Any place that displays lines of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wins my favour. The place is the Acacia Camp in the Swara Plains Conservancy off the Mombasa Road and not far beyond Athi River. And these are the lines:
What would the world
Be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness?
Let them be left,
O let them be left,
Wildness and wet.
Long live the weeds
And the wilderness yet.
Driving there from Nairobi, as I did last Sunday, you can well understand why, whoever it was, was moved to pin that verse on the wall of Acacia Camp’s lounge. It is a place of beautiful and serene wildness. And there is some pleasant wet, too: dams where you can sit patiently on the banks and fish, or float lazily on the placid waters in a boat.
But for the hour of driving there you will have passed through Nairobi’s industrial area, threaded the long and depressing queue of lorries at Mlolongo’s weighbridge, and observed how quickly housing estates are spreading out beyond Athi River Town and across the Kapiti Plains. Close to the turn off for Acacia Camp at the Small World Country Club, there is a huge cement factory, a cooking oil factory, and another factory going up.
Yet you can quickly forget about all this when you sit under a parasol on the patio outside the Acacia Camp’s lounge, looking out across the lawn to the thatched bandas, ringed by flowering shrubs and shaded by some magnificent fever trees.
There are 13 bandas, which have recently been refurbished. They are the sort of thatched cottages I remember from the illustrations in the fairy story books of my childhood. But, inside, they have all that you need for comfort, except DSTV – but who wants DSTV when you are having time off in such a wildness and wet place?
But there are books to read in the cosy lounge off the dining room – a collection of guidebooks on Kenya’s flora and fauna – plus many novels thoughtfully left behind by guests. And, speaking of dining, the set menu for the Sunday I was there was cream of spinach soup, battered fish and chips, bread and butter pudding with cream, ice cream or custard.
Sounds homely? Yes, it is that kind of place – the kind of place, where you could happily spend your day browsing the books, watching the playful monkeys in the garden, or listening to the birds in the trees.
But there are also the 20,000 acres of Swara Plains to explore. I had lunch with Jill Flowers, the camp’s manager. She told me about the wide range of things you can do other than lounge on the patio. I had seen herds of wildebeest and zebras on my drive of three kilometres from the Mombasa Road to the camp. But there are over 100 kilometres of roads in Swara Plains – and about 3,000 game animals and over 270 bird species.
There are giraffes and ostriches, gazelles and jackals. Two cheetah brothers have been seen recently near the camp. And, snug in your bed at night, you might well hear the laugh of a hyena or the roar of a lion. By day, you can take a guided walk; at night you can enjoy a game drive with a spotlight.
You can even take a bike ride – something that is not often done in other parks and reserves. But you have to provide your own bike. There’s an invitation to bring your children for a bike safari. Acacia Camp is certainly a fun place for children – and it houses a good number of school retreats throughout the year.
It’s a great place adult retreats, too. There’s a small conference room – but, even better, you can brainstorm inside an open rondavel in the garden.
I’m not sure if it’s also a place for dogs (I don’t think it is), but I came across this nice notice in Acacia Camp’s Facebook: ‘Dogs are welcome in this hotel. We never had a dog that smoked in bed or set fire to the blankets. We never had a dog that stole our towels, or played the TV too loud, or had a noisy fight with his travelling companion. We never had a dog that got drunk and broke up the furniture… So if your dog can vouch for you, you’re welcome too.’
The prices? Bed and breakfast is Ksh.6,500 single and Ksh.8,500 double; full board is Ksh.7,700 single and 14,200 double.
The contacts? The phone numbers are 0733-812556 or 0733-912994. Their website is http://www.swaraplains.com; their Facebook page is Acacia Camp – Swara Plains.
After lunch, Professor David Hopcraft joined us for a coffee. He is the owner of Swara Plains, a conservationist who has done much pioneering research on wildlife and rangeland management. He has a fascinating collection of vintage cars and a fund of good stories. He also has a very important project in mind – but that story will have to wait for another time.