We were all feeling exhausted but exhilarated… to be expected after a couple of weeks of travel in an exciting place like Morocco. “Sensory overload” is the best way to describe it – it’s a journey of exotic sights, unusual sounds, intriguing smells and emotional highs. Every day is magic, and it leaves you wanting more. Yes, you can get a little greedy in Morocco! We are on an 18-day all-girls trip to this magical country, and everywhere we go, our guide, Adil, is the envy of every man we meet – policemen, rug salesmen, waiters. “They are my wives,” Adil jokes in his thick Moroccan accent. It is fun to be a female tourist here: A bit of flirting never goes astray when trying to get the price of a carpet down! And every time we walk into a spice shop, mint tea is served and we are entertained for a good hour smelling spices, having our temples massaged with orange flower oil, and our wrists dabbed with sweet smelling oils. Now, we wouldn’t get that at home! Aside from meeting the wonderfully generous Moroccans, riding camels into the Sahara is one of the many highlights. With the sun setting on the horizon, we saunter on camelback to our desert camp for the night; the colour of the huge dunes changes from orange to rose. The silence and vast nothingness of the desert clears the mind and is good for the soul. On arrival at camp, we relax with…

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Experience the wild side of Africa and let the Mara mystify with her
untamed beauty. Kate Webster takes you into the wild, from dawn to dusk in
one of Africa’s most iconic playgrounds.

As dawn breaks, there was a stirring happening. The air was cool, but charged with an electricity that cuts through the static and leaves you feeling on edge. The smell of the bush danced on the air, a sweet mix of florals, rustic earthy scents and petrichor from the morning dew.

The sun’s golden glow blanketed the plains, its warmth still developing with each minute that passed. The sound of morning birds filled the air in a symphony of calls. There was movement on the horizon. It was my first visit to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Affectionally known as the Mara, it is a large game reserve in Narok County, which continues to the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region, Tanzania.

The Maasai Mara was named in honour of the ancestral inhabitants of the area, the Maasai people. They described the area when looked at from afar, “Mara”, which is Maa (Maasai language) for “spotted,” an apt description for the circles of trees, scrub, savanna, and cloud shadows that mark the area.

Covering some 1,510 km2, the Maasai Mara stretches for as far as the eye can see. Even then, it is only a fraction of the Greater Mara ecosystem, which covers some 25,000 km2 and includes the following Group Ranches: Koiyaki, Lemek, Ol Chorro Oirowua, Olkinyei, Siana, Maji Moto, Naikara, Ol Derkesi, Kerinkani, Oloirien, and Kimintet.

If I were a vulture circling and looking across the land, I would see the Serengeti Park to the south, the Siria escarpment to the west, and Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west. I would see the Sand, Talek River and Mara River all sustaining the reserve with fringing shrubs and trees.

The day earlier, I boarded a small Air Kenya DeHavilland Twin Otter 300 plane at Wilson Airport in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi and flew east for about two hours to land at Olkiombo Airstrip. Due to the size of the plane, luggage allowance was limited to a soft bag weighing no more than 15kg.
The flight was where the excitement started, cruising over the countryside speckled with townships and farms and expanses of terrain that was just empty. Not for the uneasy flyer, the flight took a few pitstops along the way, each time landing on a dirt runway, which seemed in the middle of nowhere.

With the dying light, it was straight from Olkiombo Airstrip to my accommodation, Mara Expedition Camp. Mara Expedition Camp sits on a small bend in the Ntiakitiak River, where a thick riverine forest meets the unending savannah in the north-central section of the Maasai Mara.

A small camp with just five tents accommodating up to ten guests, the intimacy of this camp is a main drawcard. There was a real feel of authenticity here with an air of yesteryear in the design, which draws stylistic reference from the old, authentic expedition camps of the colonial era.

Constructed in the spirit of mobility and non-permanence out of deference to the wilderness, which surrounds it, the camp is tented safari style. However, these tents are far from those you buy at your local camping store. The tastefully appointed tents take glamping off the scale, and you hardly feel like it is a tented camp. Set at ground level and shaded by the forest canopy, the tents forego fancy amenities, but still leave you wanting for nothing.
The oversized bed sat centre of the main room and gave a view out to the bush. A separate bathroom included an antique camp shower that pulls from a brass bucket, adding to the overall experience. The tent was decorated with an eclectic yet co-ordinated assembly of what early explorers may have carried with them – brass chandeliers, old Indian campaign chests, rich leather and hardwood furniture – combined with rich textiles and soft cottons.

Into the wild
Waking before the sun, I was ready to embark on my first game drive of my stay. It was late October and still relatively cold in the mornings. Armed with an artillery of cameras and lenses, freshly brewed coffee and a traditional Maasai shuka cloth that is affectionately known as the “African blanket” to keep me warm.

There was just myself and JP, the game ranger, in the open-air vehicle as we bounced off into the breaking dawn.
It didn’t take me long to grasp that this is a place of learning, where Africa teaches lessons that will change the way you view the world in one of the most incredible classrooms on the planet – the incomparable Maasai Mara. A place where lions and other big cats own the night; a place where hippos stake claim to vast territories; a place where we submit to the supreme power of wild Africa and take our lead from Mother Nature.

The golden glow of the sky faded as the sun rose higher in the sky and the slight stirring of wildlife during the breaking dawn became more active. There seemed to be a sense of urgency to start the day. Just a few kilometres out from the camp and that supreme power of the wild was upon me.

Giraffes walked gracefully across the plains, curiously stopping every so often to glance around and survey the area. Grand majestic elephants paraded slowly past, the younger elephants trailing playfully behind. Wild dogs called in the distance, an excited chatter like that of children running off to play.

Herds of wildebeest congregated as if attending a morning board meeting. Mixed with them were dazzles of zebra and I am told these are the stragglers that did not venture on the great migration. Described as the greatest show on Earth, the Great Migration is an overwhelming, humbling and quite simply amazing wildlife experience.
Every year, millions of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles combined gather on the vast plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to begin their race towards greener grazing lands. Following the rains, they head north towards the Maasai Mara before about-turning and dashing south again. It’s a sprint for survival, covering a total of over 1,800 miles, and the journey is incredibly tough, where only the strong survive.

Survival is a battle that is played out daily in the Mara, and from the serene start to my morning, I was about to be quickly awoken by such a battle.

Wilderness Africa

A lioness crouched in the long grass, her body twitched in anticipation. Although her stare was fixed on the target, she was aware of everything that was going on around her. The gazelle unfortunately was not, otherwise it would have realised what immediate danger it was in and the fate that lay ahead. It had been only minutes that I had been watching the lioness’s stealth, but it felt like hours, and the anticipation numbed my body. I had to remind myself to breathe.

Also Read: Kalahari – A Place of Healing

A lighting burst from the lioness began the hunt as she erupted from the silence of her camouflage, the attack was on. The gazelle realised all too late. In the distance I saw a flurry of movement in the scrub and grass, the impala’s hind leg jutted into the air and the tumble of these two animals in this wrestle for life stirred up dust and debris that floated gently in the air above the chaos that unravelled below.

As we drove closer to the kill, an overwhelming sense of emotions engulfed me. The initial scene of tragedy turned to one of hope as the lioness was soon joined by her small family, with more of the pride arriving to feast on the meal. It then becomes clear to me the meaning behind ‘the circle of life’, the loss of one animal’s life in order for another animal to live.

This circle is the essence of Africa. It’s what keeps the continent’s heart beating; it’s what keeps it alive. A beat that is rooted deep in the soil that supplies life to the age-old Baobab trees; a beat that echoes beyond the vast plains that feed such amazing and unique animals; a beat that lives on in the souls of those who live there and a beat that will always remain in my heart after my first visit to the Maasai Mara.

As my day came to an end, I revelled in the most memorable African sunset. The yellow-orange-red and violet hues of sunset was intense, yet offered a calming warmth. Like a great big romantic fire in the sky, the sun dipped behind the horizon as if an orchestral symphony was quieting down. The sun’s rays waved goodbye like an old friend, but you know you will see them again.

In 2016, the 13 hectare large garden also opened to the public with a 2500-sqm art gallery called Art Space. Well-known French photographer Gerard Rancinan opened the new gallery with photos 9 by 15 metres large.

Later four street art artists, Jonone, Tilt, Fenx and Cedric Crespel, had a much praised exhibition and recently Russian artist Yuri Averin showed his art. It’s an odd feeling to go by car from Marrakech and leave the bustling city behind.

After about 15 km driving past nothing except a few odd houses, the driver turns right, being surrounded by a dry wasteland with the occasional goat passing by. But suddenly, something green and lush in the flat landscape. And even before we enter the huge green area, you see walls covered with street art.

Inside the gates, famous German street art artist Hendrik Beikirch aka ECB has a Morrocan man on a large wal. A face created when ECB was invited guest at Jardin Rouge. “In that way, I want to transform people I met and talked to here from anonymous to iconic. And to talk about their professions probably disappearing soon”, says ECB. His giant portraits are shown in many places around the world, among them are the United States, Italy and Germany.

One is still here, the man who never left his village, not even for Marrakech. The 22 paintings have recently been published in a book “Trades – Tracing Morocco”. At Jardin Rouge, we talk with communication manager Elise Lavigne, curator Estelle Guilié and others working at the impressive art centre and we shake hands with Jean-Louis; founder and builder of Jardin Rouge.

Politely but firmly he declines publicity. He wants to remain anonymous and refers to his foundation, Montresso. A foundation created to fund the large construction site and develop it as an ambitious part of Marrakech as an international art centre. Montresso is linked to the ambitious Marrakech Biennale. Created by Vanessa Branson, the Biennale attract artists, collectors, journalists and art lovers from all over the world for three months.
The creator of Jardin Rouge – the name Jardin Rouge is simply the property name – has designed and created the huge area himself. Jean-Louis has a Russian wife and does business with Russia.

A couple of the invited street art artists at Jardin Rouge are from Russia, such as SY / Vitaly Tsarenkov, Vitaly Rusakov and Denis Tevekov. The French founder discovered his interest in art and artists early in life, and began collecting art in the early 1980s. In 1981 he started the Montresso Foundation.

Forty years ago, he started coming to Marrakech regularly, but it was not until 2007 that the construction of Jardin Rouge began. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a riad, a home for himself with extra spaces for artists the founder invited. But here the creator’s interest in publicity ends. He refers everything else to curator Estelle Guilié, handpicked for the job in 2014. She built a new organisation, where specially invited street art artists could stay and live in the area for shorter or longer periods.

Those invited present an idea they want to carry out, a project with something they had long wanted to try. “In this way, we also create a relation and cooperation going beyond what is happening here. We are in the background, and help “our” artists with projects unrelated to Jardin Rouge. All artists who stay here leave a piece of art for us before they leave,” says Estelle Guilie.

As the creator is is French, there is a larger focus on French artists and French cultural life. A few Germans, Americans and Russians, however, have been invited. Recently, Jardin Rouge has also turned its attention on Africa. “Right now our focus is on inviting African artists from both Morocco and other African countries. We already have a few we have talked to”, says Elise Lavigne, showing us around Jardin Rouge.

One artist with roots in Africa now staying at Jardin Rouge is Kouka Ntadi from the Congo. He is here with his Bantus, African pictures painted on walls or on rough planks.
Lately, Kouka has become known all around the world. “My images would not work on normal canvas. They would be too flat and uninteresting”, says Kouka. In the beginning, he used postcards from Africa, which he interpreted and painted on planks in his home country Congo.

“There is no graffiti, no spray bottles, not even any walls to paint on in Congo. I wanted to do something in the streets that people would recognise. After all, when you look at it, in Europe it is almost only other graffiti artists who understand graffiti”, says Kouka Ntadi.

During his travels, he painted the entire world’s descendants, everybody had a relation with the figures he painted on the street. “It was in Latin America I received the first strong reactions. People recognised the costumes and badges and told me how I painted their descendants.

“Remarkably, the Congo is the only country where I had problems with my paintings. For the Congolese the pictures are violent and remind them of their roots and the colonisation”, he says. In 2017, Jardin Rouge, or actually Montresso foundation, reached beyond the beautiful garden by arranging a big exhibition in Rabat with Kouka Ntadi and French-Tunisian photographer Wahib Chehata. Three street art artists, Hendrik Beikirch, Tarek Benaoum and AbeilOne painted murals on different walls in Rabat.

In the room next to Kouka Ntadi French street art artist RESO aka Cedric Lascours is working. Right now, he is reusing old jute bags, on which he spray paints. He also paints on compressed garbage found in Marrakech.
“Working with so much time as I do here is unusual. The difference is I use more time for preparation, finding the right bag and putting it up. For spray painting, I work as I did on the streets. Painting with spray is totally different from oil painting. You don´t need to wait for it to dry for months, it´s dry in a few minutes. It is the world’s most beautiful vandalism”, he laughs.

His neighbour, French graffiti artist POES paints the eight deadly sins. “I was painting the seven deadly sins, but found out they actually are eight. I started with the forgotten one, which translates as Unusable Glory. It´s all is about the total ego of our era, our ever-growing narcissism.

I’m starting of course with me, there are no bigger egos than street-art artists”, he laughs. Poes believes there are many myths surrounding graffiti. “Being illegal almost everywhere makes it revolutionary. You can be arrested and fined for what you have done.

“But for me, it has always been an ego thing, making sure many people will see my art. And I think that´s true for most graffiti artists”, he says. Suddenly he gets up. “We’ll create a wall together, all of us who are here now. Fun, it’ll be like going back to how it was when I started”.

Well, maybe not quite. The long wall built outside mainly has a practical function. When the snow melts in the Atlas Mountains, great masses of water wash down and threaten Jardin Rouge.
The founder, Jean-Louis, has built a long wall around his property. A wall that of course has to be spray-painted by the invited artists. We meet WoW123 aka Markus Genesius from Bremen, Germany. In his projects, he works partly with the test images from TV’s childhood.

Test images tell you there will be no more transmissions. “Today everything has changed. There is no limit to what you can see or be entertained by 24/7. When I show the test image pictures, I get all kinds of reactions. From those recognising what the image meant to young people who have never seen it. But it is always interesting discussions”, he says.

We talk with Wow123 what it’s like coming from a world that was illegal and being an “artist” at Jardin Rouge. “I’m more a mural artist than graffiti. Sure, I’ve also made my spray painting and tags, paid my fine or done community service.

But I’ve worked with many large murals since the late 1980s. It gave me more kicks working with others on large walls. The first I did in 1994”, he says.

Like many other street art artists, WoW123 travels a lot to inspire and to be inspired. “Last year, I was on the road more than 100 days with exhibitions, projects, or just to meet interesting artists. I see it as an evolution, graffiti and street art has developed in different directions that is very exciting. But it is not enough to stop illegal graffiti, it will exist as long as there is a need to express something”, he says.

Other street art artists who stayed and worked at Jardin Rouge are MadC, Ceet, Cedrix Crespel, Tilt, Fenx, Neurone, 310, Kashink, Goodog, Tats Cru and Jober.

Now Jardin Rouge wants to become more outgoing. Art collectors, curators and journalists are now invited to stay at Jardin Rouge. In addition, each guest artist is represented in a small book. “We will soon be involved in eight different projects both in Morocco and elsewhere. We will also have more people working with us”, says Elise Lavigne.

This article was written by Urban Nilmander | Photos: Carin Tegner