Four nights and five days on Ol Pejeta – An eye opener

OL PEJETA – KENYA’S MOST COMPLETE WILDERNESS AND ADVENTURE EXPERIENCE

(Posted 19th November 2013)

Every visitor to Kenya, be it a first timer or a repeater, and the country got plenty of aficionados who keep coming back to explore more and to enjoy the sundrenched beaches of Diani or Watamu, will have a story to tell of what she or he liked best when travelling around. Some will undoubtedly follow Hemingway’s passion for Kilimanjaro, which though located across the border in Tanzania towers across the plains of the Amboseli National Park, imposing when visible and for those lucky enough to see the mountain when the slopes are dusted with snow, still a reminder of those old days when the icecaps of Africa’s highest mountain inspired this famous authors, and regular visitor’s book and subsequent film ‘Snow on Kilimanjaro’.

Other will talk about the great migration they saw in the Masai Mara, often tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebras, piled up dozens and dozens deep at the treacherous river crossings they have to navigate, run the gauntlet of crocodiles and brave the often rushing current to reach the pastures on the other side.

For some a simple two or three day safari to one of Tsavo East’s lodges and camps like Satao will be THAT experience of a lifetime and yet others remain in awe for having seen a herd of elephant in the Shimba Hills National Park, nearest to the one of the world’s great beaches in Diani. Others yet might come to see the World War One battlegrounds in the Taita Taveta area and fall in love with the old fort styled Taita Hills Safari Lodge and the adjoining 28.000 private game sanctuary or else still dream of the more distant Grogans’ Castle near the border with Tanzania, which sits like a fortress on top of hill, making visitors quietly look for any hidden battlements with ancient cannons still in situ.

For myself, I measure all the parks on individual merit and among them the greater Meru Conservation Area certainly ranks at the very the top of Kenya’s national parks and reserves for me, less frequented by the often disturbing numbers of vans and tourists found in the Masai Mara during the peak season and yet, apart from their migration period, an area rich of game and home to some of Kenya’s finest small camps and lodges, a hidden gem and secret tip for a complete safari in just one place.

But the best overall package, in terms of accessibility, infrastructure and offerings, remains after my many visits the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, some 3 ½ hours by road on good tarmac from Nairobi and just 35 or 40 minutes by air from Wilson Airport, where Safarilink flies daily scheduled services into the Nanyuki airfield, or even lands charters directly on one of the airstrips of the conservancy if so requested.

Ol Pejeta for me is a groundbreaking model for the future of wildlife conservation, in close proximity to cattle ranching, as the two revenue streams make both key elements of the 90.000 acres large estate – they are in the process of negotiating a further 20.000 acres to add to it – viable and sustainable during periods of drought, drought by nature when the rains are missing and the other drought, when the tourists no longer flock to Kenya in their usual numbers, often due to simply poor knowledge and false perceptions. Sadly few appear able to credibly tell the truth of just how hospitable Kenya remains and still how safe it is for visitors – I should know as I am often there, travelling in 5 star limo luxury as well as in cross country busses to get firsthand experience of what is really going on at grass root levels. Hence and in all humility, I can perhaps claim to be an independent judge of how safe it is to visit Kenya, today as well as tomorrow and long into the future.

In regard of Ol Pejeta, one might of course question, as many of the purist conservationists and equally purist cattle ranchers constantly do, how wildlife and cattle can coexist in such close proximity and I hope I can shed some light on how Ol Pejeta’s management is coping with the unique challenges this poses for them but also can take advantage of this unique constellation and making best use of the opportunities which arise from this coexistence.

Cattle ranchers I spoke to elsewhere talk of the challenges of wildlife born diseases and the inevitable presence of predators while those managing ‘purist’ conservancies denounce the presence of cattle on a conservancy as a sacrilege and detrimental to the game viewing experience for tourist visitors. Do those purists with their claims to infallability even recall that for times immemorial the Masai clans and other pastoralists roamed the savannahs of Eastern Africa with their cattle and goats amid then exponentially larger wildlife herds and they lived in peace and harmony still?

On Ol Pejeta specifically, the geographical layout of the 90.000 acre estate makes sure that three main areas could be set up, one being the core tourism area between the main gate – where incidentally a range of additional visitor facilities are being constructed right now – the nearby Sweetwaters Serena Camp, the chimpanzee sanctuary and the Morani Restaurant adjoining the Northern White Rhino bomas before reaching the Uaso Nyiro River crossing. This leaves ‘the other side’ of the river to the guests of Ol Pejeta House, a top of the range formerly private bush residence of a once famous Saudi wheeler dealer, Adnan Kashoggi, which belongs to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy but is managed by Serena Hotels, only recently recognized as Africa’s leading hotel brand.

Also on that part of the conservancy are the three very posh tented safari camps located, Porini, Kicheche and Bush, whose guests enjoy an almost untouched wilderness, where they can do extended safaris on foot and rarely see another vehicle when out on game drives. Daily sundowners and night game drives back into these camps offer an otherwise rarely possible insight of the nocturnal game and the predators on the prowl, seen through the spotlights of the trackers who accompany each and every outing and whose competence as guides is manifested in their silver and even gold rankings by the Kenya Professional Safari Guide Association.

And from there it is a short distance to the area set aside for cattle ranching, where Giles Prettejohn holds fort and looks after some 6.000 prime cattle and an abattoir, run as cleanly if not better than some of those big slaughterhouses near Nairobi.

Let me start the main story by describing my cattle experience on Ol Pejeta, before turning to the wildlife experience later on, done with intent to take that thorn out of the side of readers who might still at this point question what place cattle may or should have on a conservancy. I am aware though that I will not, no matter what I say, win over all the purists who will look upon this modus operandum with disdain, or perhaps in truth some hidden envy of how Ol Pejeta made this ‘squaring of the circle’ possible and look easy while they cannot.

(Giles Prettejohn, Ol Pejeta’s Livestock Manager, giving an overview of the expanse of the ranching operation)

(One of the night bomas, moved after every few days, and the result is visible in the picture on the right where ‘good grass’ has emerged at the expense of the bush grass otherwise found in the area)

The mobile night bomas, which are set up for a maximum of 200 cattle at a time and which are regularly moved around the ranching parts of Ol Pejeta, are following the available pastures but also serve to improve the grass quality as the commonly found grasses are dry, woody and often bare of nutrients; those are trampled into the mud overnight and when the natural ‘fertilizer’ is added, lo and behold will such an area after the next rains come back with much superior quality grass and visibly greener, an ingenious but simple method to improve the pastures over a period of time.

Predators do take a toll though and Giles described his 1 percent loss as an acceptable figure, whereas in open range grazing, something many Masai herdsmen still subscribe to on their ancestral land, who use often poorly set up thorn hedges which are far too low to keep the predators out, the loss can reach up to 5 percent of a herd.

To provide an incentive for their herdsmen, the calculated loss of up to 60 cattle a year through lions, now incidentally numbering over 70 already – an upward trend unlike in many other areas of Kenya where they are often mercilessly hunted down and speared when jumping those poorly (or lazily kept low) thorn bomas to take down cattle or goats – Ol Pejeta gives the herdsmen cooperative all those of the 60 cattle NOT taken by lions. This incentive led to some astonishing tales, like the one where a lone herdsman, armed with nothing but his stick and his courage, drove off three lions busy taking a cow down, and then, after calling in the incident, sat on the injured animal to give it comfort while staring down the lions. When the posse arrived, with a vet to treat the injured cow, the number of lions had grown from 3 to 9 but staying in a respectful distance from the herdsman and were easily driven off by the arrival of a car and more herders wielding sticks as they waded down on the cats. ‘This was an extraordinary experience’ said Giles before adding ‘and an example what our herdsmen are capable off. For that they get rewarded with their own cooperative owned livestock, even with their own branding signs, so when they retire they will have accumulated a sizeable package’.

Ol Pejeta’s cattle all appeared healthy and in excellent shape, a sign that good animal husbandry, though it costs, also pays its rewards and Giles confirmed that they are regularly put through the dips to get the ticks off and that a team of vets was constantly monitoring the herds health.

It is no wonder that buyers come from across Africa now to purchase bulls and breeding stock to improve their own herds, from the wider Eastern Africa, including notably Uganda, to Southern and as far as West Africa. This of course adds to the bottom line of the cattle business Ol Pejeta operates and it is this revenue stream on which the conservancy depends to make ends meet and keep shareholders happy. Wildlife was seen mingling with the cattle when driving across the range with Giles but, as indicated earlier, not one tourist vehicle of the camps was seen. Giles did say that at times, on request of the tourist visitors, are half day tours to the cattle areas arranged to show them how the coexistence between livestock and wildlife actually works out on the ground. He also agreed to my suggestion that the Ol Pejeta tourism department should perhaps offer regular half day tour to visitors staying on the conservancy as in ‘The Ol Pejeta Cattle Experience’ like they offer daily lion tracking or daily visits to the Northern White rhinos, as it would widen the understanding of tourists how two of Kenya’s main economic activities, tourism and ranching, could happily – by and large anyway – complement each other.

And this brings me to the better known, the more publicly known part of what Ol Pejeta stands for, tourism and conservation.

For long in the shadow of older and perhaps better known conservancies like Lewa or Solio, Ol Pejeta clearly has implemented the slogan of the once number two in global car hire, Avis, which then said, and still does ‘We try harder’. The team around Richard Vigne, long serving CEO and as keen a cattleman as he is a conservationist and tourism promoter, has over the years managed to position Ol Pejeta as a ‘product’ if not a ‘tourism attraction’ and has in the more recent past made a concerted effort to showcase themselves as a prime location in the Kenyan highlands, where nearest to the capital Nairobi all the Big Five can be found with relative ease. The location is blessed by more regular rain, being hemmed in by Mt. Kenya to the East and the Aberdare Mountains to the South West, a key ingredient to keep a growing wildlife population fed and watered and the presence of a permanent river, the Uaso Nyiro, too is a blessing which gives access to much needed water resources. Still, it is no mean achievement to now count exactly 100 Eastern Black rhinos, 28 Southern White rhinos and of course the most prized of them all, the 4 Northern White rhinos sent some years ago from a Czech zoo in the hope that they might yet reproduce and save the sub species from extinction. Lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs, hyenas, elephant, giraffes, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, elands, gazelles, hartebeests, and in a rare twist, as the two ranges meet on Ol Pejeta, are both the Burchell’s Zebra and the northern Gravy Zebra found here, plus quite a few hybrids, overall some 65 mammals recorded besides a dozen different reptiles and well over 300 bird species.

(Wildlife can be seen without much of an effort, often from the side of the main roads which traverse the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, or from one of the many tracks which lead into the bush)

Besides the activities offered in the three camps as part of their own dedicated guest experience, like guided walks or night game drives from Porini, Kicheche and Bush, the conservancy has its own programme of activities which can be booked by guests staying at Sweetwaters Serena Camp, or by those using the public camping facilities or the Pelican self catering house which can sleep up to 10 at a go. The Chimpanzee Experience is now open all day, compared with the past when visits were restricted to twice a day only, giving visitors much greater flexibility to actually come and see mankind’s closest relatives in a large custom built sanctuary. Tourists can now drop in at the chimp sanctuary after or during their game drive without any restrictions as long as they meet the general opening hours from 9 am to 5 pm. The same applies for those who have gone for the lion tracking, which is done in a 4×4 vehicle with one of the guides operating a hand held aerial seeking the VHF or GPS signal of one of the five collard lions on the sanctuary.

(My Ol Pejeta guide Jimmy Mbeu, successfully tracking a pride of lions with 3 female adults and 6 young cubs)

An absolute highlight of course are the visits to the four Northern White rhinos, of which I found two in their smaller enclosure, ready to be fed while the other two were out on open range in the company of their 24/7 protection detail. They too ‘lingered’ near the fence as they were ready to be fed, a mix of hay, carrots and food supplement pellets, which they went through with their wide mouths like a hoover.

An added bonus for visitors to the sanctuary, besides the ‘regular’ wildlife experience, is the recent addition of the Rift Valley Adventures company which set up shop on a separate part of the conservancy, which has a different entrance from the main gate through which tourists enter. RVA specializes in team building exercises for adults as well as for children and teens, all with their different categories of challenges befitting their age and abilities but giving them all those skills and bushcraft otherwise rarely taught these days. When I visited them I was able to see their set up and heard about their future plans, which include the setting up of an adjoining small camp for families or a limited number of couples or friends, wanting to test their skills on the climbing wall or making fire with sticks of dry wood or shooting arrows at targets without having to come face to face with other groups undergoing training and thereafter enjoying their cold Tusker’s or White Cap’s aplenty.

And then there is their mountain bike mock up ‘trainer’ on which basic skills are taught, including how to fall off it as seen while on site, when an attempt ended flat on the young man’s face after he literally toppled over the steering when the incline suddenly changed as if driving down a steep mountain side. After the ‘dry runs’ at the main camp there are of course the field exercises, where mountain biking suddenly turns in to the real thing from the mock up at base and where abseiling and canyoning can be done close up and personal and not from the arm chair watching it on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel.

The camp was busy, and going by the explanations of Nick Miller, the company’s founder and CEO and Dipesh Pabari, their General Manager, the dormitory tents are enjoying a high occupancy, especially on long weekends when the wannabe adventurers from Nairobi come driving up to see some action in the bush.

(The climbing tower, the infamous mountain bike mock up with Nick and Dipesh baiting me to try it out and one of the lounge tents where guests can take a break or rest after a long day of being taken through the training routines)

And if all that is not enough, there is yet another dimension to Ol Pejeta, their Mount Kenya Wildlife Estate, where an area of about 1.000 acres, protruding from the main conservancy boundaries like an appendix, has been converted into a gated residential estate, into which the first residents will move in by early to middle of next year.

Their showcase residence, a four bedroom double storey house with ample living space, a large downstairs terrace and two upstairs balconies on opposite ends of the house, made a splendid impression and was not just tastefully furnished but with an impressive finishing. Everything oozed quality and solid craftsmanship and the view up to Mt. Kenya, while obscured by heavy cloud cover, and the Aberdare Mountains at the other side of each of the over 60 houses now under final phase of construction, will surely make for awesome views, day in day out while living there. Only a few houses are presently still left for the first phase, no wonder that buyers were swift to snap up their dream homes which offers a unique lifestyle experience, literally living with wildlife on one’s doorstep, gated, secure and absolutely scenic in their setting.

(Living room and kitchen offer all the comforts of a city home and yet set right in the Ol Pejeta wilderness)

(Views of a bedroom inside and the view from a balcony to show how these extraordinary residences allow all modern day comforts while actually living ‘in the bush’)

All these elements now described make a convincing cocktail of cattle ranching, a tourism experience for all budgets from camping over self catering in the Pelican House to the 5 star Serena Sweetwaters Camp, the top end Porini, Kicheche and Bush camps with only 6 tents each and the stunning 6 star former Kashoggi residence now named Ol Pejeta House. Throw in the adventures with RVA where one can learn bush craft or the daily excitement to go lion tracking, experiencing a walking safari often just a stone throw away from game, seeing mankind’s closest relative, the only place by the way in the entire Kenya, or standing near the four remaining Northern White rhino subspecies, there are thrills found everywhere when on Ol Pejeta.

The team on Ol Pejeta, recently strengthened further with the arrival of Rob Breare who will take on the role of Chief Commercial Officer, however is not content with what they have. They are all intent, as in particular their tourism and marketing team of Annick Mitchell and Elodie Sampere have assured me, to add yet more attractions and make the conservancy more user friendly still. Interactive maps are now available on the Ol Pejeta website, accessible by those connected with smart phones or tablets and the signage as well as key roads and tracks are being upgraded to make visits even with saloon cars possible, capturing another market segment beyond the 4×4’ers. The Morani Restaurant, opened in fact not too long ago, has just added a picnic and BBQ area to offer a greater outdoor experience to families who do not want to sit down inside the restaurant for a conventional meal, although I can only say they will sure miss those giant burgers and crisp chips I enjoyed when having lunch there with Richard Vigne. His vision clearly is to offer the best and most complete experience a visitor can find on one of Kenya’s conservancies and without giving too much away, it is worth to keep an eye out for upcoming innovations and additions about which I will write in coming weeks and months. I was privileged to sit in at a meeting with the Nanyuki county assembly members who had come to Sweetwaters to hear Richard explain to them what Ol Pejeta was all about, what plans they had to increase employment through additional tourism ventures and how they are engaged with their neighbouring communities vis a vis their Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes, mainly aimed at supporting schools and community health facilities but not limited to just that. ‘The scope is wide, and we expect you to come and engage with us, tell us what your needs are and we can discuss to what extent we can help. We are your partners here and tourism and conservation are a key part of Nanyuki’s future’ he said to the assembly members, before they then swamped him with questions on wildlife migration corridors, how to deal with problem elephants who have learned to break the electric fences and more. Intriguingly, much of the information about for instance the problem elephant was novel even to me, as I found out that an initial 3 or 4 learned to roll their trunks back and then use their tusks to break strand by strand of the electric fence. Apparently, at the time, the only party who could have dealt with those elephant and relocated them into areas where they could not raid farms and destroy crops and property, was KWS and they, for their own reasons, were unable to respond on the fast track, leading to a situation where now some 30 such elephant had acquired those ‘skills’, of which KWS relocated some 10 but leaving a bigger problem behind, causing unnecessary human wildlife conflict when a swift and timely decision could have avoided all that. Hindsight, yes, but 20 / 20 that is in this case and a timely reminder that KWS must act swiftly and decisively when such problems are brought to their attention and not wait until the problems have grown out of all proportion.

(From left to right the self catering Pelican House, the grave of Morani the famous Eastern Black rhino and the coordinates of the Sweetwaters Serena Camp as it is now called)

(From left to right, the inside of one of Sweetwaters tented suites and the outside of my tent at Porini Rhino Camp)

Yes, and I anticipated that question, of course there is a price to be paid for all of that and the conservancy fees, recently subjected by a shortsighted measure of the Kenyan government to a 16 percent VAT (reportedly done to plug the growing holes in the national budget by uncontrolled if not outright exploding public administration costs), are now standing at the top end of such entrance fees. But that said, compared with the cost of getting into Euro Disney, Disneyland and Disneyworld, the investment in such entrance fees guarantees an experience no visit to any theme park or to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida or any of the safari parks in the UK can ever rival or match. Here, and I helped out a little with their upcoming rebranding, is what I termed ‘Kenya’s Most Complete Wilderness Experience’ found, 3 ½ hours by road and 40 minutes by air from the capital Nairobi, with the Big Five, views up Mt. Kenya and across the Aberdare Mountains marking the horizons and home to the rarest of the rare rhinos now left on our planet, the Northern Whites. Time to pack those bags and book the tickets, get on a plane and visit Kenya and when there Kenya’s central highlands around Nanyuki, where the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is located. Visit the following websites for more information on the key partners who made this visit possible and went out of their way to answer my every question and show me every nook and cranny – Asante Mingi Sana my friends.

www.flysafarilink.com

www.olpejetaconservancy.org

www.serenahotels.com

www.porini.com

www.riftvalleyadventures.com