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

Safari at its Most Refined: Joy’s Camp

African parks are usually all about the animals but in the arid lands of Samburu, Kenya, the landscape will make your jaw drop just as fast. Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba are three reserves connected by rivers, volcanic mountains, and golden waves of grass … and with Joy’s Camp as our guide, we got to explore all three with expert precision. This is the land where Joy Adamson, naturalist and author of Born Free, raised and released Penny the leopard, and wrote a novel about her experience. We had the privilege of staying at the site of her former home where she captured it all, the gorgeous and inspiring Joy’s Camp.

 Without wasting a moment, the Joy’s Camp team picked us up in the town of Archer’s Post and we set out on safari. Heading into the reserve we passed through a neighboring Samburu village. This tribe is similar to the Maasai in that they are nomadic herders but their vibrant dress and unique homes of mud and cloth were perhaps even more striking. (I’ll never forget the little boy who came running to the roadside to wave to us, not minding one bit that he was stark naked).

Arid woodland dominates the landscape but lush rivers like these cut through, giving an instantly tropical effect. Doum palms grow like weeds along the shore and reticulated giraffes, elephants, and baboons can almost always be spied having a drink.

This is one of the amazing things about safari. We passed this very spot before lunch, and one hour later we return to find a lion relaxing in the shade of the toothbrush tree (the bristle-like branches are used by locals for teeth cleaning). It reminded us of the constant dance between animals and safari-goers and that just because you don’t see an animal doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We arrive at Joy’s Camp to find our glamping home for the week. Tucked into the trees, the canvas structures blend perfectly, making it ideal for immersion with the wild. (so much so that night guards always escort guests in the event a large animal crosses their path).

Walking into the reception area, the mood is set to capture Joy’s creativity. Her typewriter sits out on the desk, her paintings and sketches hang on the wall, and her favorite possessions decorate the space.


Though our tent may have appeared a demure canvas from the outside, the inside was as luxurious as a suite can be. A silk-trimmed mosquito net draped over our canopy bed, handmade glass lanterns illuminated the space, and graphic African accents gave it a sense of place.

After settling into our room, we took a dip in their gorgeous pool. We love that the edges naturally flow like the shores of a pond rather than the usual cookie-cutter rectangle.

Before our delicious Afro-European fusion dinners, we would gather for cocktails in the lounge. Each space in the hotel felt relaxed and sophisticated all at once.


The next morning we left for an early game drive and this incredible Grant’s gazelle training session was our first encounter. One alpha male dominates a herd of females while the rest of the bachelors band together plotting his demise. To keep each other’s skills sharp, they occasionally have sparring sessions. Watching these two lock horns and joust their way around the field felt as official as an Olympic fencing match. (Especially with that “referee” in the middle).

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Rather than eating breakfast before dawn or racing back to camp for sustenance, the Joy’s Camp chefs set up the most incredible meals along our route. A grill, complete with omelet station, fruit bar, and pastry table were ready as soon as we pulled up to this exclusive river spot. Now that’s service.


The game drive continued … spotting families of elephants, ostriches in courtship, colonies of rock hyrax, and the endangered Grevy’s Zebra. There are only 2,000 Grevys remaining in the wild and Samburu happens to be a place they thrive. We were lucky enough to study the close-knit stripes of this rare species on a few occasions.

There was an intensity level to each encounter at Samburu and Shaba reserves. What would normally be an average sighting, like vultures picking at a skeleton, turned into one of the most cut-throat Darwinian moments. Here, 30+ vultures scratched, squawked, pecked with desperation to get at the last bits of a buffalo. Watching the power change hands by the second, we were captivated.

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A stay at Joy’s Camp is as well-rounded as an African safari gets. Fascinating cultures, breathtaking landscapes, thriving wildlife all make you feel like you aren’t just on a game drive, you are discovering Africa at its finest.

Anne and Mike Howard are creators of the around-the-world honeymoon blog and Trip Coaches for those looking to extensively travel the world safely, affordably and off the beaten path. You can follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @HoneyTrek.

Glamping Review: Cottar’s 1920s Camp, Near Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

When the chartered prop plane flew passed Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak, I knew that the adventure that comes standard with a safari in the Serengeti awaited. However, when my traveling companions and I landed on the grassy private airstrip at Cottar’s 1920s Camp just outside Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park, I realized that not only would it be an adventure, but a trip back in time.


That’s because this luxury camp is a throwback to a golden age of safaris, when glamorous and camping need not be merged into the portmanteau glamping. Back then, high standards came with the territory; camping was simply “living out in the bush in style.” Cottar’s 1920s Camp delivers what its moniker implies: a high-end safari camp as it was in the early 20th century, when the Western World got wind of explorers’ tales in sub-Saharan Africa. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s tales that inspired one Charles Cottar to go to East Africa from America, and eventually move his family there in 1915 to establish a safari service — one that has endured for almost a century through his descendants — complete with the first American vehicles to grace the Kenyan countryside.


A vintage Ford Model A (refitted with a modern Land Rover engine) picked us up, and the transport continued to be both spatial and seemingly temporal. We were welcomed at the main mess tent, which boasted an elegance of yesteryear with fine Oriental rugs, gramophones, old typewriters, and other antique tchotchkes. I felt like I should have packed a vintage pith helmet, but soon noticed some nearby for me to don. Meanwhile, the Kenyan staff sported red fezzes to complement their formal white uniforms, which seemed a little odd to me at first; in reality, we’re not actually in the old era of European imperialism — but I will admit, it did add to the charm.


Game drives at Cottar’s were scheduled like most safari outfitters: early in the morning and near dusk, the optimal times to see wildlife on the move — or on the prowl, depending on its position on the food chain. Shaded, open-air Land Rovers (modern ones) drove us through Cottar’s own 6,000-acre private reserve and parts of Masai Mara National Park, to shoot the zebras, elephants, and multitude of antelopes with our cameras. The highlight was our chance lion encounter, and despite the sight of blood, we were enthralled as a pride munched down on a buffalo carcass merely 25 feet in front of us.


Dining in the outdoors always provided a sense of awe. After one morning game drive, our guide drove us to a shaded area for a short hike, only to reveal a glamorous picnic set up in the bush — glam-nicking perhaps? — a moveable brunch staffed by a bartender and a chef manning a propane-powered omelet station. Sundowners at the end of an afternoon game drive weren’t as filling; in lieu of orange yolks in skillets was the giant one in the sky sinking down into the horizon, which exuded an unavoidable sense of awe while we sipped gin and tonics around a campfire.


Suppers at Cottar’s 1920s Camp were something of a time paradox. Dining on multi-course meals featuring steaks, risotto, and red snapper worthy of a Michelin-rated restaurant were reminders that we were still in a modern time of rapid importation and refrigeration, despite the shadows our silverware being cast by the little flames atop old candelabras, and the ambient 1920s jazz. Although our wine-influenced dinner conversations amongst my fellow travelers were free-spirited, I believed we were dignitaries in a Hemingway novel.


I felt quite dignified staying in one of the “standard” tents — which had fairly high standards of any era. The canvas enclosure was as spacious as a large hotel room, but felt larger in the daytime when the staff rolled up three of the walls to let the breeze pass over the antique wooden furniture and bed — a bed that was especially comfortable after I’d been startled and realized that the hot water bottle put under my comforter with the turndown service was not a hiding wild animal. The fourth wall was never broken for it led to the bathroom with plumbing for hot showers and an old-fashioned pull chain toilet.


My tent was one sanctuary for the leisurely afternoons in camp. It was where the camp’s masseuse ported the spa experience with a massage table, and where I’d sit in a rocking chair on the shaded “porch” and gaze out at the Mara while sipping on a complimentary glass of sherry from the tent’s decanter. Swimming was also an option at the camp’s infinity pool. Its design may have been a flash-forward to the modern world, but “bush baths” in canvas tubs were alternatively available for those who wanted to relax in suds in a wilder, more old-fashioned way.


The safari experience may have evolved over the decades in Kenya, but if you want to do it in vintage style, Cottar’s 1920s Camp successfully recreates the romance, elegance, and adventure of safari’s hey-day. As I donned a pith helmet from the mess tent and hopped in a vintage Ford, I realized that going on safari with Cottars 1920s Camp is more than glamping; it’s also glam-time travel.