Big Sur is the Golden State’s awe-inspiring rocky shoreline where the frothy waves of the Pacific Ocean magnificently collide into the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains. One of the best ways to marvel at the grandeur is by driving along the coast on California Highway 1. Of course, Big Sur’s magic becomes more intimate when you’re camping within its forests—with luxury amenities, naturally. Continue reading “Big Sur Glamping at Ventana”
I had been told that the view from the award-winning Grootberg Lodge was spectacular, but when I got there it wasn’t. Granted, I arrived there in the dark of night after a dusk drive up Namibia’s Skeleton Coast — part of a custom itinerary organized for me by CW Safaris — and the non-descript patches of nature that I could make out in the near distance were only made visible from the short, confined beam of a flashlight.
However, even without the view of the Klip River Valley yet visible, I was already impressed with this lodge on the edge of the Etendeka Plateau — particularly with its story. Unlike many safari lodges in Africa, Grootberg Lodge has been operated by the local community for almost two decades now, with over 95% of the staff coming from rural villages. This is part of the efforts of the ≠Khoadi //Hoas Conservancy, unifying two thousand local community members who not only operate the lodge and prepare the meals, but run the education and conservation programs to protect the region’s wildlife.
With that said, some members of the conservancy know a thing about animals, especially the desert elephants of their Damaraland wilderness — in fact, “≠Khoadi //Hoas” in the local language of Khoekhoegowab translates to “elephant’s corner.” (The punctuation marks denote different click sounds.) Grootberg Lodge offers elephant tracking excursions for you to encounter them — with the caveat that there’s no guarantee of any actual sightings. Desert elephants are elusive after all.
On the morning I set out to find one of the trunked beasts, I didn’t set my expectations too high. The group that had gone out the day before hadn’t encountered any pachyderm, even after a long day of searching. Driving around in a Land Cruiser, my guide looked for clues in the wild — footprints, the freshness of dung, and impressions in the shrub and trees — just as the guide did the day before without any luck. For a couple of hours, we drove around the desert, shrubs, and thickets — two hours seemed like an eternity without a sighting — until, around a bend, stood an old lone bull munching on a tree.
Being only several yards away from him was a thrill, but my guide suspected he wasn’t alone and assured me that others had to be nearby. With a little more driving, we encountered the rest of the herd: young elephants, mothers with their babies, all getting in their morning routine and making their way across a valley. Driving in slowly and cautiously, we had quite an intimate experience with the herd from the safety inside our vehicle. In fact, a few curious elephants curled their trunks on our antenna, trying to play with a big, unusual metal creature.
Close encounters weren’t exclusively animal affairs in Damaraland. For me, nothing could have been more intimate than watching an old tribal elder woman in a hut, “bathing” herself in incense. However, this was not an act of perverted voyeurism; it was part of another excursion you can arrange from the Grootberg Lodge, where guides bring guests to see how one of the few remaining traditional tribes around live: the Himbas. The incense, along with otjize — a natural all-body ointment made with ochre and butterfat — keep the tribespeople clean while protecting them from mosquitoes and the sun.
Because of their nomadic behavior, the Himbas’ aren’t always in the same place, but fortunately venturing to them in a gas-powered vehicle can get you to wherever they relocated on foot. When stationary, the tribal community maintains their traditions: cattle farming, building shelters from mud and cattle dung, and their traditional attire and dance. The Himbas I visited performed their traditional dance for our group, which was like a Soul Train dance off. From my observations, the women dominated.
With these tribal visits and tracking excursions for elephants — or rhinos if you wish — you’d think there was plenty enough for me to be impressed with at the Grootberg Lodge. However, back at base, when I gazed out from the veranda of my solar-powered hut with a comfortable bed, nothing beat the view of the Klip River Valley — that is, when it was finally illuminated by the sun. With a poolside view like that, it almost made me forget that there were excursions available.
The classic safari in Kenya, at least for first-timers, usually involves going to Maasai Mara National Park, where one of many safari vehicles brings a group of camera-toting tourists on game drives in search of Africa’s Big Five. However, this southwestern Kenyan park of the Serengeti plains isn’t the only destination in the country; about 150 miles north of capital Nairobi is the Laikipia Plateau, the less frequented “high country” in central Kenya, which was an entirely different experience for me — particularly during my time at the independently-run Sabuk Lodge.
For instance, on one morning game drive, I found myself not in the seat of a Land Cruiser, but on the hump of a camel. Verity Williams and her staff at Sabuk Lodge pride themselves on their camel safari — a greener, more intimate, and undoubtedly quieter experience than being in a gas-powered vehicle. My group and I journeyed across the semi-arid plateau, and it was like being in a caravan of ancient times, except for the brief moment we temporarily dismounted the fleshy mounds to go on foot, when we encountered a herd of elephants at a nearby watering hole. (I was told that a group of domesticated camels carrying passengers usually freaks the wild pachyderms out, and we cautiously toned down our presence.)
However, going on foot was also a part of the privilege of being there. Because the lodge is on a private, unfenced conservation area — not in a national park — there’s much more freedom to roam and be a part of the environment. This didn’t mean we were sitting ducks out there for predators on the prowl. Every time I journeyed out in the bush with my group — may it have been on a wildlife hike or a stroll to a sundowner with a spectacular view — I was always in the good hands of a guide or a rifleman who kept watch of any threat in the distance.
However, I wasn’t obsessing about any of the potential dangers in the wild when I was out there; the beauty of the landscape was way too distracting for that. The grand panorama of amber grasslands stretched out to the horizon whenever I gazed out from the vantage point of my room in the cliffside lodge. Each quarters is its own viewing deck, like a diorama made of natural elements, in that one side of the room is open, allowing for unobstructed views of the plateau and the nearby Ewaso Nyiro River below — even when waking up comfortably in bed. The views from some rooms are so inspiring; they’ve encouraged several marriage proposals.
For me, the scenery was definitely Sabuk Lodge’s biggest selling point, one they’ve capitalized on for years. However, as a traveler curious about social responsibility, it was good to hear that they also contribute back to the local society they’ve become a part of. Most of Ms. Williams’ staff come from the local Samburu and Laikipiak Maasai tribes, and they’re very much involved with helping develop the community. In fact, they recently built a dormitory for the local school.
Visiting these Maasai communities was a highlight of my trip. I’ll admit I was a little cynical before going there, having been conditioned to believe a visit to a dancing Maasai tribe is “touristy” — akin to a hotel culture show. However, once I visited the actual villages where the locals live, I realized I was having an authentic glimpse of central Kenya. Talking with school children in their classrooms was inspiring. And when several of the tribespeople inevitably demonstrated their Maasai dance in colorful garb, it felt less like they were “on stage.”
Many people who visit Kenya do it for their “once in a lifetime” trip, never to go back after that one safari in the Maasai Mara. However, for those who can’t get enough of Kenya, Sabuk Lodge in the less-crowded Laikipia Plateau — with its awe-inspiring views and experiences — is one option that’s well worth visiting — or revisiting.
Photo Credit: Erik Trinidad