Ol Donyo Lodge: In the Green Hills of Kenya

After weeks of struggling with deadlines in Nairobi, I was relishing what was left of the first morning of our escape to ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills – Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. Our bedroom was open to one of the most therapeutic landscapes in the country: stage left, Mount Kilimanjaro; stage right, two smaller and rounded hills. There are two like those outside Hargeisa in Somaliland, and the Somalis call them ‘Nasa Hablood’ – Maiden’s Breasts. The Masai call theirs, more prosaically, ‘El Mau’ – The Twins.

Below us, a Crested Francolin was making its repetitive call, like someone bouncing on a mattress with old-fashioned springs. A White-Bellied Go-Away Bird flopped for a sip at our bedroom’s small plunge pool. And in nearby thickets two Slate-Coloured Boubous were beginning their liquid courtship duet.

Some lines came back to me from the poem, ‘Leisure’, by the Welsh poet, W H Davies. They were lines often recited by my first-born and always busy sister:

 What is this life, if full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare…

But I wasn’t standing; I was sitting in a shapely wicker chair, taking in the view and indulging myself with a pre-lunch sherry from the complimentary tuck box, in the most tastefully luxurious suite of rooms that I have ever had the privilege of enjoying.

The ol Donyo Lodge is a very special place. It is set in the foothills of the Chyulu Hills, which are some of the youngest in the world. Its buildings – a fascinating mix of thatched traditional and curved modern – nestle among the trees growing on a steep volcanic slope. The lodge looks down to a belt of woods and then the open plain that leads on to the mountains. After the persistent rain we have had these last few weeks, it was all so green and lush. There was more snow on Kilimanjaro than I have seen for many years. And there are plenty of animals down there: elephants, lions, leopards, cheetahs – 68 recorded mammals, over 300 species of birds, and over 1000 species of plants.

Ol Donyo is on the 275,000 acres of the Mbirikani Group Ranch of the Masai. It is owned and managed by the Great Plains Foundation, whose Chairman, the cinematographer Dereck Joubert, acted on his dream of creating the lodge. He did it in partnership with the intrepid conservationist, Richard Bonham, who established and manages the Big Life Foundation, whose 300 rangers now protect a million acres of land in the Amboseli/Tsavo ecosystem. A significant portion of the lodge’s income goes to support both the people of the Mbirikani Group Ranch and the wildlife that is protected by Big Life.

Our escape from Nairobi was very efficiently managed by Safarilink, whose centre at Wilson was encouragingly busy. Our Cessna Caravan was expertly flown above, below and around the clouds by Erica, who seemed such a young girl. (I really must be getting old.)

At the lodge, after my sitting and staring – and after the sherry – it was time for our first lunch. All the meals were an excellent blend of healthy and tasty – and all were elegantly served. There was then time for a recuperating nap (we had been up at 5 am) before our first game drive.

Our guides – and guests have the same guides for the length of their stay – were Konee and Jeremiah. They were great company. They know their animals, their birds, their plants, and the culture of the Masai. They, and their fellow guides, certainly know their stuff. They should do, since they have been trained by our son, Andreas! But Andreas admits that he has learnt as much, if not more, from them as they have from him.

There’s so much you can do at ol Donyo: guided walks, bird watching, horse riding, bike riding, exploring the caves in the Chyulu Hills, visiting a Masai village – and enjoying the company of the lodge managers, Richard and Tansy Vaughan, as well as of the other guests. The place is small enough (a maximum of 16 guests) that it has the feel of a like-minded community – even if a very transitory one.

Ol Donyo Lodge is not, by any means, a cheap place. Understandably, most of the guests are from overseas – and many of them from the United States. But Richard and Tansy do want to have a role in local tourism. The non-resident rates are quite staggering; the resident rates might also make you blink. But, if you would like to stay there – the only lodge on the Mbirikani Ranch – then we suggest you choose the low season; make contact through the website (www.greatplainsconservation.com/ol-donyo-lodge/) and the phone (020-2180181), and you might be able to negotiate a price well enough below the published rates.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation