The allure of Laikipia

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Covering 8000sq km northwest of Mount Kenya, this upland region of golden savannah and rocky bush offers an enticing blend of remote escapes and high adventure. Richard Trillo uncovers the 22 best experiences in this often-overlooked Kenyan jewel

Rhinos in Laikipia, KenyaTrek with camels
For the Samburu people (ethnic cousins of the Maasai, who have grazed their livestock across much of Laikipia for the past 300 years), camels offer better insurance against drought than cattle. Pack your bags on your beast and set out from Tumaren Camp with your Samburu guides on a trek of several days through the bush, looking out for wildlife, learning about the environment and setting up a new camp each night.

Track wild dogs
As they recover from the canine distemper that almost exterminated them in recent years, Kenya’s wild dogs have found ample hunting grounds and safe sanctuary in the region’s conservancies — nowhere more so than on Ol Donyo Lemboro ranch, where Steve and Annabelle Carey run Laikipia Wilderness, a rustic camp of five large tents with open-air bathrooms. You bump through the bush in an open Land Cruiser, pausing to use the radio antenna to track down the incessantly mobile dogs that stream through the bush like painted wolves.

Explore the foothills around Lake Rutundu
Wherever you are in Laikipia, the jagged, snow-flecked peaks of Mount Kenya poke up on the horizon to the southeast. From the conservancies closer to the mountain (Ol Pejeta, Borana and Lewa), it’s an easy day trip through the Sirimon Gate of the Mount Kenya National Park, through the forest and up onto the steep moorland. Zebras graze on the tussocky grass and eagles circle. At Lake Rutundu you can fish for trout from the cabin where Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton.

Track elephants and trace rock art
On the furthermost fringes of Laikipia, where the bush-specked sandy soil merges into Kenya’s northern deserts, dramatic Tassia Lodge perches on a rock peninsula above the plains. Follow your host Martin Wheeler — paragliding expert, falconer and bushman extraordinaire — as he lopes through the trees, gun in hand for safety, in soft pursuit of not-too-close encounters with gentle giants. Then rock-hop up the canyon with your Laikipiak Maasai guide to hidden caves adorned with the paintings of his ancestors.

Ride with rhinos
Horses are part of the scenery right across Laikipia, and there are excellent stables at many lodges. Whether you’re an experienced equestrian or a clueless beginner, the grooms at the spectacular Borana Lodge will look after you on a gentle walk, a trot and a canter. The wildlife is relatively relaxed about humans on horses, meaning you can get very close to giraffe, and approach within zoom lens distance of the highly endangered black rhino.

Explore the Aberdare Range
At Solio Ranch in southern Laikipia you may not tire of rhino tracking, horse riding and other activities on the wildlife-rich conservancy, but with the magnificent Aberdare Range rising to the west, it’s hard to resist the allure of its misty heights, giant waterfalls, high-altitude forest and brooding, alpine grasslands grazed by shy bongo and prowled by black panthers (or ‘melanistic leopards’).

Fly in a yellow biplane
If Robert Redford flying Meryl Streep over the plains in Out of Africa floated your boat, then enjoy a jaunt in a similar yellow biplane. From your base in Lewa Wilderness, the bush home of the Craig family that has been converted into a rustic safari lodge, you take a short drive to the airstrip, don goggles and a scarf, and soar into the blue above the rolling, wildlife-specked hills of the Lewa Downs.

Track lions
On the 360sq-km Ol Pejeta Conservancy herding Boran cattle goes hand in hand with wildlife conservation and introducing visitors to the thrills of the bush. At the sumptuous Kicheche Laikipia camp you can take part in the area’s lion-tracking programme, heading into the bush in a 4WD with a radio-telemetry kit to locate some of the collared individuals among Ol Pejeta’s sixty-plus lions.

Meet rhino orphans
The black rhino of Laikipia are the most high-profile conservation success story in the region. From a breeding nucleus of a few dozen individuals, there are now more than 200 black rhino on half a dozen conservancies, including 72 in Lewa Conservancy. If you’re staying with Sophie and Calum Macfarlane at their chilled hilltop retreat Lewa House, you can drop in at the conservancy headquarters for a close-up, hands-on encounter with three affectionate black rhino orphans.

Become a warrior
Many camps and lodges offer an hour or two to try out your traditional Maasai and Samburu skills — spear-throwing, bow-shooting, jumping and sprinting, club-hurling, fire-making and communal dancing and singing — and most adults as well as older children enjoy the break from wildlife watching. Bush Adventures Camp will arrange for you to stay at a remote community lodge and learn the ways of a warrior, with a full schedule of real training for four days or more.

Bike in the bush
You need a strong bicycle and good tyres to ride in the bush, but the rewards are outstanding. Covering 40-80km per day, you can go where no vehicle can reach, using bush paths and dropping into bottom gear to climb rocky tracks. Wildlife encounters and local community interaction abound. Several lodges, including Borana, have mountain bikes, or you can do a tour of several days. The new Laikipia XC race (in July) is a 500km, six-day event over a wide range of terrains.

Walk with baboons
Set off soon after sunrise or at dusk with a guide trained by the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project to observe a habituated troop of olive baboons at close quarters on their rocky sleeping ledges. Despite the reputation of baboons for aggressive behaviour, you come away from the experience with fascinating insights into the nuances of their complex social structure. Even better, the money supports local community projects.

Go on plenty of game drives
Located next to a wildlife-rich marsh in the western part of the Lewa Conservancy, sumptuous Sirikoi makes a great base for a photographic safari. Set up your kit on the dining deck, under the huge fever trees that form a central feature of the camp, and take some practice shots of the reticulated giraffe and southern white rhino that frequently visit the camp. Then head out with your expert Maasai guide on the trail of Lewa’s megafauna and birdlife, with Mount Kenya rising in the background.

Enjoy a chopper safari
It’s not cheap, but it’s completely unforgettable: take a flight from the privately-owned Ol Malo in a helicopter. Rising from the rugged landscape, where the lodge perches on the cliff edge above the Ewaso Nyiro river, the aircraft ducks and soars over the plains and out into Kenya’s northern frontier district. You’ll cross hippo-filled rivers, lava fields, canyons and stark plateaux. Longer excursions can even reach Lake Turkana.

Try river-rafting
In a steep ravine in northwest Laikipia, where elephants edge down the banks to drink, the beautiful Sabuk Lodge seems to emerge from the rocks, its open-fronted rooms gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Launch yourself into the Ewaso Nyiro (the Maasai’s ‘Red River’) in one of the lodge’s inflatable rafts and float downstream, paddling when required. Depending on the water level, you may not get far: there’s a broad beach on a bend less than a kilometre from the lodge, from where the staff can come and pick you up by 4WD.

Go birdwatching
Il Ngwesi Eco Lodge is one of the few places to be both owned and managed by the local Laikipiak Maasai community. It combines a remote site on a hilltop far out in the arid northern bush with inventive, freeform architecture and a perfectly positioned waterhole that regularly attracts elephants and other wildlife. Like an oasis, the woodland here is a magnet for birdlife, with more than 250 species, including hornbills, drongos and numerous raptors.

Zoom around on a quad-bike
Explore the 240sq-km Loisaba Conservancy on a quad-bike, led by an experienced guide. Reticulated giraffe, elephant, beisa oryx and magnificent greater kudu are often seen, and you can reach areas that are inaccessible to larger vehicles. Profits from the quad-bike hire go to the Loisaba Community Trust (LCT), which spends them on grassroots education, infrastructure and high school and university scholarships for members of the local community.

Have a bush breakfast
At Porini Rhino Camp you take tea and cookies before dawn and head out into the misty bush, past steam-snorting buffalo and whistling thorn bushes draped with spiders’ webs. As the sun breaks through the damp air, the landscape paints itself into a kaleidoscope of greens, dotted with tawny impala, striding giraffe and the occasional elephant or rhino. With the sun high, the driver pulls up into deep shade where a table is set out for a bush breakfast you won’t forget.

Run a marathon
Each year in April the Lewa Safaricom Marathon attracts increasing numbers of runners, at every level, to Lewa Conservancy for a 26-mile 385yd run across wildlife-filled savannahs. Marshalls monitor the route for buffalo, rhino, elephant and big cats, and the sanctuary’s reticulated giraffe and zebra keep a respectful distance. Race entry fees fund wildlife conservation and community development projects.

Meet the last northern white rhinos
Everywhere you go on Ol Pejeta Conservancy, whether on foot or in a vehicle, you’re aware of the precarious balance between wildlife and humans. They manage 6000 head of sturdy Boran cattle here, herding them into lion-proof mobile stockades every night. Similarly guarded with tender care are Africa’s three remaining northern white rhinos: a male, Sudan, his daughter Najin and her daughter Fatu. As the last of their kind, they live in a special sanctuary and you can approach them very closely.

Sleep under the stars
As the equatorial sun lowers, leave your comfortable cottage at Sosian lodge behind and head out by 4WD into the bush for a night in the open, near the banks of the Ewaso Narok river. From the grunting of hippos as they prepare to go ashore to graze to the distant roar of lions or the rasp of a leopard, the sounds of the bush are all around you. You’ll have dinner by the campfire and then sleep in bedrolls under the stars, or in a simple tent if you prefer, securely guarded by wakeful askaris, and start the next day at the first glint of dawn.

Spot an aardvark
The delightful El Karama Lodge (‘el karama’ means ‘precious gift’ in Arabic), named thus by the Grant family who have lived there for three generations, lies on the banks of the upper Ewaso Nyiro. It feels truly wild, without being remote, and it bursts with wildlife, sometimes seen under surprising circumstances. For example, to get a phone signal, you must walk out of the main lodge for a few minutes to the nearby hilltop where, at dusk, if you’re lucky, you can watch the local aardvark on his first explorations of the night.

 

Laikipia Voices

Joan Wandegi Nthiga, Laikipia Wildlife Forum
“Laikipia is one of those places that is unforgettable. Yes, the landscape is amazing and the wildlife incomparable to other places in the region, but it’s the people here that I really love. Laikipia is a melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds, all living in a land that most say has been ‘invoked by the magic of the mountain’. Like-pia? I love it!”

Tanya Carr-Hartley, The Safari Collection
“In an era where wildlife is threatened by a growing human population, Laikipia stands out. Community and private landowners have united for the common good of the region, securing a healthy natural environment. The abundance of wildlife is second only to that of the Masai Mara Ecosystem. Half of the country’s black rhinos inhabit this area, alongside other endangered mammals such as Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, wild dog and Jackson’s hartebeest. Laikipia also offers opportunities to fish, ride, cycle, walk and encounter culturally rich communities, too.”

Maggie Hobbs, Tambuzi
“Situated at the centre of the world, on the Equator and close to the sun, Laikipia is undoubtable beautiful. However it is its energy that makes Laikipia truly special and exciting. People from all over the world gather here, drawn to its freedom and potential.”

Dan Nguru, The Laikipian
“Laikipia is the pearl of Africa. It has unique scenery and wildlife, intertwined with a rich cultural diversity that lives in perfect harmony. A more precious aspect of the Laikipia Identity is the budding and vibrant youth, who are putting creativity and innovation into everything they do to safeguard and promote co-existence of human and nature.”

 

Safari Planner
• Getting there  The Laikipia conservancies are four to eight hours’ drive north of Nairobi depending on your destination, or 40-60 minutes by light aircraft, depending whether you’re landing at Nanyuki, Lewa Downs or Loisaba. Charter flights to bush airstrips can be used for more remote locations. Or you can book your entire trip through a tour operator such as Expert Africa.
• When to go  Averaging 2000-2500m above sea level, Laikipia has a mild climate, with warm to hot days and cool nights. Most districts have some rain every month, but the southwest usually gets its heaviest rain in May and the southeast is wettest in November, so it’s worth avoiding these months.
• Health  There are no specific health requirements and malaria is considered rare to non-existent, but all visitors should seek advice on vaccinations and antimalarials from their GP or travel clinic.
• Further reading  The Rough Guide to Kenya by Richard Trillo; Bradt Guide to East African Wildlife by Philip Briggs; I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann

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  • Rutundu Cabins are the perfect escape from the safari circuit. Sitting on the foothills of Mount Kenya at 3,100 meters, both the vegetation and the wildlife are unique. No wonder Prince William and Kate Middleton chose to vacation here.