The wildlife safari was born in the nature conservancies of East Africa. Now, after years of insecurity, it may be time to return.

By Peter Terzian
April 18, 2020
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A bush lunch under an acacia tree in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve.
Nick Ballón

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

One evening last spring, a group of visitors to Kenya was parked by a dry riverbed on the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, drinking gin and tonics on the roof of a converted Land Cruiser while watching the sun set. Suddenly, monkeys could be heard crying in alarm — the pulse-quickening sound that typically signifies a predator’s approach. Fifteen minutes passed, during which the travelers listened intently. Finally, the sound of wooden cowbells announced the reason for the simian commotion. An eight-year-old boy, singing to himself, was driving a group of 40 camels out of the bush, determined to get the flock home before nightfall.

Encounters like this reveal the fragile balance between the indigenous people, the precarious populations of wildlife, and the dramatic landscapes of East Africa. Kili McGowan, the chair of the Safari Pros consortium of travel advisors, organizes and leads trips that venture beyond sightings of the classic Big Five — elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. As an expert on the region, McGowan was guiding a tour of conservancies in Kenya, which is bouncing back after a half-decade hiatus during which security concerns kept some travelers away.

McGowan is one of a growing number of specialists who are willing to go above and beyond for clients. She will even, on occasion, accompany them every step of the way, providing on-the-ground knowledge and a deep understanding of conservation issues. Once this trip was complete, McGowan would turn around and fly back to the continent with a group of women who will only travel in her company.

From left: A herd of elephants at Kenya’s Lewa Conservancy; safariparaphernalia at Sarara Camp’s main lodge.
Nick Ballón

The Kenya group, which included the photographer Nick Ballón, began its trip at Namunyak, 850,000 acres of protected land accessible by private plane from Nairobi. “You fly over a very arid, scrubby landscape, almost like the American Southwest,” McGowan explained. Then, as you approach Namunyak — the name means “place of peace” in the language of the local Samburu tribe — clusters of green appear. These are the Mathews Mountains, a compact series of hills that enfold the recently opened Sarara Treehouses, six luxurious tented structures that sit in the branches supported by stilts and platforms. “One of the beautiful things about the Sarara Treehouses is that you wake up in the forest in the morning,” McGowan continued. There are no fences surrounding the property. Your alarm clock might be the sound of monkeys playing in the trees — or warthogs and antelope walking beneath your tent.

Rhinos at LewaConservancy, which is home to more than 150 of the endangered animals.
Nick Ballón

Namunyak was founded in 1995, a time when poaching had reduced the number of elephants in the area of the mountain range from 15,000 to 400 and obliterated the population of black rhinos. Since then, the conservancy has helped increase the elephant count to more than 6,300. And it’s now home to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which was founded by Katie Rowe, the wife of Sarara’s second-generation owner, Jeremy Bastard. The orphanage helps abandoned babies adjust to their environment. McGowan’s group stopped by at feeding time. Ears flapping, the babies ran through the front gate, excited to receive their bottles of milk, each of which had been prepared to accommodate a particular elephant’s nutritional needs.

From left: Sarara Treehouses, a collection of six luxurious treetop suites in Kenya's Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy; the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which helps abandoned babies acclimate to life on the Namunyak Conservancy.
Nick Ballón

The Samburu, cousins of the Masai, have kept livestock on the land for more than 500 years. Clad in traditional garb — a colorful piece of cloth worn like a sarong and ornate beads — Robert Lemaiyan, Sarara’s host, guide, and manager, took McGowan’s group on a walk to the “singing wells” on their first morning at the camp. These wells are deep holes that Samburu families dig into riverbeds until they strike the water table. (There’s no standing water on the conservancy.) Once a day, young men bring their cows, donkeys, and goats to the wells to drink. The holes range in depth from 18 to 30 feet, with steps carved into the earth. A human chain is formed to pass buckets of fresh water up from the bottom of the hole. As the men pass the water, they sing in a rhythmic chant, naming their cattle and proclaiming their love for them. “Cows are precious,” Lemaiyan explained. “You have to tell them how pretty they are, that they are part of your family.”

It’s refreshing to learn that, in this pics-or-it-didn’t-happen Instagram era, no photography is allowed at the singing wells, which are considered sacred. “Professionally it’s frustrating,” said Ballón, the photographer, who had to leave his camera behind. “But from a personal point of view, it’s magnificent that there are still places that aren’t tainted.” The group returned to the wells in the evening, when the local wild animals came to drink — and got to observe an elephant extending its trunk all the way down to the water.

A Masai guide in front of an abandoned termitemound at Tanzania’s Chem Chem.
Nick Ballón

After two nights at Sarara, McGowan’s party flew by chartered plane to the Lewa Conservancy, a short distance from Mount Kenya. This 62,000-acre reserve — situated on high, flat meadows of tall grass — used to be made up of cattle ranches owned by British settlers. The Kenyan government asked the ranchers to create a small rhino sanctuary, which became so successful that, in time, the entire area was given over to it. Today there are more than 150 rhinos within its borders. White rhinos have been imported here from South Africa, in an effort to repopulate the Meru region, where the species had gone extinct. There are black rhinos as well — about a tenth of the estimated 5,000 left in the world. When Anthony Bourdain included Lewa in the 2018 season of his CNN show Parts Unknown, the number of visitors to the conservancy jumped. (It didn’t hurt that Prince William had proposed to Kate Middleton there in 2010, either.)

From left: Lion-spotting on a game drive near Chem Chem; the main lodge at Lewa Wilderness.
Nick Ballón

McGowan’s group stayed at Lewa Wilderness, which was established in 1972. Will Craig, a descendant of one of the original cattle ranchers, runs the lodge with his wife, Emma, and together they continue the tradition of the classic Kenya country estate. There are nine appealing cottages, decorated with an eclectic mix of antique and locally made furniture, separated by large rolling lawns. Almost all of the food is grown in the five-acre organic garden, from the strawberries served at breakfast to the limes in the gin and tonics. In the evenings, visitors gather around the fireplace in the main lodge, and Johnson, the head guide and a member of the local Masai community, tells stories. The vibe is less chic hotel than inviting home.

A suite at Lewa Wilderness.
Nick Ballón

The game drive McGowan led at Lewa was “one of the best of the trip,” she said, with sightings of elephants, buffalo, and a leopard sitting on top of a vine-covered log. At the edge of a reedy swamp that has formed around the springs that bubble up from Mount Kenya’s watershed, the group spotted gray crowned cranes. “The birds have these beautiful feathery tops to their heads, and we were looking at their gorgeous colors against the greenery of the swamp — not realizing that on the other side of the vehicle there was a sleeping lioness a mere ten feet away.”

The Craigs offer an alternative method of seeing wildlife. Will has been a pilot since age 18 and takes visitors aloft in his open-cockpit biplane. “Aviation is a way of life in Kenya,” McGowan said—think of aviator Denys Finch Hatton giving Isak Dinesen her first ride over the Ngong Hills in Out of Africa. Bourdain flew in Craig’s plane while filming the Kenya episode. McGowan reports that, after disembarking, he said, “That was better than sex.”

From left: Lewa Wilderness lodge owner Will Craig takes guests on an open biplane flight over the Lewa Conservancy; a table set for a poolside breakfast at Sarara Treehouses.
Nick Ballón

The Masai Mara National Reserve is possibly the most famous in Africa. Located one degree south of the equator, it occupies a hillier terrain than Namunyak or Lewa. The Mara River runs through the reserve, providing a place for hippos to splash and crocodiles to sun themselves. The group’s next base was nearby: Sanctuary Olonana lodge, established in 1999, its cottages tucked into a forest.

McGowan calls the Masai Mara the African equivalent of Big Sky Country. “It has the most prolific wildlife viewing in Kenya. You drive across those plains and they’re covered with herbivores,” she said, listing zebras, wildebeests, buffalo, and antelope. One morning, her group spied a cheetah in low grass, enjoying a breakfast of baby gazelle while the rest of the herd watched.

Olonana consists of a main lodge and 14 glass-enclosed suites with sumptuous furnishings. But the highlight is the new Geoffrey Kent Suite, named after the founder of Abercrombie & Kent, who is credited with first developing safaris centered around photography rather than hunting. Set on a private road, the suite has floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a wraparound deck, and it comes with its own vehicle and guide, as well as a private chef.

A leopard watches the sun set from a giant anthill on the Masai Mara.
Nick Ballón

McGowan’s group made one last stop, across Kenya’s southern border in Tanzania. The Chem Chem Association manages a 40,000-acre strip of land that connects the Serengeti and Tarangire national parks. The communities who live in the area are often in conflict with the wildlife that impede upon their land; in some cases, they have turned to poaching. The association helps ease difficulties by encouraging local people to see wildlife, and the visitors it brings, as an asset. It also creates economic opportunities by hiring them to work at the lodge or as part of anti-poaching units.

Founded a decade ago as a passion project of former Swiss banker Fabia Bausch and French-born hunting guide Nicolas Negre, Chem Chem has developed a cult following, thanks to its traditional design and warm hospitality. The group stayed at the newest of its three lodges, Forest Chem Chem, an exclusive-use camp of four tents. McGowan organized a treat: an outing to take soccer balls to a local school that the conservancy supports. There, a couple of members of her party started a joyous pickup game with the older children.

Pelicans and flamingos at Lake Tarangire near Chem Chem.
Nick Ballón

At Chem Chem, the group drove to the shores of Lake Manyara. Thousands of flamingos stood in the distance. “We stopped the vehicles on the partially dried lake bed,” Ballón recalls, “and walked closer to get a better view. As we neared the water’s edge it became very muddy, so we took off our boots and socks. The flamingos were quiet and shy, and as we approached they dispersed around us to take up new spots. We could have gone on like that all day.”

A version of this story first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A New Day for Kenya. Chem Chem, Lewa Wilderness, Safari Professionals, Sanctuary Olonana, Sarara Camp provided support for the reporting of this story.