Sauntering on spongy feet, the big tusker’s truck-sized frame grows larger with every step.
His ears are spread wide as if in warning, but his immense trunk dangles languidly, a sign he is relaxed. “His name is Ummoja,” said my guide Daniel of the 40-something pachyderm.
My adrenaline surged. Not from fear. From excitement. He stops six feet from our vehicle. His stomach and the lower edges of his ears at eye level, forcing me to lean across the seat to look up at him from under the vehicle’s canopy.
Through long wiry lashes, he looks at us curiously. I have a sneaking suspicion he wants something.
The modest 10-guest tent camp has exclusive access to the region, meaning, other than my fellow camp-mates, no other travelers are allowed within its footprint.
On this trip, I wanted to experience more affordable camps so I could recommend them with confidence––but I still wanted great guides. And I preferred the camps to be in a conservancy or private reserve to keep the number of vehicles limited. I also wanted management committed to responsible tourism. Porini checked all the boxes and then some. (Full disclosure: I was Porini’s invited guest.)
The Selenkay Legacy
In 1997, a passionate advocate for habitat preservation, former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board, and trustee of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Jake Grieves-Cook, created a conservancy model that at the time was revolutionary.
Rather than rent Maasai-owned land for hunting or agriculture as was the norm, Grieves-Cook––through his company Gamewatchers Safaris––leased 15,000 acres and designated it a protected habitat known as the Selenkay Conservancy. To pay for it, he would build and operate a small safari camp within its borders to generate income.
It took a few years for Grieves-Cook to forge strong relationships with the local communities, build tents, roads, and watering holes. And most importantly, wait for wildlife to return to the region. In 2001, he realized his vision with the opening of Porini (“wild” in Swahili) Amboseli.
Today, Amboseli is one of eight camps––six permanent and two seasonal––owned and operated by Gamewatchers Safaris.
Porini Mara, Porini Cheetah, and Porini Lion are in private and semi-private conservancies (Ol Kinyei, Olare Motorogi, respectively), bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve. Together with Porini Amboseli, the camps fund a total of 100K acres of protected habitat.
In Nairobi and Laikipia, Nairobi Tented Camp, Rhino River, and Porini Rhino camps operate within Nairobi, Meru, and Ol Pajeta National Parks, respectively. These camps support the nation’s conservation efforts with camp and guest entry fees.
In the last 20 years, many conservancies have opened throughout Kenya following Grieves-Cook’s lead but with a significant difference. The majority base their lease payments on a percentage of camp revenue, whereas Gamewatchers’ fees are fixed, ensuring the Maasai’s income remains stable.
In addition to habitat protection, Gamewatchers gives priority employment to the Maasai families that own the land and support several academic programs.
During Covid, to supplement funds lost due to travel’s disastrous hiatus, the company created an Adopt-an-Acre program to help with lease payments and salaries. And knowing the local communities were unable to access proper schooling at the time, Gamewatchers worked with partners to provide instruction through digital initiatives.
Humans …. Hello?
Ummoja dusts himself next to our vehicle, scooping the dirt with his trunk, displaying extraordinary skill, and tosses it onto his face, shoulders, and us as well. Elephants dust themselves to shield their skin from the sun and biting insects. I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be as beneficial for me.
Moments later, a Porini Landrover nearly identical to ours makes its way to a water pump concealed by bushes about 50 yards away, and out steps the camp’s mechanic.
A lightbulb goes on in Daniel’s head. “Ummoja, wants the water turned on,” he says. Apparently, the generator for the water pump broke during the night, leaving the watering hole dry as a bone.
A sound like a rusty lawnmower roars to life before cutting out seconds later. Ummoja, without missing a beat, walks to the man-made watering hole and with a sweep of his trunk, finds it still empty. Barely losing momentum, he walks toward the mechanic and waits.
The generator sputters once, twice, three times, then kicks into high gear. Ummoja returns to the trough and, dipping his trunk into the cool liquid, begins to drink. Success!
I’m giddy. Clearly, he understands the connection between humans, the vehicles, the generator, and the water, and for a short while, we were a part of that enormous, dazzling creature’s consciousness. He did want something. He thought we could turn on the water. (Check out this fun Instagram Reel with video footage of Ummoja.)
These moments of wonder and communion bring me back year after year.
During the dry season, whether artificial or natural, watering holes are my favorite place for game viewing. They are often an epicenter of animal interaction. You just have to be patient enough to wait for something to show up.
A small breeding herd alerted by the sound of the motor appeared, fast-walking out of the bush in single file, trumpeting in short, expressive bursts.
His solo imbibing interrupted, Ummoja dominates the breeding herd, allowing some to drink while others he blocks with his body.
The other elephants play musical chairs, circling the trough vying for position, each trying to land a place within trunks-length of the spout (apparently a highly coveted spot). Eventually, Ummoja having had his fill leaves the others to their squabbles.
By 8 am it’s sweltering. Monkeys, warthogs, zebra, giraffe, and eland wander into the clearing to drink. The remaining elephants chase them away with a quick shake of their heads, forcing the new arrivals to group by species around the perimeter to watch, and drool.
A second bull who enters the scene taunts the thirsty, four-legged spectators by spraying himself with water, allowing the droplets to fall mercilessly onto the ground.
Occasionally, a warthog maneuvers close enough for a few sips on tiptoes, but the new guy charges them, shooting water at their butts with the force of a firefighter’s hose.
They’ll just have to wait. And I’m staying put.
Nairobi Tented Camp – Nairobi National Park
My 10-day adventure began at Porini’s Nairobi Tented Camp, the only property within the 45 square mile Nairobi National Park.
A mere stone’s throw from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The camp is twenty minutes from baggage claim to the park gate. Another 10 to drive to the woodsy western highlands where the platform tents sit tucked amongst the trees.
(If you’re coming through New York, avail yourself of Kenya Airways’ direct flight from JFK to Nairobi. It’s a dream compared to connecting flights. It will save you six to eight hours or more.)
Nairobi Tented Camp is best for a one or two-night stay. On previous trips, I spent my first night in Nairobi at a basic hotel. Though Nairobi Tented Camp is more expensive due to the addition of a mandatory park entrance fee, the joy I felt being on an African safari less than an hour after touchdown was priceless.
With one game drive on the agenda, I spent my afternoon game drive with Gordon (guide) and Benson (tracker). We saw zebra, buffalo, hippo, giraffe, and black rhino but spent most of our time watching a small pride of lions with two Disney-worthy adult females and their five adorably precious three-month-old cubs.
Two little ones bored of pummeling each other turned their attention to a lioness laying sphynx-like on the road, one tackling her head the other using the black tuft of her tail as a chew toy. Behind them, the lights of the city’s skyscrapers shimmered in the twilight. The juxtaposition was both surreal and woefully symbolic.
Camp Details – Nairobi National Park
- Highlight: Close proximity to the international airport, Wildlife Trust Trust & Giraffe Center
- Nine guest tents with en-suite bathrooms with washbasins and flush toilets
- Bush showers
- One lounge tent
- One dining tent
- Electrical outlets in the manager’s area.
- Scattered wifi in the lounge tent only
Porini Amboseli – Selenkay Conservancy
While the time spent with Ummoja is my favorite memory of my three nights at Porini Amboseli, I had other special sightings. I flew into Amboseli National Park from Nairobi in the early morning, and before heading to the camp, which was approximately an hour’s drive, and stayed the day to explore.
The National Park is one of my favorite places on the planet, and I was thrilled to return. Water from underground springs fed by Kilimanjaro 50 miles away draws large elephant herds. Yes, there are other animals there too, but really it’s about the big-eared wonders. At least for me.
The diverse typography from grass-covered swamps and mysterious acacia forests to an azure lake, and vast dusty plains are dream backdrops for wildlife photography.
By late morning, we observed a number of herds, some of which crossed in front of our vehicle (See image at top of post). Large matriarchs, tiny babies, cheeky young bulls, tween cows. I guestimate 150 in total. It was spectacular.
Camp Details – Porini Amboseli
- Highlight: Large viewing platform near the watering hole
- 10 guest tents (including one large family tent) with en-suite bathrooms, washbasins, and flush toilets
- One extra large communal area with dining room and lounge
- Bush showers
- Small gift shop in a Boma (a traditional Maasai structure) selling handmade jewelry and other tribal items. Cash only.
- Electrical outlets in the manager’s area.
- Scattered wifi in the lounge only
Rhino River Camp – Meru National Park
Of the five camps on my itinerary, Rhino River was slightly different. Located in Meru National Park and within minutes of the Rhino Sanctuary gates, Rhino River has a slightly different vibe. Rather than being built by Gamewatchers, it was acquired right before the pandemic.
The camp has the company’s only pool, which is flanked on three sides by lush vegetation, and a gushing river on the fourth.
Perched at the top of a steep incline, the posh main open-air lounge has a long narrow, wooden, crescent-shaped bar, cozy reading room, and space overlooking the pool 100 feet below.
My tent was similar to the other camps. Minimal yet comfortable though, the en-suite bathroom had the convenience of running water and outlets for charging.
Meru National Park is dense with trees and other foliage, and in October, when I visited, it was very hot. Though my guide Peterson was an excellent driver, the red dirt roads within the Rhino Sanctuary were paved with excessive bumps expelling crimson dust clouds as we drove.
The dense terrain of northern Kenya makes it more difficult to see wildlife, but that said, I saw quite a few reticulated giraffes, buffalo, elephants, and if you want to see rhinos, it’s the place to be.
Rhinos tend to be wary, shy animals, but the sanctuary rhinos are habituated to vehicles and don’t play hide and seek. They are comfortable with humans being relatively close, even if they are with a calf. Having the time to study those crazy prehistoric-looking creatures was a treat.
A couple I met who were not fans of the game drives dust and bumps decided to make Rhino River a wellness retreat and took a break from their African safari. The wife sunk into one of the lounge’s white puffy couches to read a book she’d been meaning to get to for months while her husband laid by the pool. Both were very happy with their decision.
Camp Details – Rhino River
- Highlight: Large swimming pool; Rhino Sanctuary.
- 7 guest tents with en-suite bathrooms with a standard shower, and outlets
- Large family tent
- Electrical outlets in the manager’s area.
- Scattered wifi in the lounge only
Porini Lion Camp – Olare Motorogi Conservancy
It’s impossible not to love the Masai Mara. Its sweeping plains, gorgeous big skies, and abundance of wildlife are utterly captivating. Only a heartless soul could find it lacking.
From the moment my guide, Henry, and tracker, Albert, picked me up from the airstrip, we had great sightings. A pair of cheetahs sprawled out on a dirt mound, as they are want to do, were the first cats of the day.
Moments later, we came across a well-fed Musketeer––one of five cheetahs who lived and hunted together in a coalition. Adult male cheetahs are typically solitary. Five hunting together earned them a lot of attention. As it so happens, this boy was a rebel, leaving his kin to become the Four Musketeers. Two days later, I observed the foursome for nearly an hour.
As the sun set and air-cooled on our afternoon sojourn, we came upon a large pride of adults and sub-adults in repose. Our timing was perfect. They began to yawn. A lot. A sign that they were about to make a move.
One stretched in an impressive downward dog and meandered forward. Slowly, one after the other, the others lazily followed suit until they were in a long single-file line.
To photograph them we zoomed ahead to catch the pride walking toward the camera. They’d pass and we’d do it again. It was a rare sighting, considering lions are famous for standing up, walking 20 feet then laying back down again.
The next day, we were met with a gorgeous sunrise and the beloved Fig, a leopard made famous in the documentary “The Jade Eye’d Leopard” by filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. She was in the canopy of a tree, alert and easy-going, giving me plenty of fodder for my lens.
That night, we followed Furaha, her daughter, a few miles as she tracked her mother to the tree we saw her in that morning. Who knew that four months later, Fig, so beautiful and strong would be struck down by a lion. Her death was felt around the globe by all those who had the good fortune to see her on safari.
On my last morning, as Albert and Henry drove me to my next camp. We saw two lionesses stalk, chase and kill a warthog and then fight over it like football players from opposing teams struggling over a fumble, and two gorgeous males surveying their territory. It really couldn’t have been a finer farewell.
Camp Details – Porini Lion
- Highlight: Separate media tent with wifi and charging stations
- 7 guest tents (including a family tent) with en-suite bathrooms and flush toilets
- Bush showers
- Small lounge
- Large dining tent
Porini Mara – Ol Kinyei / Naboisho Conservancies
The light was perfect. A large cheetah, full of himself, stretched and rolled into countless poses. It was clear he knew he was stunning in the sunset’s glow.
In the distance, framed by a Wedgewood sky, a big tusker, looking rather dapper himself, strolled through my viewfinder on his way to who knows where.
The scene was an auspicious beginning to the final stop on my Porini Adventure: Porini Mara in the Ol Kinyei conservancy.
The compound that is Porini Mara reminds me of a small estate with a manicured lawn encircled by trees. High on a hill accessed by stone steps, Porini Mara’s communal tent holds a small lounge and dining area to greet guests.
At the base of the hill, dirt pathways slice through the grass leading to five guest tents. A wooden dining table sits at the edge of the camp’s perimeter seats ten, a large umbrella rising from its center. A thinning of the trees created a natural frame for the Masai Mara beyond, enabling diners to see nearby wildlife while they eat.
My guide Jackson and tracker Dickson were a unique pair. Jackson was an excellent guide, but our personalities didn’t click (it happens) and it made our time together challenging.
Camp Details – Porini Mara
- Highlight: Outdoor dining area facing the Mara
- 6 guest tents (including one family tent) with en-suite bathrooms and flush toilets
- Bush showers
- Large dining tent with lounge
Porini Camps in a Nutshell
Every Porini camp has its own personality but, on average, they boast a rustic glamping vibe. They are all 100% solar-powered, and the local Maasai fill the majority of staff positions.
Tents are spacious with ensuite bathrooms and accessorized with animal-themed minimalistic decor.
Drinking water is refilled daily and provided in lovely glass carafes with Maasai-inspired beading on the neck.
Showers are mostly of the bush variety. A large rubber bag with an attached showerhead is filled with hot water controlled by a lever.
The experience is like other showers, except it’s best to turn the water off when soaping and back on to rinse so you don’t run out. It’s not a hardship and saves an enormous amount of water.
On the whole, the guides, trackers, and staff were lovely.
The food was fine, but if superb cuisine is a “must-have,” Porini may not be your cup of tea.
My only pet peeve is that the camps don’t offer laundry services (they supply laundry powder), which is a shame.
A Typical Day on Safari
At 5:30 am a friendly “Jambo,” hello in Swahili, is my wake-up call from one of the Maasai porters carrying a mug of hot chocolate and a few biscuits (a.k.a cookies).
Wake-up times and game drive departures were decided the night before with my guide. Photographically, I like to be out early to take advantage of the beautiful light.
Game drives, depending on what you see, average about three hours, including a 30-minute stop in the wild for a bush breakfast of fruit, yogurt, small pancakes, and bacon.
The midday hours, often the hottest of the day at 90+ degrees in October were left for lunch and relaxation.
Evening game drives start around 4:30 pm, last for three to four hours, and may include a cocktail in a scenic location––often referred to as sundowners––unless you’re engrossed in a sighting. Based on the camp, you might also indulge in an exciting night drive or walking safari.
Dinner is served at about 7:30 pm. Afterward, I sometimes sat by the fire pit, but mostly I prepared my gear for the next morning, then hit the sheets.
I chatted with a lovely young couple in Amboseli who touched on an important truth. They were on their honeymoon. Initially, they looked at some of the ultra-luxe safari properties. The type featured in high-end travel magazines that cost a small fortune.
They said they’d considered a once-in-a-lifetime splurge for the occasion but decided against it. Porini, they said, offered them a wonderful holiday and the opportunity to return. For them, the camps’ relative affordability meant saving for another visit felt possible.
Is every “I” dotted and every “T” crossed with Porini. Not really, but that’s somewhat the point. Grieves-Cook created Porini camps to preserve habitat and provide the local communities with a way to earn revenue, gain training and employment.
Providing a great experience for tourists is a means to a very important end. So, yeah, the jeeps are a tad worn, the hospitality is a little uneven because the land and the people come first, not expensive tents and five-star service.
And I’m more than ok with that.