Holiday with a difference at Ol Pejeta

Saturday January 4 2020

The serene Serena Sweetwaters Camp

The serene Serena Sweetwaters Camp with such a rich and colourful history, and also has so much to offer at the conservancy. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG 

KARI MUTU
By KARI MUTU
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A holiday at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy west of Mt Kenya turned out to be educative as well as fun. Since 1988 the 90,000-acre (364 sq km) conservancy has been a sanctuary for white rhino and critically endangered black rhino.

We stayed at the Serena Sweetwaters Camp, a hotel with a colourful history going back to early 1900s. A European oak tree near the main building was planted in 1930 by Prince Edward of Britain.

The conservancy was once a cattle ranch owned by prominent British settler Lord Delamere and later, billionaire Turkish-Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. In 2010, Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai planted a tree in the gardens.

Serena's comfortable tented rooms with thatched roofs face a waterhole where wildlife comes to drink. On a clear early morning you see the silhouette of Mt Kenya in the horizon.

The two-level dining room under wood beamed ceilings is where we ate our meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were buffet spreads with plenty of choice for all.

For breakfast there were eggs made to order. At lunchtime, the chefs prepared pastas and stir-fry at live cooking stations. In the evenings cuts of meat were grilled on the outdoor barbecue. The hotel can also arrange early meal times for children.

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During the day we went on game drives on well-graded roads that weave through open savannahs, bushland and natural springs. Within half an hour we had already seen buffaloes, elephants, giraffes, eland and a pair of black-backed jackals and dozens of birds.

There is good signage and maps available at the gift shop for those in private vehicles. You can also book a car and driver from the hotel.

One morning we paid a visit to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the only place in Kenya where one can see these great apes. A keeper gave us fascinating insight into these endangered animals.

Sweetwaters has 37 chimpanzees living in two expansive enclosures filled with bushes and trees that form a natural habitat. Chimpanzees are not indigenous to Kenya but live in a tropical rainforest belt stretching from West Africa to Uganda and Western Tanzania.

The Sweetwaters chimps were seized from as far as Central Africa and the Middle East or discovered inside cargo at Nairobi's international airport. They are victims of the illegal bushmeat trade, wildlife trafficking or conflict situations in their native countries.

For an additional $40 (Ksh 4000) you can book a behind-the-scenes tour to view chimps during feeding hour and see their sleeping quarters.

A 10-minute drive away is the Morani Centre where we were further enlightened about the conservation work at Ol Pejeta. A blind black rhino called Baraka is the mascot of the centre. Baraka is dozing in an enclosure just feet away from us as the keeper explained the plight of rhinos.

The last two female northern white rhinos also live here, in a nearby paddock that is open to visitors with prior booking. The last male northern white rhino died of old age at Ol Pejeta in March 2018, aged 45 years. We learnt that neither of the two females is capable of carrying a pregnancy. To keep the species from becoming extinct, scientists attempted last year to implant an embryo from these rhinos into a southern white that will act as a surrogate mother.

We also visited an animal orphanage at the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy on the outskirts of Nanyuki town, about 30 minutes away by road. An attendant told us the story of the animals.

Cheetahs, caracal cats, ostriches, pygmy hippos, two leopards, a variety of monkeys and antelopes call this place home. They were rescued different parts of Kenya, abandoned as infants or suffering from life-threatening injuries.

The nights can be chilly, especially if it has been raining. Going back to our rooms after dinner we found that the beds had been turned down and hot water bottles slipped in between the sheets to keep our beds warm.