The Camp of the Hidden Treasure

Posted On 2nd February 2016

“Man is a complex being: he makes deserts bloom - and lakes die.” ? Gil Scott-Heron
In 2012, I was honoured to attend the inagural Maasai Olympics held at Kimana Sanctuary situated some 30 kilometres east of the Amboseli and about 30 minutes’ drive from Loitoktok town. My eyes were opened to the new face of wildlife conservation; one that involves the community by offering meaningful incentives for any effort exerted. The event that drew participants from four manyattas: Kuku, Mbirikani, Olgulului, and Rombo provided an alternative rite of passage for morans through competitive sport (200 metres sprint, 5,000 metres run, spear and rungu throwing, as well as in high jump) away from the traditional lion-hunting. It also succeeded in shattering all fallacies I had about my countrymen’s adoration for their wildlife. 

It turns out that concerted integrated conservation is a way of life in some parts of Kenya. Interest peaked, I sought out one of the working models for a true feel of futuristic eco-tourism. It wasn’t hard to zone in on one as at the inspiring event, winners of different events were awarded prizes by different sponsors. The winners of the 800m and 5km running events, for instance, won a fully paid trip to 2013’s New York marathon courtesy of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust(MWCT) operating out of Kuku manyatta. So, two years later, my dream was fulfilled as I gazed down onto the expansive plains heading south of Nairobi from a giraffe-skinned Cessna 206. Road, the alternative, would have meant braving more than 300 kilometres.
You can never be fully prepared for mother natures’ strokes of genius and she sure pulled a good one on me in the form of Chyulu hills. It’s the green season and the rolling hills that resemble endless feminine curves are an intoxicating lush green just as they were back in Hemingway’s day prompting him to label them the Green Hills of Africa. Fair is fair. That they are without compare second only to my wife. Michael, the pilot, delightfully and soothingly flew low allowing for easy sightings of the landscape; low enough to also notice that the show-off hartebeest run the Chyulus. 

My hosts received me well when I touched down; all of them. This is authentic Maasai country and red shuka and beadwork are a true way of life. Kuku Group Ranch is home to around 16,000 maa-speakers and lies in an important migration corridor of around 280,000 acres that is at the base of Chyulu Hills. At its heart is a tented lodge called Campi ya Kanzi. Wait, I mean luxury tented lodge. While I didn’t get to stay in their Kanzi House bookable only by a single party at a time and accommodating a maximum of 10 guests, in 3 doubles rooms and 2 twins rooms featuring a Jacuzzi for four and a 60ft/18mt swimming pool, I was content with Longitok cottage that boasted fresh lilies, lavish yet earthy fittings, a king-size bed with a feather mattress and Italian linen.  

Fine dining of an Italian palazzo awaited at the clubhouse christened Tembo House. I’m talking crystal glasses set finely in the glare of candlelight and course dinner paired with specially bottled wine matured from an Italian vineyard while a resident violinist serenades. The best part for me-all dining is done in a family setting with all guests eating together.  I know it’s difficult to ignore the Italian influence, so I’ll digress into a dreamy tale.

“Young Antonella Bonomi meets and falls in love with Luca Belpietro with whom they share the same Italian town. As their romance blossoms, she graduates with a law degree, but opts to work at her family’s vineyard, Bonomi Tenuta Castellino, not liking civil courts too much. Luca, on the other hand, majors in Economics even as his passion lies in a wilderness his father had acquainted him as a young boy set across the sea in East Africa. So as all great romances go, the couple visit the mystical land and cherry-pick to chart their path, and even legalise, their union in the green hills that you now gaze. 
Apart from the massive granite outcroppings rising over rivers, lava flows that cut across the plains, a deep and mysterious cloud forest on the crest of the green hills, and wildlife roaming in abundance our couple were welcomed by a people dripping with authentique culture. But in a world driven by greed, where natural flora and fauna disappears faster than Rudisha’s tracks, only a different approach would suffice if their progeny and that of their hosts could enjoy what nature had freely bestowed on them. Thus, the idea for a safari lodge was mooted. Rather than lease or buy, however, the couple partners with the indigenous Maasai population to create a sustainable tourism entity. Guided by his thesis on “Sustainable Development and Environment Conservation: Wildlife as a Natural Resource in Kenya”, the partners poured heart and soul, etching brick by brick for two years from an outcrop, a community-owned and operated ecotourism lodge, built around a club house called Tembo house, facing the Kilimanjaro with the Chyulu hills forming a backdrop.

State of the art technology was employed to make the least impact on the environment: Local building materials have been used (lava rocks, thatch, lumber from a reforestation program, water comes from rain cropping, the black and grey waters are purified through natural filtration and recycled into a pond for wildlife, electricity from 120 photovoltaic panels, hot water from solar panels, food is cooked using eco-friendly charcoal produced by a UN project, and waste is collected, properly recycled or incinerated or used as compost for a small organic vegetable garden. 

That was in 1996, and just like they found it, Kuku ranch presently hosts diverse wildlife (65 big mammals species), birdlife (400 species), and vegetation (more than 1,000 different trees species) on different habitats. Almost everyone who works at this gold-rated camp (the first such property in Kenya) courtesy of Ecotourism Kenya, which only accommodates 16 guests (17,500 acres per guest for maximum wilderness pleasure), was born and raised there. Many of the 65-strong staff built the lodge by hand including assistant manager and guide, Parashi Ole Ntanin flanking me. MWCT founded in 2000”
That was the orientation pouring from host Stefano Ricci, a guide and Luca’s longtime buddy flanked by Parashi as they handed me a custom beaded bangle and a steel water bottle intended to discourage littering plastic bottles. As I settled in paradise and its innumerable activities, I realised that this was no con. The couple’s two boys Jacopo and Lorenzo and daughter Lucrezia alias Lulu who were birthed on this land. What’s more they attend school at the ranch with…wait for it, Maasai children. On a back-house tour with Parashi who I later learnt never attended school but hard to tell thanks to his Standard English, I encountered the barns and coops from whence organic dairy products and fresh eggs are collected as well as an organic vegetable garden. 
I lived up to the challenge of being a real eco-tourist: leaving nothing, but footprints; taking nothing, but photos. As a matter of fact, most of the words in this article are recycled. Visit their website, complete with live feed that gives you live daily images of the savannah, for more information.

Horseback riding
Kilimanjaro flight plus Geoglyphs of Andrew rogers
game walk or drives in the Chyulu forest or Mt biking
mobile camping
transcendental meditation
Stars gazing with lectures 
visit the Trust programs in conservation, health, and education 
join “Among Lions” a special one week safari run with the Trust, studying the lion population of the reservation
join British experienced botanist and conservationist Mark Nicholson on a botanical safari or a photographic course with Nicola Tonolini an International Award Winning Wedding Photographer 

*Let me break down how the trust works: MWCT works primarily with the Maasai living the Kuku Group Ranch employing more than 200 local people, running programs for conservation, health and education. With a yearly budget running into millions of dollars, the Trust supported by individuals like actor and conservationist Edward Norton, recently appointed by United Nations Secretary General, goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity and corporate sponsors like Puma and Cartier is a key conservation organisation of the entire ecosystem. Additional funds are provided by Campi ya Kanzi guests; $100 dollars per person per day-one of the highest conservation surcharge in Kenya- pay for the MWCT program. Program employs and trains morans as lions scout (more lions = more employment). There are currently 100 scouts and Kuku Ranch lion population in less than three years (now we have more than 60 lions living in the reservation) has tripled. The employment of game scouts has also  inadvertently ensured that there is no poaching, no water diversion, no bush fires, and no illegal cutting of woods; MWCT has also pioneered a compensation program called ‘Wildlife Pays’ that reimburses Maasai landlords  for livestock killed by lions (and other predators). It doesn’t end there, MWCT has employed of teachers to provide education in 15 local primary schools, a doctor and several nurses to assist the local community of 16,000 Maasai in 4 local dispensaries and in 1 clinic. 
For their efforts, the have been recognised globally notably awarded the UNDP Equator Prize and their Chairman, Samson Parashina, named Champion of the Earth by UNEP. Never before these prestigious United Nations Awards were given to the same organization.

“We need to promote development that does not destroy the environment.” Waangari Maathai