Aris Grammaticas

A pioneer of tourism in East Africa

Aris Grammaticas

Aris is a legend in the safari business, a pioneer of the Kenyan tourist industry, having founded Governors Camp on the banks of the Mara River in 1979, one of the very first luxury safari camps in Kenya. This was soon followed by Little Governors close by, and then the extended Governors Group of Governors' Il Moran Camp, Governors’ Balloon Safaris, Loldia House on Lake Naivasha, Mfangano Island Camp on Lake Victoria and Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in North West Rwanda.

So many of us in the African tourism industry owe so much to Aris..(ATTA)


Governors’ Camp Collection was started over 40 years ago by Aris and Romi Grammaticas. Governors’ Camp was Africa’s first Luxury permanent tented camp and has been a pioneer in classic safaris enabling guests to live the full safari experience – sleeping under canvas while being fully immersed in the wild. From kayaking amongst the hippos along the Mara river in the early days to opening six lodes in Kenya and Rwanda it’s been an incredible journey…

Aris’ father arrived in East Africa in the pioneering days of 1912 as an engineer to build the railway inland from the coast of Tanganyika. Sepia photographs of these adventuring days show him in an immaculate pale linen suit, with high collar, pith helmet and a Labrador at his feet. These were heady exciting times and Aris, the youngest in a large family was born into the spirit of Africa.

Throughout his childhood, Aris explored the wild untamed areas of East Africa with young friends, on foot and in the old family ‘jalopy’. This brought him face to face with the extraordinary spectacle of wildlife in a vista of huge horizons, and the day to day dramas of the African bush. Aris met Romi in the mid-1960s when they were both in their 20s. They would borrow a VW beetle, pack up a tent, bedding and a frying pan and go off to explore. They loved to go to the untamed Masai Mara.

The idea grew of offering to others the magical experience of staying in the bush, under canvas, which had until then only been available to the very rich and the likes of Ernest Hemingway, with tailor made mobile camps transported from site to site by innumerable porters and staff.

In the 1970’s Aris saw the opportunity to open this prolific game region to a wider audience. A small lodge had been opened in the distant eastern part of the Mara but the remainder was untouched. They explored the northern part of the Masai Mara and found that there was a camping area that had been reserved as the “getaway” for the colonial Governors of Kenya, being in the prime spot on the edge of the Musiara Swamp. With the help of Bill Ntimama, a Narok Masai farmer, and with Nick Stobbs as a partner, a lease was obtained over this part of the Mara, with exclusive rights over a large surrounding area. With no prior experience in the hotel business or preconceived ideas, the concept was created of a camp with all the atmosphere of a traditional tented camp, bringing the sensations of the bush into close focus. This was an entirely new concept and Governors’ Camp was the first permanent tented camp in Africa.

Trips to the area to start the building were exciting, being made each weekend in a saloon car over long stretches of dusty corrugated roads, setting up a primitive camp and directing a team to clear a small area for the first tent. Each weekend they would go and a new tent clearing was made in the dense forest.

There were many challenges. On one occasion Aris arrived late at night to be greeted by frightened workers creeping out of the bushes. He was told that there had been a “battle” right there between Masai herdsmen and Kipsiigis cattle rustlers, and sure enough in the river there was a body in a greatcoat face down with a spear in his back. It was a wild area.

Wild in other ways too. Adjoining the Reserve was a hunting area and it appeared that some hunting had also taken place within, since the animals were all very wary and would not come within 200 yards. It took time for trust to be established which seems hard to understand now that all game is so relaxed.

Governors’ Camp opened in January 1972, but not until Aris had attracted a lot of attention in his typically innovative way. Everyone knew that we were opening a permanent tented camp and this had caused some excitement. Anyone who called for a booking was told that the new camp was “full”. The buzz went around that this must be something very special. Eventually the floodgates were opened and the camp was instantly fully booked. He believed that all should experience the thrill of a camp integrated in the untamed wilds of the Mara.

Aris met Robin and Nancy Camm and there was an instant connection. This became a great relationship, and Robin and Nancy, the bedrock of Governors’. Robin was fun with his dry humour and his wealth of stories, and Nancy was the workhorse behind him. Robin initiated the crazy river trips floating down the river with just a paddle to scare off marauding hippo, and Robin had daily battles with the dreaded “Borealis” who would charge open-mouthed and usually dived under the boat at the last moment. Clients loved the magic of silently floating down the river with surprised animals on the banks, and the adrenaline rush of the hippo charges. Legal advisors eventually put an end to this madness but it was fun while it lasted.

The business grew and more camps were added, first Little Governors’ across the river, then Paradise which morphed into Il Moran. In the years to come Governors’ took over management of Loldia House on Loldia Ranch on Lake Naivasha. In 2008 we developed the idea for a community owned lodge in Rwanda and Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was born, a lodge that has pioneered the concept of community owned tourism and has delivered real and lasting benefits to its community neighbours, whilst at the same time as offering a gateway for our guests to explore this wild area of Rwanda and see the Mountain Gorillas.

Dominic, Justin and Damian and later Ariana grew up with frequent visits to the Mara and total involvement with Governors’ development. All the boys worked at Governors’ during their long holidays and Gap Years, understood the workings of the business and grew to love it. In 1999 Justin joined the company with expertise in Sales and Marketing, and Governors’ started to become a truly ‘family run’ company.

Aris was an ideas man, who loved a challenge and the thrill of something new. He developed vital close relationships and understanding with the local people. In late 1999, Dominic, married with one small son, wanted to return to Kenya and become part of the business, bringing his much-needed business acumen into a rather chaotic but passionate company. Reason and sanity prevailed, and the combination of a deep love of the company and all that it stood for, and sound business sense brought the business into line.

In 2007 Ariana came to join the company to add the expertise she had gained working in England for a top tour company, and setting up the vital digital marketing for Governors’. Now a father and three siblings were working together to create and continue something special.

In 2010 Aris decided to take a back seat – for him a major decision, and Dominic took over the reins as MD. In October 2011 Aris died of leukaemia after a year of ill-health and treatment.

With Dominic and Justin at the helm, and a slew of characters who are steadfastly a part of the family, Governors’ remains a family business at its core, still providing immersive and transformational safaris, in pristine, wildlife areas of Kenya and Rwanda.

Tented camps have now become the most popular way in which to experience the excitement of staying in the African bush, and Aris was very proud to have pioneered this type of safari experience. It has been much copied over the the years but the family take pride in the fact that Governors’ Camp continues, some forty plus years later to feature amongst the top hotels of the world .

In 2016 Governors Camp Collection entered into a strategic partnership with one of Southern Africa’s premier Safari Operators, Wilderness Safaris. This marks a very exciting time for The Governors’ Camp Collection and we look forward to what the future will hold.

Courtesy: Governors Camps website

The colourful history of Governors Camps - June 2020

Watch this video introduced by Dr. Romi Grammaticas, co-founder of Governors' Camp Collection (and Ari's wife) that takes us back to the early days of camping in the wild and remote locations that are now our award-winning properties perched on the banks of the Mara River.

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