by Michele Graham

When presented with the opportunity to preview Ishara, the newest luxury camp resort in the renowned Masai Mara National Reserve, my family and I jumped on it. Within weeks, we were on a direct flight to Nairobi, then shuttled into open-air Land Cruisers. As first-time safari-goers who had heard about the luxury at this pre-launch property, we weren’t sure what we’d find. As it is, the “signs”—or “Ishara” in Swahili—bore fruit: we spent the week immersed in astounding luxury, enjoying a largely private viewing of lions, leopards, cheetahs, hippos, buffalo, elephant, giraffes, and zebras.  

The modern luxury safari experience

Photo Courtesy of Ishara

If we came looking for the spirit of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford from Out of Africa, those expectations turned to dust — to our delight and benefit. Instead of Hollywood tropes about native people, we interacted with empowered Maasai guides and managers. Instead of colonial furnishings, we found ultra-chic decor drawing from local artisanal handcrafts. Our spacious tents were decidedly private — and yet opened onto panoramic views of the Talek River and its resident hippos and giraffes. We indulged in world-class cuisine, featuring locally and sustainably grown vegetables. We bathed under the stars in deep copper tubs brimming with bubbles. And then there were our sunrise and sunset drives.

 

Photo Courtesy of Ishara

Our mornings began at 5:45 with mugs of hot coffee and buttery baked treats. Fleece-lined rain ponchos and hot water bottles kept us cozy while we rode in darkness. In minutes, the rising sun set the Balanite trees ablaze, creating a photogenic vista dotted with hot air balloons. On the ground? Lions, lazily stretched out on the savannah grass, playing with seemingly dozens of cubs, or stepping majestically into our picture frames. As this was a preview, there were just five of us as guests (the resort sleeps 34) – my husband and I, our two adult daughters, and a dear friend. And with Ishara’s location right in the heart of the Mara, we were largely alone with our guide and the cats, gazelles, and elephants in these early morning hour.

Ishara is the brainchild of Azhar Madhani, a 27-year-old visionary who turned his love for this land and its people into a place that would attract visitors from across the globe and provide a means to economically sustain the local Maasai (the Madhanis lease the land from a Maasai family). Azhar’s keen attention is manifested everywhere in and around Ishara, including the Land Cruisers. Custom-designed, they are the envy of the Mara for their unencumbered 270-degree views, plush leather cushioned seats, outlets, storage, and built-in refreshment consoles – even a Nespresso machine for freshly brewed cappuccinos in the wild. Having driven throughout the Mara for many years, Azhar personally vets and trains all of the local guides on navigating the rugged terrain. And when visitors want the ultimate in vantage points, the seats in Ishara’s vehicles can be taken out so that novice and professional photographers alike can train their lens on the animals, at eye level. It’s a thrilling, unique experience that reflects the thoughtfulness that goes into every aspect of Ishara.

 

Intentionally sustainable, exceptionally thoughtful 

Photo Courtesy of Ishara

Azhar designed Ishara to be more than another safari camp; he wanted a place that would honor and respect the pristine landscape. Eco-consciousness runs through Ishara – from the solar energy farm, to the aeroponic “shambas” where vegetables and herbs are grown, to the harvested rainwater and closed-loop waste processing. Azhar’s passion, and that of his family – who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with him in the design, building, and execution of Ishara – is palpable and contagious. The signature manmade waterhole that marks the entrance to Ishara is just one example of the family’s bold vision: it provides sustenance to the wildlife, attracting nearly every animal, especially during the dry season. We were treated to the sight of hippos, zebras, and giraffes sharing the cool water in harmony.

Being right in the middle of the Mara also means less time driving to view animals. Compared to resorts that are near the Mara, being in the Mara meant that for most drives we saved at least an hour to reach our destination, leaving plenty of time to partake of Ishara’s facilities. There’s the Observation Deck high in the treetops, perfect for sundowners. The refreshing pool with glittering tiles evocative of Maasai jewelry. The lux gym and blissful yoga deck. And while Ishara was still in set-up mode (getting ready for visiting European royalty who would arrive just 5 days after us), we also got a peek at the indulgent spa and the Starbed, which promises an experience like no other amidst the tree canopy. 

Photo Courtesy of Ishara

While all of this had us feeling both pampered and at one with the land, it’s the photography studio that is Ishara’s crowning jewel. The Mara’s first official Canon Brand Experience Centre, guests can avail themselves of complimentary use of professional Canon cameras and lenses; use their downtime for previewing, editing, and printing photos; and have the resident pro come along on drives for the ultimate in safari photography experiences and guidance.

 

 

The signs of happiness

As we packed up to leave Ishara, we reflected on this indulgent miracle in the midst of so much untamed and pristine land. We left with pictures that still amaze us; friendships forged with people who took thoughtful care of us; immense appreciation for the wildlife and what it takes to survive; and gratitude to the vision that protects the native ecosystem and culture. At Ishara, the signs of wonder and awe were everywhere around us. Now the world can experience it.

Photos Courtesy of Ishara