Mutara: Laikipia’s New Conservancy

I’m very fond of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. It’s always high up on my list of recommended destinations for newcomers to Kenya. It’s not too far from Nairobi, offers excellent views of Mount Kenya, and has one of the country’s highest densities of wildlife outside of the Maasai Mara.

A couple of years ago, 20,000 acres of the government-owned Mutara Ranch was integrated into the Ol Pejeta ecosystem, as a joint wildlife, livestock and tourism initiative. Although its operations are largely managed by Ol Pejeta, the Mutara Conservancy is well on its way to becoming self-sufficient, particularly with significant investment from the Monarch Group and the establishment of the luxury Jambo Mutara Camp. The camp is the only accommodation in the conservancy, and was an easy choice for an early Valentine’s retreat.

The conservancy is about a four hour drive from Nairobi, and the main gate sits roughly 40km from Nanyuki along the partially tarmacked Rumuruti road. The Jambo Mutara Camp (soon to be renamed the Monarch Mutara Camp) forms part of the Jambo Chester Hotels and Resorts chain (soon to be renamed the Monarch Collection). The camp is only 2km from the main gate, perched along the brow of a hill with a seasonal river, waterhole and salt lick at its base.

Each of its 15 luxury canvas tents are tastefully furnished, with private decks and views of either the waterhole to the west, or Mount Kenya to the east. The best tent, we were told, is no.15 – the honeymoon suite, with the Jacuzzi on its deck. The lack of a Jacuzzi in our room was definitely compensated by the communal infinity pool, which has a great view of the waterhole. There are two larger family units either side of the dining room and lounge, too, where two tents are connected by a single deck. And, tucked away a few 100m from the reception and massage parlour is a spacious conference tent.

We arrived just in time for lunch, which was served on the terrace of the dining room, looking out onto the waterhole. Only a few minutes after we sat down, a large herd of elephants strode quietly towards the waterhole for a drink – a reliable source of water in the dry season. We were joined, too, by the Camp Manager, Tom, who explained a bit about the camp and the significance of the Mutara Conservancy for the wider Laikipia ecosystem.

He told us that the conservancy is surrounded by farmland to the west, towards Rumuruti and the Aberdares, and that it acts as a crucial wildlife corridor linking Ol Pejeta to other areas in the ecosystem further north. At the moment, the conservancy isn’t fenced, and there are three innovative rhino-proof corridors along Ol Pejeta’s northern border, allowing migratory animals such as elephants and wild dogs to roam freely between the conservancies.

Tom informed us of plans later this year to build a fence around Mutara, leaving space for the wildlife corridors along the northern and southern borders of the conservancy. Once the fence is complete, Ol Pejeta plans to ease pressure on its black rhino population by relocating some of them to Mutara.

The fence will also play an important role in the regulation of illegal grazing in the conservancy. There’s a distinct contrast in the vegetation of Ol Pejeta and Mutara, as patches of the latter have been overgrazed. Tom explained that the management of Mutara have been more lenient of the presence of livestock in the conservancy of late, due to the current drought in the region. Once the fence is up, though, levels of grazing will be easier to control, as is the case in Ol Pejeta where cattle create hotspots of nutrient-rich grass for other herbivores in the conservancy.

After lunch and a dip in the pool we met Chris – the camp’s guide – and headed out for an evening game drive. Guests have the option of staying within Mutara or exploring Ol Pejeta too, as the conservancy fee is inclusive of both. We decided to look for wildlife around Mutara, and were quickly rewarded. The plan was to head to a hill near the camp for a sundowner, but we came across a den of jackals on the way – where we stayed for an hour watching the pups dart into a hole on one side of the car and emerge from another on the other side. The camp also offers night game drives, but we opted for a leisurely dinner and a few drinks in the lounge.

We woke up before dawn the following morning to watch the sunrise over Mount Kenya, and for a game drive in Ol Pejeta, and we weren’t let down – spotting a couple of cheetah brothers and dozens of elephants.

For bookings and more information about the Jambo Mutara Camp, have a look at their website: www.jambochesterhotels.com/mutara, or email Tom, the Camp Manager: tkimai@monarch.co.ke.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation