Holidays & Travel

How Richard Branson’s Kenyan hideaway became a safari saviour

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Mahali Mzuri has improved the lives of its local community, endangered species and wildlife-loving guests.

Mahali Mzuri has a ‘front-row view of the wild’
Mahali Mzuri (VLE/PA) Mahali Mzuri has a ‘front-row view of the wild’

Kids, cubs, kittens or calves – no matter the species, small creatures love splashing through puddles. Jumping energetically between pools of rainwater, tiny lions from the Hamerkop pride have turned the Masai Mara’s soggy grasslands into an aquapark.  Close by, their sleepy-eyed mothers lie in a huddle, only stirring when a majestic male strides over and drenches everyone with a shake of his mane.

After several years of worrying drought, Kenya has been hit by a deluge of heavy rains, a consequence of this year’s El Niño phenomenon. A challenge for drivers navigating the black cotton soil roads, which turn into a sticky goo when wet, it’s transformed the landscape into a Pantone palette of olive, emerald and avocado greens. The lions are having a fantastic time, proving rain doesn’t always stop play.

Although numbers of the big cats have fallen dramatically by an alarming 90% in the last century, prides in the Masai Mara’s conservancies are booming.

game drive with lions

“We’ve seen a huge growth in lion populations,” explains John Kaleo, head guide at the Mahali Mzuri camp in the Olare Motorogi conservancy, one of several community-owned conservation areas neighbouring the Masai Mara National Reserve. One theory for the explosion in numbers is improved protection and a preservation of wilderness areas. It’s also a result of human encroachment, pushing animals into a smaller space.

Whatever the explanation, it’s clear the conservancies have played an important role in protecting the endangered species. Launched in 2005, the conservancy idea evolved when Maasai landowners banded together to lease their land to tourism partners, providing a more intimate and exclusive experience for guests, while simultaneously directly benefitting communities financially.

The concept gained global mainstream attention in 2013 when Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson built his futuristic, ultra-modern camp Mahali Mzuri (meaning ‘beautiful place’ in Swahili) on the slopes of a granite-strewn valley in Olare Motorogi (named after the area’s abundance of salty water and Egyptian geese). He was drawn to the project after visiting Nairobi in 2007 and hearing about the importance of the area as an important migration route for wildebeest moving between Tanzania’s Serengeti and the Mara.

A decade on, I’ve come to see what’s changed in the area and take a look at the impact the camp has made.

From the very beginning, Branson wanted to employ local staff and many of the original team – including John – still work at the luxurious camp that forms part of the Virgin Limited Edition portfolio. During our drive back to camp, John entertains us with tales of Branson’s escapades.

“He loves lions,” says the accomplished guide, swerving along muddy roads as clouds in the sky part like curtains to reveal patches of silky blue. “No matter what time of day, he wants to jump in a vehicle and look for them.”

Known for his sense of fun, the entrepreneur is also prone to playing tricks.

“He’d tickle me with a piece of grass while I was driving,” laughs John. “Another time, he pointed to a piece of rubbish. But when I got out to pick it up, he jumped in the front and started to drive away.”

Equally famous for his generosity, Branson also gained a reputation amongst staff for performing extravagant acts on a whim. John recalls the time he arranged for a hot air balloon to collect guests directly from the camp and then decided to pay for everyone staying that night to go for a ride.

View from the infinity pool
View from the infinity pool (VLE/PA) View from the infinity pool

Back at the camp, it’s easy to understand why Branson fell in love with the location. Twelve vaulted canvas suites reminiscent of Bedouin marquees horseshoe along the ridge of a deep valley spliced by a stream and covered in a cascade of hippos, wildebeest and (as I discover a few days later) buffalo-hunting lions.

“I’ve seen leopards and lions lounging around with their cubs, elephants stroll into the sunset, wildebeest on the run and giraffes plucking leaves from the trees,” Branson later tells me over the phone. “The camp has a front-row view of the wild and roaming game of the Great Migration – it’s such a spectacle. You wake up to wildlife wandering past your tent and you have the same view for lunch. It’s such a privilege to be surrounded by such unspoilt nature and natural habitats.”

Next year, the Mahali Mzuri will be renovated with additions including hot tubs on private decks and an interior redesign. The completion of a solar farm will provide 100% of the camp’s energy, while a larger garden aims to supply the kitchen with fresh vegetables and herbs.

One of the camp’s family tents
One of the camp's family tents (VLE/PA) One of the camp’s family tents

Aside from the view, the spa and infinity pool, it’s the hospitality of the staff that’s responsible for so many repeat bookings. Head waiter Bob Miinta has been with the company since the very beginning, starting as an askari (night security guard).

“This place has been really good for us – it’s given the community employment and salaries,” he says, when I join him for a coffee in the camp’s brightly coloured lounge area, decorated with Maasai beadwork. “We’ve all been given training – how to tell apart the different piece of cutlery, which is the soup spoon, even on things like how to flush the toilet! We didn’t have flushing toilets in the village.”

Shyness was another obstacle. But he says the opportunity to grow and the camaraderie of staff is what’s kept him loyal to the company.

Betty Maite was one of the Mara’s first female guides
Betty Maite was one of the Mara's first female guides (VLE/PA) Betty Maite was one of the Mara’s first female guides

It’s a similar story for Betty Maite, one of the first female guides in the Mara. When she started, few other women were on the plains and she admits dealing with the prejudice of other male guides was both challenging and at times disheartening.

“I used to get furious. Sometimes I’d cry, but then I’d gain courage and tell myself that one day I’ll be better than them,” says the 38-year-old mother of two young children. Having mastered driving – one of the biggest challenges in this difficult terrain where off-roading is allowed, she is looking forward to walking safaris, which will be introduced to Mahali Mzuri next year.

“I love the flowers, looking at footsteps, telling guests about the different types of poo!” she smirks.

Sarah planting a tree in the grounds of a local school funded by Mahali Mzuri
Sarah planting a tree in the grounds of a local school funded by Mahali Mzuri (Sarah Marshall/PA) Sarah planting a tree in the grounds of a local school funded by Mahali Mzuri

Beyond the camp, the wider community has also benefitted. At the Maa Trust, which Mahali financially supports, we learn about projects to introduce family planning, provide better healthcare for pregnant women and get more girls into education. On a visit to a local manyatta (Maasai homestead) on the fringes of Olare Motorogi, I meet Soloman, a cattle herder and student studying wildlife management at the Mara’s new Pardamat College, and an example of a new generation of Maasai with a passion for conservation.

We also participate in a tree planting project – part of Kenya’s promise to plant 15 billion trees in the next 10 years. It’s a grand ambition, but a lot can be achieved in a decade. Mahali Mzuri’s own success is testimony to that very fact.

How to plan your trip


Elegant Resorts (elegantresorts.co.uk; 01244 897271) offers a seven-night stay from £6,648 per person (two sharing), including all meals, drinks, flights, transfers, and lounge access.

You can also book directly through Virgin Limited Edition.  Fully inclusive rates start at USD $990/£788 per person up to the 21st of December 2023. This rate is based on double occupancy and includes accommodation, all meals, drinks, twice-daily game drives and transfers. Call +254 2051 00090 or visit mahalimzuri.virgin.com.