Mara Bushtops is unusual in having an uninterrupted view over Siana Group Ranch (photo ©Bushtops)
Mara Bushtops: Our full report
Hugging the brow of a hill in its own private game sanctuary, Mara Bushtops is an exclusive, hotel-style, tented lodge a few kilometres outside the Maasai Mara National Reserve’s busiest gate. Based around the former home of Mara hunting and safari legend Glen Cottar, it features personal butlers and a well-stocked wine cellar.
Opened in 2007 as Mara Bushtops, the lodge was previously Cottars Mara Camp and before that a family home. It stands sentinel over a 26km² private game sanctuary on Siana Group Ranch, northeast of Sekenani Gate. In theory, the whole of Siana is a conservancy, but local tourism operators and the Siana Maasai community have yet to agree a comprehensive plan for limiting grazing and sharing the proceeds from visitors. By making its concession exclusive, Bushtops has preserved a small patch of land and ensured that its guests can have first-class wildlife experiences just minutes from the lodge.
From the elaborate security to the glamorous-looking tent decks and the painfully self-regarding rules about photography (hence the lack of images from Expert Africa) Mara Bushtops is the sort of place that seems to confide ‘I’m special; trust me’.
The central areas at Bushtops feel quite hotel-like, with vehicles checking in at the gate at the bottom of the hill, then pulling right up to the 1980s-built reception in the main building at the top of the hill. Just inside, the main lounge has a colonial-meets-central-Africa feel, and houses a star-gazing telescope, and the shop stocks high-quality curios. A few steps away, the lounge gives onto a beautiful deck, with an infinity pool and sunloungers to one side.
A little down the hill is the intriguing dining room, located in the original Cottars’ home – a stone building with a stone floor and high, thatched roof, from which hang lights designed to look like the fruits of the sausage tree. Bushtops’ extensive wine collection is stored in a cool cellar under the restaurant. You can dine inside here, or elect to eat outdoors, closer to the firepit and the salt lick that is regularly visited by wildlife.
Sandy paths lead between Mara Bushtops’ main area and the 12 tents (each 110m² in area), which are magnificently designed tent-room hybrids, with roofs that are part tent ceiling and part luxurious display of bedroom drapery. The bedsteads behind the huge double or twin beds are set off with African masks and every room’s deck has its own wooden hot tub. An antique-style telescope, plus mammal and bird guides, are provided in each tent.
The tents sit on large wooden decks, have complete privacy, and can open up completely at the front and sides. Sunloungers are provided on the verandas and table and chairs are already set up for private dining. Minibars and fridges (extra charge) are replenished by the personal butler allocated to each tent, who can also be called by buzzer.
The very luxurious bathrooms feature twin washbasins, indoor and outdoor showers, bathrobes, and Bulgari soaps and toiletries.
Electricity, available 24 hours, is produced by solar panels and is evidently enough to power hairdryers, with a charcoal booster to heat shower water on cloudy days.
As well as these luxury tents, there is one, enormous family suite tent, consisting of two large rooms on either side of a very spacious lounge, a spa pool and a big sofa facing the plains in front.
The game drives at Bushtops are always accompanied by a spotter as well as a driver/guide. Guests can choose either to drive down to Sekenani Gate and into the reserve itself, or stay closer to the lodge on the Bushtops concession or the Siana Group Ranch. Walking safaris in the sanctuary are accompanied by an armed ranger and need to be reserved in advance. Bushtops is unique in the Mara in having a specially adapted night-drive vehicle with heat sensors, screens and a night-vision camera. And the exciting wildlife in this relatively small area is impressive, with lion, cheetah and leopard all regularly seen and, in 2011/12, a pack of 18 wild dogs in the area which denned and produced pups.
The lodge also does local village and school visits and there are two trained massage and treatment therapists, doing in-tent massages, facials and pedicures.
Our viewWhile we didn’t stay at Bushtops we can easily imagine doing so for a honeymoon or a special treat. We liked the professionalism of the staff and the old-house dining room, and we loved the beautiful pool and the success they’re having with wild dogs and big cats in their private sanctuary. We were less smitten with the relatively busy location and the slightly disappointing views from what should be a spectacular vantage point on the lounge deck.
Ideal length of stay: 3 nights
Directions: The road transfer from Siana airstrip takes around 20 minutes.
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: Bushtops has its own vegetable garden, providing fresh salads and herbs. Fresh fish and meat come from Nairobi.
Meals are always à la carte, with a huge variety (at least eight choices for both starter and main course). Additionally, the chef will often offer a special dish to clients that isn’t on the menu.
Bush lunches are popular. A proper table is used, and a full cold lunch is served – cold meat, salads, potatoes, bread, cake or dessert, cheeses, drinks. Otherwise, lunch is three courses and à la carte.
Dining style: Individual Tables
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: Soft drinks and local beers are included; wine is currently not. House wine is US$45, Moët et Chandon champagne US$210.
Attitude towards children: Mara Bushtops welcome children of all ages.
Property’s age restrictions: None
Special activities & services: Meal times can be adapted for children, and childcare can be provided by members of housekeeping staff for parents who want to have dinner later, but there are no professional childcare staff on site.
Generally recommended for children: This is a high-end safari lodge with a largely adult clientele, many of whom are on honeymoon or celebrating anniversaries. We don’t think it’s ideal for a family safari, though the lodge is very happy to welcome children.
Communications: There is free WiFi throughout the lodge, with a laptop available to guests who don’t have their own device.
TV & radio: The TV at Bushtops is only for looking at the day’s photo trawl from your game drive.
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: There are several first-aid-trained staff and first-aid kits in camp and vehicles. The nearest doctor is 7km away at Sekenani. The camp has links to flying doctors and all guests are automatically covered for emergency air evacuation to Nairobi.
Dangerous animals: High Risk
Security measures: There’s 24-hour security around the lodge and a team of scouts patrols the conservancy. At night askaris patrol the camp and escort guests to and from their tents.
Fire safety: There’s a team in charge of fire safety. A fire alarm is installed and there’s a fire assembly area in place.
Disabled access: On Request
Laundry facilities: Full laundry service included, and there are ladies in the laundry, so they can wash female underwear – which most camps will not do.
Money: Currency exchange can be organised. There is a safe in every tent for valuables.
Accepted payment on location: Cash payments may be made in US dollars,, euros, pounds sterling or Kenyan shillings. Visa, MasterCard and Amex credit cards are accepted with no surcharge.