With over 100 years in the business, Cottar’s Safaris offers luxury safaris in Kenya, conserving the land and wildlife while supporting the local community
Cottar’s Safaris is the oldest established family-run safari company in Africa. Its story began in the early 20th century, when Charles Cottar, inspired by the tales of President Theodore Roosevelt’s East African experiences, set out from Oklahoma to Kenya in pursuit of his own adventure. He did not look back, and by 1909 he was settled there, with his family joining him a few years later.
By 1919, Charles, known as Chas, had realised his dream and together with his sons Mike, Bud and Ted had successfully set up Cottar’s Safari Services, the first African safari company to use vehicles shipped over from the US. Over the years, Chas survived many animal attacks from elephant, buffalo and leopard, but eventually succumbed to a charging rhino in 1939, aged 66.
“All aspects of our properties reflect the history, culture and sensibilities of their destinations”
His sons continued to grow and evolve the family business, welcoming guests from all over the world, including the Duke and Duchess of York, who would later become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Mike’s son Glen and his wife Pat were pioneers in photographic safaris, establishing the first tented camp solely for this venture in the 1960s in Tsavo National Park, with two further camps in the 1970s and ’80s.
Today, Cottar’s Safari Services is owned and managed by Calvin – fifth generation of the Cottar’s family – and his business partner, Louise Cottar. Together, in the mid-1990s, they founded the luxurious and multi-award-winning Cottar’s 1920s Camp in the private Olderkesi Conservancy, near the Maasai Mara reserve. They also built the Cottar’s Private Bush Villa, in 2013. Calvin and Louise hope that their children will continue the Cottar’s family legacy, providing quality safari experiences and important conservation work.
With accolades including three nominations in the 2022 World Travel Awards, Cottar’s Safaris offers an incomparable safari experience, where conservation and supporting the local Maasai community is paramount to the company’s core business values. “We are on community land, so we work hard towards helping to support this community,” says Louise. The majority of the guides are Maasai, whose knowledge of the land is unparalleled, which ensures guests have an authentic and rewarding stay. Guests are invited, and encouraged, to visit local villages and experience the traditional Maasai way of life, while Cottar’s Safaris makes sure that its guests are respectful of their culture and traditions. Photographs, for example, are only allowed to be taken with their permission, as many Maasai believe they steal a person’s spirit.
The Cottar’s Safaris experience includes, but goes well beyond, traditional safari game drives. It also offers fascinating “impact activities” that are designed to show a different side of being on safari while having a positive effect on the unique biodiversity of the Maasai Mara and the local community. One such activity includes tracking and identifying vulture nest sites with the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust. Half of the Mara vulture population has been decimated by poisoning, so this activity helps to raise awareness and offers an opportunity to “see a vulture up close, which is truly phenomenal”. Other impact experiences include walking with Letilet, Cottar’s Safaris in-house Maasai medicine man to learn the medicinal properties of the flora surrounding the camp. Any foraged food is included in the evening meal – a unique forage to fork experience.
“As a family-run business with conservation at its heart, it is important for us to encourage children to learn the value of community, wildlife and conservation,” explains Louise. With this in mind, Cottar’s Safaris has developed a “Budding Conservation” experience for children, which offers hands-on activities, such as joining the female conservation rangers on their daily patrol as they de-snare and count game. There is also a Maasai Warrior School where both children and adults can learn traditional Maasai skills.
“Being part of a small, family-run business, we can lead the way,” says Louise. “We can adapt and shape things in a more personalised and bespoke manner. Cottar’s Safaris is the antithesis of mass tourism; we provide a low-impact, low-volume, high-value sustainable luxury travel experience.” While taking this modern approach towards sustainable travel, the company never loses sight of its heritage. Its vintage Rolls-Royce, which now has a Land Cruiser engine, is used for game drives and picnics, with the back of the car uniquely converting into a gin bar so guests can enjoy a sundowner among the most picturesque African scenery imaginable.
Guest numbers are limited, and whether enjoying a luxury safari in the Cottar’s 1920s Camp or at Cottar’s Private Bush Villa (winner of best Private Villa in Africa at the World Travel Awards), every person staying with Cottar’s Safaris contributes to its sustainable practice. Cottar’s 1920s Camp is Certified Gold Standard with Ecotourism Kenya and is proud to be one of The Long Run’s ten Global Ecosphere Retreats in the world. Attaining this accreditation means “we have achieved the highest sustainability standards through the 4Cs of biodiversity: conservation, community development, cultural stewardship and commerce,” says Louise.
Cottar’s Wildlife Conservation Trust (CWCT) works with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to raise funds to preserve the Olderkesi Conservancy and provides investments in healthcare services and educational facilities for the local community. Projects include restoring areas damaged by cattle farming, and removing fences and other structures. The Olderkesi Conservancy is located next to the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti National Park. “We are in a key area that has one of the largest migratory movements in the world, so it is imperative that we support that.”
There are plans to triple the conservation area under Cottar’s Safaris stewardship. As Louise explains, “The lands will remain community lands and we aim to operate in a way that gives a proper financial return to the community and remains an outstanding experience for our guests.”