Easter on the Swara Plains

Having recently camped at Naivasha’s perennial favourite Carnelley’s, I felt that we should search for an alternative camping spot for the Easter weekend. This wasn’t easy, though, given our low budget and the fact that I’d be accompanied by a non-resident. We considered camping in one of Laikipia’s countless community conservancies but didn’t fancy the six-hour drive from Nairobi, so searched closer to home. We ended up at lot closer than anticipated – at the Acacia Camp, just beyond Athi River.

As it’s name suggests, the Acacia Camp sits within a thicket of fever trees, on the edge of the Swara Plains Conservancy. Unknown to many, this 20,000 acre sanctuary is home to about 3,000 game animals – including over 100 giraffes, as well as wildebeest, zebras, ostriches, and a large variety of gazelles. A pair of cheetah brothers often roam into the conservancy, and there are also over 300 bird species.

Whenever I drive through Athi River, I think of legendary filmmaker Alan Root’s description of the Athi-Kapiti Plains in the 1940s, in his memoir Ivory, Apes and Peacocks. He describes these plains as much like the Serengeti today – as an endless savannah teaming with wildlife. Amidst all of the area’s present development – the sprawling housing estates and obtrusive factories – I like to consider the Swara Plains Conservancy as a modest reminder of the Athi Plains of old.

The ranch has been home to the Hopcraft family since independence. Professor David Hopcraft, conservationist and owner of Swara Plains, has carried out extensive research with the support of Cornell University and the National Science Foundation, to understand the relationship between wildlife and healthy rangelands. David wasn’t around when we visited, but his son Xan was, who seems to have taken over the day-to-day management of the ranch. Xan, it turns out, was also the inspiration for the Warner Bros feature film ‘Duma’ – based on the true story of his relationship with an adopted orphaned cheetah cub called Dooms.

We didn’t spot any cheetahs, but saw plenty of the conservancy’s grazing animals, as well as a wide variety of birds. One of the unique features of Swara Plains, and what I think is one of its biggest selling points, is the ability for guests to go on night game drives. In those conservancies where they aren’t forbidden, night game drives are often really expensive, where as in the Swara Plains it’s free if you have your own car and provide your own spotlight.

Guests are also free to explore the conservancy on foot, or on a bike – great ways to appreciate the landscape and the wildlife within it. There are also a number of dams scattered across the conservancy where you can fish for Tilapia and Catfish (tackle can be hired for Kshs 500), and you can even go for a game drive in a vintage Model A Ford.

Or, you could just relax in the lounge of the Acacia Camp, looking out across the well-manicured lawn to the thatched bandas, surrounded by flowering shrubs and shaded by tall fever trees. There are 13 of these quaint little bandas, which are all en-suite, and each have their own front patio. There are also eight large canvas tents, as well as a family cottage.

For those who prefer to pitch their own tent, as we did, there’s a spacious campsite with bathroom and shower facilities. Firewood is included in the Kshs 1,600 camping fee. The thatched bandas are a bit steeper: bed and breakfast is Kshs 8,500 for a double, and Kshs 6,500 for a single; full board is Kshs 14,200 for a double and Kshs 8,700 for a single. All of these prices are inclusive of a Kshs 600 sanctuary fee.

The conservancy is definitely worth considering for a day-trip, too – for a game drive and a spot of lunch. There’s plenty on offer at the Acacia Camp’s restaurant, including a variety of soups, salads and quiches for starters, and main courses like ‘Pan-fried fillet of Tilapia with lemon and parsley butter’, and ‘Broiled game ranch lamb cutlets with a mint jus’. The specials when we visited included a cream of spinach soup and a lamb curry.

Opposite the restaurant is the camp’s bar, cleverly dubbed ‘The Hop Inn’ (after Hopcraft, you see). It’s an open rondavel in the heart of the garden, with a dartboard and a large flat screen with DSTV. The TV is usually switched off so as not to distract from the peaceful surroundings, but can be switched on for those (like me) who dread the thought of missing out on that crucial football match.

Looking back, then, we are sure we made the right choice for our Easter getaway. Swara Plains is well-worth a visit for a weekend, or just for a day, and unlike many of the country’s conservancies grants its visitors the freedom to view its wildlife on foot.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation