“Here I am; where I ought to be,” said Karen Blixen in the film ‘Out of Africa’. I thought of her as I sat at the antique explorer’s desk in my luxury tent and I retreated to an age of travel far more genteel (and yet probably much more dangerous) than today. The romanticism of the bygone era is all around you here at Cottar’s; so’s the urge to explore the ‘dark continent’ and all the kit and paraphernalia that went with this fascination, a passion that paved the way for today’s stylishly retro and superbly comfortable safari camps—case in point, Cottar’s 1920s Camp.
Since 1919, the pioneering Cottar family have worked in partnership with the Maasai on this exclusive 6000 acre private concession adjoining Maasai Mara National Park. The National Park has strict rules—open only from 0630 to 1830 hrs and with no off-roading—which could have set me into a tailspin as it can be difficult to get close to the animals without going off the trails. Yet here, game is so prolific and there are so many trails that you’ll spot plenty. Plus, at Cottar’s, you can go on drives off-road on their private land for a greater scope of viewing.
Due to its location on the edge of the Tanzanian border, Cottar’s also abuts the Serengeti National Park and so it’s also the first camp to witness the migration—and the last—as millions of grazers cross the border like stampeding locusts.
There are six ensuite tents, a honeymoon tent and four family suites, plus a private house—the Cottar’s Bush Villa—so multi-generational families or groups of friends can stay together on an exclusive-use basis.
It has sterling credentials for conservation too, as one of ten accredited Global Ecosphere Retreats (GER’s) in the world which directly manage or influence a natural area of significant, global conservation value. This camp may or may not be your nirvana. It’s perhaps a bit too ‘close to nature’ for some and it’s not slick style-wise, however, if you’ve a passion for authentic, enthusiastic, golden era travel experiences, then this is truly the only way to experience Kenya.
- Detailed Review +
- Facts & Amenities +
Cottar’s can be reached by air from Nairobi in about 40 minutes and has a private airstrip, about a 10-minute drive from the camp. The closest scheduled airport is at Keekorok, a scenic 90 minutes away, through the Mara National Park, so the game viewing commences the moment you arrive. I landed at Keekorok and was met from the plane and transferred in no time to Cottar’s. I was asked if I had any special requests or requirements and whether I had any likes or dislikes, for food or anything else.
Upon arrival, a whole host of people were waiting to greet me with beaming faces. Like a wedding line, I was introduced to all and then taken by my guide to the main ‘mess’ tent, where I was given hibiscus tea and a warm, refreshing towel.
The mess tent is where everyone congregates for dining, drinking, reading and socialising. As you would expect, every bit of furniture is from the 1920s, if not in age, in style. There are vintage gramophones, photographs, safari-style chairs, bibelots and more, all under a white, billowing-fabric roof, with chandeliers and hurricane lamps aplenty. Many of the furnishings and objets have been in the Cottar family since 1919 when they began hosting safaris.
Briefly shown where the camp was situated on a map of the Mara (the very South-East of the park), I was then taken to my tent to freshen up before lunch.
Rooms and suites
My home for my stay was ‘Sand’, one of the four Family Suites. It was about a three minute walk from the main mess tents and located up a slight incline, from where there are lovely views over the Mara plains and shrublands. There was a large, shaded outdoor deck with a daybed for an afternoon siesta, plus a couple of comfy rockers to while away some hours with a good book.
The tent had a zipped entrance with both a meshed door for lots of air circulation (and no local pests), and there were blackout doors for nighttime or when it’s cooler. The grassy area in front of the tent was large enough for little ones to burn off some energy, or to sit and watch the birds and monkeys that frequent the trees.
Inside, the suite had an adult area off to one side, with a 4-poster bed with mosquito netting, a dining table in the middle and off to the other side, an area with twin beds (again 4-poster with mosquito netting). This area can be screened off with a curtain. Each ‘room’ had its own bathroom. At night, they warm the beds with hot water bottles, a nice touch to induce a good night’s sleep.
Off behind the main tented area was a sitting room with an open fire (should you want to get cosy on colder nights), but this section has been built onto the tent, so has a proper structure to it and a chimney. Designed on a traditional Maasai building, it seamlessly joins the tent affording extra space and great heating should the temperatures dip.
For couples, there are the spacious Luxury Safari Tents with large 4-poster beds and an ensuite bathroom, or the larger Honeymoon Tent is in a very private setting. If travelling en-mass or for more privacy, the Cottar’s Bush Villa is situated high above the camp, with a team of eight staff and two private vehicles with guides included. The views from the house are stunning and the interiors will make you feel instantly at home.
The technology throughout the camp worked, but isn’t too high-tech. The tents do have WiFi, which extends throughout the camp, but this can be intermittent. There was electricity for some well-placed hurricane lamps but the lighting isn’t glaringly bright (or even close) so as to blend in with the surroundings. There was only one power socket (UK-style plug) in each of the bathrooms, where I could power up my technology, the only place with power in the tent. Should you wish to use a hair-dryer, this can only be done at certain times when they run the generator, or you have to ask them to turn it on, but do be warned: no Brazilian blow-outs happening here. There were also power sockets in the game vehicles which come in very handy for charging your phone or camera whilst out on a long drive. Note that here was no network service during my stay—at all—however, I made calls using WiFi and that generally worked well. There was no air-conditioning or fans in the tents, but as I stated earlier, the tent was never hot and it was high 20s outside when I visited.
The bathroom section was joined onto the back of the tent, a structure built in Maasai tribal style. There was good lighting over the sinks and vanity (considering where you are) and to one side, a toilet, slightly shielded but not in its own room and an open shower on the other side with a rainfall head. The power of the shower wasn’t great—no pumps in these showers—but they did the trick. Again, there were times when there is hot water, in the morning and the evening, otherwise you would need to ask them to turn on the boiler. Keeping their ecological footprint in check, many camps use recyclable fuels to power up and this limits them to certain hours of operation.
There was shampoo and conditioner in the shower, from the Africology brand, which I love, but in annoying pumps, plus soap and hand wash and lotion, also in refillable pumps.
As with most safaris, laundry was included which allows you to limit the amount of clothes that you need to bring, especially good as the luggage allowance on internal flights is very small (15kg including hand baggage). Laundry was usually taken in the morning and brought back at night but only bring items that are easily washable: dry cleaning in not on the menu.
Meals were served on a long, communal dining table in the mess tent. I’m not a big fan of dining with strangers as it can often be an uncomfortable experience, but I have to say that this experience was a pleasure; both guests and senior staff of the camp ate lunch and dinner together and meals were varied both in cuisine and conversation. Dining requirements were handled very well; I’m a pescan and this was catered for with a wide choice of fish, vegetables and vegetarian-style dishes. Conversations over meals varied from game drives, to conservation efforts, to Kenyan politics and more personal topics. I also dined once with some conservationists, one for lions and one for a type of Eagle, who were passing through the area checking on their projects.
The food was plentiful. Breakfast generally was served out on safari, lavish picnics with Maasai table cloths and director-style chairs, a chance to sit back and take in the stunning vistas of the Mara. Lunch was buffet-style back in the mess tent, with salads and vegetables from the camp gardens along with frittatas, bbq-style meats and cold cuts, followed by refreshing desserts of sorbet and fruits. Dinner was three full courses with freshly baked cashew bread, soup, mains and dessert. There was a menu on the table, but food at dinner was generally down to the chef, although I’m sure if you were a bit more fussy, you could request different food if you gave enough notice.
The ambiance of the tent changed at each serving, from colonial exploration during the day, to softly lit, 1920s country club in the evenings, with hurricane lamps, candles and crystal chandeliers lighting the table, forming soft shadows throughout the surrounds.
Other restaurant options
There was only one dining area, however, if you wanted to have a more romantic meal, you could have it served in your tent. There are no other dining options in the vicinity, being in the middle of the bush.
Spa and wellness
Cottar’s has a spa tent which has two beds should you wish to have a couples treatment. The menu is limited, but provides anything that you would need in the bush, with invigorating and deep tissue massages, to relaxing ones to aid travel-weary bodies. Another experience would be one of the safari bath or shower experiences, set up in the savannah; something to try for a look back at how ‘it used to be done’.
Pool and beach
The property has recently added a lovely swimming pool, set in a quiet section of the camp where the infinity-edge pool overlooks the savannah. Here, beautiful daybeds and sun loungers with their own sun canopies for shade are provided, perfect for relaxing with a tall drink under the Kenyan sky. Alongside is a relaxation tent where lunches are served. There is also a pool at the Cottar’s Bush Villa, again infinity-edged and overlooking incredible views from its position on the hills above the main camp.
In general, safaris often exclude kids due to the perceived risk for their safety and the enjoyment of others (i.e. noisy youngsters). However, kids are very welcome here, from any age, and they have designed the family tents accordingly so they can start young on the path to conservation of our planet and animal protection. Family tents are situated on the other side of the camp to the couples and honeymoon tents and have a large garden outside for kids to blow off steam. Early dinners and children’s menus are provided and served in the tent. Very young children can be taken care of by nannies and babysitters and older kids have special activities organised for them, like the Maasai Warrior School programme which offers an insight into life as a Maasai.
Staff and service
The service is excellent at Cottar’s, very personable, friendly and intimate without being overly done. The staff on the whole, are chatty and have a great sense of humour and make you feel welcome. The Maasai guides that I met were very knowledgable about their land and the wildlife. All are Silver Standard guides, but if you want to have a truly unforgettable experience, then pay extra and have Calvin Cottar guide you personally. Guiding since the age of 15 and gold level KPSGA certified, he has been voted, many times over, as the Best Guide in Africa.
The camp is small, but during my stay, other guests were from England, Canada and the USA, plus a couple from Asia who arrived as I was leaving. Age varied, but most from their 30s to active 70s. Obviously, all animal lovers from our conversations, most were looking for an authentic, unique experience as opposed to the large, pristine lodge-style affairs that you find within the Mara Park.
My flight was in the late morning from Keekorok which is the further airstrip from the hotel, so we left about three hours prior to takeoff so that we could search for some hippos along the way. I had breakfast before I left and then said my farewells to the team. Check-out is a casual affair, my bags were brought down and put in the vehicle and it felt like I was saying goodbye to friends.
How to get there
40 minute flight from Nairobi International Airport, and 10 minute drive
10 tents and 1 Private House with 5 rooms