PART 2: Laikipia Central Plateau – Segera and Sabuk

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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SEGERA RETREAT

June 17.  We were now well into the Laikipia plateau, the region of central Kenya more or less bounded by Mt Kenya to the east, the Aberdare Mountains in the south and the lower-lying, hotter and much drier Samburu region to the north.  Laikipia’s climate is characterized by relatively low rainfall (it is in the rain shadow of Mt. Kenya), with warm days and cool, pleasant nights.  Altitude  is mostly over a mile high so it never gets too hot and the proximity to the equator means it never gets very cold either.

Just beyond Nyahururu, we turned off the well-maintained asphalt road and then proceeded for about 50 km (less than 30 miles) along a dusty, sometimes rocky and clearly ‘muddy when wet’ road, eventually reaching the fence-line and gate of the Ol Pejeta (pronounced Ol’ PEDG-uh-tah’) Conservancy, a well-established and successful private ranch & game conservation complex.  Ol Pejeta is a ‘Big Five’ destination, and is home to a few Northern white rhino which are on the very brink of extinction.  It has re-introduced (from South Africa) southern white rhino and black rhino as well. 

Not long afterwards, we were met at the gate of Segera by head guide David Lakili and escorted on a drive of about 30 minutes or so to the main compound.  Almost all arrivals at Segera are by air, so this was not the usual procedure.  Ordinarily arriving guests would literally taxi off the airstrip and to within a hundred meters or so from the entrance of the lodge, where they are met and escorted right into the property.  

I had a few pre-conceived ideas about Segera, having been exposed to some of its marketing and publicity materials.  Several of the notions were confirmed – and others dispelled – during an introductory walk-through with manager Jens Kozany, formerly at North Island in the Seychelles and prior to that the GM of the highly regarded Grande Roche in the Cape winelands.  Jens is a hotelier of the highest order, with the skills of a seasoned concierge and the calm, unflappable demeanor of a manager capable of getting the most out of a large staff and meeting extraordinarily high standards.

Segera certainly lived up to my preconceived notions about the level of luxury and comfort.  The villas are simply out of this world.  Tucked in behind a massive cactus fence or hedge – which serves to keep out dangerous animals – they are elevated well above the ground to make the most of the gorgeous views over the plains and distant mountains and to enjoy the breezes which are typical of Laikipia.  Hence no need for artificial air-conditioning which is a pleasant bonus here.  No noisy fan at night.

Even though the days can be warm the villa was never hot – on a short afternoon siesta I was perfectly comfortable.  Beyond that, the villa had the luxury of space, a separate shower with massive shower-head, his and hers washbasins, plenty of clothing storage and hanging space, a safe and separate toilet.  Lighting was very good but I could never quite figure out the various on-off switches; it would have been nice to have had one master switch at the entry and by the bed.  

One of the best features of my villa was an outside lounger on the verandah,  as well as a massive jacuzzi-bath which I tried to good effect on the first night.  

It was rather windy and even cold on my first night at Segera but inside the villa I felt snug and warm, and the ultra-luxurious cushions and bedding ensured a very pleasant night’s sleep.  The food and catering at Segera were likewise impeccable and went well beyond what I had experienced at any other African property to date.  The range of meals and variety of items served was simply extraordinary.  

As alluded to earlier, I had some food issues at one or two of the other lodge earlier during my trip.  Not at Segera.  They executed the vegan dietary requirements flawlessly and even beyond that, made it fresh and exciting.  I enjoyed various wraps, delicate salads, fresh bread and the most flavorful array of local African specialties including sukuma wiki, maharage, and several other delicious dishes, served with ugali and rice.  

Segera maintains an extensive fresh produce garden so much of what ends up on one’s plate in the vegetable, tuber and herb category is grown right there.  Fresh, organic and delicious.  Over the couple of days at Segera I tried a few of the wines on the extensive winelist, including a cabernet sauvignon, a chardonnay and a merlot and they were all superb.  This is clearly a place where serious wine-lovers can explore some interesting vintages and varietals.  

Segera is a place where one can and should spend some time at the lodge itself.  It is refreshing and relaxing yet also stimulating.  The variety of architecture, the inviting public areas, fascinating art installations and historical elements create a wonderful sanctuary.  Within hours of my arrival I realized that Segera can inspire you to do something extraordinary.  Spend a week there and you might very well decide to write a book or learn to speak Swahili.  Segera is the result of a vision of a better future for its inhabitants – people, wildlife and livestock – and it is inspiring just to be there and to realize what can be done with drive and determination and the ability to harness the goodwill of the community.  

Clearly, Segera Retreat has already had a huge impact on its immediate environment and all the life forms which depend on it.  It is astonishing to look at an aerial photograph of the homestead area taken just a scant 8 years ago, and to compare it with what there is right now.  A true transformation. 

The experience is most striking when one first arrives at the property and walks first past the paddock house, the wine tower,  through the stables with their permanent art installation, past the gym and spa, the expansive pool and magnificent gardens in every direction, and finally all the way to your room.  The walk is a multi-sensory experience:   hearing various birds calling, breathing in the fresh air, smelling the sweet perfume of various flowering plants and trying to take it all in on a visual level.  Around every turn, there is something different to be seen and savored; an unusual statue, a particularly striking cactus or a massive euphorbia tree being swallowed by a carpet of bougainvillea flowers.  

At Segera, you are never far away from a pleasing and peculiar mix of bird calls – sunbirds and mousebirds being very vocal – as well as the haunting braying of zebras beyond the cactus hedge.  The sound of zebras vocalizing is one of the most iconic of African sounds – right up there with the call of the African Fish Eagle.  The whisper of a vapor trail left by a high-flying jet is sometimes the only reminder of mundane reality beyond this extraordinary place.

Segera is a retreat in the full sense of the word and it makes eminently good sense to spend at least four or better yet five  days here.  It is a destination unto itself where you can truly relax and reflect, tune out the dross of day to day noise and connect with a pure, uncluttered Africa. The clean air, the organic fresh produce, the sense of remoteness and privacy and the impeccable service and hospitality put this property in a very elevated status which few others in the world can match. 

June 18.  It was exhilirating to enjoy breakfast in the Paddock House overlooking the plains, with no ambient noise other than some bird calls and the zebras braying.  The sense of solitude was complete.  One could probably spend several days at Segera without doing much at all, just enjoying the villa, the pool, the gardens and lounging around, or getting a spa treatment, spend some time in the gym.  

However – if you are so inclined, there is much to be seen in the way of wildlife including buffalo, elephant, zebra, greater kudu, Reticulated giraffe, impala and more.  On an afternoon game drive we saw plenty of these.  

We also did a short 2-hour walk in search of the rare Pata’s Monkeys, and much longer hikes are available and recommended.  The southern part of the Segera ranch lends itself admirably to such an outing and it would likely be a wonderful experience, during the course of a longer stay.

MARKET DAY AT SEGERA

One of the most fascinating outings during my short stay at Segera was a morning visit to a nearby market day, held weekly in the community land adjacent to the northern border of the reserve.

In an area which is noticeably heavily overgrazed compared with the ranch property, some 70 or so Samburu people from neighboring villages and manyattas had gathered to buy, sell and barter a variety of items ranging from fresh produce to dried beans, ugali meal, candy, herbs and spices, grocery items, shoes and livestock including goats, sheep and chickens.  

Clearly there was quite a lot of buying and selling going on with various vendors exchanging cash for plastic bags filled with potatoes or dried beans and always generously measured, the large measuring can topped to overflowing and then another small handful tossed into the bag for good measure.  

Many of the young men present were Samburu warriors – in a peculiar stage  of bachelorhood when they live a relatively carefree existence with girlfriends but no possibility of marriage.  Marriage is not an option as it is only allowed with a girl from a different clan.  Handsome and even a bit vain, the warriors are turned out in splendid colorful costumes, complete with neatly done headgear and spotlessly clean kikoi-like main garments.

The young men – many of whom had arrived by motorbike – had gathered in the bike parking lot under a couple of trees.  The young unmarried women were slightly on the periphery, chatting and lounging in small groups of 3 or so, no doubt exchanging some gossip and catching up with their friends.  The sort of thing you do when you are not on Facebook. 

There was some selling and buying of sheep and goats happening as well.  Unfortunately I managed only a couple of photographs before the subjects started to demand rather exorbitant amounts of money to be in front of the lens.  I had not anticipated this happening and it is a pity that Segera had no arrangement in place with the local community leaders, to prevent this situation.  For a photographer to negotiate individually with every subject, is not ideal at all.  It was uncomfortable and as a result some ‘once in at lifetime’ photo opportunities went begging.  

Segera is a superb property and for visitors looking well beyond a game-viewing trip, it offers an extraordinarily luxurious and all-encompassing experience.  

SABUK – PLACE OF THE CAMELS

From Segera I traveled by road to Sabuk, another Laikipia property, but in completely different terrain right along the Ewaso Nyire River.  As I was accompanied by Verity Williams, the owner and co-founder of Sabuk, I received an excellent introduction to the area.  Verity is a veteran guide and long-time safari operator in Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa with special expertise in mobile camping safaris.  She is a great conversationalist and we chatted away for a couple of hours en route.   I am glad she was doing the driving and not me as some of it was pretty rough going.  

As we got closer to Sabuk the landscape became quite dramatic with craggy outcrops and canyons giving way to  impressive vistas over the distant hills.  Just before turning off the main road – if one can call it that – you cross a large bridge over the Ewaso Nyiro River, and then travel a short distance up a rather steep little hill before coming to a stop close to the front entrance of the lodge.  On the drive we saw a couple of elephants 

The main lodge or mess (it has two wings,  a dining room and lounge/fireplace) and the rooms – no two of which are the same – are bulky rock, cement and wood structures, all covered by huge reed-covered roofs.  The initial impression is rustic yet impressive.  I suppose one could describe Sabuk as being quirky and organic, with each room and the cottage annex (a self-contained until sleeping 4 persons with its own small kitchen and private lounge and plunge pool) having its own layout and different views.  

Some rooms have a smaller verandah; most have a semi-outdoor bath with a view and there is a family room with a king size bed and three singles, one of which is a bunk bed.  The family house – partially on a wooden deck – can sleep as many as seven persons.  

Of course, Sabuk is much more than a collection of rooms and buildings.  It has personality and style and offers a unique combination of activities and surroundings in a very dramatic landscape.  

Every room at Sabuk shares an inescapable and welcome bonus:  the natural sound track of the water of the Ewaso Nyiro River being forced into a series of narrow rocky gaps right below the lodge.  The result is a soothing curtain of sound, like a never-ending wave breaking gently on a beach.  Add to that some drop-dead gorgeous views from practically every room and from various vantage points in the lounge and dining room, and you have a great setting for a relaxing, low-key safari experience.  

What Sabuk does best – at least in my very limited experience of a couple of days there – is to introduce visitors (old and young, this is a great place for kids) to activities other than game drives.  So it will appeal mostly to people who want to take a break from ‘safari’, get out of the vehicle and discover some other things to see and do.  Amongst others, these include camel treks, hiking, fly-camping, a village visits and even some fishing in the Ewaso Nyire river.

Owner Verity Williams was always around to help with suggestions and to arrange activities – she and my two guides Tise and Gus certainly worked hard to make my stay at Sabuk a very pleasant one.  

June 20.  ‘YOUR CAMEL IS READY’

It has been a long time since I’ve done anything completely new – and over the course of three decades on this earth I’ve never walked with, been on the back of or even been close to a camel.  All this changed early on June 20 when Verity met me at the entrance to the lodge and announced:  ‘Your camel is ready’.

Minutes later, having been given a few perfunctory do’s and don’ts, I swung my left leg over a camel’s back.  His name was Soro.  Without much warning and rather abruptly Soro ‘woke up’ – meaning that he forcefully straightened first his back legs and then his front legs, so lean back right after mounting to avoid being pitched over the camel’s neck.  

Once up, a camel is quite stable and at walking pace there is a minimum of discomfort.  I would not want to stay in the saddle for more than a couple of hours at a time but the view from up there was worth it.  It is certainly high to the point where kids up to 8 years or so are best picked up once the camel is up, to share a ride with a parent.

We traveled a mile or so to a nice spot in the bush where a surprise breakfast had been arranged for me, complete with a small portable table and chairs, a cook, coffee and breakfast to order.  There was even a small portable toilet.  

While I was there, a young American family with two boys aged 8 and 10 were spending 3 nights at Sabuk and the kids were clearly having fun, doing some exploring on their own and joining their parents on walks, camel treks and a fishing expedition.  The food at Sabuk was good and wholesome and there was plenty of it, with nice vegetarian options as well.  

I would be reluctant to recommend Sabuk to visitors wanting a luxury experience but if you enjoy ‘camping wild’ and wouldn’t mind an occasional bat or spider then Sabuk would be right up your alley.  That being said I’ve encountered bats in many safari properties – even some very luxurious ones…

Walking is highly encouraged at Sabuk and due to the many hills in the property, you are almost always able to scan a distant hillside or ravine for animals of one kind or another.  We were not lucky with the animals when I was there, but rainfall and seasonality play a big role in that.  

Over the course of a couple of days at Sabuk I saw a few elephants at a distance, some kudu, zebra, waterbuck and impala.  I am sure they have better days, but Sabuk is not really a game-viewing destination.  It has almost no roads suitable for game-viewing so even if there were more animals, walking and camel treks would still be a better proposition.  

Not everyone will like the rough rock construction of the rooms at Sabuk and I also had some issues with the almost non-existent lighting.  Another personal foible of mine is that I don’t care for any bath that does not have an enamel surface – at Sabuk they have a terra cotta-like ‘clay’ finish which adds to the rustic feel of the place.  I very much enjoyed the totally open front to my room – it is almost a necessity in the spot where the lodge is built.  While some guests might feel a bit nervous about this, there is no reason for concern as the front of the rooms are well protected.

As long as would-be visitors know what to expect and visit Sabuk for the right reasons, they are likely to find a very special and very warm place.

Continue to Part 3

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