Where President Barack Obama chose to Safari while in Kenya
Posted On 25th January 2016
While most of the world only came to learn of the candidacy for president of the then 45-year-old Illinois senator Barack Obama in 2007, a few souls had had the privilege of a horse’s mouth confirmation as far back as July 2006. While most, I would assume, were persons of interest, they had to share the secret with humble staff based in a famous Kenyan bush where the now first family were getting acquainted with nature. By hosting the seventh wonder of the new world (the gnu migration spectacle), the choice of 1,510 km² Maasai Mara by the Obamas was fairly dictated and palpable. The choice of accommodation out of hundreds possible, however, was well thought out and telling of the ideals the senator and his family hold dear. For starters, as reported by Chicago Sun Times, the trip was not paid from the senator’s official purse. He and his staffers personally paid for the side trip. All those tagging along including writers and photographers covering Obama’s African visit also carried their weight in what was a private trip.
The year is 2015 and the most powerful man in the world is due back to the land of his father around the same time as his last 2006 visit. I am feeling overly butch being the only bloke in the party of five on the trail of Obama’s 2006 Kenyan safari. I am until spear-wielding, shuka (red body shawls) and akala (hardy sandals cut from vehicle tires) clad, smooth-talking Steve Nkumum saunters on my parade. Actually he drives in and I exaggerate for effect. Steve, our safari guide and driver was the perfect gentleman throughout our tour and paired very well us.
A late afternoon departure from the capital was no dampener as the Ngong Hills dotted with innocuous wind turbines and the majesty of the rift valley made up for it. While cities clog during the wet season, a paradise perfect picture is painted on the canvas that is typically brown dry, scrub land countryside. Well, the adventure picked up immediately after landing at Naboisho airstrip after the scenic forty five minute long flight. On cue, Steve’s bag of tricks itching for a show pulled out good brew, nut and sausage hors d'oeuvres that complemented the immediate game drive in the expansive Mara reserve. A herd of seven gentle jumbos and a calf were the highlight and their shine matched only by arrival at base camp at dusk. Situated along the Talek River on the boundary of the Mara Reserve, Basecamp Masai Mara (BCMM), a part of the Base Explorer international chain sticks out like a sour thumb in its thick green cover. This is the reward of a tree plantation established in 2000 as a carbon-capture project, to bind CO2, thus offsetting the emissions caused by the business and the travel of their guests and to revive the Talek river ecosystem. To the right, right at the entrance, The Obama Forest with a tree planted by each family member flags the 100, 000 (and counting) strong indigenous tree plantation. Guests visiting Basecamp are encouraged to follow the example set by the Obama Family and plant a tree in the plantation and confront the climate change problem which is a severe threat to the environment, plants, animals, and human communities worldwide. I would later learn that a fence became a necessity after acacia loving elephants almost ate the Obama forest. Further on in the oasis, past the unpretentious reception, 12 liberally spaced tents and a clubhouse peep. It is under these overly-private thatch roofs strategically erected along a lush peninsula looking out to the gold savannah that the Obamas ducked the paparazzi. Going to great lengths to suck up to the environment, the strangely luxurious accommodation imitates local Maasai architecture. The supporting walls mimic manyatta walls smothered in cow dung with web like branches running across them. Heightening the allure is soft lighting from solar lanterns characteristic of the entire establishment. The open hot showers with the chance of a starry night is quite the spin and going out for the beef biryani dinner was quite the challenge.
Morning-and from the fig-tree platform, a hot air balloon glides by advertently forming an empty tick-box in my bucket list. BCMM has a private foot bridge adjoining the camp to the reserve. Thanks to the bridge, we were privileged to click away at a proud pride barely a kilometre from camp with the balloon in the background on our morning game drive. A fresh lion kill was what the gods bestowed on the Obamas on their safari. We too had our very own special encounter with nature. As if telling, we drove upon a lone hyena and the largest herd of buffalo I have ever set eyes on-at least a thousand strong. A little while later, the drive brought us upon a lone buffalo. Angling closer for a better look at the fine specimen charged at our Land cruiser with such unexpected speed that I reckon we did not outrun her; rather, she let us be. Oh the shrieks from the girls as they held onto dear lives was just priceless. Her rage was not misplaced. We had, after all, stumbled into her space unannounced startling her and her newborn calf. As we stalled at a respectable distance admiring the cow clean the damp of birth off her tot, nature’s cruel hand stretched. Team mafisi, in their opportunistic element, began zoning in from all directions. Buffalo calves are able to walk and run minutes after birth, but the little one was struggling. Further inspection revealed a bent front left leg that made this task arduous. As fate would have it, however, what seemed like easy pickings dragged on for hours as young brave heart and its mother fended off the menacing attack.
Having taken too long at the scene, we turned back towards camp. Even as we remained keen on witnessing the eventual outcome of the mire, we had grumbling stomachs to please. No sooner had we turned ready to brave the approximately hour long drive than Enjoolata (a Maasai term used to describe the joy felt when something hidden becomes known, when something concealed is revealed) happened. Let’s just say, I now know the feeling that engulfs a lady being proposed to. Making as if to check on tyre pressure, Steve pulled his best trick yet- an English breakfast served right out there on the plains, the buffaloes and their shadows just but specks.
Whilst the Obamas only had a night to spare, we had two. Basecamp Explorer’s ritzy camp christened eagle view and the more intimate Wilderness Camp situated in the adjacent Naboisho conservancy was, therefore, in the itinerary. Before we set off though, a visit to BCMM’s acclaimed workshop where the finest souvenirs, in terms of creativity and workmanship, are produced was a must. They have even designed a unique signature 145 bead-long bow shaped rose, embellished with striking Maasai beads and tied expertly using goat leather. That, however, is not the sole draw to the workshop. Basecamp Maasai Brand (BMB), a community-based handicraft business established in 2003 employs 118 Maasai women. Profits are shared 75% to 25% in favour of the women who dictate the price of items that can be ordered for directly at the workshop, located next to reception at BCMM, or online. Despite their unmatched quality, it was eye opening to learn that apart from the skins, raw materials for the ornaments are resurrected from recycled items. Plastic from containers and metal from aerosol cans form the base before careful donning with beads held with string spun from waste plastic sacks. This among other efforts make for Basecamp work defined by five core values – care, culture, conservation, climate and capacity. Two more stood out for me: Five women trained as solar engineers in India have lit 200 homes using solar technology and Koiyaki Guiding School (KGS) have enhanced the employment prospects of young Maasai in a time where traditional ways of living are being eroded by land scarcity, climate change and modern development. Three of the six driver guides at Basecamp Kenya are former KGS students. This include Steve, our able guide and Agnes Kilena, 23, one of the first Maasai women to become a Driver Guide in the Mara. The latter is well on her way to becoming the first woman in Kenya to earn a Silver Guide Certificate. With such initiatives, it is no wonder then that, in addition to its numerous honours, Basecamp Masai Mara was recently welcomed to the Certificate of Excellence Hall of Fame. This unique accolade is granted only to those businesses that have won the Certificate of Excellence for five years in a row. The Certificate of Excellence can be earned only by receiving consistently great review.
Well, you’ll have to catch the Naboisho episode in a subsequent instalment to get acquainted to the SOL boys made up of Simiren, Osidai, and Leshan-three tough Naboisho lions.