African skies

Feeling the magic of Kenya's Loisaba Conservancy

Photo: A lion rests in the savanna of the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya. Ben Curtis/AP

In the stillness just before dawn, the dazzling stars of Orion illuminate the African sky. In the Hunter’s company are neighboring constellations of Taurus, Monoceros, Lepus, Gemini and Eridanus and what surely must be a trillion stars. The heavens are ablaze in natural brilliance, as nary a single manmade light tarnishes the night sky.

The air is cold as the first rays of sun brighten the horizon. As I tug the blankets tighter for warmth, from afar an almighty roar cuts the silence of the early morning. A lion is on the prowl, and I shiver as I listen to him, spellbound by the sheer power of his voice. Soon after the sounds of the lion fade away, I am fully awakened by the first chirps of the dawn chorus, a melodious hallelujah choir of go-away birds, doves, hornbills, weavers, rollers and sunbirds.

This is the song of Africa, and as the sun rises I hear it all from the safety of a handcrafted four-poster starbed perched high on a platform at the Loisaba Conservancy wilderness in Kenya’s Laikipia County. Just imagine lying on a big, comfortable bed in the open with nothing but diaphanous mosquito netting between you and nature. On any given night, and practically within an arm’s length, the growling lions are joined by screaming hyenas, grunting hippos and rumbling elephants. That is the pure magic of a starbed. I had traveled to Loisaba with friends who are fellow nature geeks like me. We were not only to see the wildlife and immerse ourselves in Kenyan culture, but also to see firsthand how community conservation works.

Photo: The reticulated giraffe and Grevy's zebra thrive in harmony at Loisaba Conservancy. Mary Ann Anderson/Tribune News Service

During our stay at Loisaba, we meet Charles Oluchina, director of Africa field programs for The Nature Conservancy.

“Loisaba is a magical place,” he tells us over morning coffee. “It’s attractive and has a lot of character with steep valleys, open plains and river systems.” The word Loisaba, which in Swahili translates to “seven stars,” honors the Pleiades, the cluster of ice-blue stars also known as the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology.

“You can see the Seven Sisters beautifully from here,” says Tom Silvester, Loisaba’s exuberant and always smiling manager. “Think of it as sleeping in the biggest bedroom in the world.”

The 56,000-acre Loisaba, just north of the equator and close to Mount Kenya, is unlike the tourist-infused Maasai Mara in the lower reaches of Kenya or the equally popular Serengeti in Tanzania.

There are no great herds of tourists here, so you truly feel as if you’re in a world of your own. You have those 56,000 acres pretty much to yourself and just a few other guests and the wild creatures and hundreds of bird species of the Kenyan plains. The unfenced Loisaba is remote, and since it’s on the fringes of the true Kenyan wilderness, there are no great herds of animals, either, as you would see stampeding the Mara or the Serengeti.

Don’t misinterpret that to mean the animals aren’t here, because they most certainly are, and it’s a special thrill to find them. On game drives we see Grevy’s zebra, graceful giraffe, greater kudu, wild dogs, hartebeest and Cape buffalo, their horns curling like an out-of-control mustache. Big cats and little cats live on Loisaba, including leopard, cheetah, serval and caracal, and the lion population, Oluchina explains, is one of the most stable in Kenya.

Photo: A herd of elephants walks in the dawn light in Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, as Mount Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania is seen in the background. Ben Curtis/AP

Loisaba also carves out a portion of the historic elephant migratory corridor of Kenya’s wilderness and supports the country’s second largest elephant population, only after Tsavo. On one game drive, our small ladies-only group rounded a curve in a dirt road and came upon a parade of tuskers so close we could almost touch them.

This closeness with nature is why the sanctuary-like Loisaba is so special. And, like most of the conservancies and lodges in Kenya, there is always a back story, this one dating only to the 20th century but on ancient lands that are much the same as they were a hundred, a thousand, even 10,000 years ago.

Today’s Loisaba was originally owned by Carletto Ancilotto, an Italian count who first visited Kenya in the 1960s. Kuki Gallman, his neighbor and friend who wrote “I Dreamed of Africa,” says that Ancilotto was passionate about hunting, fishing and shooting. He came to adore the land and its dramatic landscape of high plateaus with views to forever, acacia woodlands and volcanic rocks blasted from Mount Kenya in its last eruption more than 2 million years ago. He built a cattle ranch at Loisaba, with the bovines sharing the vast wilderness with the local wildlife.

Age caught up with the count, and in the late 1990s his daughter Luisa, rather than selling Loisaba to developers, negotiated to transfer the property to the Loisaba Community Trust with the help of the U.S.-based The Nature Conservancy and the Kenya-based Space for Giants, an elephant conservation group. The name of the ranch was changed to Loisaba, and thus began building the model for sustainable community development, conservation of wildlife habitat and especially for the elephant migration path that passes through here, and, especially to the delight of nature nerds everywhere, safaris and tourism.

“Tourism support helps make Loisaba a self-sustaining engine for peace, community development and wildlife conservation,” Oluchina says. “This is an innovative example of how Africa can both preserve its heritage and create economic opportunities for its people.”

The starbeds are a critical part of Loisaba’s tourism program. Silvester explains that while plenty of lodges throughout Kenya and even across Africa now have their own versions of starbeds, the idea originated at Loisaba and provided jobs for local Maasai and Samburu tribesmen of building the beds.

Photo: All the materials, including wood and stone, that are used build the Loisaba starbed accommodations are locally sourced, with the thatch brought in from the Kenyan coast. Even the bathrooms offer a view.

In addition to more than 200 jobs created within the local community since Loisaba began in 1998, Loisaba has been instrumental in building schools and health care clinics and providing managed grazing access for neighboring communities of Samburu and Maasai farmers. All of that is possible with the support from TNC and Space for Giants, plus that of the Loisaba Community Conservation Foundation, tourism operator Elewana, and the Northern Rangelands Trust, which develops community conservancies in northern Kenya.

“Our hope is to also create additional community conservancies in the area surrounding Loisaba as a means to secure grazing lands for local people and provide improved governance and grassroots decision-making,” says Silvester. “We are working closely with Northern Rangelands Trust to expand their proven model of community conservation. The Nature Conservancy brings us these relationships. The future potential to scale up our impact is very exciting.”

In those respects, Loisaba isn’t just another African safari. Every single dollar goes toward the greater good of the entire Loisaba community.

“Even if you come here and have a beer, the money goes back into conservation,” says Silvester. “There is a real linkage between science and tourism. Loisaba is conservation forever, conservation for people and wildlife.”

There’s more to do for tourists at Loisaba than drinking beer, sleeping in starbeds and going on game drives, certainly, including visiting nearby villages for glances of traditional African life, riding camels or horses, and fishing or rafting on the Ewaso N’giro or Ng’are Narok rivers. But it is the game drives with which I’m truly enamored.

The typical day begins with a very early morning game drive, just before sunrise. They sometimes last for hours, depending upon the wildlife patterns. During the day, the animals slumber under shade trees to escape the hot African sun. In the evening the critters awake and they, along with the nocturnal creatures of the night, become more active and join together across the plains and at watering holes in a naturally orchestrated ballet in the bush. Then in the waning light the driver finds the perfect spot for sundowners, the safari version of happy hour, complete with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres served in the vibrant light of sunset.

No two game drives are ever the same, and on one of our final days at Loisaba we were afforded the most memorable moments of our journey _ and for me, of my lifetime.

Photo: A reticulated giraffe stands tall at Loisaba Conservancy. They are rarely found outside of northern Kenya. Mary Ann Anderson/Tribune News Service

As we drive away from Kiboko that morning, our goal is to find lions. After an hour or so, we come to a stand of dense brush and huge, sharp rocks. Yusuf, our driver-slash-professional wildlife guide, manages to sidestep the largest of the boulders as we crawl along slowly and carefully, and he’s always scanning the bushes for simba, the Swahili word for lion. But the lions, their tawny hides blending in with the warm, rusty colors of Africa, prove elusive and we don’t catch even a glimpse of one.

“Clever lions,” Yusuf says in a low voice as we head back to the lodge for a big, bountiful breakfast of eggs, bacon and tomatoes. For the moment, we are outsmarted by Mother Nature.

Not to be outdone, Yusuf is determined to find simba on our evening game drive. There we are, bumping along the rocks, when he points to a spot underneath a tree. There lay a lioness, beautiful and golden in her majesty. As we draw closer, immediately we see that she has several awful, gaping wounds, and it is clear that she is in a great deal of pain.

“I think she’s been in a fight with a buffalo,” Yusuf says as we watch her lick her wounds and roll over in an attempt to get comfortable. “She’s been tossed around pretty badly.” Then, drawing on his knowledge of many years as a tracker, he states, “She is dying.”

The one thing that guides cannot do is interfere with nature’s balance. We watch her for a long while, knowing it would be the last time we would ever see her. Only when darkness threatens to envelope us do we finally drive away. Mother Africa had taken back her child, and it is difficult to comprehend the utter sadness of it all while at the same time reveling in its stark beauty. And it was there, on a dust-cloaked Loisaba road, that I cried for a dying lion.

Photo: The starbed lodges at Loisaba Conservancy are hosted by local Maasai and Samburu tribesman. Mary Ann Anderson/Tribune News Service

KLM and partners Delta and Air France offer flights from the U.S. to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO), connecting through Amsterdam. Flights from Nairobi to Loisaba are set up directly through tour operators.

Loisaba Conservancy. Telephone 254 (0) 705202375 www.loisaba.com. All meals, beer, house wine and selected spirits, accommodations, game drives, laundry and transfers from the airstrip are included. Loisaba Kiboko Starbeds comprises three doubles that can accommodate one or two guests and one twin or family platform that can accommodate four guests. Each platform is en-suite and has solar electricity, hot running water and flush toilets. Rates $235-$470 per person, per night, sharing.

Koija Starbeds comprises two doubles designed for one or two guests and one twin or family platform for up to four guests. Koija is more traditional with bucket showers and lamps for lighting. Rates $270-$400 per person, per night, sharing.

Loisaba Tented Camps. Opening in March 2016, this is a luxury tented camp with incredible views of the Laikipia Plains and Mount Kenya. Rates from $385-750 per person, per night, sharing. Family tents for up to two adults and two children range from $1,442-$2,240 per night.

Visas are required and are $50 for a single-entry visit. Visa applications can be processed through the electronic visa processing system eVisa at www.evisa.go.ke.

Pack light, as most East African bush planes have a strict 33-pound weight maximum for luggage. Soft duffel bags are best. Dress is casual, so no fancy clothes are required. Loisaba has complimentary laundry service.

Visit the Kenya embassy at www.KenyaEmbassy.com for updated information.


Micato Safaris
New York
800-MICATO-1 (800-642-2861)

Ker and Downey Katy, Texas, 800-423-4236 www.kerdowney.com