Close Encounters with Hyenas in Ol Pejeta

Over the last few weeks we’ve been hosting some family from the UK for Easter, and last Sunday’s article documented the first leg of our holiday at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge. For the second leg, we were booked in at the Ol Pejeta Safari Cottages – a relatively new addition to the conservancy’s landscape.

This promised to be an altogether different experience from our stay in the Mara. Whereas the Mara Serena stands pronounced on top of a large hill on the edge of the Mara Triangle, the Safari Cottages are hidden within a riverine woodland in a quiet stretch of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Each of its four cottages are screened from the others by thick bush, and look out towards the acacia-fringed Ngobit River. Our cottage, ‘Mbili’, has two bedrooms, an open plan living and dining area, and a wide wooden veranda with views of the river and plains beyond. The cottage also has its own dedicated kitchen and chef, providing a real sense of privacy, and making it ideal for self-catering groups.

On the river’s edge, a short walk away from the cottages, is a secluded platform – for sunbathing, yoga, or outdoor meals with a view of the salt lick on the opposite bank. We spent much of our afternoons here, and in the chilly evenings we huddled round fires lit for us on the lawn or in the lounge.

Ol Pejeta has benefitted from lots of rainfall in recent weeks, so its plains were green and its rivers were full. The downside, though, was that certain areas of the conservancy were inaccessible, which we found out to our detriment soon after arriving.

We spotted a large herd of elephants down a dirt track off the main road, and didn’t hesitate to get a closer view. The elephants filtered round us, crunching and shovelling clumps of grass into their mouths, before disappearing into the surrounding bushes. As I drove back, we sunk into a boggy patch of black cotton soil, and I immediately regretted my decision to approach the elephants.

Thankfully we weren’t too far off the main road, and were found after about half an hour by a handful of Ol Pejeta staff in one of the many beige Suzukis that whiz around the conservancy. They eventually managed to push us out, but as my back wheels burrowed for traction we sprayed mud all over their clean uniforms.

I was relieved, then, that I had booked a vehicle inclusive package for the rest of our stay at the Safari Cottages, which included the use of one of their game viewing vehicles, as well as the expertise of one of their guides – Michael Ndirangu. Mike spent over a decade working on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and is very familiar with Ol Pejeta, too, so he knew which roads to avoid.

One of the areas that was inaccessible was the woodland surrounding the cottages, where Mike told us there was a pride of 18 lions. We heard them roaring at night nearby, but couldn’t get any closer during the day. We saw plenty of other lions around the conservancy, though, and spent most of our time parked beside two spotted hyena dens.

At one of the dens, just a few kilometres from the cottages, there are four generations of hyenas, and it was fascinating to watch their interactions. One of the youngest pups, just a few months old and obviously low down in the hierarchy, couldn’t emerge from the den without being roughly bullied by the others. And at the other den by Kicheche Camp, the pups confidently approached our vehicle, sniffed our tyres and played within yards of us.

After our morning game drives, we parked the car at various spots along the swollen Ewaso Nyiro River, and enjoyed our bush breakfasts. During one of these breakfasts, at the Murera Dongo campsite, we watched on as a saloon car was rescued from a marsh by a Serena vehicle. I couldn’t help feeling relieved that I wasn’t the only one to have grossly overestimated the capability of my car.

We also had a very memorable morning visiting Najin and Fatu, the world’s last remaining northern white rhinos. This subspecies used to range over large parts of east and central Africa, but there are now just two left after years of poaching and civil war. Since the recent death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, the future of the subspecies now lies in the development of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques and stem cell technology, using a southern white rhino female as a surrogate mother.

The endangered species enclosure is open to visitors twice daily for US$ 40 per adult, at 8.30am and 4pm, where you can meet the northern whites and learn more about their history and what it takes to protect them. For more information, visit www.olpejetaconservancy.org, and for the Safari Cottages visit www.thesafaricottages.com.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation