In the stillness just before dawn, the dazzling stars of Orion illuminated the African sky. In the Hunter’s company were neighboring constellations of Taurus, Monoceros, Lepus, Gemini and Eridanus and what surely must have been a trillion stars.
The heavens were ablaze in natural brilliance, as nary a single manmade light tarnished the night sky.
The air was cold as the first rays of sun brightened the horizon. As I tuggged the blankets tighter for warmth, from afar an almighty roar cut the silence of the early morning. A lion was on the prowl, and I shivered as I listened to him, spellbound by the sheer power of his voice.
Soon after the sounds of the lion faded away, I was fully awakened by the first chirps of the dawn chorus, a melodious hallelujah choir of go-away birds, doves, hornbills, weavers, rollers and sunbirds.
This is the song of Africa, and as the sun rose, I heard it all from the safety of a handcrafted four-poster star bed perched high on a platform at the Loisaba Conservancy wilderness in Kenya’s Laikipia County.
That is the pure magic of a star bed. I had traveled to Loisaba with friends who are fellow nature geeks like me. We were not only there to see the wildlife and immerse ourselves in Kenyan culture, but also to see firsthand how community conservation works.
During our stay there we met Charles Oluchina, director of Africa field programs for The Nature Conservancy.
“Loisaba is a magical place,” he told us over morning coffee. “It’s attractive and has a lot of character with steep valleys, open plains and river systems.”
The word Loisaba, which in Swahili translates to “seven stars,” honors the Pleiades, the cluster of ice-blue stars also known as the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology.
“You can see the Seven Sisters beautifully from here,” said Tom Silvester, Loisaba’s exuberant and always smiling manager. “Think of it as sleeping in the biggest bedroom in the world.”
The 56,000-acre Loisaba, just north of the equator and close to Mount Kenya, is unlike the tourist-infused Maasai Mara in the lower reaches of Kenya or the equally popular Serengeti in Tanzania.
There are no great herds of tourists here, so you truly feel as if you’re in a world of your own. You have those 56,000 acres pretty much to yourself and just a few other guests and the wild creatures and hundreds of bird species of the Kenyan plains.
The unfenced Loisaba is remote, and because it is on the fringes of the true Kenyan wilderness, there are no great herds of animals either, as you would see stampeding the Mara or the Serengeti.
Don’t misinterpret that to mean the animals aren’t here, because they most certainly are, and it’s a special thrill to find them.
On game drives we saw Grevy’s zebras, graceful giraffes, greater kudus, wild dogs, hartebeests and Cape buffaloes, their horns curling like an out-of-control mustache.
Big cats and little cats live on Loisaba, including leopard, cheetah, serval and caracal, and the lion population, Oluchina explained, is one of the most stable in Kenya.
Loisaba also carves out a portion of the historic elephant migratory corridor of Kenya’s wilderness and supports the country’s second-largest elephant population, only after Tsavo. On one game drive, our small ladies-only group rounded a curve in a dirt road and came upon a parade of tuskers so close we could almost touch them.
This closeness with nature is why the sanctuarylike Loisaba is so special. And, like most of the conservancies and lodges in Kenya, there is always a back story, this one dating only to the 20th century but on ancient lands that are much the same as they were a hundred, a thousand, even 10,000 years ago.
Today’s Loisaba was originally owned by Carletto Ancilotto, an Italian count who first visited Kenya in the 1960s. Kuki Gallmann, his neighbor and friend who wrote I Dreamed of Africa, says that Ancilotto was passionate about hunting, fishing and shooting.
He came to adore the land and its dramatic landscape of high plateaus with views to forever, acacia woodlands and volcanic rocks blasted from Mount Kenya in its last eruption more than 2 million years ago. He built a cattle ranch at Loisaba, with the bovines sharing the vast wilderness with the local wildlife.
Age caught up with the count, and in the late 1990s his daughter Luisa, rather than selling Loisaba to developers, negotiated to transfer the property to the Loisaba Community Trust with the help of the U.S.-based The Nature Conservancy and the Kenya-based Space for Giants, an elephant conservation group.
The name of the ranch was changed to Loisaba, and thus began the building of the model for sustainable community development, conservation of wildlife habitat and an elephant migration path that passes through here — to the delight of nature nerds everywhere, safaris and tourism.
“Tourism support helps make Loisaba a self-sustaining engine for peace, community development and wildlife conservation,” Oluchina said. “This is an innovative example of how Africa can both preserve its heritage and create economic opportunities for its people.”
The star beds are a critical part of Loisaba’s tourism program. Silvester explained that while plenty of lodges throughout Kenya and even across Africa now have their own versions of star beds, the idea originated at Loisaba and provided jobs for local Maasai and Samburu tribesmen who build the beds.
In addition to the creation of more than 200 jobs within the local community since Loisaba began in 1998, Loisaba has been instrumental in building schools and healthcare clinics and providing managed grazing access for neighboring communities of Samburu and Maasai farmers.
All of that is possible with the support from TNC and Space for Giants, plus that of the Loisaba Community Conservation Foundation, tourism operator Elewana, and the Northern Rangelands Trust, which develops community conservancies in northern Kenya.
“Our hope is to also create additional community conservancies in the area surrounding Loisaba as a means to secure grazing lands for local people and provide improved governance and grassroots decision-making,” Silvester said.
“We are working closely with Northern Rangelands Trust to expand their proven model of community conservation,” he said. “The Nature Conservancy brings us these relationships. The future potential to scale up our impact is very exciting.”
In those respects, Loisaba isn’t just another African safari. Every dollar goes toward the greater good of the Loisaba community.
“Even if you come here and have a beer, the money goes back into conservation,” Silvester said. “There is a real linkage between science and tourism. Loisaba is conservation forever, conservation for people and wildlife.”
Of course, there’s far more to do for tourists at Loisaba than drinking beer, sleeping in star beds and going on game drives. Visitors tour villages for glances of traditional African life, ride camels or horses, and fish or raft on the Ewaso N’giro or Ng’are Narok rivers.
It is the game drives, however, which captured my attention most fully.
The typical day begins with a very early morning game drive, just before sunrise. They sometimes last for hours, depending upon the wildlife patterns. During the day, the animals slumber under shade trees to escape the hot African sun. In the evening the critters awaken and they, along with nocturnal creatures, become more active and join together across the plains and at watering holes in a naturally orchestrated ballet in the bush.
During evening game drives, the driver will find a perfect spot for a sundowner — the safari version of happy hour, complete with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres served in the vibrant light of sunset.
No two game drives are the same, and on one of our final days at Loisaba we were afforded the most memorable moments of our journey — and for me, of my lifetime.
As we drove away from Kiboko that morning, our goal was to find lions. After an hour or so, we came to a stand of dense brush and huge, sharp rocks. Yusuf, our driver-slash-professional wildlife guide, managed to sidestep the largest of the boulders as we crawled along slowly and carefully, and he was always scanning the bushes for simba, the Swahili word for lion.
But the lions, their tawny hides blending in with the warm, rusty colors of Africa, proved elusive and we were unsuccessful at catching a single glimpse of one.
“Clever lions,” Yusuf said in a low voice as we headed back to the lodge for a big, bountiful breakfast of eggs, bacon and tomatoes. For the moment, we were outsmarted by Mother Nature.
Yusuf, however, remained determined to find simba on our evening game drive. There we were, bumping along the rocks, when he pointed to a spot underneath a tree. On the ground reclined a lioness, beautiful and golden in her majesty. As we drew closer, we realized that she has several awful, gaping wounds, and it was clear that she was in a great deal of pain.
“I think she’s been in a fight with a buffalo,” Yusuf said as we watched her lick her wounds and roll over in an attempt to get comfortable. “She’s been tossed around pretty badly.”
Then, drawing on his knowledge of many years as a tracker, he stated, “She is dying.”
The one thing that guides cannot do is interfere with nature’s balance. We watched her for a long while, knowing it would be the last time we would ever see her. Only when darkness threatened to envelope us did we finally drive away.
Mother Africa had taken back her child, and it was difficult to comprehend the utter sadness of it all while at the same time reveling in its stark beauty. Thus it was that there, on a dust-cloaked Loisaba road, I cried for a dying lion.
If you go
Getting there: KLM and partners Delta and Air France offer flights from the U.S. to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO), connecting through Amsterdam. Flights from Nairobi to Loisaba are set up directly through tour operators.
Where to stay: Loisaba Conservancy. All meals, beer, house wine and selected spirits, accommodations, game drives, laundry and transfers from the airstrip are included. Loisaba Kiboko star beds are made up of three doubles that can accommodate one or two guests and one twin or family platform that can accommodate four guests. Each platform is en suite and has solar electricity, hot running water and flush toilets. Rates are $235-$470 per person, per night.
Koija star beds are two doubles designed for one or two guests and one twin or family platform for up to four guests. Koija is more traditional with bucket showers and lamps for lighting. Rates are $270-$400 per person, per night.
Loisaba Tented Camps, opening in March 2016, will be a luxury tented camp with grand views of the Laikipia Plains and Mount Kenya. Rates are listed as $385-$750 per person, per night. Family tents for up to two adults and two children range from $1,442 to $2,240 per night. 254-0-705202375, www.loisaba.com.
Know before you go: Visas are required and are $50 for a single-entry visit. Visa applications can be processed through the electronic visa processing system eVisa at www.evisa.go.ke.
Pack light, as most East African bush planes have a strict 33-pound weight maximum for luggage. Soft duffel bags are best. Dress is casual, so no fancy clothes are required. Loisaba also has complimentary laundry service. www.KenyaEmbassy.com.