A Maasai Mara camp for photographers
There is a camp in Kenya’s Mara North Conservancy in the Maasai Mara ecosystem that caters to photographers – of all levels. It’s co-owned by a local Maasai man and is the lifeblood of an entire community – providing jobs and financial security. In addition, the borehole and water tank at the camp provide over 2,000 people with potable water. This is Oltepesi Tented Safari Camp.
After seeing fantastic photos emanating from Oltepesi (including from our 2022 Photographer of the Year winner), I was keen to head out there to see for myself. So, armed with my mobile phone, I joined a group of AG clients for a few days of their Maasai Mara safari.
The first thing that struck me when we arrived at Oltepesi after our one-hour flight from Nairobi and a 40-minute game drive to the camp was the location within a village. So daily interactions with the Maasai folk were adhoc and unrehearsed as if I was a member of their community. Strolling over to visit local children or to walk amongst the goats in their pen next to the vegetable garden was not an arranged outing, as it usually is when on safari. And taking photos was a joyful process – not as awkward as it can be. This au naturel exposure to Maasai culture added significant value and dignity to my stay at Oltepesi. As did knowing that my visit DIRECTLY benefited an entire village and so helped preserve the magic of Maasai Mara.
And then there is the location. Mara North Conservancy borders Maasai Mara National Reserve (there are no fences), so game drives start when you leave camp. Expect livestock herds mixed in with wildlife before you cross the invisible Reserve boundary (and even inside the Reserve in places) because the Maasai owners of Mara North blend their traditional pastoral livelihood with a tourism model. None of our party felt weird about seeing herders guiding their livestock past zebras and elephants – this reminded me how flexible the Maasai people are and how they accept wild animals as valid co-inhabitants of their space. What a privilege to share their home.
The camp is what I would call ‘functional comfort’ – everything you need as a photographer but little by way of frills. That’s why it’s so affordable compared to other camps in the area. When you spend most of your day out there taking epic photos, you don’t want to spend a fortune on unused luxuries. The camp is entirely off the grid, with 24/7 device-charging facilities in your tent and the common area. There is wifi for emails and Whatsapp. The food is wholesome, and the service is excellent.
During my stay, I spent time with two Oltepesi guides – John Siololo and George Kiriama. Both were excellent – not only for their knowledge of the area and how to find wildlife but their understanding of positioning the vehicle for optimal photography.
We spent the majority of every day out there on the endless plains of the Maasai Mara, leaving camp before the first sparrow chirp and returning after the nightjars and hyenas started cranking up the volume.
After hours of game drives and photography, we would pull over under a massive tree or on a rocky ridge and enjoy scrumptious Kenyan coffee, eggs, bacon and flapjacks or Kenyan beer, pasta, cold meats, salad and fresh bread rolls – depending on the time of day. We spent many hours observing wildlife movements and anticipating photographic opportunities and often remained at sightings long after other tourists had left the scene. We left sightings that had attracted too many tourists – much to my relief. This was the prime season, after all. The pace of a day like this differs from the game drive routine at most lodges. Our mission was to be OUT THERE for as long as possible – making the most of our rare time in paradise.
Oltepesi Tented Safari Camp is the birthchild of two wonderful human beings. Norwegian semi-professional photographer Arnfinn Johansen and John Siololo first met many years back when John was a private guide and Arnfinn the client. Arnfinn returned year after year to spend time with John in the Maasai Mara. After spending time on John’s family land, the idea was born to start a lodge in 2017. Fast forward to current times, and the two gents use their combined networks to make a real difference at ground level. Amongst many endeavours, they donate bednights to the Remembering Wildlife series of photographic books – the proceeds go towards conservation projects. Right to Sight is a campaign to provide cataract surgery to prevent blindness. In 2023, Oltepesi will close for a portion of the low season to be used as a clinic for eye surgery for local people.
The photos below tell the story of my journey with the Oltepesi crew better than I can – please enjoy them.
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