Ol Pejeta Reserve: dream vacation for wildlife lovers

Michael driving before sundowners. Photo credit: Rachel Rigby

 OL PEJETA, Kenya - After three decades of being away I am lured back to the place where I grew up, Kenya. Curiosity about the 90,000 acre wildlife conservancy called Ol Pejeta, that lies at the foot of Mount Kenya, is the hook that brings me back. Ol Pejeta has won many conservation awards, is currently operating a white Rhino IVF project and even has a chimpanzee sanctuary, so how can it not be great?

 I am intrigued by the story of Sudan, the last male white northern Rhino, and am keen to visit before Sudan is gone, and before I myself might be too old!

 When I was a child, my family used to drive a VW van around Kenya and pitch a tent anywhere we wanted. If lions or hyena seemed to be getting too close, we left our tents in the middle of the night to snuggle up in our VW van. One time, lions were roaring near our tent. My mother said, “If they attack throw your loo roll at them, then run as fast as you can to the car!”

 It all seems funny now but at the time I was terrified and don’t think the loo roll would have been very effective in warding off the lions. Being older now and with less holiday time, sleeping in tents and in the back of VW vans doesn’t have the same appeal to me as it used to.

 High end camping seems to be the solution and I am delighted to find the Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages, available as a new edition to the reserve. Technically you aren’t camping, as the cottages have all the luxuries of a normal home. They are made from beautiful hard wood found right there at the curve on the river in the south of the conservancy. It feels like camping because the front of each cottage has thick canvas, rolled up in the morning and zipped down at night. There are only four and each comes with a private guide, chef and vehicle.

 The founders, Andy and Sonya Webb are flexible, so if you want to bring your own car or food, they can accommodate that too. We chose the whole package as the cottages have four wheel drive vehicles that go off road and cooking for ourselves would have been challenging also.

 At 6:30 am our driver Michael diligently wakes us for a morning game drive which begins with a coffee and a hot water bottle in the lap. We bounce along for a couple of hours, looking through binoculars while huddling under our blankets. Ol Pejeta is at a high altitude so it is cold at night and frosty in the mornings. As soon as the African sun rises however you need to strip off your jacket.

 After searching for animals for a couple of hours we stop for breakfast by the local river. Michael choses a breathtaking spot for our camping chairs and tables, so we can soak up natures beauty while we eat. 

 I am afraid that my friends will be bored but they squeal with delight every time they see giraffe, zebra, elephants or even gazelle.

 A safari is a timeless experience which never changes and never gets old. You listen to the sounds of the night and it’s like coming home. The familiar crickets, the shuffle of the bushes, the cascade of wild life becomes louder as the sun sets. 

 In the afternoon we go to the rhino sanctuary on the reserve. Men in uniform with rifles greet us at the gates. I am pleased that the Ol Pejeta endangered species Boma (which is swahili for hut) is heavily guarded.

 We can see Sudan, through a wire mesh fence. It’s not possible to go into his enclosure as he’s now suffering with large sores on his old rhino legs. The guard doesn’t want me to see his poor health. It is clear that Sudan is not going to live much longer, no matter how well looked after he is.

 It’s a strange thing watching him eat slowly, while monkeys steal bits of his food, knowing he’s the last of a kind. There’s many more black rhino left, but Northern white, differentiated by their wider nostrils and mouths, are now endangered and soon to be extinct.

 Sudan is standing steady on the ground as the guard explains to us that the sores on his legs are from standing on concrete for years in a Czech zoo. Sudan is 44 but that’s not a good innings, a rhino on average in the wild lives until around sixty.

 His majestic and handsome presence abounds and I can’t help but feel sad that humans have allowed and caused the death of such a noble species.

 After seeing Sudan we are taken to the enclosure where the last two white female Northern whites graze. They are the daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatuare of Sudan. The rhinos cannot reproduce naturally as Sudan has been infertile for years. The San Diego Zoo Global, the Leibniz Institute and Embryo Plus, hope to combine semen collected from dead northern white rhinos while they were still alive with the eggs of the last two surviving female rhinos to continue the species.

 A female of a different subspecies, the southern white rhino, would serve as a surrogate mother to carry the child as both Najia and Fatu have physical ailments preventing them from carrying a pregnancy.

 The female rhinos come up to the car, curious and friendly.

 After visiting we leave to visit another enclosure of endangered animals. The rangers take us to a plot of land next to the rhino which houses Grevy zebra and Jackson’s hartebeest. The endangered Grevy zebra are particularly unusual as their stripes are noticeably thinner to a normal Zebra. Michael tells us there is also a breed of Zebra in Kenya called Zedon, which is a mix of zebra and donkey found between Naivasha and Nakuru. 

 After viewing the other endangered animals the rangers take us to a black rhino enclosure so we can feed Baraka, the resident blind rhino. Baraka means blessings in Swahili, and as one of the first rhinos born in Ol Pejeta, Baraka is a blessing. Feeding him and stroking his horn, takes me back to when my parents took my brother and I to stroke guarded rhino thirty years ago. Back then there was no platform like here at the Morani Information Center and the rhino weren’t blind so I can only imagine it was probably quite dangerous. Time stops as I feed Baraka, stroking his horn and his sandpaper like lips, pushing the grass into the mouth of this prehistoric, magnificent and gentle creature.

 Once we have all fed him grass we make the drive back across the conservation. As usual we keep our eyes peeled for animals. Michael takes us to an Acacia tree from where we watch the sun set on Mount Kenya. The cottages have packed us an early evening snack and sundowner drinks of our choice. Micheal gets the drinks out and says its ok for us to stand outside the car.

 Only once you have your feet firmly on African soil, can you really hear the noises of the night; the woop wooping calls of the hyena, the crunch of zebras hooves nearby. I can still remember every sound, and recognise each animal by its call, all these years later.

 Out of the darkness, a black rhino appears meters away from us, a shadow in the dusk. It moves slowly past the car without a glance in our direction. I stand in complete awe, but it can’t be safe to stand outside with a rhino. Michael explains that since rhino operate by smell rather than sight and we are down hill, it probably didn’t even know we are there.

 Towards the end of our second gin and tonic (the Safari Cottages are very generous with their drink measure), we see more and more red eyes of hyenas glowing in the night around us. Soon many of them, appear to be closing in on us. While they are scavengers and not predators it still feels intimidating seeing this ugly creature with big jaws getting nearer.

 Suddenly in the distance we hear a lion roaring. “Get in the car we will follow the roar, “ Michael says jumping to pack up our drinks. We rumble towards the roaring lion but after an hour of searching the area we give up.

 Hunger starts to settle in so Michael takes us back for dinner.

 We look for leopards in the trees but sitings are rare, and Michaels tells is us he has only seen three in the whole year.

 Even when I was growing up and a leopard was stealing our chickens, we never saw the thief. It would attack and disappear back to the darkness, sleek, stealthy, and silent.

 When we get back John, our butler, prepares us a drink around the fireside. Our chef Dominic prepares our meals using locally sourced ingredients, which we can eat in the open plan dining room or beside the crackling fire.

 We love coming back to the luxurious cottages to be spoilt by delicious three course meals. Andy joins us for drinks before dining and entertains us with stories of the camp and his past in Zimbabwe. They are an amazing couple with years of safari experience who go the extra mile in every detail of for their guests enjoyment.

 Andy tells us the wildlife are more active in the cooler times of the day so we get up early again the following morning. We visit sweetwaters chimpanzee sanctuary - a refuge for gorillas that have been rescued from captivity and the bush meat trade. The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee reserve was started by Jane Goodall and is another rare thing for guests to enjoy at Ol Pejeta. We are put behind a metal fence where there’s a holding cage to escape run away chimps. One starts to wonder which side is actually in captivity! Through the wire fence we meet several of the Chimpanzees and our guides tells us their mostly sad stories. The Chimps have mainly grown up in captivity and have learnt many human habits. 

 At the end of the tour we have an opportunity to adopt a chimpanzee. I adopt the family that keep having babies, no matter whatever birth control they are given, because I like anomalies in life.

 It costs Sweetwaters £3900 a year to look after each Chimp so it wants to keep the funds to rescue the abused animals rather than breed them but this family has defied all birth control methods.

 Our next day Andy takes us on a walk near the camp and shows us the tracks of different animals and their habitats. I love being on foot as it allows you to experience the bush from a different perspective. Andy tells us what footprint belongs to which animal, how droppings tell him what passed through the night before, and when. Most importantly he carries a rifle mainly for lone male buffalos and for rogue lions, that we promptly pose in photos with.

 In the afternoon we need a few things so we ask Michael to drive us into Nanyuki. It’s not far from the camp, an hour door to door, which is a reason Ol Pejeta is so convenient compared to other safaris. The cottages can get the great variety of food and drink they have because they are close to town. This also makes the journey more convenient as you have a local airstrip in Nanyuki and can be in Nairobi Wilson airport in 45 minutes. There is also an air strip in Ol Pejeta. 

 While wandering the extremely well stocked supermarkets, I realise this is something I had never seen in Kenya in my childhood. We suffered food shortages and barely ever had new clothes or imported products. It’s nice to see the progress that’s been made.

 While marvelling at product choices we run into Sonya who says she saw a lion on the way into town, that just crossed her path in the drive in. Typical !!! 

 On our last morning we still haven’t seen lions and are so determined to do so we go Lion trekking, another popular tourist activity on the reserve. I have seen many lions in my life time but my friends never have so this has become a priority.

 Even when Lion tracking with the Ol Pejeta guides, we don’t see them but as Andy points out it’s a good reason for us to return. Indeed our trip hasn’t been long enough. We decide for the first time on the trip to take it easy and just enjoy being at the cottages. They have rooms which open out onto enormous verandas which have a salt lake directly across the river in front. We finally relax and let nature come to us. A herd of elephants, and groups of giraffe, zebras and gazelle come to lick the salt, and eat the grass right in front of our cottage. I realise it’s the fleeting moments of beauty that define the perfect escape.

 To the right of our cottage is a large viewing platform, in-front of the river where a group of Californians recently spent a lot of time on a “yoga safari”. Doing the downward dog while watching a herd of elephants, has got to be fantastic.

 Our rest time doesn’t last long and in the hours of dusk we make a trip to speak to Richard van Aardt, head of livestock. He explains how Ol pejeta used to be a working cattle ranch in colonial Kenya. People were convinced that you cannot mix wild life with domestic livestock but Ol Pejeta has proven people wrong. Tourists don’t mind seeing occasional livestock, and regular tick washing of the cows also indirectly reduces the amount of tick infestation among the wildlife, as they cohabit the same lands, Richard explains.

 Most of the profits of Ol Pejeta cattle farm, are made from providing high quality steak to hotels and restaurants in Nairobi, Richard adds. A lot of these profits and the money from the Ol Pejeta entrance fee to the reserve go towards protecting the rhino.

 On the way back from the livestock meeting we stopped at a Rhino memorial site where the grave stones of the rhino that have been poached or died in the park are buried. On March 19, 2018 Sudan, was euthanised at the age of 45. He is now buried alongside the others at the rhino grave. I feel lucky to be one of the last journalists to see him.

 His passing is a sober reminder that unless we make the most effort we can to protect our wildlife we might be saying good bye to the last of other species. It’s occurs to me this is also the last chance to see the two female Northern White Rhino because if the IVF program doesn’t succeed they will pass away also, leaving the species extinct. 

 Ol Pejeta is not only the largest Black rhino Sanctuary in East Africa and the protector of the Northern and Southern white rhinos but it also supports the people living around it’s borders to ensure wildlife conservation is a part of everyone’s interests.

 Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages supports the Nyakiyo Primary School just outside the conservancy and guests can even visit the pupils to learn what they are being taught about conservation.

 Sudan’s passing is a sober reminder that unless we make more effort to protect our wildlife we will be saying good bye to a number of species in our lifetime.

 There are many ways to donate to the rhino cause, including charity events posted and artwork for sale on www.helpingrhinos.org

 I buy beautiful jewellery from http://www.rhinotears.org where all the profits go towards helping rhino. 

 The most enjoyable way perhaps is to visit the Ol Pejeta reserve where your park fees and holiday money are going to a great cause while you yourself are also having a good time and learning about the amazing creatures still on this planet.


Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino just before his death. Photo credit: Rachel Rigby
Andy on our nature walk. Photo credit: Rachel Rigby