Sirikoi, Lewa’s most remarkable address
Sirikoi, Lewa’s most remarkable address
This is a triumphant tale of enlightened conservation. The success that has enabled the re-creation of one of the most romantic spots on earth; proof that many hands make work light achieving the seemingly impossible.
The first part of this tale begins in 1922 with a privately-owned cattle ranch on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya (Laikipia). Its founder, a Briton, who had served in the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in Tanganyika gradually grew a holding that came to him as part of a soldiers’ settlement scheme; purchasing surrounding farms when available including the swamp area called Lewa Downs that the ranch would be named. It is during Douglas’ daughter, the Late Mary Fidelia Douglas, popularly known as Delia, (married to David Craig who had also served in the KAR) time running Lewa that the ranch began moving from commercial ranching into full-fledged conservation. 1983 saw David and Delia Craig turn 5, 000 acres of their ranch into a rhino sanctuary.
This they achieved working with conservationist Anna Merz who had seen wildlife annihilated in West Africa and chose to pour her heart into conservation and a dedicated team. This became the first of its kind to host visitors who came in to see how livestock co-existed with wildlife. As all noble initiates go, the passionate concerted effort paid off and the entire Lewa Downs Ranch eventually turned into a full-fledged refuge for wildlife covering an esteemed 62, 000 acres encapsulating Government-owned Ngare Ndare Forest.
Today, endangered species including rhino and Grevy’s zebra roam free. And come they have in record numbers, tourists that is, with one of the famous visits resulting in a princely proposal. Success breeds fast and the concept birthed the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), headquartered in Lewa. NRT is an innovative partnership of over half million people from 15 ethnic groups, based in Northern Kenya, spread over two million hectares working collectively to manage ecosystems for improved human livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, and enhanced rangeland management.
Before Lewa Wildlife Conservancy reached its current enviable state, however, a relatively small yet critical piece of the jigsaw had to be accommodated. The second part of this tale draws in a barely-in-teens William Roberts (Willie to most) who is forced to think and act beyond his years after losing his father. This, mind you, was during an age when the family based in Baringo had to plan and endure a journey to Nakuru, the nearest commercial centre, just to purchase basic supplies. Time and tide wait for no man and this Nairobi School alumnus tired playing truant in school and waded in tailor-made safaris hinging on tentacles extending to most of Kenya’s unbeaten track as an edge few could match.
Ingenuity extended into self-taught construction that resulted in Kenya’s first tented camp, Island Camp Baringo. This was in 1972 and Willie then aged 19 would run this camp for 13 years before selling to Lonrho group. It is at this camp that he met his wife Sue and together they built a family house on Samatian Island that is currently a lodge.
Willie would also be responsible for helping establish the first conservancy on PUBLIC land or what you might call tribal trust land (some private conservancies like Lewa were already running) re-converting a wheat farm to its original state. He helped marshal Ol Choroi Land Owners Association in the Masai Mara to change laws of the day to establish Mara Wildlife Conservancy in an area known as the “Mara Triangle”, one of the most visited and well-known protected areas in the world. It is this model against which NRT is based was carved.
Back at Lewa, Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) was about to embark on an ambitious Eucalyptus tree farming project on a chunk of land at its heart totalling 7, 500 acres. The fast-growing trees were intended to provide energy to heat furnaces for drying tea leaves. 4, 000 families would also be settled in the semi-arid chunk effectively signalling the death of the fragile eco-system. The conservation exertion roped in Willie who helped initiate a land swap deal that saw the project and the families settled in a more farming conducive patch in Timau. That was in the year 2000 and in 2002, Sirikoi lodge was fashioned.
I endured a 50-minute flight from Wilson Airport to Lewa Downs. Should you choose the scenic road option then you should make for Nanyuki from Nairobi on a journey that takes around three hours using an all-weather road. At Nanyuki, continue on the same main road out of town (this is the main road to Meru). You will pass through Timau (after about 20 minutes) and then various smaller settlements, flower farms and wheat farms. The road peaks at Kisima farm and then goes downhill quite steeply for a few kilometers. At the bottom of the valley, you will see a main junction with huge advertising sign-boards above it. Turn left at this junction on to the Isiolo road (if you went straight ahead you would end up in Meru).
Follow this road for about three kilometers and then on your left, you will see one of the Lewa gates. This is Matunda Gate. You can enter Lewa here if you have a vehicle of one of the 'Lewa standard' colours (green / khaki / beige). (If you do not have a car of the accepted colour, please carry on approximately one kilometre until you see a turning on your left to TM gate. Follow the track to TM gate and on to the Government road that runs along the edge of Lewa, joining up with the track from Matunda gate at the T junction mentioned below).
Go through the gate (1) and follow the track for 2.8 kilometers until you come to a T junction (2). Turn left at the T junction and follow the road, where you will cross a bridge after about 1 km. Keep going, passing the airstrip on your right and some adobe mud houses on your left (3), and continue going straight for 5.62 km until you reach a large green gate (4). Do not go through this gate, turn right just before it, and follow this road through thicker bush for 2.6 kilometers. This is Sirikoi Lodge (5).
I had been to Lewa before for its equally famous marathon. While the experience had its highs, animal sightings were minimal and the marathon campsite basic. There are safari tents then there are luxury safari tents. Sirikoi crows the latter. This rating is based on a personal evaluation of the state of the bathroom. Sirikoi truly impressed. The roomy en-suite bathroom has both a shower, a free-standing bath (with views), WC and a double sink with gold finishing that creamed heaven in the light. Each tent vaunts a viewing deck with incredible panoramas of the waterhole fed by the Sirikoi stream. When it comes to experiences, try beating an hour-long massage in this serene environment only broken by chipping from birds and later sipping tea draped in an afro-chic robe that you work hard not to pinch.
If you have the taste for more solid accommodation, away from the luxury tents, then the two-bedroom Sirikoi cottage designed with families or friends traveling together in mind should do the trick. If exclusivity and ostentation is more your cut then Sirikoi House should knock you off your socks. Sirikoi House is only sold on an exclusive use basis and comes with its own private safari vehicle and guide, as well as chef and team of staff.
Apart from exquisite furnishings drawn from all over the world, guests at the House also have access to a private wooden deck built overlooking the wetlands; perfect for private sundowners and meals. Whichever your fancy, all options are exquisite depicting Willie’s architectural essence and tasteful interiors by celebrated American interior designer, Suzanne Kassler. Keen on souvenirs? I own a leather, beaded belt I purchased at the gift shop that I reckon to be the finest stitch possible.
The best part for me, however, was the mealtimes served on a deck shaded by a canopy overlooking the waterhole inches away. Just like wildlife, only the freshest of ingredients make the cut. If fluky, you could just share lunch with Nditu, a five-year-old orphan Giraffe, who found refuge in Sirikoi and has formed the oddest of friendships with the establishment’s horses. Did you know that you could grow most of your dietary requirements on one acre? Sue’s pride and joy, an organic vegetable and fruit garden, free range chickens, and a crystal clear mountain spring providing all the lodge’s water farm is testament. This organic farm augmented by environmentally friendly practices in camp and community support and development have earned Sirikoi an Ecotourism Kenya Gold Eco-Rated certification; one of the few lodges in Kenya to have one.
It has been ages since I saw lions up close let alone a crash of rhino and my guide (every guest or group gets a personal guide) Onesmus Lesiata, a Samburu from Mwamba, iced my Lewa experience with sightings of the big five. I confidently reckon that the probability of encountering the Big Five in Lewa rivals even the world famous Mara. As the conservancy has grown, the amount of wildlife it supports has increased and now you can enjoy some rewarding game viewing here. Both Grevy's and common zebra can be found on the open grass plains alongside Grant's gazelle, buffalo, reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, eland and impala. Black and white rhino are both found and predators are well represented with lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena. During the heat of the late morning many of these animals converge at the swamps to drink. Waterbuck are always nearby and large elephant herds are frequent visitors so sometimes it is possible to see hundreds of animals all in one spot. Finally, the lucky may spot the rare swamp-dwelling antelope, the sitatunga.
Top activities to do in Lewa
· Enjoy horseback or camel safari taking you through the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy with its abundant wildlife and their habitat is surely an experience of a lifetime. Comfortable camping facilities, excellent cuisine, and experienced guides will ensure your wellbeing on your safari.
· Climb Mt Kenya and visit Lake Rutundu on Mt Kenya for a fly-fishing excursion and stay at the rustic and ultra-private Rutundu Log Cabin where Prince William proposed.
· Day trips to the adjoining Ngare Ndare Forest to look for the elusive Columbus monkey population and to learn about the indigenous flora and its local uses. The shimmering blue pools and the only canopy walk in East Africa should also impress.
· Lewa Wilderness hosts and flies the only open cockpit biplane in East Africa which will take you around the conservation areas of northern Kenya. It is a truly magical experience and very much returns you to the "Out of Africa" era. The pilot, Will Craig, has over 5,000 hours experience flying mostly in the Lewa area and can show you how the conservation project is improving and positively affecting the local communities.
· Educational Tours on the History and Day-to-Day Operations of the Conservancy: Whether it’s a visit to the pre-historic archaeological site, a local school, water project or feeding a baby rhino there are plenty of activities that will peak your interest for a behind the scenes look at the conservancy operations.
· A helicopter Ride to Mount Ololokwe for Breakfast.
Where to stay in Lewa
· Sirikoi is a spectacular game lodge situated in the centre of Lewa on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya. Surrounded by an acacia grove and overlooking a natural waterhole fed from a mountain spring Sirikoi offers some of the best game viewings in East Africa. Sirikoi is the home of Willie and Sue Roberts who, after a lifetime of guiding safaris and developing lodges across Kenya, realised the potential of this unique area of Northern Kenya as the location for their most visionary lodge to-date. The camp boasts four luxury tented rooms, a family cottage, and luxurious three-bedroomed house that can sleep up to six people.
· Lewa House is the home of Sophie and Calum Macfarlane; Sophie being the grand-daughter of David Craig. They share their home with up to 18 guests. A dramatic, thatched main house is the focal common area, with the accommodation being separate cottages around the grounds, each with unique views of Kenya’s Northern Frontier.
· Kifaru (Swahili word for rhino) is a house built by one of Lewa’s long standing donors with no compromise to quality or standards. The house is perched on top of a hill with an endless panorama of the surrounding countryside and distant views of the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya. A short walk from the lounge area through the lush gardens are six individual cottages that can comfortably house up to twelve people.
· Lewa Safari Camp, the flagship of the Conservancy, is the only tourist facility within the Conservancy that is owned by the Conservancy. The Lewa board subcontracted the management of the camp to Liz & Stefano Cheli, in 2009. Profits and conservancy fees generated by the camp are reinvested directly into the conservation and community efforts of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. It boasts 11 ensuite safari tents, all of which can be laid out as doubles or twins. Three of the tents can accommodate triples for children under 16 only.
· Lewa Wilderness sleeps 22 people housed in nine beautifully decorated cottages, featuring fireplaces and verandas, and is the home of Will and Emma Craig. Situated in the wildlife-rich eastern corner of the Conservancy, it is the Craig family home where guests have been entertained in luxury for the past 30 years.