The Kenya Connection
Ker & Downey’s Nicky Brandon finds canvas, conservation, and community at Kenya’s most spectacular stays. By Nicky Brandon and Haley Beham
Throughout my 20-plus years in the travel business, I’ve been on countless safaris, experienced all the traditional village tours, and stayed in lodges that rank among the best. Still, there is always something new to discover, and my last trip to Kenya absolutely blew me away.
Giraffe Manor | Nairobi
“Giraffe Manor needs little explanation,” says Mikey Carr-Hartley, owner of the iconic hotel. Its resident tower of Rothschild giraffes have made the place a must-stop on any Kenya itinerary. Where else can you share breakfast with a giraffe poking its head through the window? There's no doubt about it; a stay at Giraffe Manor is special. It’s just 30 minutes from Nairobi, and it's surrounded by 140 acres of park and forest.
The foliage-covered boutique hotel was built in the 1930s by Sir David Duncan and purchased in the 1970s by Jock Leslie-Melville and his wife Betty. At the time, the couple translocated two highly-endangered Rothschild giraffes to the property for a breeding program, with the hope of releasing breeding pairs back into the wild and securing future generations of this elegant species. Since the Leslie-Melvilles began their mission at Giraffe Manor, the population of Rothschild giraffes has grown from around 120 to 1,200. The mission overall has also expanded. Today, the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) Giraffe Center at the hotel operates conservation and education programs for Kenyan school children and visitors from around the world.
For each guest staying at Giraffe Manor, a donation is made to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) and wildlife conservation projects across Kenya.
Sala’s Camp | Masai Mara National Reserve
From the back of the safari vehicle, a fully-garbed Masai spotter scans the wilderness for everything from the Big Five to an elephant shrew. He is all eyes and ears on the game drive through an exclusive area of the southern Masai Mara. From June to September, you will have a front row seat to the migration from Sala’s Camp, no tracker needed.
A stay at Sala’s Camp recalls the bygone era of travel: exceptional hospitality, fine dining, and an authentic safari experience under the canvas of eight tented suites. This level of luxury and exclusivity in the bush is hard to find in the Mara. The camp sits near the Sand and Keekerok Rivers, which attract large numbers of wildlife. Yet it’s far away from busier safari crowds.
Sala’s Camp provides staff and vehicles for the annual rhino census. For each guest that stays at Sala’s Camp, the Safari Collection donates $5 per night to the Rhino Monitoring Team to assist with fuel costs, training, and daily activities. Sala’s Camp also assists with data collection, funding, and serves as home base for staff from the Mara Cheetah and Lion projects when they are in the southern Masai Mara.
Solio Lodge | Mount Kenya
Located on the equator between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountains, Solio Lodge offers a variety of experiences. From game drives and walking safaris, to horseback riding and fishing for rainbow trout in the glacial lakes of the Aberdares, you can do as much or a little as you want. For an extraordinary view, take a Tropic Air helicopter flight from camp to Mount Kenya. It departs in the morning and flies over the concession up to the remote lakes of Mount Kenya, where a breakfast picnic awaits.
Over 250 rhinos live in the Conservancy, renowned as the most successful rhino breeding reserve in Kenya. It's not uncommon to have a sighting of up to 40 rhinoceroses at one time. Through their efforts, Solio’s team has translocated over 100 black and 60 white rhinos to protected areas of Kenya and Uganda.
Guest conservancy fees contribute directly to rhino conservation. In its commitment to the surrounding community, Solio Lodge has rebuilt the local Honi and Leburra Primary Schools in the last two years.
ol Donyo Lodge | Mbirikani Masai Conservation Area
Set on 300,000 acres of Maasai-owned land far away from the tourist circuit, ol Donyo resides in a singular region of Kenya, with Mount Kenya as the backdrop for its seven suites. The inspiration for Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, this swath of land provides a corridor for animals to move freely between neighboring Tsavo, Chyulu Hills, and Amboseli.
A walk along the area’s volcanic craters and lava tubes led by a reformed poacher is filled with information about the volcanic history and geology of the area, and about his experiences going from a poacher to an anti-poaching ranger. And, as ol Donyo is the only lodge in the Mbirikani Maasai Conservation Area, you won’t see a fleet of mini buses on your game drives.
Ten thousand people make their home in the Mbirikani Group Ranch. Each guest’s stay makes a direct financial contribution to the community and to Big Life Foundation, which leads anti-poaching patrols on the Mbirikani and surrounding ranches. The foundation started the Maasai Olympics to discourage lion hunting among Masai warriors as a traditional rite-of-passage. The games have been hugely successful according to Craig Millar, Head of Security at Big Life Foundation.
Sasaab | Samburu National Reserve
Sasaab is unlike any other place in Kenya. Inspired by Moroccan design, the stylish property sits hidden away on a rocky ridge on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. The area is dry and arid, with a desert-like terrain, which lends itself to a wholly different safari experience than in places like the Masai Mara. A huge variety of animals reside in Samburu National Reserve, from big cats and elephants to the Samburu Special Five (Grévy's zebra, ostrich, reticulated giraffe, generuk, and beisa oryx). The lodge’s Samburu village tour is one of the most genuine you’ll find, but fly camping in the wilderness under a blanket of stars is truly unforgettable.
Conservation fees contribute to the costs of running the conservancy (which supports over 600 families), wildlife management, providing clean water, and building schools. The lodge also has a food program which feeds 250 local school children daily, and grants scholarships to three women from the local community. Parent company The Safari Collection runs talks in the Masai Mara and Westgate Conservancy which focus on health issues and female empowerment. Each year they also host week-long clinics all over Kenya, including dental clinics in the Masai Mara communities.
Mara Plains | Masai Mara Conservancies
The sounds of hyenas and grunts of lions provide a soundtrack to life in the bush surrounding Mara Plains. Stationed at a bend in the Nikitiuk River in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, the lodge lies in a very remote area of one of the world’s richest ecosystems. Getting there requires a scenic journey across the river via a wooden footbridge, flanked by verdant tree branches. Upon arrival, friendly staffers greet you with a cold towel and a refreshing glass of juice. Tents are tucked under a canopy of trees overlooking sweeping savannahs. Unique to Great Plains Conservation’s properties, each tent is outfitted with professional camera equipment that resident guides teach you how to use during your stay.
Fees collected from guests directly contribute to sustaining the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, which is leased from the local Maasai community and more than 1,000 families. One of Great Plains Conservation's largest projects, Rhinos Without Borders, aims to relocate 100 rhinos from high-density populations that attract poachers to safe havens in Botswana. So far, 26 rhinos have been relocated.
Angama Mara | Masai Mara National Reserve
The lodge sits suspended on the edge of the Rift Valley’s Ololoolo Escarpment, one of Africa’s most prized parcels of land. With private, unrestricted access and wraparound vistas, it’s no wonder Hollywood chose this exact location to film scenes for Out of Africa. To take advantage of those stunning views, the property’s 30 suites have end-to-end glass frontage windows. Pack your days full of safari activities, hot air balloon rides, and Maasai village tours. Or simply watch the animals from your deck. While game viewing is extraordinary, Angama Mara’s joyful team of Kenyans is what makes a stay there truly special.
Operating on the philosophy of doing well by doing good, the entire staff village, including a community-owned dukka and clinic, was built utilizing knowledge from the 60 lodges the Fitzgeralds built over their 30-year careers. With an eye to sustainability, all drinking water for guests and staff is purified and bottled on-site.
All photos credited to The Safari Collection