Glamping Review: Sabuk Lodge, Laikipia, Kenya

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

Saving Wildlife and the Wilderness

In the world of glamping — which inherently is a culture of excess out in the wild — it’s always nice to give back. Sure, you can donate money directly to conservation groups, but you could also support properties that already strive to preserve the animals and wilderness of the regions where they’re established.

save the rhino trustImage Credit: Save The Rhino Trust Namibia

For example, Desert Rhino Camp in the Palmweg concession of Namibia, is a collaboration of safari operator Wilderness Safaris and the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). It’s the base of operations for rhino tracking tours, where guests are led in vehicles and on foot to encounter the elusive and endangered black rhinoceros — a species whose population has been decimated over the decades from illegal poaching. When the tours are over and you’re sipping a gin and tonic on the porch of your canvas cottage, the SRT continues to dedicate itself to the protection of the rhinos and their habitat.

africat cheetahImage Credit: AfriCat Foundation

With a customized safari through Namibia by outfitter CW Safaris, you can drive just a couple hundred miles away to Okonjima, home of AfriCat Foundation, which strives to work with local farming communities in their rehabilitation programs for misplaced cheetahs, leopards, and wild dogs. They also sponsor school trips to educate future generations on the importance of conservation. Guests can visit the big felines as they are reconditioned to their natural environment by day, while sleeping in camps with luxury amenities by night.

mustang monumentImage Credit: Mustang Monument Wild Horse Eco-Resort

Meanwhile in Nevada, a similar effort is being done by the folks at the Mustang Monument Wild Horse Eco-Resort, which is not just a place where you can camp in a tipi fitted with hardwood floors and cosy beds. Founder Madeleine Pickens and her team of cowboys are committed to the Saving America’s Mustangs foundation, which aims to protect the mere thousands of wild mustangs left in America with a permanent preserve for them to roam free.

Precious ecosystems are also being supported by glamping destinations. The folks at EcoCamp Patagonia, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, are committed to sustainability with green energy practices in conjunction with their inventive design of sustainable — and comfortable — dome tents. They share their innovations with the Corporacion Fomento & Producción (CORFO), so that other local businesses can follow suit in this region increasingly affected by climate change.

maasai wilderness cons trustImage Credit: Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust

At Kenya’s Camp Ya Kanzi, in Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa,” the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT) works with Maasai leaders to educate the local communities on best practices to co-exist with wild animals, and to maintain their ecosystem wisely. While the MWCT USA office president and acclaimed actor Edward Norton may not be there during your stay, you can rest assured — in tented cottages so luxurious that they even have bidets — that part of the money you spend goes to their conservation efforts. After all, the environment, and the indigenous animals within, are the real celebrities in these parts.

Glamping Review: The Golden Eagle Tree House, Primland, Meadows of Dan, Virginia, USA

Before I checked in to receive keys for the Golden Eagle Tree House that I had a reservation for, I didn’t realize that they’d be accompanied by a second pair of keys.

“Here’s your 4×4 to get around,” said Chase Goins, the bell captain. The Ford Escape before me came standard to anyone with a reservation for one of the tree houses, since they required a little bit of off-roading to get to their neck of the woods. (I could have had Chase or one of the bellhops give me a ride there, but I opted for the freedom of getting around on my own.)

GoldenEagleBedroomPhoto: Erik Trinidad

The Golden Eagle Tree House is just one of the accommodation options at Primland in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, a French-owned mountain resort two hours away from Greensboro airport by car. Encompassing 12,000 acres of Appalachian hills and valleys that concealed many a moonshiner back in the day, there’s a lot of ground you can cover on its roads and trails, with said 4×4, your own car (if you drive there), an ATV, or simply on foot with hiking boots — or golf shoes on its world-class golf course if that’s your thing.

PorchViewFromGoldenEagleBedroomPhoto: Erik Trinidad

Staying in the Golden Eagle Tree House, Primland’s first of three, was as luxurious as glamping can get in a tree, or rather next to one. With its own support structure designed in France, the house and private deck were built around a big branch of its host tree, a chestnut oak, so as not to damage Mother Nature with nails. With that said, I briefly wondered if it could technically be a true tree house given the fact that it’s not perched up by tree branches, but when I took one glance of the view from the deck and saw that it’s situated on a cliff side with the Dan River Gorge below, technicalities went out the window and flew away with the mountain breeze. Splendid red-tailed hawks spread their wings and flew beneath me, rising up with the thermals to my eye level and above. I took a breather, and sipped a glass of Malbec while the sun began to set down the mountaintops.

sunsetViewPhoto: Erik Trinidad

The sights inside the tree house, while not as awe-inspiring, were also impressive. With wi-fi and a flatscreen television that could be viewed from cozy, cushioned chairs or the comfortable king-sized bed, modern technology was glamping along with me. Add a Keurig coffee maker, mini-fridge, soft, thick bath robes, and even turn down service, and I had all the amenities of a luxury hotel room, just out in the woods, and pleasantly smelling of cedar. Of course there’s plumbing to the tree house too, which allowed me to take a hot bath with a view of the gorge — a perfect moment of relaxation after my active day of hiking, clay shooting, and ATV riding.

treeServicePhoto: Erik Trinidad

While there’s no kitchen in the Golden Eagle Tree House, you can always call in for room service from the main lodge — or as I call it, “tree service” — especially on days when it expectedly snows overnight and you just want to have breakfast in bed. But when you’re out and about in Primland — may it be fishing, tree climbing, kayaking, or participating in one of its main draws, hunting — you can always stop in at the main lodge for a bite to eat. The 19th Pub serves up casual fare — as well as my first taste of Appalachian moonshine — while fancier dining experiences are just across the way at the Elements restaurant. I was fortunate enough to partake in a meal at the Chef’s Table, where award-winning Chef Gunnar Thompson prepared a multi-course tasting menu featuring his classically-trained takes on local cuisine, including pine-roasted rainbow trout with foraged horseradish, hog jowl grits, and blackberry moonshine sorbet. How’s that for Appalachian glamping food?

mainLodgePhoto: Erik Trinidad

The main lodge itself is an attraction, even if you’re staying at a tree house, and not because of its pool or spa — although those are definitely highlights, especially the latter. From a distance, the lodge appears to be a big farmhouse or a mill adjacent to a big shiny silo — an architectural homage to regional building styles — but upon closer inspection, the “mill” holds 27 luxury rooms, and the top of the “silo” is actually an observatory dome with a powerful telescope capable of showing stars thousands of light years away. On a clear night, Scott Martin, Primland’s resident Director of Astronomy (yes, they have one) invites guests to explore the night sky and see celestial bodies up close over drinks, proving that when it comes to glamping at Primland, it’s all about the views, interstellar or otherwise.

GoldenEagleBedroom2Photo: Erik Trinidad

Back at the Golden Eagle Tree House, as I gazed out at the foliage of the Dan River Gorge with the warmth of the sun on my face, I remembered that the view back down on Earth isn’t bad either.