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(2014 - Winter/Spring Issue)


I can’t ever recall a trip lived more outside four walls than this one.

That is my first thought as I am wakened by the Kenyan dawn. I can hear the birds cranking up their morning cackling. The sky is streaked with pink and orange as the sun makes an appearance. Before waking, the last thing I remembered it was pitch dark—not a speck of light pollution anywhere—and the ink-black ceiling above my outdoor sky bed was pinpricked with the constellations of the southern hemisphere. But it’s now morning and time to start another day in the wilderness parks of Kenya. I paw at the gauzy white mosquito netting to find the opening and head down from the roof of my adobe casita toward the outdoor shower.

A Remarkable Property

Outdoor living, yes. Roughing it, not so much. The ol Donyo Lodge is built to mingle the luxury of an exclusive property with the irresistible savannah grasslands, bush and mist forest of the wilderness sandwiched between three national parks—Amboseli, Tsavo West and Chyulu. The lodge is surrounded by thin lines of electric fencing—enough of a deterrent to keep the elephants out (given free rein, they will trample everything in their path) but allowing other types of wild game free access.

The backcountry property—a cluster of 10 thatched-roof casitas and an open-air main lodge—is only a few kilometres from the grassland landing strip that is the entry point for most visitors. Just the day before, we’d touched down, bumping along a strip marked out by a row of bleached-by-the-sun animal skulls. It took more than an hour to make the two-kilometre trip from the airstrip to the front gate at ol Donyo.

Magical Moments

First, we’re slowed to a crawl by a herd of cattle, being tended by a Maasai herder. Our four-wheel-drive jeep stops and the herd fluidly moves past us, like a school of fish, sleekly dogmatic in their intention. Traditionally, the Maasai people are nomadic in search of water and grasslands for their livestock.

But it’s the “journey” of giraffes that brings us to a complete standstill. A half-dozen juveniles and several adults—the planet’s tallest land mammal—were plucking their lunch from the treetops. We pulled out our cameras and burned deep into the digital memory. The twin hills of El Mau rose in the background, soft in their uphill and downhill slopes, like the humps on a camel. The grasslands—studded with thorny acacia bushes and trees—rolled out around us, the greenery providing a hiding space for the giraffes. The distance was dominated by the famed Mount Kilimanjaro. It was magical.

A Bush-walking Expedition 

The next morning our Maasai guide, Jonathan Konee, hustles our small group out beyond the electric fence line for a bush walk. I struggle to keep up with his long strides—the Maasai are known for their height and for their ability to jump vertically. He seems very at home in this wild setting.

Yesterday we were watching the giraffes at a respectable distance from the relative safety of a wheeled enclosure that could peel out of there if necessary. Now, we are walking in their stomping grounds and I feel at a definite disadvantage. Do giraffes attack if they feel threatened?

It turns out they can kick their way to safety if attacked by a predator such as a lion. But this morning they are only mildly curious of our presence, ambling along, grazing the branches. They don’t seem to mind the intrusion.

Minutes later we come upon a creature with decidedly more heft—a large elephant is crashing about the dense acacia shrubs. We keep a close eye on its massive ears. Jonathan explains how spreading their ears forward is a threatening action the elephant displays to make itself look larger. It can be a sign it is about to charge. We keep our distance and just watch as the giant creature stomps about through the bush, foraging its morning meal.

According to Jonathan, this part of southeast Kenya—close to the famous Amboseli National Park—is best known for the large population of elephants. The ol Donyo Lodge is located in the heart of the 111,289-hectare Mbirikani Group Ranch, on the slopes of the Chyulu Hills. The group ranch is conservancy land, owned and operated by the community. In recent years, the conservancy has initiated conservation programs such as the predator compensation fund (to pay for herd losses rather than killing the wildlife predator). The Maasai people of the area have come to realize the great tourism value in protecting the wildlife such as elephants, lions and giraffe.

I feel, well, vulnerable, walking in this open space without the safety net of walls or the steel enclosure of a vehicle. It takes a surprising amount of energy to soak it all in—the colours and scents of the savannah, the sounds in the bush—and still stay on guard, knowing we are walking in a wilderness home that is not ours.

As it turns out the impala, elephants, giraffe and hyenas are gracious hosts, sharing their living room with us as we rudely interrupt them. We come over the crest of the hill and in the distance see what will be our dining room for breakfast—a long, elegantly set table, white linens blowing in the breeze.

We will dine alfresco, of course. From morning to night, life here is lived out of doors.

Travel Planner

KLM (klm.com) serves Nairobi, Kenya, via Amsterdam. Package tours to Kenya from Canada are available through Transat Discoveries at transatdiscoveries.com.

For more information on Kenya, visit: Ministry of Tourism: magicalkenya.com

ol Donyo Lodge: greatplainsconservation.com/odl

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