Get a wildlife conservancy all to yourself at Saruni Samburu

As our tiny plane dipped beneath the clouds and we caught our first glimpse of the arid plains stretched out below, a collective hush fell over the cabin. Before the plane’s wheels had even touched down on the dirt runway in Samburu, Kenya, we could see our guide Chris, dressed in a cerulean shuka and smiling broadly. Joining Chris in the Land Rover, we headed off to Saruni Samburu, a six-villa lodge atop a rocky hill in the Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy.

The drive from the airstrip to Saruni Samburu doubles as a game drive. Bumping along the craggy road, we ogled giraffes grazing, impala and gerenuk striding across the plains, and sparrow-weavers sitting high above the action. Chris expertly guided the Land Rover up the steep, rocky pass to the resort and delivered us just in time for lunch with the young camp manager James. Saruni’s owners are Italian and its local chef quite skilled at producing classic Italian dishes. Over two days, we happily tucked into fettuccine with zucchini and capers, risotto, and focaccia, with sides like tender roasted vegetables or a fresh avocado and tomato salad. On our first toasty afternoon, we were delighted to see staffers Kennedy and Peter emerge from the pantry bearing house-made coffee ice cream with biscotti.


Of Saruni Samburu’s six villas, four can accommodate families. The whole lodge runs in a zigzag astride a hilltop, with one villa on the descent, just down the path from the main lodge, and the rest, along with the gift shop, on the ascent. There are two pools, one on a path running down from the main lodge and one at the very top of the resort. No matter where we were on the property—whether lying in bed, soaking in the tub, or enjoying the outdoor shower—we were awed by the breathtaking views of Kalama Conservancy and Mount Kenya. All of the villas have private verandahs, ideal for sunset drinks à deux.


Saruni Samburu is the only lodge in the Kalama Conservancy, which covers more than 200,000 acres. Its list of activities reads like a summer camp brochure: bird watching, bush walking, trekking up sacred Mount Ololokwe, visiting ancient caves, bush breakfasts and, as an antidote to all that, swimming. Day-time game drives take place in Kalama Conservancy and neighboring Buffalo Springs National Park and Samburu National Park; on our second day, we were thrilled to park a stone’s throw from a herd of some two dozen elephants, watching as they cooled off in the Ewaso Niro River. Following a sundowner, Saruni runs night game drives, which are allowed only in the conservancy.

We were eager to see a school and the lodge seamlessly arranged for us to go by Kiltimany Primary School on our way to visit the village of the same name. Meeting the 200-odd students here was a wonderful experience. We kicked around the soccer balls we’d brought, played games, told jokes, and generally had a blast. Towards the end of our visit, two of the classes sang for us, which was quite touching. Saruni Samburu partners with Pack for a Purpose, so guests wishing to bring donations know exactly what’s needed and that it’ll go right to the school.


Saruni’s most unique activity is its Warriors Academy, which can run from one day to one week. Here, guests get an lesson on the history of the Samburu people, meet and shadow real Maasai and Samburu warriors, and learn from them myriad skills. These include tracking wildlife, shooting bows and arrows, throwing spears, building a fire and a bush camp, and tending to cattle and goats. Anyone with nimble fingers can try their hand at making the vibrant beaded collars the Samburu wear. For inspiration, visit to the lodge’s gift shop, where proceeds from many of the lovely pieces go back to the local community.

Glamping Review: Grootberg Lodge, Damaraland, Namibia

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. listed properties among top winners of Safari Awards 2015

Each year over 4,000 qualified tour operators, travel agents and travel journalists from around the world vote to nominate the best safari camps, lodges, houses, mobile and riding operators, and wildlife organizations for the Safari Awards. A team of 14 judges said to be “the most highly-respected, knowledgeable independent tour operators selling safaris,” then decides who among those nominees are the best in several categories.

NCS 2015 winner

The big story this year is Norman Carr Walking Safaris, which took the highest honor- “Best Safari Experience in Africa,” as well as “Best Walking Safari” in the 2015 Safari Awards. “The legacy and the history of the company really stand out,” says Sales and Marketing Director Mindy Roberts. Founded by Norman Carr who pioneered the walking safari 64 years ago, she calls him “a man with a vision way beyond his time.” She especially attributes the award honors to the guides. “Our guiding team from Mfuwe… we think are some of the best in Africa.”

Norman Carr

Known as the “original safari company,” Norman Carr started walking safaris more than 60 years ago in the Luangwa Valley, and today their properties include four bush camps, Kapani Lodge a luxury camp along the Luangwa River, four of which are listed on

Luwi_original 4

Luwi Bush Camp, a Norman Carr Safaris property listed on, is one of several camps included in the Norman Carr Walking Safari that was named “Best Safari Experience” and “Best Walking Safari.”

Kakuli Bedroom

Kakuli Bush Camp is also one of the winning properties featured on

Chin Fire Pit

Down the Luangwa River from the bush camps is Chinzombo, winner of “Best New Safari Property” and runner up of “Best Safari Cuisine”. It was the original green season base for Norman Carr in the 1970s, now a “super luxurious” camp that “retains its bush feel,” according to Norman Carr Safaris.


“Best Safari Spa/Retreat” goes to Sasaab in Kenya, the spa is known as “Spasaab,” uncommon for being “purpose built into the rocks” and said to have “impressive views and tranquil sounds of birds and the river.”


Kudos to Kenya’s Lewa Safari Camp and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (also known as Lewa Downs) for winning “Best Wildlife Conservancy Organization,” as well as “Personal Contribution Wildlife” award given to Ian Craig, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy & NRT (Northern Rangelands Trust).

Footsteps 2

A safari experience offered by Ker & Downey Botswana was also an award recipient. The Botswana walking safari “Footsteps Across the Delta” was a winner of “Best Ecologically Responsible” and “Best Family Safari Experience”.


The awards come at a good time for the tourism industry, with overreaching concerns over the spread of Ebola, considering that the award-winning resorts are approximately 5000 miles from the hot zone in Western Africa. That’s literally like being afraid to visit Miami because of an outbreak in Anchorage, Alaska. Congratulations to these and all the winners of the 2015 Safari Awards.