When we think travel in the bush, safari is often the first thing to spring to mind. But it’s not for everyone, particularly those with younger kids. Catrina Stewart heads to Nanyuki and Laikipia for an altogether different child-friendly experience.
Just feet away from where we were standing, a grazing herd of elephants meandered from scrub to shrub, snorting, chomping, stamping. Our guide again motioned to us to be silent. But my five-year-old wasn’t listening, engaged as she was in a monologue about a favourite television series. She seemed less than enthralled by the proximity to these great beasts. Eventually the message, accompanied by violent hand gestures, appeared to penetrate, and she burrowed her head in my top and blew raspberries.
I briefly wondered if my child was getting much out of this. We had vetoed a traditional safari, the prospect of trying to keep a lid on five and three-year-old emotions a seemingly Sisyphean task. But the idea of introducing our offspring to a more offbeat experience was appealing.
Even if elephants seemed to leave my children cold, Laikipia was proving a surprising hit. Earlier, I had suggested camels to my husband, and, with a raise of his eyebrows, he had agreed. So here we were with Karisia Walking Safaris, watching the elephants.
While the emphasis at Karisia is on walking safaris, the camels serving as pack animals, we chose to ride for some of the time, given our offspring’s muted enthusiasm for walking. We had been introduced to our camels earlier in the day – Hashem for me, and Chapatti for my husband. 19th century traveller Amelia Edwards once wrote: “You know that he hates you, from the moment you first walk round him, wondering where and how to begin the ascent of his hump.” These words seemed to ring particularly true as my youngest extended her fingers towards the camel’s snarling snout, prompting a warning from its handler.
Her sister, seeing this, refused to go anywhere near it. Realising she might be left behind as we moved off, she finally acquiesced, and was hoisted up. We set off, swaying, the lopsided saddle threatening to tip us into the dirt at any moment.
We plodded for an hour in the early morning light, giraffe galloping in front of us and dik dik cavorting through the scrub. Camels are, though, inherently uncomfortable, so after an hour we descended with relief to continue on foot, until an evil-looking cobra slid across our path. Our youngest wanted to get closer, but was fortunately securely strapped into a toddler rucksack, gallantly lugged around by Gabriel, our long-suffering guide.
Reaching a cluster of rocks, our oldest was initiated into the art of rock-climbing. She’s much too young, I thought, when the suggestion was first mooted. She’ll be afraid, she’ll get little out of it.. But by the fifth ascent of the same cliff-face, she was shouting, “Easy, peasy!” My normally risk-shy daughter was loving it. She must have climbed up the same rock, her harness rope attached to Gabriel, about 10 times. By the end, she was bouncing down. Then it was our turn. My husband made it to the top, much to the admiration of his daughter, but I found myself hanging in terror to a sheer bit of rock face with no obvious foot or hand holds.
“Don’t look down,” my oldest, who now considered herself a veteran climber, shouted. “You’ve nearly reached where I got,” she added. “You just need to practise more, Mummy,” she said finally.
We arrived at our riverside camp, erected that morning, just in time for lunch. The girls delightedly surveyed their accommodation for the night – a real tent, bedding laid out on a ground sheet, a second tent for the children behind. As we drank our tea in the early evening light, a herd of elephants waded across the river in front of us. “Look,” I said to my children, waiting expectantly for my oldest to say something profound that would make good copy. “Yeah, cool,” she said. “Mummy, can I have another piece of cake?”
In the space of a few days, our girls were barraged with an onslaught of experiences. First time camping, first time on a camel, first time on a rock. Whichever experience was their last was their favourite. At Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, a storied resort with a magnificent location at the foot of Mt Kenya, it had been the maze. Then the kid’s club. Then the horses.
Once owned by actor William Holden, and his partners, oil billionaire Ray Ryan and Swiss financier Carl Hirschmann, the resort was at one time the most exclusive private members’ club in the world, with a stay by invitation only. It became a mecca for the glamorous Hollywood set, and a meeting place for Western spies.
I imagine those former guests would recoil at the thought of the kids’ club, where the young charges run sack races, bead necklaces, and hare about on the bouncy castle among other things. But for stressed parents wanting a break, it is bliss, and for a heady moment, I considered leaving them there for the day in the capable hands of Joshua, the ebullient manager. Instead, we mounted the girls on horses, and went for a half-hour lead-rein ride in the shadow of Mount Kenya.
Later, the children raced giggling through the maze, and a teenage boy took it upon himself to lead my oldest deep into the labyrinth, and jump out at her, screaming, every few paces. She was delighted.
Our final stop before heading north was the animal orphanage, where visitors can see rescued bongos, cerval cats, baboons, and myriad other creatures. While some are in enclosures, the tamer bongos, llamas, baby buffalos and giant tortoises have the run of the orphanage. From behind bars, a baboon with a broken arm screeched at my youngest, and she chortled in delight. She sat down next to a llama, sitting nonchalantly on the grass, and stroked its fur, saying, “This is a funny one.”
On the road to Laikipia proper, my oldest chattered ceaselessly about the kids’ club, and I wondered if Laikipia would live up to the attractions of the Mt Kenya Safari Club. Our first stop was Laikipia Wilderness, an eco lodge where we were greeted by Penny, the vivacious manager, who was standing in for the owners while they were away, with two young kids of her own.
After lunch, we retired to our rooms. The silence was absolute. A handful of tents, furnished in comfortable style, overlook the Laikipia plains. Absolute, that is, until the children came screeching down the hill, looking for more entertainment.
We headed out of camp out on a game drive for a sundowner, although one with a difference. Within moments of stopping on the riverside beach, the children had stripped d own, running into the Ewaso Narok river, up to their necks in murky water with only a few boulders separating them from humphing and snorting hippos. For one normally so diffident towards ‘natural’ water, my five-year-old appeared to be having the time of her life. My three year old looked on longingly, nursing a bandaged broken thumb. When she did venture in, she held her thumb carefully aloft.
Meanwhile, Penny’s son had caught a catfish, an alarmingly malevolent looking creature with giant whiskers. We joked about serving it up for tea, for it was fish fingers and chips on the menu. As the children munched contentedly on battered fish, we relaxed over a gin and tonic to the hippos’ soundtrack.
Similarly to Karisia, you’ll often have the place to yourself. The lodge is family-owned and family-run, with a variety of activities on offer, such as tubing or boating on the river when it’s in spate, archery, or bush walking with guides, identifying bugs and scorpions, or studying animal tracks. This is not mere tolerance, but a genuine embrace of family life.
Our final stop before heading back to Nairobi was Sutton Hoo, an English country house outside Nanyuki transplanted onto the Kenyan landscape. Even the chill in the air, the wind gusting off Mount Kenya, reminded me of the British countryside. The house is the dream of Dicky and Amelia Leach, who built the house over five years. Wisely as it turns out, they were advised to build the swimming pool first lest they run out of money and energy to do it at the end .
We were quickly plunged into the Leach’s family life, their two young twins a subject of fascination for my younger child. A kids’ tea was whipped up, and my children delved into the toys of their younger peers, before lounging in front of Nanny McPhee, part of a movie library courtesy of a sister working in film.
As Amelia readied her twins for kindergarten on our final morning, we were treated as more a part of family life than a guest. And that’s just how I would have wanted it. Their home is a handy base for exploring nearby attractions, such as Ol Pejeta conservancy, and Ngare Ndare forest with its waterfall and canopy walks, but also provides a comfortable break in the journey for a family on the way back from the north.
Before returning to Nairobi, we decided to try Ngare Ndare, but somewhere beyond Timau, I drove the car off the road. Standing at the side of the track, the children considered my driving abilities – unfavourably – until some passers-by stopped, and heaved our car back onto the road. It might have been the last straw had the children not taken it so in their stride. I had been underestimating them, I know. But if there’s one thing I can be sure of, it’s that our holidays will never be so tame again.
The writer was a guest of Mt Kenya Safari Club, Laikipia Wilderness, Karisia Walking Safaris and Sutton Hoo.
From Nairobi, it is a roughly three-hour drive to Nanyuki. Mount Kenya Safari Club is located about 20 minutes from Nanyuki, and is set in beautifully-manicured grounds at the foot of Mount Kenya. A children’s club runs from 10 am to 6 pm, and offers a range of activities, including lego, playstations, a bouncy castle and trampoline, and activities with group leaders including sack races, beading and painting.
Horse-riding is available for a range of abilities, with lead-rein rides around the grounds for younger guests, and more adventurous rides into the Mt Kenya National Park for more experienced riders. Older children can also make use of several segway boards, head to the animal orphanage or relax at the pool. The safari club also has its own golf course, and families can book bush breakfasts, and trips into nearby game reserves. Resident rates start from Kshxxx. www.fairmont.com
Laikipia Wilderness, a serene eco lodge owned by Annabelle and Steve Carey, is a one-and-half-hour drive from Nanyuki, some of it on graded rough roads. It is a beautiful drive, and you’re likely to see game on the way. The eco lodge offers double and connected family tents, and meals are taken communally in the main mess tent. Activities for children include swimming in the river, rafting, fishing, rockclimbing, bush walks with rangers to uncover bugs, and animal tracks and archery. Resident rates on full-board start from Ksh20,000 per person. All activities are included. www.laikipia-wilderness.com
Karisia Walking Safaris is a roughly one-hour drive east from Laikipia Wilderness (or 90 minutes from Nanyuki), and guests have the option of setting out on a walking safari when they arrive, or spending a night or two in the well-appointed base camp. On safari, adults mainly walk, while camels carry the luggage and tents, but it is also possible to ride them for a while to enjoy the view.
Activities include game walks with sundowners, swimming in the Ewaso Nyiro river, beading jewellery, and rock-climbing with an experienced guide. Karisia’s safaris, offered on an exclusive basis, can last up to several days, with a camp set up in a different spot every night. Rates start from $240 per adult per day for a lighter trekking safari using dome tents with separate toilets, to $300 per person with bigger tents for the full experience. www.karisia.com
An 90-minute drive back to Nanyuki brings you to Sutton Hoo, a private house located close to the airstrip in Nanyuki. It is the very comfortable English-style family home of Dicky and Amelia Leach, who have young children of their own. Their home has a pool, sand pit, swings, and plenty of indoor entertainment, too, such as a kids’ movie library, and games. It is a good place to break up a long journey whether going to or from Nairobi. B&B rates start at Ksh6,500 for a single, Ksh 12,000 for a double. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
As many readers will know, Laikipia has suffered security problems in recent months. During our most recent visit to western Laikipia, the situation was calm and safe, but always contact the lodge before travelling to find out about the situation on the ground.
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