Family safari holidays

How five days in the Maasai Mara taught us unforgettable life lessons

Last updated 18th May 2024

You always imagine a Kenya safari holiday will be an incredible experience. But Kerene Barefield didn’t reckon with how life-changing it would really be, especially for her children.


Ava and Zachary, Kenya safari holiday

As I gaze at my two children, aged 5 and 9 watching in wonder at the pride of lions just a few feet away from them, I feel totally at peace.  Our Kenya safari holiday to the Maasai Mara in Kenya has turned out to be a life enhancing adventure which has inspired their young minds and given them an understanding of how important it is to look after our beautiful world.

Is five years old too young for a Kenya safari holiday?

It took us a while to decide whether our little girl was too young to go on safari: the days are long and much of them are spent riding in a jeep. However, after a lot of discussion, we decided not to pass up this opportunity. So, after several vaccinations and an eight hour day-flight from London, we found ourselves in Nairobi.


Great Plains taking care of everything on our Kenya safari holiday

Great Plains take care of everything from Nairobi onwards

We’d booked our trip with Great Plains, which is one of the leading ecotourism organisations, with 14 safari properties in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

The time difference between the UK and Kenya is just two hours in spring, so after a one-night stopover close to Nairobi airport, we were ready to depart for the bush and start our safari adventure.

It was also at this point that Great Plains started to deliver their superior service. Our dedicated and knowledgeable driver was sent to the hotel to help us navigate our way through Nairobi to the Safarilink plane. Then, with just seven of us on board, we departed for the Maasai Mara: both children transfixed as the city transformed into African plains and they spotted their first animals in the wild.

Although it was on landing at Olkiombo Airstrip – essentially a dirt track in the Mara – that our Great Plains experience really began.

We were met by our game driver, Clifford; I had no idea at this point would become such an important part of our trip or just how much the children would learn to trust and hang off his every word. I assumed we would be travelling to our camp to unpack, instead what transpired was a near two hour game drive in which we saw giraffe, warthog, baboon, ostrich and antelope, as well as three lions enjoying the sun under a shady bush. Zachary even got to inspect the remains of some hippopotamus bones, when Clifford stopped the jeep and told him to jump out.


Mara Exhibition Camp, Maasai Mara

Mara Exhibition Camp weaves magic into a Kenya safari holiday

We arrived at camp to a warm welcome from staff and just in time for lunch.

Mara Expedition Camp is a magical revisiting of the past, beautifully designed for those in search of a more romantic era, and completely solar powered.

Under the grove of African acacia trees, there are five light and airy, spacious canvas tents, plus one two-bedroom family tent: ours for the holiday.

Each tent has running hot water, a flushable toilet and is beautifully decorated with original artworks by owner Beverly Joubert  and completed by every comfort you’d expect to find in a luxury hotel.


Mara Exhibition Camp, Kenya safari holiday

Great plains pride themselves on creating personal experiences for every family

Great Plains pride themselves on providing a bespoke and personalised experience to all their guests, right down to there being no set menu for lunch, so the children were able to request what they wanted from the chef, and everything was freshly cooked to order.

By 4pm we were back out on a drive and this soon became our regular routine: a morning drive at 6am, followed by a sunset drive before dinner. And as we were only on safari for five days, this was definitely the way to make the most of every minute.

Not long after leaving the camp we were rewarded with a herd of elephants, which in all honesty was the first time I felt a tad nervous. Mothers and babies walked close by our Landcruiser and we just had to trust that Ava was old enough to be this close to such huge animals in the wild. However, when I saw how her eyes widened as the baby elephant used his trunk to pull up the grass, and the largest of the herd pulled the leaves from the closest bush, I knew we’d made the right decision. She was mesmerised.


Ava and Zachary, Mara Exhibition Camp

Great Plains Young Explorers introduces kids to wildlife, conservation and adventure

Great Plains also offer a Young Explorers programme at their camps, which features immersive, educational, and fun-filled activities for younger safari guests. The aim of the programme is to introduce them to the wonders of the bush at an impressionable age, and so ignite what will become a lifelong passion for wildlife, conservation and, of course, adventure.

Zachary and Ava were both given a Young Explorers backpack, which included a beautiful activity book, and each evening at dinner they would write down what they’d learned that day.


Up close cheetah encounter, Kenya safari holiday

Almost nothing about this Kenya safari holiday fazes our kids

I thought they might be scared at night, as it gets dark very quickly in the Maasai Mara, and once the sun goes down, the animals suddenly seem to become a lot more vocal. But truthfully, it seemed nothing was going to faze them. Plus, after such exciting days, they were both out like a light the minute their heads touched the pillow.

The Great Plains’ service exceeded my expectations again and again. Even at our requested wake up time of 5.30am, I would hear one of the staff slowly walking up to our tent by torchlight with morning tea and hot chocolate for the kids. Moreover, there would be a selection of snacks, cereals and muffins just in case we wanted something to eat before we left for our first game drive of the day. And with hot water bottles and blankets on each of our seats on our private jeep, we all felt extremely spoiled.

The chef also provided a selection of ‘bitings’ (with a personalised note) in case we felt peckish before it was time for his carefully packed hot breakfast, which we would eat out in the wild.


Unique swimming pool, Mara Exhibition Camp

Will we ever settle for ordinary breakfasts again after this Kenya safari holiday?

However, one morning our driver Clifford and the team surprised us even more with a private cooked breakfast in the bush.

Not much gets past me, but I was totally shocked. The chef and the team had driven out, set up a table and were cooking up a full English breakfast with champagne, pastries and a gorgeous fruit selection. It was at moments like these, I really had to pinch myself. The kids were running around with gazelles, antelope and zebra in the not too far distance, and I was sipping champagne as the sun came up.

We spent three nights at Mara Exhibition Camp, during which time we experienced what it was like to be up close to lions, cheetah, leopard, elephants, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles. The kids enjoyed splashing around in the camp’s unique pool – designed on the back of a WWII truck – and we were entertained by the singing chefs when we were invited to the interactive kitchen for dinner one evening. Naturally, we were sad to leave, although more adventure awaited us at Mara Plains.


Mara Plains Camp, Maasai Mara

Welcome to an extraordinary home-from-home at Mara Plains

Mara Plains, a Relais & Châteaux property, lies in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy which has the lowest vehicle density in the Maasai Mara. And we were so glad that our private guide, Clifford would be staying with us for our next two days Mara Plains. We’d only been in Kenya for three days but already he was part of so many memories for us; from being stuck out in a great storm which we thought was going to tip the Landcruiser to being stuck in mud and having to be towed out. Along with seeing the animals, these moments gave the children a really authentic African experience.

After being welcomed to Mara Plains, it wasn’t long before we had another pinch me moment. After crossing a wooden bridge with hippos sleeping beneath it, we arrived at The Mara Jahazi Suite. We assumed, when we first walked in, it was a beautiful communal space, but then we spotted our luggage and realised, this was our private lounge.


Mara Jazai Suite bedroom, Mara Plains

A luxurious suite with private pool and enough room for real hide-n-seek

Built entirely under canvas on raised, recycled railway sleeper decking, our two-bedroom suite with its own private pool was breathtaking. The children were so excited with their own room which included ensuite facilities complete with double basins, a huge indoor shower and a luxurious bath. Personalised notes waited on their beds and it wasn’t long before Zachary spotted the Canon Camera and lenses, his to use for the rest of our Kenya safari holiday. The interior design honoured East African history, with vibrant Maasai colours as well as beautiful artworks. And while we unpacked, the children played hide-n-seek and when they couldn’t find each other, it proved just how large this suite really was.

It was at this camp that we were lucky enough to meet owners and founders of Great Plains, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, wildlife documentarians who have made over 40 films for National Geographic, and conservationists who’ve created an environment that makes you feel like a welcome guest in their family home.


Great Plains game drive, Kenya safari holiday

A Kenya safari holiday teaches you lessons you won’t find in books

During our time at Mara Plains, the children were taught how to make their own bow and arrow, discovered that one of the hippos in the water surrounding the camp had given birth to a baby overnight, and also witnessed their first kill.

As we sat in our jeep watching a pride of lions tucking into a mother Zebra and her baby, I was worried that they would be saddened or frightened. Although we’d not seen the hunt, there was a lot of blood. However, what I actually saw was a glimpse of just how valuable being up close to the natural world was. Yes this can be taught in schools or by watching documentaries, but nothing compared to seeing something with your own eyes. This was the circle of life right there.


Ava on safari, Maasai Mara, Kenya

We left a little piece of our heart in the Maasai Mara, the perfect excuse to go back

As our Kenya safari holiday came to an end I began to look back over the past week, really soaking up the moments that would forever stay in our memories. It would be hard to think of another African safari, without booking through Great Plains: from the people, the bespoke service, the food, to the rooms, the private safari vehicles and knowledgeable guides, along with the overall attention to detail – I couldn’t fault anything.

As we sat on the Safarilink plane to return to Nairobi, I will never forget the tears falling from my son’s eyes. When I asked him what was wrong, he simply answered ‘I don’t want to leave’. And in those few words he expressed how we all felt.

This was the most incredible family adventure we had ever been on. My only regret being that I didn’t see a rhino. Although, on the other hand, that’s a good excuse for another Kenya safari holiday, because as the plane wheels touched the tarmac in London, I knew that we’d all left a little piece of our hearts in the Maasai Mara.

How to plan your Kenya safari holiday

How to get there

Direct UK flights to Nairobi from 8 hours, 35 minutes

Where to stay

Kerene and her family travelled with Great Plains. Find out more about their bespoke family safari holidays in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Find out more about Great Plains