A trip to Kenya and the first carbon-neutral camp in the Maasai Mara

·10-min read
Maasai first: many of the guides at Emboo are female, which is unusual for the area  (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)
Maasai first: many of the guides at Emboo are female, which is unusual for the area (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)

North of the restless Talek river, forever swelling and subsiding, there is a parcel of brown: turned soil cut into the endless folds of green that make Kenya’s Maasai Mara, the wilds that eventually become Tazania’s Serengeti.

From the sky it looks as though giant fingers have run through the clay, playing with it. Really it is tyres that leave their mark, planes as small as 10-seaters skidding down on this airstrip, the Ol Kiombo, where jeeps wait and watch and to the side, in the long grass, women in bright-beaded necklaces sit with their blankets rolled out and trinkets for sale. Men in uniform idle hours on benches and chat and smoke and smile as the big cars fill and head off into the green, shooting like pinballs in every direction to camps hidden in the relief of the shade. Kenya is a country where, even in the places nothing happens — like airstrips where flight schedules are just suggestions, sketches — something is happening.

As if to suit their surroundings, most of those jeeps have their own growls, petrol coughing, diesel clearing its throat. But among them are a pair that stalk off silently to Emboo River camp (emboo.camp). These two are solar-powered — no noise, no fuel, no fumes — and are part of the camp’s carbon-neutral practices; Emboo is the first carbon-neutral camp in the Maasai Mara, one of a small clutch across Africa that are working towards being ecologically sustainable.

Carbon-neutral has become catch-all jargon over the past few years as climate change, commanding more headlines, has pushed shame-faced corporations to make noise about their efforts towards the environment (and countries too — Kenya itself has already banned single use plastics and has vowed to reduce its carbon output by 30 per cent by 2030). But while some of these exertions feel slender, insubstantial, unverifiable — who’s counting how many pledged trees really get planted? — Emboo’s actions are evinced with a quick wander around the park, and extend beyond a few slight promises to pop a few shrubs in the bush.

All quiet on the western plains: Emboo’s cars are electric, so seem to disturb the animals less (Brian Siambi)
All quiet on the western plains: Emboo’s cars are electric, so seem to disturb the animals less (Brian Siambi)

Things began in 2019 and, despite being waylaid by Covid, have continued since, and so the camp now boasts its tours are carbon-negative. A small meadow is filled with solar-panels charging under the sun — these power the entire camp, rechargeable jeeps included — while close by, two man-made pits are filled with six local plants jostling for space. Their roots filter the camp’s wastewater, so it can be used over and again for the likes of flushing loos. Drinking water is also filtered on site; 100 per cent of their water, in fact, is recycled (it, too, is heated using solar). Even the swimming pool is filled with natural water, filtered and cleaned, ionised and oxidised, using natural copper; there is no need for chlorine or other chemicals that might leak into the soil and spoil it. Everything is recycled, much of it upcycled; signposts were once cups, plates, old bits of plastic.

In migration season, the fields go from green and straw to a sheer black, as two million wildebeest go by, rumbling like clouds heavy with thunder

The food — menus are vegan, though meat can be sourced — is, save for the likes of oil, salt and pepper, grown on site. Row after row of vegetables swelter in the heat over their two acre gardens. Dishes come slow-cooked, in part because the biogas it cooks on produces a smaller flame; this gas is the byproduct of the food waste which, you could suppose, is not aptly named here: nothing about it is wasted. Clingfilm and foil are forgotten; dishes are wrapped in beeswax, the wax coming from the hives that also gives the camp honey. Old wine bottles are cut down and drunk from again, this time as water glasses. Sawdust from the buildings is mixed with old paper, old bills, and crushed into burnable briquettes for an evening’s fire. Cleaning products are non-synthetic, and sold to the community at large, too, helping spread the word. There is more, you are getting the idea. Emboo means pride; they take it in their work.

Wonder: the Maasai Mara boasts the big five, and lions are easily spotted (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)
Wonder: the Maasai Mara boasts the big five, and lions are easily spotted (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)

Few safari-goers could keep a steady eye and a straight face and say that a trip is about saving the world, though. That Emboo is planet-friendly will simply be a bonus for most, a saving grace. It will mean the wonder of the game lands not marred by creeping guilt. And wonder is really what this is all about; the awe that comes with seeing lion cubs paw and maul a zebra carcass, or spotting an ostrich and shrinking back at their height, their strange menace. It’s there in the camp at night, when the Maasai stand guard at the tents, watching for the leopards that sometimes prowl the branches. It’s there at 5am, in the pitch dark at wake-up, just before the first drive of the day, when the hippos splash in the bend of the river that Emboo is perched on. Coffee doesn’t have the same effect. In migration season, like now, the fields on the opposite bank go from green and straw to a sheer black, as two million or so wildebeest go by, rumbling like clouds heavy with thunder.

Tribe: the Maasai people (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)
Tribe: the Maasai people (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)

But mostly it’s there out in the fields. Emboo offers its guests game drives morning, noon and night; the jeeps and their drivers — often young women, another first in the Mara — ready to head out more of less whenever. This is a part of the world where even their ordinary is our extraordinary. Warthogs seem to smile and wave their tails like cheering flags: “Ah, Pumba!” says our driver. “We just call them lion sausages,” grins the guide beside her.

The cars are so quiet that at a stand-still, you hear the panting of the bison; old generals left alone to bathe in the mud, the younger set all kept together across the track with a weary eye to what else is out there. Only the birds pick up as we drive along; they lift from their roadside perches, rising as the dust does.

A dazzle: zebras are among the Maasai Mara’s 90-or-so species (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)
A dazzle: zebras are among the Maasai Mara’s 90-or-so species (Courtesy of Emboo River Camp)

The game drives go far, though they can never touch all 579 square miles of the reserve. But they will go down to the water, where crocodiles lift only their eyes above the water-line, watching the hippos and not fancying their chances. They will go to the quiet bushes, where cheetahs sit pretty, or where giraffes run past, necks bobbing, the birds on their neck rising and falling in time with every ungallant stride, the giraffes telling us, our guides say, that a lion must be close.

The giraffes do not want to get too cosy but we do, sitting tight as the lion surely appears, comfortable as royalty here, brushing the flies from its mane against the grill of our Land Cruiser. And while eco can, in some instances, also mean a lessening of luxury, Emboo are keen on a fine time. Evening drives tend to finish up under an acacia tree, what some call the umbrella tree, the kind that sit all alone, so distinct on the horizon you wonder if the locals use them to navigate, like sailors and stars. And under this umbrella, trestle tables are unfolded and drinks appear, and cocktails are mixed. That first night, those same giraffe walk by again, calmed now, and we take wine and marvel.

Up and away: the Governor’s balloon safaris take off at daybreak (Courtesy of the Governors Balloon Safaris)
Up and away: the Governor’s balloon safaris take off at daybreak (Courtesy of the Governors Balloon Safaris)

Nearby to Emboo — a short morning drive, a rope-ferry across a river away — is the Governor’s Camp, where hot air balloon journeys run (governorsballoonsafaris.com). The morning is met with hot sugared tea and the sound of the thrusters as the rainbow nylon balloons are filled; the heat from the thrusters arrives in sheets that wrap us up. Up and away and suddenly what’s become familiar is all changed: the hippo trails emerge; the crocs now not so well hidden, their thuggish outlines showing just beneath the surface, black shadows in the water.

There are eagles in the treetops; in the distance we see Maasai villages, the clay-and-stick houses with tiny windows, to keep the animals out (these too can be visited, and later we do). The balloon travels over the plains where cars are kept out, and so elephants journey in larger herds and the rarest of the big five can be seen: we watch three black rhinos together, a family on a morning walk. Spotting them, the balloon is a riot of excitement; a hush follows, all eyes on the calf trundling between its mother and father. What do you say when you see something like this? You don’t, as it turns out.

On landing, breakfast and a glass of fizz, the old custom kept going. “It looks like something from Out of Africa,” I say to our pilot. “It should,” he smiles, having heard this one before and pointing to a nearby ridge. “It was filmed here, after all.”

Astonishing beauty: Diani beach (Press handout courtesy of The Sands at Nomad, Diani beach)
Astonishing beauty: Diani beach (Press handout courtesy of The Sands at Nomad, Diani beach)

A safari is a must; it is one of the great trips to take. Kenya has more, though, and after a few days spent constantly out in the fields and always looking, looking, looking for the next animal, the newest gruesome wildebeest or fearless mongoose, the dancing gazelles and topis and impalas, a rest is welcome, if only to absorb it all. Try the east African coastline, famed for its astonishing good looks.

Each beach claims to be the truest beauty. Ours is Diani, a little under 20 miles from Mombasa, and one of the country’s most famous strips of coast. It has the kind of looks that provoke giggles of disbelief: blues bluer than Hockney’s pools, sand as white as wedding dresses. The beach seems perfectly straight; stand and look both ways, and it runs on and on and on. Next to the sands sit palm trees hiding hotels; Diani is not somewhere where 5am wake-up calls are the thing; the thing is lying beside a pool and drinking margaritas and forgetting about life back home. The thing is watching the monkeys or feeding the bush babies as the sun glows orange and is packed away for the night.

Diani has the kind of looks that provoke giggles of disbelief: blues bluer than Hockney’s pools, sand as white as wedding dresses

Our place is The Sands at Nomad Hotel (thesandsatnomad.com); spread over 25 acres, other guests feel pleasingly at arm’s reach; seclusion and comfort is prioritised. Hotels here are a base; out the front, tuk-tuks pass and adventures wait. There is a backpacker’s bar nearby; one night we find ourselves dancing with a warrior in his full dress. Shots are done with strangers. Beer pong is attempted. Soon it is after midnight; you can fill in your own mischief.

There is more to Kenya than its safaris and seaside, though. Not for nothing is Nairobi known as the green city in the sun; trees tower between buildings, shrubs line highways. It is a country pushing forward, busy and hot always. While the National Park’s Tented Camp (nairobitentedcamp.com) offers camping and safari for far cheaper than out on the Maasi plains — around £95 a night instead of somewhere about the £355 mark, and less than half an hour from the airport —  the built-up city has its own fascinations. Roads heave with motorcycles that twist and weave and seem to change shape to fit into impossible gaps, as street-sellers wander calmly amongst the chaos, carrying their blankets for when the heat finally eases and the night’s cold comes in. For every car or bus — each dented as though they come that way stamped from the factory — there are 10 commuters on foot: Johnnie Walker billboards tell the city to Keep Walking and so they do. Casinos sit above carpet shops. We meet a barman called Elvis. It is somewhere, you sense, that is leaning forward, hurrying, improving. There are adventures here, some obvious and some keeping to themselves. Kenya is a place where, even when nothing seems to be happening, something is. But by now, you already knew that.

Kenya Airways return flights from London Heathrow to Nairobi start from £699

Emboo River Camp, from about £355 a night; emboo.camp

Governer’s Balloon Safari, from about £280 a flight; governorsballoonsafaris.com

Nairbi Temopted Camp, from about £95 a night; nairobitentedcamp.com

Sands at Nomad, Diani Beach, from about £125 a night, bed and breakfast; thesandsatnomad.com

For more information on Kenya, visit magicalkenya.com