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.
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.
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.
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.
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.