Saruni Mara is set on a high ridge ...
Saruni Mara: Our full report
On a wooded, south-facing hillside in the far north of the Mara North Conservancy, the Italian-owned Saruni Mara is a stylish and unfenced bush lodge with six individual cottage-villas. Unlike most other properties in the Mara’s conservancies, it is built with a degree of permanence, setting it apart from the numerous tented camps found nearby.
A sister lodge to the equally stylish Saruni Samburu, Saruni Mara is quite a drive north of the other camps in the Mara North Conservancy. Some may see its remote location, far from the main national reserve, as a negative; certainly those fixated on seeing river crossings (for which you have to be inside the Maasai Mara National Reserve) would. But we saw it as a delightful retreat in the remote northern side of a conservancy whose southern part is now quite busy.
The Mara North Conservancy is one of the oldest of the Mara’s conservancies and, taken as a whole, has the most camps. Yet from Saruni Mara your first few hours’ game drive are delightfully quiet – with few other vehicles around to interrupt your game sightings. Saruni is also located near a small village, which gives your stay here a more rounded experience than that of just wildlife. Each day you pass by a community – and in doing so learn a little about the way of life here.
A winding road takes you from the flat plains of the Mara North Conservancy up to the lodge itself, which has a high vantage point. As you approach, you can marvel at how both the rooms and the main area are individually cantilevered out from the hillside.
Once at Saruni Mara, a stone pathway takes you through grassy lawns to the office and shop where WiFi is available, and a vast array of tempting curios include beaded items from the local community and more opulent ones from Nairobi. If you are lucky, one of the two resident eland might be snoozing here on the porch, posing for up-close photographs.
The path continues on to the main, open-fronted dining and lounge banda. This has an almost cottage-like appearance, with dark wooden beams running through white-washed plastered walls and areas of exposed stone along the back and sides of the building, and a high thatched roof that adds to the bright and breezy feel. Rather than overly stylish, the décor is quite plain, but simple pieces of Swahili furniture add character, and the rustic yet uncluttered look works really well.
A stone bench scattered with cushions offers a place to sit during the day, while a softer arrangement of chairs and sofas face a fire that is lit on cool evenings. We loved the enormous dining table made from old railway sleepers full of its original knots and holes – just watch where you put your glass of wine! Communal meals are served here, with lovely old-fashioned silverware giving a faintly colonial feel to your dining experience.
Next to the main banda, Saruni Mara has an extensive library, a quiet place to seek refuge, or read up on birds and wildlife, whilst taking in the views from the open front. That said, we felt that the building was quite dated when we last visited in January 2014, so guests may prefer to lounge on the veranda of their individual cottages instead.
The six spacious cottages at Saruni Mara are set either side of the main area, and built in the same country farmhouse style. Each is very comfortably furnished to reflect a slightly different theme – Artist, Observer, Writer, Photographer, the Family Villa and (furthest away from the main area) the Honeymoon Villa – but otherwise are broadly the same.
Inside you’ll find lovely wooden floors, polished to a high shine, and huge four-poster beds draped in mosquito netting. Most have fixed double-bed arrangements, although one can be a double or a twin. Woven rugs scattered across the floors, occasional piece of antique furniture such as a stunning brass spotting scope, and a sherry decanter, add an old colonial charm. There is a lounge area with a sofa or pair of armchairs, then a writing desk, luggage rack and a huge wardrobe where you will also find a small safe for valuables, and a hairdryer. From the terraces, each with a comfortable day bed, there are sweeping views down towards the Mara North Conservancy.
The white-washed cottage walls continue into the en-suite bathroom, although the shower area is made from canvas with wide gauze windows, giving an outdoors feel. There’s ample hot running water to the powerful shower, which might well be the best we have had in the Mara, and to twin ceramic sinks, which are set atop a wide wooden tabletop in front of a large mirror. Organic toiletries are provided and there is a flushing toilet.
Near cottages one and two, the ‘Masai Wellbeing Space’ is a spa and treatment base run by trained Maasai masseuses, who offer a free, introductory, 30-minute massage to every guest. There’s a bathroom here, too, so you don’t have to go back to your cottage to prepare for your massage after a game drive.
Activities are quite varied at Saruni Mara, though most people will spend much of their time doing drives into the Mara North Conservancy. Six open-sided Land Rovers are available for guests (three nine-seaters and three six-seaters) and whenever possible, the camp aims to give each solo guest, couple or family group their own vehicle. It is also possible to do bushwalks with Maasai guides, and village visits (for a small extra fee payable to the community).
Those staying at Saruni Mara for three nights are also offered a day in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It takes approximately two-and-a-half hours to reach the reserve, so this is always done a full-day trip with a picnic breakfast and lunch.
Our viewClearly marked by the irrepressible character of its Italian owners, Saruni Mara makes a very strong impression. If you're looking for a relaxing and stylish but remote bush retreat, with the opportunity to do local game walks as well as game drives, this is an ideal lodge, but it’s not an ideal base for the migration, for which it’s better to be nearer the main Maasai Mara National Reserve
Ideal length of stay: Three days or more will allow you both to enjoy the activities and take an afternoon to relax in the lodge.
Directions: Saruni Mara is about an hour’s drive from Mara North airstrip.
Accessible by: Fly-and-Transfer
Owner: Riccardo Orizio, journalist, author and safari guide
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: The food at Saruni Mara was good when we last visited in January 2014. Strongly influenced by its Italian owner it has lots of flavour and especially excellent pasta dishes. Both Saruni Mara and Saruni Samburu operate a shared weekly menu in order to avoid repeats for guests staying at both.
We experienced both a bush breakfast, and breakfast in camp. The option will depend on your individual schedule, usually decided with your guide the day before. When we were out in the bush, our picnic site was on a plain under the shade of a tree with a view of grazing zebra in the background. We were offered stools for seating and a Maasai blanket was thrown over the hood of the car as a table. Cereal, muffins, fruit, toast were on offer, together with cold sausage, bacon and boiled eggs, with tea, coffee and juices to drink.
Breakfast in camp comprised a variety of cereals, a fruit platter and a selection of baked goods, followed by freshly cooked eggs or your choice with bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato and toast.
Possibly our favourite meal at Saruni Mara was the lunch we had in camp: a set menu served to the table. Our starter, of delicious rigatoni (oversized penne) in a rich cheese and tomato sauce, was followed by a tasty avocado and feta salad with a spinach quiche, and finished with a raspberry fool. Saruni also arrange packed lunches for guests heading out on safari for the whole day.
Evening dinner at Saruni Mara starts with nibbles around the fire; on one evening we had pizza slices, on another little salmon rolls. Then as a starter you can expect something like soup or a pasta dish; we had a pea soup one night, and lasagna the next. A main course of steak with pepper sauce and vegetables stuck in our memory, although the chicken and pesto dish was a little more forgettable. Dessert options might include a mango cheesecake, sorbet or peach amarettis.
Dining style: Group Meals
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: All drinks are included except for premium wines and spirits, and Champagne.
Further dining info: Meals at Saruni Mara are usually hosted and communal, though on request they can set individual tables. Meals can also be served privately in your cottage.
Attitude towards children: Children are welcome at Saruni Mara.
Property’s age restrictions: None.
Special activities & services: For the 6+ bracket, the “warriors for a week" programme brings Maasai boys into interaction with visiting children.
Equipment: Baby cot but no cots or high chairs.
Generally recommended for children: Slightly older children would be best, as Saruni Mara feels quite adult and quiet.
Notes: Housekeeping staff will sit with babies and children, and askaris are close by in the evening. It is important to note that none of the staff are specifically trained in childcare.
Communications: There is good phone signal at Saruni Mara and limited WiFi at the office/shop and around cottages 2 and 3.
TV & radio: Staff quarters have a TV for the odd big match or special event.
Water supply: Transported in
Water supply notes: Hot water is available most of the time but as the kuni-booster needs to be lit – guests will need to ask the night before if they want hot water in the early morning. Bottled drinking water is supplied.
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: Most guides are first-aiders at Saruni Mara. Aitong clinic is not far away and for serious emergencies medevac helicopters can land nearby.
Dangerous animals: High Risk
Security measures: Askaris are on patrol all the time at Saruni Mara and Mara North rangers are usually around the area.
Fire safety: Saruni Mara has fire extinguishers in every room and most other buildings. Most staff have been trained in using them. There’s a firebreak uphill from camp where forest fires would be most likely to come from.
Disabled access: Not Possible
Laundry facilities: Machine-washed and line-dried laundry is included in the rates, but in common with most camps, ladies' underwear is not washed for cultural reasons (washing powder is provided in the bathrooms for hand-washing any items).
Money: There are safes in each room at Saruni Mara. They cannot offer any currency exchange.
Accepted payment on location: All major currencies are accepted in cash at Saruni Mara, as are Mastercard and Visa credit cards for which there is a 4% surcharge.