When Sir Richard Branson came to Kenya in 2003, hoping to create a place for others to come and see the wonders of the continent he loves so famously, he knew he needed someone who really had a lay of the land.
Leena Gehlot’s family has been involved in the luxury safari industry almost as long as she can remember. In the early nineties a gentleman named Peter Frank approached Leena’s father, a real estate developer, with an intriguing investment proposal. Peter, who’d built a highly successful career as a Hilton Hotelier, wanted to create a safari camp in the African bush—but make it a truly luxury experience. While the “luxury safari” concept is far from revelatory these days, back then it was relatively unheard of. Now, nearly 25 years after Finch Hattons—nestled at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park—was founded in 1992, the camp is still the gold standard in eco-friendly luxury safaris.
The Gehlots actually have a significant history in Kenya, and their heritage in the country stretches back four generations, to when her great-grandfather journeyed from India to work on the railroad. Decades later, her grandfather made a name for himself in Kenya by building roads, and to this day Finch Hattons employs residents of a nearby town named after him.
Still, Leena had absolutely never planned to stay in the family business. And yet, after venturing off to go to school and then work in the UK, she surprised even herself. “I graduated in law, but I found corporate life too stagnant,” she says, “so I kind of went into different fields, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and then somehow I kind of came full circle. I thought because my family was in construction and real estate I definitely didn’t want to do that, but I did everything else and realized my passion was actually just there.”
As Finch Hattons was nearing the end of its second decade, Peter and his wife were ready to retire, and Leena and her brother decided to take over the camp’s operations. “We had a history,” Leena says, “and we had a great brand, but we wanted to take what was luxury in 1992 and make it boutique luxury for 2015.”
This involved an intensive two-year renovation, which included cutting down the number of luxury tents from thirty to seventeen, while rebuilding or renovating the remaining structures. Finch Hattons got a full makeover, from the pools to the spa to the opulent culinary menu and the plush stargazing terrace—all while making the camp’s environmental footprint even more negligible than it had been to begin with. When the camp reopened in 2014, it was reaffirmed as Africa’s Leading Safari Lodge by the World Travel Awards. It’s no wonder then, that when looking into opening a safari lodge, Finch Hattons caught Richard Branson’s eye. So Leena, like her father two decades before, found herself with an intriguing business proposal. “I’ll be honest,” she says, “at the beginning I asked them, ‘Why does Branson need a partner for something like that?’ But ultimately he’s a smart guy and he knows what a local partner can bring to the table.”
They broke ground for Mahali Mzuri in 2007, but not before about five tenuous years of community negotiations. Because the Mahali Mzuri territory is not located in a national park, the camp doesn’t pay rent to a government organization, as Finch Hattons does. Instead, they created a conservancy, which Leena calls “a new type of tourism model.” The team negotiated with the local population to pay rent directly to the community living there, under the agreement that the locals won’t allow their cattle to graze on the land, which has been a serious issue of concern when it comes to sustainable habitats for the wildlife. The particular conservancy Mahali Mzuri inhabits is just north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where the Great Migration over the Serengeti—the seventh “New Wonder of the World”—happens every year from late June to mid-September. And because the boundaries of the Maasai Mara National Reserve were actually drawn over too small of an area years ago, the conservancies that border the reserve have become vital in enabling the wildlife to move through the land unhindered by civilization—while also enabling guests at Mahali Mzuri to see one of the world’s most breathtaking wildlife phenomenon.
Mahali Mzuri opened in 2013, with 12 airy luxury tents, a full service spa, an infinity pool overlooking the landscape, and an array of locally sourced dining experiences.
Leena, for her part, is looking forward to ultimately expanding her empire, creating what she describes as a “boutique safari circuit.” She has plans for two new Kenya properties—one tree house camp, and one at a beach location.
“A big of our culture is hospitality,” she says, “and anyone who comes to Kenya will tell you they just can’t believe how everyone just welcomes you into their homes and goes out of their way for you. So I think hospitality and looking after people to making sure everyone is happy in their environment is kind of an intrinsic instinct for us.”
Main image by Paul Biedrzycki.