I’ve been commissioned to update the northern section of the Rough Guide to Kenya. My trip has so far taken me through the golden plains and rocky roads of Laikipia to colourful, hectic, dusty Maralal, onward up rock faces and back to South Horr and over shards of volcanic rock to the shores of Lake Turkana. I’ll be posting the tales of my journey on the blog, starting in Laikipia…
DAY 1: OL PAJETA CONSERVANCY
We left Nairobi at 2pm and drove the Thika Super Highway out to Nakuru. Winding our way north, we passed luscious pineapple plantations and tropical hilly ranges with fruit stalls and children playing along the roadside. At the equator we stopped to have our picture taken by the hand painted yellow sign blowing in the wind, like true tourists. “Say KENYA!” our photographer beamed.
Photo shoot over, we met our Gamewatcher Safari guides who escorted us the 13km along a dusty dirt track to Ol Pajeta conservancy gate. We dropped off our car – the Mitsubishi Wanker (fondly named as apparently the ‘Pajero’ brand name had to be changed in South America where it means ‘wanker’) – and jumped in our game drive vehicle to cross the conservancy.
In colonial times, this region was used for cattle ranching. It wasn’t until 2004 that Flora and Fauna International – a conservation organisation – purchased the land to turn it into a conservancy. Conservancies have become a popular addition to the National Parks of Kenya in recent years. Privately owned and operated, they provide land and protection for the conservation of wild animals, as well as job opportunities and community benefits for local people.
Back in the truck, we were headed for Rhino Porini Camp for the night. As the sun set, a deep golden glow enveloped the grassy plains and we cruised happily along watching elephants chomping on branches, impala skipping across the road and southern white rhino grazing their way across the land.
ACCOMMODATION: The Rhino Porini Camp, set on the banks of a lugga (small river), was simple and charming. The guides made us incredibly welcome, telling stories over a glass of red wine by the bonfire about a lion that sneaks into their office when they’re not looking and keeps the chair warm.
Dinner was an expertly cooked three-course meal of tomato soup with warm bread, vegetable stroganoff and chocolate pudding – all served under canvas by candlelight and a scattering of lanterns. Later we reached our tents to find hot water bottles tucked into the comfy beds. We drifted off to the shrieks of hyena and the snuffles and snorts of zebra roaming the campsite.
DAY 2: LOISABA CONSERVANCY
After a fun morning game drive and visits to see the Ol Pajeta blind rhino and chimpanzees (both ‘conservation’ efforts that sadly seem to involve waking the sleeping creatures and encouraging them to come be goggled at by tourists) we picked up our Wanker and headed into Nanuki for lunch at Le Rustique restaurant. Quiet and pretty with excellent food, we had a relaxed lunch in the garden and hit the road again feeling extremely well fuelled.
It was a brain-jangling four-hour journey to make it to our next stop. Luckily, the scenery made up for the inevitable onset of travel sickness. Outside of the conservancy we had no idea we would see so much wildlife, but as we ventured further north herds of camel blocked the road and we saw elephants, zebra, warthogs going about life with very little interest in our presence.
The rocky road leading to Loisaba was at times steep and challenging, but mainly just incredibly bumpy. We passed over a couple of rivers and stopped to admire the water bubbling over the rocks in the middle of this dry and rocky landscape.
ACCOMMODATION: We spent the night at the Loisaba Wilderness Star Beds, in the middle of the Loisaba Conservancy overlooking the river and dam below. It was nothing short of a spectacular way to spend the night.
The Star Beds are built on big wheels and the rooms are on decks jutting out from the rock face. By day, the veranda area is set out with bean bags or chairs from which to perch and admire the view, and by night the star beds are rolled out into the elements to fall asleep with gazillions of stars overhead. Being so close to the equator, it feels as if you can see the entire universe. We had a go at lying upside down and both sides to appreciate the whole view.
As we woke the next day and had our tea in bed with the mosquito net pulled back to admire the baby hippos playing in the dam below, I felt there were few places in the world I had ever stayed that could match up to it.
The next morning, we dashed down to the lake where a family of elephants were slurping up water and rolling in the mud. There was no one else around, so we just sat and admired them as the babies snoozed and lone bulls tried to merge in with the group. This is the beauty of the north: masses of spectacular wildlife, and – because its an adventure to get to – hardly any tourists.
DAY 3: MUGIE CONSERVANCY
It took us a couple of hours of off-road driving to reach the Mugie Conservancy the next day. Our guide at Loisaba Starbeds kindly drove us the first bit of the route, through giant herds of cattle and across wide, flat dusty plains to the ‘main road’ – a crumbly track that our Mitsubishi Wanker really wasn’t fond of – which runs all the way to Maralal.
Like Laikipia, Mugie is home to a wonderful array of wildlife and we’d only been in the ranch gates a few minutes before we stopped the car for a passing family of elephants crossing the road. Each of the adults halted to look suspiciously at our car before deciding to cross, the babies following excitedly in their wake, wagging their trunks from side to side, and taking five tiny steps to every one of the adults’. Nothing in this world can beat the site of a wild and free animal enjoying life. Nothing.
ACCOMMODATION: We were headed for Ekorian’s Mugie Camp, a relatively new addition to the Mugie area that opened in December 2013. The camp has a family feel to it, and is run by Donna and her husband – white Kenyan’s who grew up around the Mugie area. Their two daughters, Kiara and Mia (5 and 2 respectively), expertly show guests around or demonstrate their ability to climb on the reception desk, whilst a Labrador puppy lollops cheekily around.
Our tent was spacious and very clean, and nice touches made the place feel special – from the little basket of toiletries to the ‘engaged’ wooden sign handing between two trees for the outdoor bathroom. At dinnertime we sat around the bonfire with the other guests and then ate together around a big dining table.
Overall thoughts? Laikipia charmed me during the time I spent there. It charmed me both in terms of the variety and amount of wildlife we saw in this less-touristy region of Kenya, and also because of the special accommodation we stayed in. If I thought that the roads here had been challenging though, I knew nothing. I was heading further north for the black volcanic desert landscape of Lake Turkana via the wild frontier town of Maralal…