Relaxing on the veranda of my tent in the Royal Mara Safari Lodge, I notice there is no one else here, save the bloat of hippos on the river bank across. Their splashes keep us company as they go about their daily routines. This routine mostly consists of sunbathing in the early morning, as the entire pod warms up in the cold dawn light, snuggled tight among each other. As the day warms up, they begin to enter the water, one after the other, starting with the biggest ones first.
Life moves slowly here. “Pole, Pole”, they say in Swahili. Slowly, slowly, it means. Nothing is ever in a hurry along the banks of the Mara River, so there’s no need to rush. After all, the wild animals operate on their own schedule, not according to our timetable of game drives.
The Royal Mara is one of those magical places, hidden away from the world, and a true retreat into nature. The rooms are inside well-appointed tents pitched onto great wooden platforms. Built along the banks of the Mara River, it is both a retreat from people and a haven for the many small herbivores that live in the Mara North Conservancy.
Armchair Safari in the Royal Mara Safari Lodge
Walking through the lodge, we saw several zebras munching on the soft green grass that grows on the lawn. On the day we checked in, there was a zebra right outside our lodge.
These zebras can get boisterous and once we saw the local family running right through the premises of the lodge. Perhaps they had sensed some danger? Many of the other animals on the lawns were also quite restless that afternoon.
Spotting Hard to See Animals
There’s also the small dik-dik, an elusive herbivore due to its petite size, which keeps it well hidden in the bush. Out on the savannah, they are challenging to see, but here in the gardens of the Royal Mara, they are easy to spot. Often, they are only a few feet away from the paved pathways that lead from the tent to the restaurant.
Many of the animals here are residents, as they know the Maasai guards keep them safe from predators. However, lions do, on occasion, enter the lodge while chasing prey late at night. But fear not, for the majestic beasts never linger. On the rare occasion that they do, firing a gunshot into the air is enough to get the lions to leave.
One of our Maasai Ascari is also trained as a ranger by the Kenya Wildlife Services, and we felt perfectly safe under his watch. He tells us that the dik-dik are great alarm systems – alerting him to the presence of lions when they enter the lodge premises.
Tales from the Bush: Rescuing a Lion
Our Maasai Ascari told us about the time a small pride of lions, six of them, entered the Royal Mara late in the night while all the guests were asleep. They were trying to hunt a baby hippo. In general, hippos are bad news, especially for lions. They are aggressive and their huge jaws can cause serious injury. Nevertheless, the lions tried their luck. They managed to kill the baby hippo, but not without first having to fight with its mother. All the animals then left, except one lion, who was injured. The Maasai Ascari called the Kenya Wildlife Services who arrived as soon as they could, fixing him up on the spot. After some time, when the lion felt better, she got up and left the Royal Mara Safari Lodge.
Resident Animals Living in the Royal Mara
The walks back to the room after dinner are always eventful, for many of the creatures here are most active after sunset. As we walk back to our lodge after dinner one evening, our Ascari waves his hand and tells us to stop. “Hippo”, he alerts us. Shining his torchlight straight ahead, he catches a large hippo in its spotlight. Startled, the animal freezes momentarily before readjusting to the glare and moving on.
Another night, we encountered a small animal resembling a kangaroo, jumping away from the path as we approached. Upon closer inspection the next day, we realise a pair of African spring hares have made their home under the solar panel of tent number three.
The spring hares are not the only creatures who have made the Royal Mara Safari Lodge their home. Among the animals that have dens here are a family of red mongoose and a warthog and her hoglets.
Tales From the Bush: Forgetful Warthogs
The personable lodge manager, Benjamin, has known the warthogs living in the Royal Mara for some time and told us about their history in the lodge. The female warthog denning not far from the manager’s office was also born in the very same den. However, her sister was eaten by a lion when they were both hoglets. Nevertheless, she still chose to have her babies in the same hole. We didn’t know this before, but it became apparent on our trip that warthogs do not have the best of memories.
Predators Across the River
One afternoon, walking along the main path through the lodge premises, we hear a low grunt. Our Ascari immediately becomes alert and takes us toward the river bank. Standing on the other side of the river is a large male impala. There are other impalas around, partially hidden in the bush. The animals are attentive and rigid and have stopped grazing. Their attention is trained on something we cannot see. It is something in the trees perhaps, or the dense bush around.
“Its a leopard”, the Ascari tells us. “He’s hidden, but he’s there”. We follow the attention of the impalas for some time, trying to pinpoint the spotted cat. Eventually, with the herbivores on high alert, the leopard gave up. Sadly, we were unsuccessful this time, but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch the scene unfold before us, right on the banks across our lodge!
Hippo Watching from the Deck Beds
We also spent many hours lounging on the comfortable deck beds on the verandah of our room. We saw the most hippos of our entire 45 days stay in Kenya during our time in the Royal Mara.
Right across our deck were a family of hippos, consisting of one male, his harem, and one adorable, young baby hippo. Watching the baby hippo interact with his mother and his surroundings was always entertaining. To the baby hippo, the entire world around him was always new and fascinating.
We also observed some dramatic hippo fights, something we did not see on our game drives. The fights we observed seldom last long. They were mostly only a few seconds. I think it’s because the hippos find it tiring to fight and prefer to give up if there isn’t much at stake.
“Beware” of Monkeys
One of the first pieces of advice we got was to keep the tent flaps closed at all times. Dozens of black-faced vervet monkeys live in and around the lodge, and forgetting to close the tent flaps can spell disaster for your belongings especially if you have expensive camera equipment!
However, as long as you make sure they can’t enter your tent, their presence is a joy to have around. Along with the hippos, they make for fascinating wildlife watching.
The monkeys here are quite shy and will scatter away when you take notice of them or approach. However, when you are unaware, their curiosity can compel them to come quite close to you.
Safari Walk Around the Royal Mara Safari Lodge
During our stay, we had the opportunity to go on a safari walk around the Royal Mara. Animals make no distinction between the lodge premises and the rest of Mara North. This “walk around the block” was a walk in the wilderness of the bush.
Finding Africa’s Smallest Antelope
We started our walk on the Royal Mara’s grassy lawns, in search of the resident dik-diks. Dik-diks are difficult to spot out on a game drive due to their small size, so we thought our best shot of getting a photo of one was here, in the lodge garden. We had noticed a couple of regulars hanging around one particular area; in fact, we had photographed them on a previous day.
However, it was always quite late in the evening when we saw them, and we wanted to get a photo of these animals under better lighting. It did not take long before we caught sight of one of them. However, the creature was feeling particularly flighty at that moment and kept itself well hidden from us, always moving farther into the distance as we approached.
Understanding the Environment Trough Signs Left Behind by Animals
Eventually, we gave up following the antelope and focused our attention on some baboons along our path. They led us farther away from the lodge and deeper into the bush. Eventually, we came upon a hippo print. The heat of the day had dried it out, so we knew it had been there for some time.
The hippo probably made it on his way out of the river, when she came to graze on the grass around the Royal Mara. The lawns of the lodge are watered and have extra soft green grass, which all grazers love, including hippos.
Further on, we arrived at a branch of the Mara River. We were there in the dry season, so there was not much water here. However, when the rains arrive, the branch fills up, and the resident hippos have room to expand their territory.
The Hippo Lagoon
The walk then continues on to the other end of the lodge premises, where we can find their famous hippo lagoon. Over a hundred hippos live in the lagoon. Hippos are very territorial and organise themselves into pods of one male to a harem of females. We noticed that all the hippos had grouped themselves, so this was very likely, one pod of hippos. All females, save the one large, dominant male at the end of the island in the middle of the lagoon.
Sundowner in Mara North
On our last evening with the Royal Mara, the staff of the lodge surprised us with a sundowner in the bush. It had already been a a fantastic evening – with a sighting of a family of cheetahs on our way back to the lodge. The sun was beginning to set and our guide, Joseph Mbotte, told us he knew the perfect spot for a photograph.
We drove quickly over the plains, hoping to reach the location in time – the African sunset happens quickly. Blink, and you might just miss it. As we were rushing towards the spot, which was marked by an acacia tree, we noticed a group of people and two other jeeps gathered in the area. One was most certainly an armed Maasai ranger.
As we got closer, we realised it was the crew from the Royal Mara. They’d set up a sundowner, just for us. It was a truly lovely affair. There was a nice, warm fire going and good selection of drinks to choose from. The best part of it all, of course, was the incredible sunset. It was a moment to be remembered – the warming wood fire, the fiery sunset and new found friends.
Watch Out for Safari Ants
Unfortunately for us, there was a troop of safari ants marching right through our seating area. There’s nothing you can do about these ants – we were told that when they arrive at a Maasai village, the villagers leave, letting the ants consume everything in their path. It was a way of spring cleaning for the Maasai. But they did not spoil our experience. After all, we were on their territory, and not the other way around!
We had a great time in the wilderness, having our drinks and listening to stories from the crew about the resident animals in Mara North. But all too soon it was over as the sun set, plunging the savannah into darkness. When the fire died down, we packed up and made our way back to the Royal Mara for dinner.
Tales From the Bush: Barbecued Hyena
One of the stories Benjamin, the Royal Mara manager, told us, had to do with a hyena who invaded a barbecue at the lodge. As it goes, they were having a barbecue on the lawn in front of the restaurant. The guests were seated at tables, al fresco style around a campfire. There was a good grill going on, with lots of meat. Or as they call it in Kenya, “Nyama Choma”. Out of the blue, hooves were heard rushing towards the direction of the barbecue. In a blink, an impala rushed towards them, jumping over the fire. The hyena followed suit before realising she had stumbled into the midst of a number of humans. Startled she took the straightest path into the bushes, which was through the campfire. Benjamin told us the hyena was so fast she did not get hurt. Only a little burnt on the outer edges of her fur, perhaps.
Our Review of the Royal Mara Safari Lodge
We loved our stay at the Royal Mara. We initially chose it because it was located on this fabulous bend in the Mara River – little did we know, this bend was home to hundreds of hippos.
Architecture and Interior
The architecture and interior of the lodge are unique. Over two years, about a dozen of skilled artisans carved thousands of pieces of wood to construct the tents, their decks and the restaurant.
The artisans of the lodge have filled each tent with incredible detail. The furniture is a showcase of excellent craftsmanship. The animal motifs in the rooms set the tone for our safari in the Masai Mara.
There is also an engaging collection of traditional African masks decorating the walls of the restaurant. For an authentic, African experience, we thought this was the best place to have it. The artwork does make the place truly unique and memorable.
Attentive and Personable Staff
We truly enjoyed talking to and getting to know the staff at the lodge. We interviewed with the lodge manager, Benjamin Njau, and got to know him over our three-night stay. He was excellent company and is a true wildlife lover. The lodge is one of those places that is a home for the animals first and for humans second.
The kitchen and waiting staff were attentive to our needs and took on special requests to make Kenyan dishes for us. The chefs always prepared delicious food with care and skill.
We especially enjoyed our time with our Maasai guards, Simon and Samuel, who walked us to and from the restaurant to our tent. They were both very knowledgeable and provided us with a lot of information about the animals we saw daily in the lodge. They also knew we wanted to take as many wildlife photographs as we could during our stay, and went out of the way to ensure we got the shots we needed.
We would return to the Royal Mara Safari Lodge again. Although you have to pay more for a night at the Royal Mara’s, we felt it was worth every penny. On top of being a pure luxury, the place is a real paradise for animal lovers. It is one of those places where the safari comes to you.