Laikipia has come to symbolise the perfect holiday far removed from the usual beaten path of our national parks and reserves. Statistics show that over 75 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife thrives outside of protected areas, notably Laikipia.
The region is home to some of Kenya’s endangered species such as the wild dogs. It is here that you will also find Northern Kenya’s ‘Big Five’ such as the thin-striped Grevy’s zebra, the long-necked gerenuk, the reticulated giraffe, the Beisa oryx and the Somali ostrich.
Dotting the landscape are private conservancies complete with high-end camps and lodges that attract tourists from all over the world.
There is Lewa, Ol Pejeta, Ol Malo, El Karama, Lekurruki, Tarsia, Ol Ari Nyiro, Il Ngwesi, Suyian, Segera and Borana to mention just but a few.
Some of the world’s renowned celebrities including United Kingdom’s royal family have made several escapades in Laikipia; some, to cement their budding romance.
However, the much touted “millionaire’s playground” is no longer at ease. For the last three weeks, hundreds of herders have invaded the ranches in search of water and pasture.
There is another school of thought that says these herders are doing so for political expediency. The truth is buried somewhere in between. Either way, if Laikipia goes down, tourism in Kenya as we know it will fare badly.
I have traversed the length and breadth of Laikipia in order to have a firsthand account of how the tourism model works. A casual observer may not see what makes Laikipia tick. It is a vast, flat and seemingly empty wasteland. Hardy trees such as the acacia dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Water is a rare commodity. In any case, it is a key reason for the current conflagration.
Yet, the beauty of Laikipia comes from this rugged, windswept landscape. After watching wildlife in their most undisturbed environment, one takes the needed rest in what looks like the most basic camps. With makuti roofs, and mazera stone flooring, patrons pay top dollar to spend a night here.
Take the example of El Karama, the gem hidden a few metres from the Ewaso Nyiro, the mythical river I only knew of from my primary school days. It is here that Guy Grant and his family established a working cattle ranch in 1963, currently under the stewardship of Sophie and Murray Grant. The bandas are made from local materials collected within the ranch, making for a simple yet relaxing lifestyle.
The story is no different from Suyian Soul, another family-owned ranch (it is owned by the Powy’s family under their patriarch Gilfrid). His daughter, Anne, who runs the ranch, is an ethno botanist with a vast experience and knowledge of the traditional value of the many plants that dot the ranch.
Again, there is nothing fancy about the camp and sleeping bandas. In fact, spending a night here is not for the faint of heart. The sleeping quarters are made of thatch and low-lying granite slab walls joined together with the hardened mortar from termite mounds. In order to conserve the forests, beds and tables here are all made from old cedar fence posts saved from the ranch over time. Sustainable tourism has been the name of the game here.
Kenya’s ‘Big Five’ in 2017
Bathing too, is done under the stars… or the rain. A safari style bucket hung on the trunk of a tree holds 40 litres of warm water to clean a dirty soul or two. A call of nature is also answered Suyian style in the good old “long drop” latrine complete with an extractor pipe to carry off any foul odour to the breeze outside.
Even the luxurious Mukima House is a 90-year-old structure built by Colonel Thomas Chippendale-Lewin, he who fought in Burma with the King’s African Rifles and awarded the Order of the British Empire. It was recently renovated to international standards by Leslie Duckworth.
This is the Laikipia whose future as the country’s top tourism and conservation destination hangs in the balance. This is the Laikipia extolled by Kuki Gallman in her book, I dreamt of Africa, and a film by the same title. This is the Laikipia where I have spent many nights, some in Suyian. Two weeks ago, Suyian went up in flames.