaming bowl of broth and an empty bowl with a cheese samosa in it. We then ladled the broth into our bowls to create our sizzling hot soups.
The soup was light and had some great citrus notes and Asian-inspired flavours from the bok choy and lemongrass.
Next, was the main course, another make-it-yourself dish. This time it was a steak dish with lightly grilled vegetables, potato wedges, and gravy paired with a dry red wine.
This dish was definitely the most fun to take part in. The hot stone that was used to cook the thinly sliced steak was heated to around 425C. The stone itself was sourced from the surrounding hills in the Mara then chiseled and sanded to create the final product. That’s something I love about the Sarova Mara, little things that I may have otherwise overlooked are tied into the surrounding environment and community. Being an eco-friendly game camp, they take measures to ensure their carbon footprint is low and can personalize your experience while doing so.
The last course was a dessert sampler paired with a sweet red wine.
A slice of dark, rich, chocolate cake, a mini strawberry mousse, and a mini cheesecake. After all that we had eaten that day, I could barely finish my dessert but anyone who knows me knows I will make room if push comes to shove.
>The entire dining in the bush experience was unlike anything I had experienced before. Chef John got to showcase his culinary technique and his passion and love for food and cooking shown through his dishes. I couldn’t believe we had enjoyed a four course, fine dining meal in the middle of the bush with animals (I’m sure) a stone’s throw away.
By the time we were heading back to the campsite I was exhausted. It had been a long yet thrilling day. I was again reminded of a child on the way home from a day at Disney Land, coming down from a sugar high, and tired from the constant adrenaline rush of excitement. As we drove away from the dining site, my head rested against the window of the car, I could not believe I was finally there. At the Mara. At Sarova Mara Game Camp. Living my first travel and food review. I felt (and still do) privileged and honoured to have had the opportunity.
Yet this was just the beginning. We still had two days left, and many adventures to come.
All photos by J. Mwai Photography
Read Part 2 of my experience here