On Safari

By John Nyaga

The Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is renowned for its varied wildlife. Conservationists often issue warnings on the creeping damage to the ecosystem and animal habitats through unplanned and unsustainable tourism.

Seeing the need to practice a more wholesome form of game viewing tourism, Basecamp Explorer introduced a concept that seeks to preserve the ecosystem while empowering local communities to improve their livelihoods through capacity building, conservation awareness and women empowerment.

One of the highlights of Basecamp Explorer’s engagement with the local community in the Masai Mara is the Basecamp Masai Brand (BMB), a women’s group that makes bead and leather handicraft to sell to tourists. The social enterprise, which has 158 members, has become so successful that even men from the patriarchial Maasai community turn up with requests that their wives be enrolled as members, according to Jemimah Sairowua, the Project Manager. The attraction is the financial independence that BMB has engendered among women in the Talek area, where Basecamp Masai Mara is located.

“I now earn my own money. I have stopped depending entirely on my husband,” says Kimanyisho Sairouwa, a young mother of three and a member of the Basecamp Maasai Brand. She no longer lives in a traditional mud hut, she says. The income from BMB has made it possible for her to build a house with a corrugated tin roof. One of her daughters is in boarding school because she can now afford the school fees.

Earnings from handicraft sales to tourists and online customers across the world are transforming lives. “More women would join if the market was larger,” says Sairowua, the project manager. The enterprise has brought in millions of shillings with approximately 25 percent growth year on year.

At the BMB workshop the women are busy at work as they chat. The more items one produces the more individual earnings at the end of the month. Each month 75 per cent of the profits will go directly to the women. The remaining 25 per cent goes to the cost of materials and management of BMB, a fair trade certified enterprise.

Basecamp Explorer has also made efforts to restore the degraded ecosystem with a tree afforestation programme started in 2000 and which has become an expanding woodland with 80,000 indegenous trees planted. Each guest at Basecamp Masai Mara is encouraged to plant a tree during their stay obtained from the tree nursery managed by Mwana, one of the local Maasai youth. Saplings are also given to members of the local community who wish to plant trees elsewhere. The idea is to sensitize the community on the importance of aforestation and habitat conservation.

There are 12 tents at Basecamp Masai Mara. Each with a private veranda overlooking the Masai Mara Reserve, and an open air en suite bathroom with a hot solar-heated shower. An especially plush tent hosted then US Senator Barack Obama and his family in 2006. Each member of the Obama family also planted a tree in the aforestation area.

 

 

 

Back at Basecamp, our safari guide Joseph Ouko is ready. We venture out through the suspended foot bridge over the Talek river into the van and head out into the vast Masai Mara National Reserve where herds of antelepoes, big and small, mingle with buffaloes, giraffes and zebras. At a distance Joseph spots two elephants ambling along the riverbank. We drive closer for a better view of the pachyderms.

Our curiosity satiated, we drive away in the opposite direction as packs of hyenas furtively criss-cross our path. In a thicket along the crocodile-infested river, four lionesses lie in deep slumber, oblivious of our purposeful photographing. Occasionally, one lioness or another rolls over, eyes opening up briefly, and back to sleep.

We head back to the camp for breakfast. Guests can enjoy game viewing from the convenience of their dining table, set within the grounds of the camp. Visitors can also view wildlife from the tents, the fig-tree platform or while enjoying drinks at the open-air bar.

The next day, in the company of our Maasai safari guide, we set out for Eagle View, another camp managed by Basecamp Explorer in the Naboisho Conservancy, north of the Masai Mara. Enroute, a large herd of wildbeest graze in the lush savannah where recent rainfall has rejuvenated the grass. The gnu seem oblivious to the fact that a cheetah has brought down one of their number and is enjoying the meat not far away as a wake of vultures stand by to feast on the left overs once the big cat has eaten to its fill.

We stop to view and photograph. The cheetah is still panting from the sprint that preceeded the kill and eats with some difficulty, the wildbeest flesh apparently too tough. The vultures waiting at a distance betray no impatience. The kill is a big one. A meal is guaranteed.

Time to proceed. We are scheduled to stop over at Wilderness Camp enroute to Eagle View.

Wilderness Camp is designed to be a reminder of the African safaris of yore – before modern contraptions of luxury spoiled authentic excusions into nature. Here at Wilderness you are away from it all, except the wildlife, the stars and members of the local Maasai community. Highlights include a guided walking safari.

We arrive at Eagle View where manager Shadrack Munoru and his staff are waiting with refreshments. We check in, have a late lunch and hop into the safari jeep for game viewing in Naboisho Community Conservancy, another of Basecamp Explorer’s efforts to ensure that the Maasai community keep their land while earning decent returns from sustainable tourism. The community has leased the land to investors in safari tourism.

The 20,000-hectare Naboisho, which means ‘coming together’ in the local Maa language, is managed in a strict sustainability model. The more than 5,000 landowners are paid a land lease fee, a much needed income for nomadic herders of limited means.

As the sun sets on our game drive in Naboisho, we stumble upon a lion and lioness asleep. They will soon wake up and embark on a nocturnal hunt, says Amos. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a meal. Naboisho teems with herbivores.

We are soon back in Eagle View, our abode for the night, perched on top of the hill overlooking a natural well where wild animals of all manner come to drink throughout the day. We sit by the fireplace in the extended lobby, an ideal spot for an evening drink listening to the sounds of different animals as night falls over the African wilderness.

Dinner is served and shortly afterwards we retire to our cosy tent. The morning game drive would be the time we are rewarded with sight of a lion couple walking majestically in the bushes to a destination only they know.

Before embarking on our long drive back to Nairobi, we spend some time with students at Koiyaki Guiding School (KGS) and their principal, Julius Kisemei. A capacity building institution set up to train local youth on sustainable guiding skills, preparing them for employment within the safari industry in Kenya and beyond. Basecamp Explorer sponsors a number of students, mainly girls every year. Twenty-four-year-old Lorna Naisiai, a safari guide employed by Basecamp is one of the 247 KGS alumni, including 46 women, to graduate from the school since it was founded.

“The school has enabled women from the patriarchal Maasai community to participate in tourism,” says Lorna, who was sponsored for the tour guiding course by the Robert Smith family of the United States. “I am now a role model in my village. Other girls admire me.”

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By John Nyaga

Deep in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park lies Finch Hattons Tented Camp from where one can wake up to a stunning view of the peaks of the majestic Kilimanjaro to the south-west and the undulating Chyulu Hills to the north.

The 17-tent luxury safari camp affords visitors a luxurious yet intimate setting -- around permanent natural fresh water springs -- from where to explore Tsavo West National Park, 9,000 square kilometres of wilderness, teeming with elephants, buffalos, bushbuck, elands, giraffes, hartebeest, impala, leopards, lions, oryx, wildebeest and countless bird species.

Named after Denys Finch Hatton, a British aristocrat who arrived in Kenya in 1911 and became fascinated with Africa’s wildlife -- he passionately photographed them and lobbied for their conservation after giving up big game hunting. Denys Finch Hatton, also known for his love affair with Karen Blixen, the Danish author of Out of Africa – is said to have introduced the idea of “luxury safari” in the wild, where he entertained royalty and other wealthy guests.

Finch Hattons, established in 1993 and rebuilt in 2015, is “where luxury meets legend.” It has “preserved the ideals that Denys Finch Hatton lived by; a dedication to elegance and style, coupled with a passionate love of the Kenyan wilderness and a long forgotten way of life,” the camp’s management says in a brochure.

Popular activities for visitors include game drives to explore Tsavo West in open all-terrain vehicles, breakfast in the bush and sundowners in the wild. Finch Hattons also organises guided bush walks, climbs up Ol Donyo Crater, walks in Chyulu forest and excursions to Shetani Lava Flow, Mzima Springs, Chiamu Crater, Lake Jipe and the Roaring Rocks.

Dining is not taken for granted at Finch Hattons. Fresh Kenyan produce is used to create sumptuous breakfasts and gourmet lunches served on the terrace. A lavish multiple-course dinner with fine wines, and the option of several dining spaces from the plush dining room to dining under the stars at the Star Bar are the highlights of the food experience.

The newly built elevated luxury tented suites are all located on the edge of the springs created with a minimal environmental footprint. They use solar for the hot water, biobox, a wastewater recycling system, and have been built with local materials. Even the drinking water is filtered and preserved in glass reusable bottles at a facility in the camp, eliminating the problem of polluting plastic water bottles.

All tents are designed to give a luxurious setting, reminiscent of the glorious old days of safari, but with a contemporary twist and all the modern day comforts. Each tent has indoor and outdoor showers, a freestanding copper bath tub, a maxi bar and an oustanding deck where one can lose themselves in the calm and serenity of the African wild.

Retreating back to the camp from a game drive or one of the many activities, there are several relaxation areas to indulge in. The Chyulu Spa and Wellness Retreat boasts a yoga deck overlooking the Chyulu Hills. Enjoy a spa treatment with the natural Africology range of

products, swim in onf of the two swimming pools or watch the beautiful sunset with views of Mount Kilimanjaro on the 12-metre high observation deck.

The camp is a 35-acre concession in the national park that prides itself on having established amicable relations with the Maasai herder communities who inhabit the surrounding villages and livestock ranches, according to camp manager Jonathan Mutisya. Reaching out to the communities with information on the need to conserve wildlife has helped reduce the incidence of human-wildlife conflict, he says.

“Our goal is in preserving the pristine wilderness, allowing the Maasai to preserve their culture, and assisting them with the knowledge and tools to become the protectors of both,” says a member of the management team. The camp is working on a project to help upgrade the local schools while creating a conservation education programme for the next generation of the Maasai community.

Finch Hattons was instrumental in bringing cell phone connectivity to the nearby village of Il Tilal, which has transformed the lives of residents. They enjoy some of the benefits of mobile telephony, including the popular M-Pesa money transfer facility. Cell phone connectivity has also enabled the setting up of an information and telecommunication technology teaching centre at Il Tilal primary school by the mobile telephony provider Safaricom.

Tsavo National Park is said to have been once the best managed. Today, however, there are challenges for tourist facilities in the park. According to Finch Hattons management, the government agency mandated to protect wildlife and manage national parks needs to be a little bit more diligent.

“The park management needs to look into making Tsavo a tourist destination once again,” says a member of Finch Hattons management, pointing out as an example the lack of information for tourists at the gates to the park.

Neglect of access roads is another issue that needs to be addressed, she adds, noting that Finch Hatttons has spent some 50 million Kenyan shillings of its own funds over the years to improve the road network and build a rangers' house for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Stakeholders in Tsavo need to work collaboratively, under KWS leadership, to conserve and manage the park, according to Finch Hattons’ management.

Livestock grazing in the park is the other problem in Tsavo – and many other Kenya national parks for that matter. Environmental degradation in the park is apparent as one drives around and one of the causes is the presence of cattle. It results in soil erosion and damaged roads.

The destruction of forests in the Chyulu Hills has also had an impact on the water table in the Tsavo ecosystem, exacerbating droughts such as the 2009 dry spell when Finch Hattons stepped in to provide food aid to the Iltilal community. Finch Hattons also fed dozens of hippos around the camp, saving them from imminent starvation death.

An increasing number of farmers are settling on the edges of Tsavo West and illegally extracting water directly from local rivers and natural springs, a development that could only worsen conditions in the park.

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By John Nyaga
Past Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, beyond the flower farms that are the mainstay of the area’s economy, lies the Oserengoni Wildlife Sanctuary (OWS), a private conservancy with a wide range of flora and fauna -- and two lodges that avail world-class comfort in tranquil surroundings.

Ringed by a breathtaking view of the undulating Mau Escarpment in the horizon to the west and bordered by the Hells Gate National Park to the east, Oserengoni, previously a cattle range and wheat farm, measures roughly 12,000 acres.

“Naivasha is a great alternative to the Masai Mara,” says Suzzanne Gathitu, Sales and Marketing Manager of the two lodges – Chui Lodge, which comprises eight cottages, and Kiangazi House, which has seven rooms, including a couple of larger ones for visitors who wish bring their families along. “People should discover that Naivasha is actually home to a variety of species of wildlife rarely seen elsewhere,” explains Ms. Gathitu.

The sanctuary was established in 1995 by Dutchman Hans Zwager, his wife June and their son Peter, aiming to conserve biodiversity, attract visitors and become a centre for sustainable development. The Zwagers had already made their home [the Djinn Palace] at Oserian, on the shores of Lake Naivasha, where they became the largest flower growers in Kenya.
The animal population in Oserengoni was initially small, but has risen over the years, a factor Sanctuary Manager, John Ndegwa, attributes to suitable habitat management and effective security and protection measures.

“From a land use practice that was intolerant to wildlife conservation, OWS has made progressive strides towards effecting a complete transformation from cattle husbandry and wheat farming to conservation,” says Mr. Ndegwa.

There is an abundance of birds. The Grey-helmeted shrikes finds a safe haven among stacks of leleshwa [camphor bush], while the mix of vultures do not lack carcasses to feed on in the open glades. Cheetahs and leopards are a common sighting, while “George” the lion has seemingly found his way back to what must have been his ancestral home.

In a bid to enrich the genetic pool and broaden species diversity, several animal species were brought into the sanctuary in the late 1990s. They included the White rhino, Topi, Grevy’s zebra, Wildbeeste, Thompson gazelle and Waterbucks. [The rhinos were subsequently translocated to other sanctuaries after several poaching incidents.]

At the time, wildlife were being displaced from the surrounding areas as a result of land use practices that were oblivious to conservation. Poaching, charcoal making and logging resulted in habitat fragmentation as well as blockage of traditional dry season dispersal grounds, further contributing to the confinement of the animals to the only remaining safe areas -- including Oserengoni wildlife sanctuary.

The sanctuary is ringed with a 40-kilometre fence to keep the animals in and people out, thus minimizing the potential for conflict between the two. Watering holes dot the sanctuary, ensuring that the wildlife do not go thirsty.

The conservancy does not seek to isolate itself from the local community. It has set up and maintains amenities for the community, including schools, health centres and water projects. “We need the community to protect the conservancy for us,” says Ms. Gathitu.

Oserengoni’s true conservation success lies in its unique ability to strike a balance between sustainable development, through its various commercial enterprises, and maintaining a fully-fledged conservation entity, according to Mr. Ndegwa.

There have been challenges. The “success” has resulted in the population of some species outstripping the conservancy’s ecological carrying capacity. With the country’s policy on wildlife population management yet to be finalized, the conservancy is left to struggle with “excess” animals that could be accommodated in other areas of the country where numbers have been in decline.

“A more practical population management policy would go a long way in offsetting the cost and loss incurred through infrastructural damage, ecological degradation as well as human-wildlife conflict,” says Mr. Ndegwa.

“Individual conservation efforts should not be allowed to become a burden to the land owners especially in a country where well over half of the wildlife population exist outside protected areas,” he adds.

Back at Chui Lodge, self-taught chef Richard Langat and his staff have prepared a meal of steamed tilapia, spiced up with various herbs and vegetables, all grown in the Oserian horticultural farms nearby. Langat’s roast pumpkin soup is a culinary delight that must be tasted. He joined the conservancy 17 year ago as a construction labourer. He was later moved to the kitchen where he learned the knack of gourmet cooking as he did the dishes.

Meals or drinks can be had outside the dining room, lounge and bar, depending on the weather.

Oserengoni offers various activities for its visitors, notably game drives or walks -- in the company of knowledgeable guides -- that can end with a refreshing sundowner by a bonfire in the wild. One can venture to the shores of the nearby Lake Oloidien, frequented by pelicans. Boat rides can also be organised on Lake Naivasha for a rendezvous with hippos, pelicans and fish eagles.

A visit to the adjacent Hell’s Gate National Park -- which could be be at risk as a result of the construction of the Ol Karia geothermal power plants -- can also be organized from Oserengoni.

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Take an old cattle ranch facing Mount Kenya on 50,000 acres of sumptuous Kenyan savannah. Build eight separate wood and thatch villas to Conde’ Nast luxury travel standards with a hot tub on every veranda overlooking a watering hole for every view. Add fine cuisine, an extravagant and huge art collection, enlightened Community Conservation programmes and run it all on solar power and sustainable water management and what do you get? The answer still would not add up to the unique experience that is Segera Retreat. The scope and breadth of it all defies simple addition. So does the philosophy of the Zeitz Foundation, which is behind it – one whose mantra is sustainability through the 4 C's – “a healthy balance of Conservation, Community, Culture, and Commerce.”

Small wonder that Jochen Zeitz, the man behind Segera, and a chain of allied destinations, was invited to provide a keynote address representing the global business community at this year’s International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Park Congress, a landmark global forum on protected areas in Sydney last November.

In these troubled times of global economic uncertainty, violence and security blighting Africa’s tourism, it takes a wealthy man to propound such views with confidence, and he is and does. We will interview him in a future issue.

Segera oozes high-end luxury, and it takes a privileged pocket to pay for the experience at about $1,000 per person per night. Such people voted Segera as one of the world’s top new hotels in Conde Nast Traveller magazine. But it’s the kind of place, and experience, that sings “Special” and takes the term unforgettable out of the realm of hyperbole and into reality.

There’s something reminiscent here of Out of Africa, the 1985 Sydney Pollack film that launched a generation of safari-suited visitors to the continent and a wave of films, books and shops to feed that curiosity.

It’s not just the yellow Gypsy Moth bi-plane in the hangar, the same one used in the film and flown occasionally by Zeitz, or the convertible Rolls Royce Silver Shadow on display in the garage.

Being there reminds you of Africa’s unending magnetism for those in search of space, spiritual refreshment, wildlife and astonishment. And in remarkable comfort.

It’s odd to be writing about a relatively new addition to Kenya’s highend lodges – Lewa and Ol Jogi are not far away – when the country’s tourism is in the doldrums. But manager Jens Kozany is unphased, phlegmatic and optimistic. “We are actually doing quite well.

Tourism will increase again, that’s sure, and it’s not all about making money, it’s to share.

“ This is not New Age babble or Marketing-Speak but reflects the philosophy of Zeitz, whose foundation set up the Long Run Initiative grouping 35 similar destinations around the world, and allied establishments trading under the banner as Global Ecosphere Retreats (GERs).

The mission of the Zeitz Foundation is to “create, support and sustain, ecologically and socially responsible projects and destinations around the world to achieve long-lasting impact and sustainability.” “Without ever generating income, we can only preserve so much of this planet, therefore we'll have to create concepts and ideas that are commercially based that will ultimately allow us to increase the amount of protected areas", Zeitz says on one of the movement’s websites. How does that thinking translate into what happened when Zeitz acquired the property eight years ago? “The first thing we did was to tear down all the wire fences so that animals could move freely, especially as this is a migration corridor,” says Kozany, all except for the fence to the South, “ to keep the animals away from the communities and keep them safe.”

Community involvement is Laikipia’s watchword and Segera has engaged local people in Grazing Committees so that they can feed their livestock in an organized way at rates agreed by landowners across the plateau.

The lodge employs about 200 local people but the community has, with Segera help, created income for itself by growing and cultivating food with rainwater harvested for the purpose.

“We thought we could teach people how to grow vegetables. What happened was that we created a sustainable business for the community – they sell a lot and women have turned into remarkable entrepreneurs,” says Kozany. Water shortages are omnipresent on Laikipia. What Segera did was to get three schools for children built with help from the Zeitz Foundation, all innovatively designed with inverted roofs and water catchment tanks to catch the downpours, feeding school and community gardens. There’s a library, environmental education centre and sports stadium too, also supported by Zeitz Foundation, Segera and neighbouring ranches.

“Many kids just didn’t go to school. They went out and collected water. So now they come to school instead. There’s a programme on hand washing to stop infections, and we’ve noticed that two thirds of the children are now free of stomach upsets. All that in a short time.” Inside the retreat itself sustainability is a watchword. The place runs on solar power completely with backup generators for emergencies. “We don’t just shine in the front and burn at the back,” says the manager. “We are serious.” Grey water is recycled for the ornamental and vegetable gardens.

An extraordinary tower shaped like a Samburu women’s neck decoration, which keep 20,000 bottles of African wine cool through a collected rainwater system and solar-powered air conditioning.

There are numerous other touches too that remind you that the governing ethic is not to take things out of the ecosystem for ever.

Small wonder that the animals appreciate the retreat too. Segera has not had a single case of poaching in two years and relies on its own community guards and people to sound the alarm if intruders come into the area.

I saw innumerable elephant on a private game drive in addition to the ones that performed dusk and dawn around the water hole in front of my villa. Martial and Snake Eagles, Silverbacked Jackals were highlights.

The Zoological Society of London is involved in projects to monitor Cheetahs and wilddogs, whilst other conservation organisations work with Segera to monitor and protect lions, Grevy’s zebra and the rare Patas monkey. Whilst Patas numbers fluctuate, these have risen in numbers since Segera’s active conservation efforts started and I didn’t get to see one but only because time was short.

No two villas are alike but all are furnished to the highest standards and taste. Guests are encouraged to enjoy the place as the word retreat suggests: “a religious or spiritual term for time taken to reflect or meditate.”

There are no organised daily game drives, no bells sounding dinner. Guests can dine together if they want, but privacy and serenity are respected above all. It can take only 30 guests in the eight villas, which is low-volume highcost tourism in action.

The villas are enclosed behind a natural fence that has been there for decades and once protected cattle; inside the landscaped garden drips bougainvillea and succulents and indigenous trees interspersed with a salt-water pool and striking sculptures from all over Africa. Zeitz’s collection of modern African art is one of the world’s biggest, and the Segera selection is striking in its mix sculpture, painting and artifact. Some are housed in what were once the stables, each door opening to another artist and another concept.

Segera’s Paddock room – you can dine downstairs and lounge upstairs – is, like most public areas, decorated with some of Zeitz’s personal art collection and eclectic antique collection, anything from an ancient hand-written bible to a 1920s alto saxophone.

This is a wonderful space in which to sink into an armchair and look at nightfall over Mount Kenya with elephant, giraffe and zebra in the foreground. From somewhere, my memory perhaps, I think I could hear Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A playing scratchily on a wind-up phonograph.

 

 

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Dawn Chorus? It's a dawn sympony at Olpejeta's beautiful Pelican House It would be something of an understatement to call the noise that accompanies daybreak at Pelican House a dawn chorus. Dawn symphony might be more appropriate. As light leaks in through the darkness, all manner of nature, furred, feathered and otherwise covered, seems to salute the sun over the savannah at the top of its vocal range.

Through the diminishing darkness you can see the shapes of buffalo and eland drinking at the dam in front of this elegant, country cottage as you sit with your tea or coffee on the verandah, the best seats in the house for this wildlife show. Forget, for a moment, game drives, inching forward on four wheels for a peek or looking over the safari suited shoulder in front of you. Here you are not outside nature looking in. You are inside nature looking out, and much of it is looking back at you too.

Pelican House is another option in the rich buffet of accommodation options that Ol Pejeta Conservancy offers its thousands of visitors. It has its famed Sweet Waters Tented Camp, the opulent ease of Ol Pejeta House, an intimate bush camp beside the river and Porini Rhino and Kicheche Laikipia camps. All are intimate, well-managed and memorably special, the sort of places you will tell friends about.

 

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