I’ve surprised myself. As the cabin lights go up on the Kenya Airways flight I find that I’ve actually been asleep for a couple of hours. It seems that as I get older, the need for my brain to shut down for a while overrides the lesser need for a decent bed.
I look out of the window at the faint glow of dawn breaking over a fast-approaching Nairobi. It’s 5.30am local time as the plane touches down – a short four hours from Joburg but a world away from home.
I am headed for the Laikipia region, far to the north and the western slopes of Mount Kenya, which requires me to change airports from the rather jaded and grubby Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Wilson Airport, from where all charters and internal flights depart.
As my driver negotiates huge potholes, unruly trucks and early morning commuters it sinks home that I am finally back in Kenya for the first time in 42 years. And boy, has it changed. And not for the better.
Nairobi is dirty, smelly, packed with traffic and degraded to the point of non-functionality. But everyone seems happy enough, including the myriad marabou storks who feast on the carrion of human wastefulness in the centre of this bustling capital city.
Wilson is thankfully clean, crisp and open for business and I am soon Laikipia-bound, headed for my first port of call on this whistlestop tour – The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille.
Set atop a cliff close to the edge of the Great Rift Valley, Ol Lentille is situated in a 6000 hectare private conservancy on a Maasai community ranch, which is why I am met at the airstrip by an amazing-looking young man by the name of Solomon Saidimu. Solomon is a Moran, a Maasai warrior, and as such is dressed in the traditional dress of two “shuka” wraps, one of lightweight white cotton which represents milk, and the other a warmer, bright red effort, which represents blood. Milk and blood are what sustain the Maasai in a mixture which they drink every day, taken from the cattle- cattle which measure their wealth and form the cornerstone of their society.
The shukas are complemented by an array of intricate beadwork worn around Solomon’s head, neck, waist, wrists and ankles, and a tall, long-limbed frame which gives him a regal, almost other-worldly look. I have to take his picture before we head off, and am greeted with an infectious giggle which quickly punctuates everything this remarkable young man says.
En route to The Sanctuary, Solomon explains that Ol Lentille is the culmination of years of hard work and partnership between the Maasai of the Kijabi group ranch, private investors Regenesis Ltd, the African Wildlife Foundation, the EU’s Tourism Trust Fund of Kenya and the US Agency for International Development. All of these entities have come together to build a truly inspirational lodge which offers four fully-staffed luxury houses, a spa, and exquisite cuisine deep in the heart of one of the most beautiful areas of Kenya, 120 kilometres from Mount Kenya and within sight of the Matthews Range, far on the other side of the Great Rift.
The Maasai of the Kijabe Group Ranch have set aside a full one third of their grazing and settlement land for conservation and have been successful in excluding livestock from this area, in the process attracting and securing growing numbers of important wildlife species.
I feel good about this place before I’ve even seen it – it’s so important to know that the ethics of your destination are where they should be.
If I’d had any doubts that The Sanctuary would not live up to its brief, they vanish as soon as we arrive at the lodge.
It is, quite simply, astonishing what has been achieved here. The levels of luxury, service, quality and good taste make this one of the most impressive destinations I have ever visited, and a true retreat in the best sense of the word.
The four houses are outstanding, each completely different to its neighbour, and with its own take on African chic, from the contemporary African style of The Chief’s House and the slick, modern angles of The Eyrie, to the colonial atmosphere of The Colonel’s House and the effortless blend of African and Arabian in The Sultan’s House.
Each has its own kitchen, where the butler and valet prepare light snacks and breakfast, as well as anything else your heart may desire. The views are as awesome as the décor and design of the place, and add up to a truly spectacular piece of heaven where you absorb Africa completely – mind, body and soul.
And if absorbtion of this kind gets too much for you, you can always indulge in some adventure activities like quad-biking through the conservancy, horse-riding, camel safaris, abseiling or even a bush skills course.
Solomon’s skill and flair as a guide match his sense of humour, and I am sad to leave when the time comes to bid farewell to this amazing place where I have found one of the most positive and rewarding experiences, far from the madding crowd.
So I move from one Moran to another, as Solomon hands me over to Laban, a Samburu warrior who works as a guide at my next stop on this whistle-stop tour of Laikipia – Ol Malo.
Owned and run by Colin and Rocky Francombe, this lodge is again completely unique and very different to its neighbours. Four spacious and lavishly laid-out stone and thatch cottages and two luxury safari tents can sleep up to 12 people in this beautiful home from home.
There’s a lovely vibe at Ol Malo, thanks in part to the welcoming comfort Colin and Rocky provide, and to their down-to-earth “down home” approach to hosting which leaves guests truly relaxed and able to put their feet up.
It’s a vibe with heart too, as the Francombes have been instrumental in the establishment of a community trust which supports and sustains the local Samburu people. Most noteworthy of the projects which Ol Malo supports is Ol Malo Designs – a company owned and run by Colin and Rocky and their daughter Julia. The whole theme of the company is to provide employment and help for the Samburu, and develop their talents through art. Julia employs a team of Samburu women who do the most incredible beadwork to her designs, and a team of Samburu children who paint the most amazing pictures under her guidance.
It’s a special and very unique string to Ol Malo’s bow, and along with a truly enlightening visit to a local Samburu Manyatta (homestead) sets this incredible place apart.
And so I leave Laikipia with a happy heart, with just one more thing to do before I say farewell to Kenya… a thing which involves rather a lot of wildebeest.
Yes, I have managed to visit Kenya at the peak of the annual migration and am now bound for the Maasai Mara, and the potential thrill of a river crossing.
The flight from Ol Malo takes just over an hour and a half, the last 20 minutes of which are spent flying low over the rolling green plains which can hardly be seen beneath a carpet of black as the “beasties” prepare for their journey back through the Serengeti.
Only one things stands in their path – the Mara river – a fast-flowing surge of muddy water filled with crocodiles the size of Land Cruisers.
I am staying at Ol Seki, a luxury tented camp in a private conservancy at Koiyaki, just outside the Maasai Mara National Park. It’s a good move, as the Mara itself is extremely busy at this time of the year, and guests at Ol Seki have the added bonus of being an hour away from the hubbub of the migration whilst having the exclusivity of a private reserve with no through traffic.
Ol Seki is set on a slight promontary overlooking the Isupukiai River in a wilderness area teeming with game. Six enormous white octagonal tents are strung out along this rocky outcrop for guests to relax in, unwind in, have a barn-dance in and generally roam around in. The tents are truly huge, if not a bit barren, with acres of floorspace crying out for some huge plump couches or wing-back chairs. But at the end of the day it’s not about how much room there is, but what’s outside that matters.
And so I venture forth at dawn on my penultimate day in Kenya. Ahead of me lays a day-trip into the Mara, complete with picnic and armed with a long lens and a sense of adventure. I am not disappointed, arriving some four hours later at the river, having seen some amazing sights en-route, and finding a large group of wildebeest on the opposite bank eyeing the swirling waters below them with interest.
I don’t have to wait long, and as one brave (or idiotic – I can’t decide which) gnu launches itself headlong into the raging torrent, it triggers a follow-me mechanism which soon sees hundreds of the animals paddling like mad for the sheer bank below me.
Up from the depths comes a crocodile the likes of which I have never seen. It is simply the biggest, gnarliest, most chilling thing ever and makes a bee-line for one of the young stragglers, which it soon dispatches with spine-tingling ease.
There are no words to describe a Mara river crossing adequately. The noise, the rush of adrenalin, the dust, the smell – it all combines to form one of the most incredible experiences Africa has to offer, and nothing could ever compare.