The Stylish Lodges, Heroic Landscape and Handsome People of Northern Kenya

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Many people fall in love with East Africa, and  I  count  myself  among  the  romantically  ensnared.  First,  there  is  the  land  itself.  Nobody  has  put  it  better  than  Karen  Blixen  at the beginning of her classic memoir, “Out  of  Africa.”  Of  the  Ngong  Hills  at  the  edge  of  the  Rift  Valley,  she  wrote:  “The  views  were  immensely  wide.  Everything  that  you  saw  made  for  greatness  and  freedom,  and  unequalled nobility.”

Aside from the land, there are the people,  especially the tribal  people.  Although  many  are  poor  and  illiterate,  and  hence  much  looked  down  upon  by  the  urban  sophisticates  of  Nairobi,  the  red-cloaked,  spear-carrying  Samburu  and  Maasai  are  a  handsome  and  dignified  presence  in  the  Kenya  highlands,  and  their  way  of  life  remains  a  vital  connection  to  an  immemorial Africa.

The very word means “a journey”  in Swahili, a language of the Kenyan and  Tanzanian  coast. 

In  recent  years,  however,  Kenya  has  suffered from a deluge of bad publicity, with that  surrounding  the  2007  presidential  elections  being  only  the  most  recent  installment. For many affluent Americans,  a  safari  is  nowadays  synonymous  with  countries  such  as  South  Africa  and  Botswana.  Yet  the  safari  evolved  in  East  Africa. The very word means “a journey”  in Swahili, a language of the Kenyan and  Tanzanian  coast.  Three  decades  ago,  our  first safari to Kenya’s Maasai Mara left an  indelible impression. So partly from loyalty,  partly  from  undiminished  affection,  we  recently  decided  to  return,  hoping  to  discover  that  there  was  also  a  good  news  story to tell.

kenya

On this trip, we decided to concentrate on  areas immediately north of Mount Kenya,  a jagged 17,057-foot peak 90 miles north of  Nairobi. From the gateway town of Nanyuki,  a high and arid region extends for 250 miles  to the border of Ethiopia. Known in colonial  times as the Northern Frontier District, it  is  a  land  of  immense,  soul-stirring  vistas,  virtually untouched by the modern world.

Although wildlife here tends to be more  thinly  spread  than  on  the  green,  well- watered  plains  of  the  Maasai  Mara,  it  is  still abundant. Indeed, Meru National Park  used  to  be  one  of  the  most  popular  in  Kenya,  and  in  the  1970s,  received  as  many  as  50,000  visitors  a  year.  Back  then,  Meru  also  enjoyed  an  international  reputation  as  the  place  where  Joy  and George Adamson had released the lioness  Elsa, and as a backdrop for the subsequent  movie  “Born  Free.”  But  in  the  1980s  and  ’90s,  upheaval  in  neighboring  Somalia  produced a plague of bandits and poachers  that wiped out much of the game. In 1970,  Meru contained more than 300 rhino; by  1997,  there  were  none.  Africa  does  have  its  success  stories,  however,  and  Meru  is  one of them. Today, populations of its large  mammal  species  such  as  elephant  and lion  have  recovered,  and  about  60  rhino  live  and  breed  in  a  huge  protected  area.

Elsa's Kopje

Rhinos at Elsa's Kopje
Rhinos at Elsa's Kopje

Our Cessna Caravan landed at the Meru  airstrip and taxied toward a solitary dark- green Land Cruiser containing our guide,  George Kimaru. The drive to Elsa’s Kopje  took close to an hour, as we kept stopping  to  look  at  wildlife  along  the  way.  Set  on  an  outcrop  known  as  Mughwango  Hill, the  lodge  overlooks  the  site  of  George  Adamson’s  first  camp  in  Meru,  which  he  put  up  in  1950.  It  comprises  eight  cottages, a tri-level suite and a two-bedroom  “house,” with the structures widely spaced  across  the  craggy  hillside.  The  center  of the property is an open-sided dining area  and bar covered with a thatched makuti roof.  This  is  stylishly  appointed  with  Oriental  rugs, leather chairs, hardwood furniture and  tribal art. Elsa’s Kopje is owned by a Kenyan of  Italian  origin,  Stefano  Cheli.  Looking  around, we reflected (not for the first time)  that the Italians seem to have an effortless  flair for interior design. They also have an  innate talent for cooking, and this gift was  fully  on  display  at  lunch  in  a  succession  of  sophisticated  pastas  and  salads.  The  cuisine  at  Elsa’s  Kopje  proved  one  of  the  consistent pleasures of our stay and would  have  done  credit  to  a  good  city  trattoria.  Having eaten, we strolled across a brilliant  green patch of lawn — assiduously watered  each morning — and relaxed beneath a sun  umbrella  beside  the  pretty  horizon  pool.

The bedroom contained  a  four-poster  bed  swathed  in  mosquito  netting, and extended onto a wooden deck  with  an  exhilarating  30-mile  view.

Although it opened more than a decade  ago, Elsa’s Kopje has been well-maintained  and shows no sign of wear and tear. The  thatched, stone-walled guest cottages were  designed  to  incorporate  the  landscape,  and ours was arranged around a series of  massive boulders. The bedroom contained  a  four-poster  bed  swathed  in  mosquito  netting, and extended onto a wooden deck  with  an  exhilarating  30-mile  view.  Up  a short  flight  of  stairs,  the  spacious  bath  provided  an  extremely  effective  rainfall  shower  and  an  outdoor  tub.  The  cottages  are not remotely comparable to the opulent  suites at lavish South African lodges such  as  Singita  and  Royal Malewane,  but  they offer refined simplicity and a level of  comfort that would be acceptable to all but  the most demanding. That said, on a future  visit, we would definitely opt to pay the extra  money  and  stay  in  Elsa’s  Private  House,  which contains a wonderfully spacious and  elegantly appointed living/dining area, two  large bedrooms, a huge bath with a soaking  tub  overlooking  the  plains,  and  a  private  infinity pool with the same unforgettable  view. Although suitable for one or two  couples,  the  house  would  be  perfect  for  parents  on  safari  with  their  children.

Although  the  animals  have  returned  to  Meru,  so  far,  the  visitors  have  not.  During  two  days  of  game  drives  through  the  national  park,  we  did  not  see  anyone  besides  uniformed  rangers.  This  absence is quite puzzling, as the landscape is wild  and majestic; poaching has been virtually  eliminated;  and  the  wildlife-viewing  is  consistently excellent. On our first morning, we encountered a lioness with three cubs,  which  the  mother  was  doing  her  best  to  defend  from  an  aggressive  young  male  who  seemed  bent  on  infanticide.  (Lions  frequently kill the cubs of other males with  the intention of fathering offspring of their own.) And in the afternoon, we stayed with  a  white  rhino  and  her  tiny  calf  until  the  light began to fade and George proposed a  sundowner on a nearby rocky ridge with a  routinely spellbinding view of the foothills  of Mount Kenya.

ELSA’S KOPJE 94 Cottage, $540 per person, including all meals, house beverages and game drives; Elsa’s Private House (sleeps four adults; additional beds for children available), $2,400. Tel. (254) 20-604053.

Sasaab

Sasaab Pool
Sasaab Pool

The  best-known  of  Kenya’s  northern  game areas is Samburu National Reserve,  which  lies  about  75  miles  northwest  of  Meru. Samburu contains  several  lodges  — though none of particular distinction —  and  receives  a  significant  number  of  visitors.  Flowing  down  from  the  glaciers  on  Mount  Kenya,  the  Ewaso  Nyiro  River  forms the southern boundary of the reserve  and creates a wide strip of vegetation. As  a  result,  wildlife  is  extremely  plentiful.

Around 35 minutes’ drive from the west  gate of the reserve, Sasaab is a remarkable  new lodge in a sensational clifftop location  overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro. The property  opened in August 2007, and in many ways,  sets  a  new  standard  for  safari  properties  in Kenya. Owned by the well-known Carr- Hartley  family,  which  has  been  involved  in  Kenyan  wildlife  and  tourism  for  more  than  a  century,  its  dramatic  architecture  is  a  triumphant  fusion  of  Moroccan  and  Swahili  styles.  The  result  is  both  functional  and  aesthetically  appealing.

Sasaab has just nine tented suites, each with more than 1,000 square feet, offering four-poster beds, lavish baths and private plunge pools on scenic terraces. (One drawback to the otherwise impressive design is that the latter are shaded, and hence, the water is disagreeably cold.) During our stay, we found the staff unfailingly helpful, the food excellent and the excursions exceptionally well- organized. Sasaab also offers a spa located on the banks of the river, where you can be pampered in full view of the local elephant!

As well as being within easy reach of Samburu National Reserve, Sasaab is located on a private wildlife conservancy belonging to a Samburu group ranch. Although the future of African wildlife is very much in doubt — the continent’s lion population has declined by 85 percent in the past 20 years — one of most encouraging recent trends has been the growth of sophisticated conservation projects that involve and directly benefit local African people. All over northern Kenya, community conservancies are being formed. Many choose to join the Northern Rangelands Trust, an umbrella organization that now encompasses more than 3 million acres. The trust helps to promote sustainable tourism, with profits used to provide education and to promote better health care.

SASAAB 96 TentedSuite,$620perperson,includingallmeals, house wines, game drives and most activities. Tel. (254) 20-251- 3166.

The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille

Poolside at Sanctuary at Ol Lentille
Poolside at Sanctuary at Ol Lentille - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

A 30-minute flight directly west of Sasaab brought us to the northern escarpment of the Laikipia Plateau, a region of heroic plains punctuated by dramatic basalt outcrops and scored by deep ravines. There,  the  14,500-acre  Ol  Lentille  Conservancy extends across a landscape wooded  with  acacias and African olives, and crisscrossed  by dry riverbeds bordered by stands of fig  and  fever trees. The  local  Kijabe  Group  Ranch has recently set aside a third of its  grazing  land  for  conservation,  and  the returning  wildlife  now  includes  leopard  and African wild dog.

This project was the brainchild of John  Elias,  who,  after  a  successful  corporate  career,  decided  he  wanted  to  “do  good  while  having  fun.”  In  2005,  he  entered  into an agreement with the local Maasai to construct The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille,  four  lavish,  fully  staffed  houses  that  collectively form an extremely impressive  small resort. Rather than leasing the land, he donated the entire property to the local  group  ranch  and  signed  a  management  agreement  to  operate  it  on  the  members’  behalf. Part of this stipulates that the income  will  be  invested  for  the  improvement  of  health care and education. Elias’ wife, Gill,  is  now  dedicated  to  the  expansion  and  construction  of  local  elementary  schools and is planning the region’s first high school.

The four houses at Ol Lentille are built  along the summit of a ridge and command  views  of  astounding  grandeur.  Each  has  been  decorated  in  an  individual  style:  The  Chief’s  House  (three  bedrooms)  has  a  contemporary  African  interior;  The  Colonel’s House (two bedrooms) is colonial;  and  The  Eyrie  (one  bedroom)  is  modern.  However, our favorite by some distance is  The Sultan’s House (one bedroom), which evokes  the  aesthetic  of  Lamu,  an  island  off the Kenyan coast with long-established  connections to Arabia and the Persian Gulf.  A huge and exotic bedroom appointed with  a  four-poster  bed  and  Oriental  rugs  leads  via a dressing room into a bath with a jade- green sunken tub that affords stirring views  of  the  immense  landscape.  In  the  sitting  area,  a  series  of  divans  covered  in  white  cotton provides a blissful spot to relax with  a book, as well as a similarly spellbinding  outlook. Heavy wooden doors open into a  private courtyard, off which are situated a  dining room/bar and the kitchen. Although  I  am  fortunate  to  stay  in  many  lavish  accommodations each year, relatively few  are  a  real  wrench  to  leave.  But  I  would  happily have stayed in The Sultan’s House  for a month.

During our visit, the food was consistently  delicious and presented with considerable  elegance. Facilities at the property include  a  library,  a  small  spa  and  a  spellbinding  horizon  pool.  And  notwithstanding  the remoteness of the location, wireless Internet  access is available at reception. Despite the  growth  of  the  surrounding  conservation  area,  wildlife  is  still  thinly  spread  and  relatively  elusive,  so  it  is  important  to  realize that this is not a safari destination  in the customary sense. Instead, guests may  hike, ride horses or camels, and drive ATVs  to the surrounding villages and schools. For  trips farther afield, the use of a helicopter  or light aircraft can be arranged.

The  Sanctuary  at  Ol  Lentille  is  a  fine  place  to  relax  and  is  ideal  for  a  family  vacation.  It  is  also  an  inspiring  example  of  how  imaginative  and  well-intentioned  people  can  use  sustainable  tourism  to  benefit  local  communities,  as  well  as  to  make  a  valuable  contribution  to  the  preservation  of  Africa’s  dwindling  wildlife.

THE SANCTUARY AT OL LENTILLE 95 House, $650 per person, including all meals, house wines, use of 4x4 vehicle and activities on the conservation area. The whole property, sleeping 14-16, may be rented for $7,500 a night. Tel. (254) 20-354-0703.

Map ©Andrew Harper.

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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