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Mary re-visits Kenya

It is no secret that I love Kenya. Having previously spent time working in the Masai Mara, I have a deep affinity for the landscapes, the wonderful people and the incredible wildlife. Hence it was really no hardship to return to the lands I love so much to explore new areas and revisit old friends.

Whist the density and diversity of wildlife found in the Masai Mara will often make its’ inclusion on a Kenya safari a foregone conclusion, there is a lot more to see and do in Kenya.

In four short days I travelled through a variety of landscapes, stayed in a range of accommodations from the luxurious to the considerably more adventurous, had some up close and personal wildlife encounters and saw first-hand how tourism in Kenya is benefitting from livestock management and working in cooperation with local communities.

My first stop was the stunning Chyulu Hills, a short fifty minute flight from Nairobi and tucked between Tsavo East and Amboseli National Park. This was my first visit to this corner of Kenya and I was blown away by the immense landscapes and sense of solitude. As we flew above the clouds, we had great views of Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru peak but the summit was lost as we descended, not to be seen again for the rest of my stay as clouds stubbornly shrouded the upper slopes of the mountain. On clear days however Mount Kilimanjaro provides a stunning backdrop and guests staying at Ol Donyo Lodge get to enjoy mountain vistas from their suites (cloud covering allowing of course).

A stay at Ol Donyo is not about a big game experience. In fact, game concentrations are not high at all. Rather this is an ideal place in which to begin or end a stay, indulging in some relaxation or enjoying the variety of activities on offer. Here one can explore the rolling Green Hills of Africa (which inspired Ernest Hemingway to pen his book of the same name) and vast savannahs on foot, fat bikes or horseback (riders must be experienced and levels of competence are checked by the very strict equine manager!). The volcanic origins of the area fascinate geologists and when conditions allow it is possible to descend into the caverns of the hills and explore some of the longest lava tubes in the world.

It is also possible to meet with representatives of Big Life, an NGO set up by safari and conservation stalwart Richard Bonham. The philosophy of Big Life is that conservation supports the people and that people support conservation. By working in close collaboration with local communities, they have seen, since their inception, a significant reduction in poaching of all animals in their areas of operation. One of their most successful projects has been to incentivise the local Maasai to protect their livestock through improved fencing and husbandry practices. Nevertheless, cattle can still be can still be lost but villagers are now compensated a portion of the market value of the animal making the loss more tenable and more importantly reducing the number of ‘retaliation’ killings. The success of the scheme has led to a marked increase in lion and other predator numbers in the area.

Whilst it is fair to say that the density of game is not that high, you will still see animals and when you do, sightings are an exclusive experience. Ol Donyo Lodge sits on Mbirikani Group Ranch, bordering the Chyulu Hills National Park and extending over 275,000 acres of forested hills and open plains. Within this vast expanse is only one lodge, hosting only 16 guests at any one time. To put this into context, this equates to 17,000 acres of wilderness per person per bed night compared to an average of approx. 300 acres per person at Mara Plains, Ol Donyo’s sister camp in the Masai Mara.

On an evening game drive we came across a truly stunning bull elephant with the biggest tusks I have ever seen. Known locally as One Ton he is, since the recent passing of the famous Tim, now reputed to be one of the biggest Tuskers left in the area. We spent almost two hours with him as he meandered through the park, a magical and peaceful experience. We also saw the rare ’long-necked’ gerenuk, browsing serenely, and other guests at the lodge saw cheetah out on the plains.

From the Chyulu Hills I flew back to Nairobi and then north to central Kenya and the vast area known as the Laikipia Plateau. This is an excellent example of Kenya’s diversity when it comes to tourism. The game viewing in Laikipia has always been reliable in dedicated conservancies such as the Ol Pejeta and Lewa Wildlife conservancies but the region has much more to offer in terms of activities and wilderness experiences and throughout the region there are superb examples of how cattle ranching and wildlife conservation can have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Situated on the western edge of the Laikipia plateau, Mugie ranch extends over almost 50,000 acres and provides an important wildlife corridor between Samburu to the north and Loisaba to the south. Approximately half of the area is given over to cattle ranching and local Maasai are incentivized to bring their cattle to the ranch. Here they are fed well, given any medications they may need and are ultimately taken to market on behalf of the owners. The improved condition of the cattle brings greater rewards to the villagers and thus discourages them from taking their herds onto the lands dedicated to wildlife.

Ekorian’s Mugie Camp is currently the only available accommodation on the ranch (Governors Camps are due to open a luxury lodge here sometime this year) and offers a relaxed and friendly welcome for families, couples and solo travellers alike. What sets Ekorian, and other camps in Laikipia, apart from camps in the Masai Mara is the variety of activities available. Walking, camel treks, fishing and visiting conservation projects are all included. At the heart of the conservancy is a large man made dam where guests can kayak and have truly special encounters with the elephants that come down to drink and to play.

Plentiful stocks of tilapia makes fishing a great afternoon pastime. The blood hounds based on the conservancy play a vital anti-poaching role but whilst not on duty they continually train and visiting guests are often roped in to be the quarry. Great fun if you don’t mind being pounced on by a giant bloodhound! Thankfully the dogs know when they are role playing and are likely to simply demand a belly rub once you are caught! Meeting Tala was an unexpected highlight of my trip. Tala is an orphaned giraffe who lives a semi wild life within the confines of the park HQ but when she is not browsing in the tree line or overseeing the mechanics at work there is nothing she likes more than meeting the tourists, especially if they come with pellets for her.

The wildlife viewing on the ranch was better than I had expected with plenty of plains game (impala, eland, Jackson’s Hartebeest and Beisa Oryx amongst others), local specialities such as Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe, elephant and lion all being seen. Visits to see the tiny ten week old lion cubs were, quite rightly, being restricted but the quick glimpse remains a highlight.

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy has long been a firm client favourite with assured and varied game viewing. In addition to the traditional game drives offered by the resident camps, the conservancy itself provides the chance to experience lion tracking, horse riding, cycling or visit a hippo hide. The most popular activity is to visit the last two Northern white rhinos left on the planet. Security is strict and visitor numbers are kept low so pre-booking is essential.

I was heading to the south of the conservancy to visit the Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages, a new concept, owned and run by our old friends Andy and Sonja Webb who were previously at the helm of three of the Kicheche camps. Years of experience have gone into the cosy cottages where the watchwords are exclusivity and flexibility. With no set schedules and a private vehicle and guide as standard you can dictate the pace of your day whether that means being up and out before daybreak or taking it easy and curling up on your verandah with a good book. Anyone looking for an in depth experience and excellent guiding can book a birding walk or an overnight fly-camping experience in the bush, both hosted by Andy.

Laikipia is a superb place for walking and there are several options to enjoy more of a wilderness experience. Having previously been lucky enough to walk with Kerry Glen and her team from Karisia and also with Walking Wild on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, this time I headed to pastures new and with a team from Kicheche Laikipia we headed into the Lolldaiga Hills.

Leaving camp after lunch we passed through several townships before cutting across the incredibly fertile agricultural lands to reach the main entrance to the Lolldaiga Hills Ranch. Loosely translated as meaning the place where young warriors come to get their hair done (‘daiga’ means braid and the area is reputed to be one of the areas young Masai came to as part of their transition to manhood), the ranch has a varied and quite beautiful landscape. To the south of the ranch lies the Timau River with a broad stretch of riverine forest but once we entered the conservation area and began driving up the escarpment we passed through areas of open grasslands and continued through dense cedar forest until we reached the top. Laid out in front of us was a stunning landscape. The valley stretched far into the distance, a seemingly endless savanna dotted with rocky kopjes and small dams, overlooked on either side by a chain of imposing hills. As we descended and entered the valley we spotted in the distance the welcome sight of a camp fire at the base on the far escarpment. This marked our home for the night staying in a lightweight fly camp. Most guests will leave the vehicle once they reach the valley floor and will walk into camp, arriving just as the sun sinks beneath the surrounding hills. As our time was limited however we drove directly into camp and then struck out on a shortened walk. Heading out in the rich glow of the late afternoon sun we walked for a couple of hours, getting occasional glimpses of Mt Kenya’s peak as the clouds drifted across it and spotting, albeit from a distance, several of the 104 recorded species of mammals that are resident in the area. The walking was not strenuous but, as each booking for wild camping in the Lolldaiga Hills is exclusive, the level of activity will be tailored to your fitness levels. In addition to the varied landscapes and the wildlife, Lolldaiga is home to several archaeological sites including cave paintings and burial grounds. Climbing up to some of the caves can be a significant challenge and not for the faint hearted, but well worth it (so I am told!) not only for the cave paintings but also the expansive views over the Laikipia escarpment. This experience is not just for keen walkers however as extended game drives and night drives are also part of the experience.

Fly camping out in the bush is without doubt one of my favourite experiences in Africa. Simple dome tents with a stretcher bed are the order of the day with meals cooked over an open fire and eaten al fresco. It is not an experience without creature comforts however with hot showers and cold drinks readily available. There is something magical about putting the world to rights whilst sitting around a camp fire under a star laden sky with only the moon providing any light. As I drifted off to sleep, listening to the distant whoop of hyenas, I could not help but feel extraordinarily lucky to be there.

The Masai Mara rightfully has a reputation of having some of the best game viewing in Africa but it would be a shame to discount other quarters of Kenya. Dramatic landscapes, pristine wilderness, a wealth of experiences and adventures to be shared and never forgetting the incredible wildlife are all good reasons for expanding your stay within Kenya, whether that be that in combination with a stay in the Masai Mara or as standalone destination.

Mary stayed at Tamarind Tree Hotel, ol Donyo Lodge, Ekorian’s Mugie Camp, Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages, Kicheche Laikipia, Cottar’s 1920s Camp, Ol Seki Hemingways Mara, Mara Nyika Camp, Spekes Camp, Richard’s River Camp and Serian ‘The Original’.

Mary site inspected Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp, Elewana Loisaba Lodo Springs, Sosian, Ol Pejeta Bush Camp, Sala’s Camp, Spirit of the Masai Mara, Encounter Mara Camp, Kicheche Valley Camp, Naboisho Camp, Kicheche Bush Camp, Mahali Mzuri, Mara Plains Camp, Mara Expedition Camp, Entim Camp, Naibor Camp, Rekero Camp, Tangulia Mara, Offbeat Mara Camp, Kicheche Mara Camp, Elephant Pepper Camp, Neptune Mara Rianta Luxury Camp, Sanctuary Olonana, &Beyond Bateleur Camp, &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, Angama Mara and Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport.