Kenya's Most Luxurious Safari Collection
May 12, 2014
A guttural roar has me bolt upright in bed. It’s 5am and I’m calmly rationalising that what I thought I heard was merely a figment of my over imaginative, and recently awoken, brain. But then I hear it again, a deep animalist roar – sounding exactly like the lion logo at the beginning credits of a MGM film – and it’s close by.
It’s our second morning in Kenya, and I’m thanking my lucky stars that we opted not to sleep rough. We are in Solio Lodge, a stunning collection of eight private, thatched-roofed, chalets tucked away deep inside a 17,500-acre animal conservatory a few hours flight North of Nairobi. Solio Lodge is part of The Safari Collection, a series of four boutique properties dotted around Kenya each in a contrasting physical terrain, and we are visiting all of them.
The only light in my large, open-plan lodge comes from the dying embers of the fireplace and the slightest sliver of blue peaking out from behind the curtains. Another roar, and I rush to the full-length windows, to peer out, my heart hammering in my chest. Light is just starting to appear behind the magnificent backdrop of Mount Kenya, and there – in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment – I spot a vague silhouette of my early-morning alarm call: a young male lion nimbly trotting a mere ten metres past my front porch, on the hunt for a bit of breakfast.
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Like most men, I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of an adventurer. Growing up in the jungles in South East Asia I idolised people such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Benedict Allen and even fictional heroes like Robinson Crusoe and Indiana Jones – but unlike those rough-and-ready, real man’s men, I would find it hard to shake of the creature comforts of a cooked breakfast, hot water showers and sitting on a veranda watching the sun set with a perfectly made G&T in hand. Which was exactly what I found myself doing on my first evening in Kenya.
After arriving at Nairobi airport (only a four-hour direct flight from Dubai), we are driven to the tranquil suburb of Karen, to check into another Safari Collection property, Giraffe Manor.
Perhaps the most aptly named building in Kenya, moments after driving up the driveway towards the breathtaking 1930s colonial-style, ten-bedroom manor house – that would not look out of place in an Agatha Christie novel – I am face to face with a giraffe, sniffing me intently for more food after having finished gobbling up a handful. As much as I will remember that moment for the rest of my life, the staff assures me that this is a regular occurrence due to the fact that Giraffe Manor operates as a sanctuary for the rare Rothschild Giraffe – of which approximately only 700 are believed to still be living in the wild.
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What is remarkable is that within the 140 acres of land belonging to the sanctuary the giraffes generally tend to mill about the manor – many of them poking their heads through the windows (especially at breakfast), as every room is supplied with food pellets to feed them. It is truly a one-off experience and just the very start of our safari.
A short private jet flight takes us to a landing strip in Laikipia underneath the majesty of Mount Kenya, where our guides to the Solio conservancy meet us. The area is Kenya’s first private conservancy and is considered to be East Africa’s most successful rhino breeding ground, now boasting a population of roughly 175 black and 60 white rhinos. As the only guesthouse in the entire conservancy Solio Lodge is a perfect place to stay and witness so many enormous beasts living in (relative) harmony.
Being on safari, you have to adapt to a certain lifestyle, so its best to leave any notions of checking work emails and sleeping late at the airport. On days when you aren’t awoken by the roar of hunting lions, the 5.30am wake-up calls are softened by the fact that they come from a private butler carrying a pot of steaming hot Kenyan coffee and home-made biscuits.
A quick breakfast and a day of private game drives (with our incredible guides Amos and Blackie) follow, which had us tracking down four of East Africa’s ‘Big Five’: rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion – elephants, the missing member of the set are not allowed in the conservancy due to their destructive nature – all of which you can spot with alarming ease within Solio. In fact, as we can lay testament to, some will even walk within a few metres while you park on top of a hill and enjoy sundowners amid the most breathtaking of views.
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Another aspect of safari life is the desire to constantly see more. Time is limited, and the wilds of Kenya are so vast that although, we could have stayed in Solio for a lot longer, time constraints and our desire to complete ‘the Big Five’ list took us to the dry, northern plains of the Samburu region.
Far removed from the lush greenery of Solio, the Safari Collection’s Sasaab camp is hot and dry. The stunning Moroccan-inspired lodge is perched high on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River and offers a kind of luxury you would never expect to find in Kenya’s barren northern territory – they even have a spa, for those longing for a bit of post-drive pampering. The orange plains are rampant with elephant herds – so much so that from our villa’s private pool we watched a mother elephant try and clean her baby, while it mucked around playing in the river.
But elephants aside, what makes Sasaab so special a place is its proximity to real Kenyan tribes, like the Samburu. Another lasting memory was when one evening our guide, Eric, took us to a nearby village to show us how a tribe of goat herders lived, and to watch the evening dancing rituals between the tribesmen and the women. There were no souvenirs being flogged, no tour groups, no entrance charges, it was a genuine insight into traditional life rather than the commercial-touting experiences we’d been told about in the vastly more popular Masai Mara. Speaking of the Masai Mara, that was our next stop.
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At 373,000 acres, the Mara is Kenya’s biggest and most famous national park. We set up camp in a quiet corner close to the Tanzanian border at Sala’s Camp. The most rustic of the Safari Collection’s properties, the 12 tented rooms, with running showers, toilets, a sturdy kingsized bed and writing desks, bring the idea of glamourous camping to a new level.
Situated on the convergence spot of two rivers, the location of Sala’s Camp was specifically chosen to be in prime position for the Great Wildebeest Migration – where between the months of July and September an estimated 1.5 million animals pass through in search of rain ripened grass. It is an experience that is now officially considered to be one of the ‘seven new wonders of the world’.
Although, we were concerned that Mara’s popularity would mean that it would be awash with tourists, our initial fears seemed to be unfounded. Yes, it still is Kenya’s main tourist attraction, but the park is so vast that the chance of seeing such a huge variety and number of animals roaming around in their natural habitat with total freedom vastly outweighed the occasional cluster of tourists in 4x4s. If Solio was safari on a small scale, then this was the unadulterated, real thing.
After a couple of days roaming under the Mara’s enormous skies and adding more and more animals to our list (crocodile, hippo, cheetah, zebra, jackal, eagle, vulture, hyena, impala and giraffe), sadly, our time in Kenya was up. But there was time for just one more memory. On the way to the airport, our guide, Moses, suddenly makes a sharp turn off-road, stops the car and points to a nearby tree. “Lion!” he calls out. But he is mistaken. There is not just one lion dozing under the shade of a tree, but a whole pride.
I grab my binoculars and count 13 in total, all of whom are sleeping like, well, a pride of well-fed lions. A few metres to our left another, more awake, lion is crouched down guarding what remains of a carcass – his eyes never leave us and suddenly I wish I was back in my bed on day one.
Details: for more visit thesafaricollection.com