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Africa's Best Safari Guides: Follow the Leaders

Kurt Markus

Photo: Kurt Markus

Calvin Cottar
Take White Hunters from the bookcase in the lounge of Cottar's 1920's Camp, and open it to the chapter "Trailblazers of the Twenties." There you'll find a photo of a hunting party, among whom is Calvin Cottar's grandfather Mike. The hat he is wearing now sits on top of the bookcase. The Cottar clan is referred to in the book as the First Family of the safari business. If you want to track the safari bloodline, you go to Cottar's.

Charles Cottar was not British, but an American inspired by Teddy Roosevelt's hunting exploits. He moved to Kenya in 1911 and established Cottar's Safari Service in 1919. A pioneering wildlife cinematographer, he was killed while filming rhinos. The Cottars were among the first to import safari cars to Kenya, and Calvin's father, Glen, established the first fixed camps in the country. Calvin himself, now 38, is said to be one of the models for the safari-god love interest in Francesca Marciano's Rules of the Wild, a 1999 roman à clef about Nairobi's expat scene.

Today, Cottar's camp is situated on the lower slopes of a heavily forested hillside, overlooking the green-blond Masai Mara plains and Tanzania's Serengeti beyond. It's such a classic vista that you expect the title Out of Africa to scroll across it.

"My father hunted here, and I used to ride in the back of the vehicle," says Calvin, piloting his Land Cruiser through a creek bed.

When his father passed away, in 1996, Calvin set up shop on 250,000 acres held by a community of 3,000 Masai on the fringes of the game reserve. He scoured the family storerooms for the furnishings that give Cottar's its Finch-Hatton feel. Victrolas, silver flasks, ostrich feathers and eggs, tapestry cushions, and North African rugs are strewed about the common areas and half-dozen guest tents. At Cottar's, tea is poured from silver into china by a waiter kitted out in a crimson fez and vest over a kanzu, a full-length Swahili tunic. The guest suites are composed of two adjoining white canvas tents—one for sleeping, one for sitting. Lit with candles and lanterns, the camp glows from within, becoming ever more magically luminous as night falls.

"I'd be happy with a little green pup tent," says Calvin, who suspects that his father would have been a bit suspicious of all the "frills." (It's safe to assume the hard-hunting Cottars never envisioned a camp masseuse.)

Calvin admits he'd rather still be hunting ("Best days of my life"), but that practice was outlawed in Kenya in 1977. Now he goes walking in the bush with his tracker, Nyami, who is able to reconstruct the drama of an unsuccessful leopard hunt simply from broken twigs and scratches in the dirt.

Calvin recognizes that recalling the glory days of the white tribe might raise a few eyebrows: "People ask whether staff members mind wearing uniforms from the colonial past. No—they realize it's theater."

But the trappings aren't all that Cottar aims to maintain. Calvin has two sons and a daughter, and he knows that as bush skills become less and less a part of modern life, his children will be well positioned to be successful safari operators. "I want the wildlife and the natural Masai to be here in twenty years." This is his way of guaranteeing it.

WHERE: Cottar's 1920's Camp, Kenya
YEARS IN THE BUSH: 37
FAVORITE ANIMAL: "The Bateleur eagle; it surveys everything."
MOTTO: "We're just doing what we do."

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