On a private Kenyan game reserve, the locals and the wildlife have formed a mutually rewarding relationship….
Two hours after sunup, and time for breakfast. Since a little after 6am, we’ve been tracking lions in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a 40-minute flit north of Nairobi, Kenya. So far, we’ve had no luck — or, rather, the luck has been of a different kind. In the early half-light we came across a rare black rhinoceros mother and calf sheltering in the bush, giraffe wallpapered against the lightening sky, buffalo trudging head down across the plain. We’ve found elephants, warthogs, a hyena carrying the leg of a gazelle, eagles and uncountable zebra. But no lions.
On a curl of the Uaso Nyiro river, away from the trees, my guide, Andrew Odhiambo, sets up the table. Stiffly ironed cloth, cereals, cold sausage and bacon, vegetable pies, pickles and preserves, fruit, tea, coffee…
But Andrew is more focused on our surrounds, and he has sharper senses than anyone I’ve met. He seems to have wraparound eyes and ears. Distant pinpricks, invisible to me, turn into rare hartebeest. Distant murmurs swell into waterbuck. But this deep, guttural cough — wugh! — is no distant murmur. It is close at hand, urgent and loud. Andrew calmly pushes me back into the Land Cruiser. Twenty metres away a lioness pads out of the trees, glances at us without interest and lopes off along the riverbank.
We follow in the vehicle as far as we can, before she melts into the bush, still calling for lost companions. Encounters in Africa are often like this. Game you can guarantee, any time of the day or night. Zebras, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, warthogs, giraffes — you can’t avoid them. Lions, however, are different. You can improve your chances by knowing where and when to look, but you still need luck.
A couple of days later, to stack the odds, Andrew uses a tracking device to follow a radio-collared lioness. We find her with another lioness and two cubs hidden far from any track, lolling in shade deep in the bush. Like the lioness at breakfast they only cursorily note our arrival. The four heads pop up at the sound of the Land Cruiser’s 4.2-litre engine, then settle down again to doze. Their bellies are full; their eyelids heavy, hunger forgotten. Barely 100 metres away, an impala skips across a clearing, upwind and unaware of its luck.
This is the essence of Andrew’s skill. He can read the tiniest nuances of light or shade, and he exactly understands each species’ capacity for tolerating humans. This is Africa sharp of tooth and horn, but in the Land Cruiser I’m insulated from risk. The only hazard is of a tweaked back as it pitches brutishly over the scarred terrain. Time and again, quietly and carefully, Andrew plants me within a few feet of elephants, buffalo, rhino, giraffe, eland and a supporting cast of jackals and hyenas.
On one memorable afternoon he ushers me into the presence of a hippopotamus. Cheetah and leopard require more luck than comes our way (though both are here in numbers); otherwise nothing escapes him. A jackal trots past with something clamped in its jaws — the head of a baby hyena, he says, “very unusual”. A flash of sky blue indicates the brilliant, chromatically enhanced scrotum of a vervet monkey. Young baboons dart through a fever tree, playing a kind of Kenyan roulette with gravity, while their elders hunch in the branches like rooks.
But in Ol Pejeta the headline act is the rhinoceros. With the price of horn now higher than gold, it’s no mystery that poaching is rife throughout Africa, or that honest officials fall prey to corruption. In Kenya alone, the average attrition rate for the critically endangered black rhino has been 4.5 every day for 10 years, reducing the population from 20,000 to less than 300. Thanks to a rigorous conservation policy and armed protection, the number is back up to 600-plus, and 87 of them are at Ol Pejeta — enough for a near-guarantee of daily sightings. Four of the world’s only eight surviving Northern white rhinos are also here — though, like gold bars in a bank, they are kept within an enclosure.
All this you might hope for or anti-cipate. Many visitors to Ol Pejeta, however, come to look at a species that is about as unexpected in a wildlife conservancy as an aardwolf in Oxford Street. The plains are home to 6,000 head of humped Boran beef cattle, ranched by the conservancy and watched over by Masai herdsmen. You wouldn’t see this in any of the national parks, but it’s nowhere near as barmy as it sounds. Every night the animals are driven into tightly packed moveable enclosures called bomas, which means security for the beef and frustration for the lions. It makes money for the conservancy, and is typical of a mind-set that brings a whole new dynamic to the relationship between wildlife and community, and extra value to the business of travel.
In every way, Ol Pejeta offers a simple, adventure-of-a-lifetime safari holiday, just as you imagined it. The conservation area stretches to more than 350 sq km and holds one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in Africa, including all the so-called Big Five animals. You want game? Wild Africa distilled in a single sweep of the binoculars against the backdrop of Mount Kenya? You’ve got it.
Being on a plateau, you get no sense of elevation, but you are 2,000 metres above sea level — the height of Europe’s loftier ski resorts — so there is a further advantage in the relative scarcity of mosquitoes. The biggest plus of all, however, is that each camp and lodge pays a bed levy to the conservancy for every visitor it receives.
Added to the ranching income, this enables the conservancy not only to protect wildlife and create jobs, but also to bring social and economic benefits to communities. Funds from the conservancy provide new schools and bursaries, better roads, clean water, health care, an orphanage and vital improvements to subsistence agriculture. This is hugely important. Wildlife conservation cannot succeed without popular support, and people as well as animals need to see the benefit. Here they clearly do.
The phrase “eco-tourism” can seem off-puttingly worthy, the antithesis of carefree holiday indulgence. But not here. Hair shirts at Ol Pejeta are strictly for the animals. If my experience of staying at the Kicheche Laikipia camp is anywhere near typical, the cooking would do credit to a five-star hotel, the beds are soft and the traditional sundowner is alive and clinking. As the shadows lengthen and the predators stir, we pause for reflection and ice-cold gin and tonics. This is a place where you can raise a glass to the rhinoceros and know it will actually mean something. Who wouldn’t drink to that?
Richard Girling travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1250, rainbowtours.co.uk) can offer a three-night stay at Kicheche Laikipia and a three-night stay at Kicheche Mara Camp from £2,995 per person. The price is based on two sharing and includes flights with Kenya Airways from London Heathrow to Nairobi, internal light aircraft transfers, all meals, drinks, unlimited