From the moment I picked up a book offered for entertainment in one of the tents at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, I get through the entire thing in one sitting as it makes for quite the captivating read. The beginning chapters chronicle the life of Charles Cottar, the writer’s (Calvin Cottar) great grandfather, described as a rebel often in search of the unregulated freedom afforded by wide open spaces, who, bored by the already won Wild West, was inspired to come to Kenya after reading Theodore Roosevelt’s book on his safari across Africa.
Kenya turned out to be exactly what his restless soul yearned for. The early 1900s were a different time with a different set of regulations that would probably make a modern day conservationist recoil, but back then, wildlife hunting was legal, socially accepted and big business. Hunting, just like he did back in Oklahoma, Charles would set up Cottar Safari Services in 1919, specialising in filming, big game hunting and animal capture for circuses overseas.
Chatting about filming safaris with Calvin Cottar, Charles’ great grandson who set up Cottar’s 1920 Safari Camp in the mid 90s with his wife Louise, he explains that the earliest filming safaris were nothing like today. Animals were known to hide in the bushes. A photographer would therefore set up his equipment a little far off from the bush, and when he was ready, his counterparts would scare the animals and they would go charging towards the photographer who would get his pictures, fingers-crossed that he didn’t get trampled in the process. I see an old black and white advert; Big Game Hunting in Africa and Asia with Cottar Service. In it, a man on a horse, a pack of dogs charging in front of him, pursuing a leopard leaping over a bush close to the camera. Pictures of Charles show a man mauled by a leopard, later being killed by a charging rhino that he was trying to film in 1940.
With the onset of wildlife conservation and management laws, the landscape has drastically changed. Calvin explains that when they set up in the mid-90s, there was a lot of poaching and insecurity in the Maasai Mara, and it was hard to ascertain that the money that was flowing in through tourism was actually doing good. At the time, he was a guide working with KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) which resulted in a lot of thinking about Kenya, its people and its lands. One of his tasks was to develop forums where landowners and communities had a voice in wildlife conservation policy. We have an interesting chat about the place of big game hunting in securing lands today, a story I am keen to follow up on.
Set in Ol Derkesi Community Conservancy, Maasai Mara, the classically elegant ambiance in the tents draws inspiration from ‘old Africa’, with the tents being outfitted with colonial antiques, pops of colour coming from the bedding or cotton dhurries. The staff, most coming from the local community, have been with the family for decades. We stay at the five bedroom bush villa which has plenty of comfortable lounging areas and terraces, boasting unobstructed views of the surrounding savannah, best taken in from a hammock set on a ground floor lounging area.
Perks include a staff of eight at your disposal, a private chef, a 25-metre private swimming pool, a dedicated game vehicle and guide (some of the best guides I have ever encountered on the numerous game drives I have been on) and WiFi. As I was there for the first-time unveiling and tasting of the Louis XIII Cognac in Kenya, we had a round of befitting sundowners and magical dinners out in the bush. I am also quite certain that I got married to a Maasai warrior during a dance I got swept up in at around 10:00pm around a bonfire. If all else fails, I will be returning to Cottar’s to find him.