From cosy tented camps to thatched-roof escapes, here are five of the best eco-safaris deep in Kenya’s flourishing nature reserves
1. Loisaba Tented Camp, Mount Kenya National Park
Only an hour’s flight from Nairobi and cocooned on the green hills of northern Kenya’s Laikipia district, Loisaba is a stripped-back, soul-searching place, where kudu, gazelles and warthogs wander the lawns and drink from the lily ponds. Waking up to a zebra standing outside your tent is as surreal as it was wondrous.
The sleep-outs under the stars in its unique, rollout Star Beds are what makes this camp so special. The wooden beds, swathed in mosquito nets, are wheeled outside on the veranda of a thatched-roof open-air tent on a raised platform. It’s such an incredible feeling falling asleep beneath a million stars and waking up to snorting hippos in the watering hole below.
The camp has its own special big five: gerenuk, oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and Grevy’s zebra—the world’s most beautiful wild horse with big round ears and pinstripe coat. Along with the usual activities of safaris, sundowners, bush walks and horse riding, guests can also participate in Loisaba Conservancy’s hands-on conservation projects: from joining researchers tracking lions or rangers and the resident anti-poaching sniffer bloodhounds on expeditions.
2. Sand River, Masai Mara National Reserve
Lying on the horseshoe bend of the river it’s named after, this small intimate two-camp lodge off the beaten track replicates the glory days of adventure safaris. Tucked among centuries-old trees, the two camps are pitched up in secluded riverside spots close to the northern border of Tanzania.
The 16 stilted tents nestled in a forest of acacias and thorny thickets are furnished with colonial-luxe interiors of chandeliers, four-poster beds and freestanding bathtubs, each with a private terrace with 180-degree views of the densely forested river. The camp’s water is heated completely by solar energy and for those looking to cool off there’s a palm-fringed swimming pool.
The biggest draw to lodge is the wildlife in the Maasai Mara National Park. Teeming with elephants, zebras, wildebeest and exotic birds of every sort, it’s the perfect introduction to the wonders of Africa. The safaris and long and languorous through varying landscapes, and every corner reveals new surprises: vast herds of buffalos in the sea of grasses, giraffes nibbling at acacias, antelopes of all sizes going about life on the plains and prides of lions lazing and lounging in full view unbothered by your presence.
3. Elsa’s Kopje, Meru National Park
Elsa’s Kopje is where the legend of Elsa the lioness began. The lodge, carved into the craggy Mughwango Hill, sits above the site of Joy and George Adamson’s original tented home where they raised and released orphan lions in the 1950s, way before conservation became fashionable.
The remote outpost is low-key yet lavish, attracting adventurers and dreamers who seek out authenticity in the exotic where lions and leopards stroll past your tents. The first time the camp’s Italian owner Stefano Cheli walked up the hill of Elsa’s former lair he was charged by a lioness and immediately decided it was the perfect spot to build a camp.
The nine breezy whitewashed stone and thatch cottages are run on solar power and filled with rustic furniture whipped up out of felled trees, each with its own private terrace and plunge pool strung across the hilltop without intruding on the rugged, untouched paradise that surrounds it.
Between the dawn and dusk game drives, it’s easy to spend hours gazing out on the deck and soaking up the loveliness of the parade of wildlife at the lush springs and savannas. The ghost of Elsa lingers everywhere in this little patch of heaven from black-and-white photographs of the couple and their beloved big cats adorn the walls of the mess tent to her grave, where Joy’s ashes are scattered too.
4. Angama Mara Lodge, Mara Triangle
Perched 1,000 feet over a cliff above the Great Rift Valley, Angama Mara lodge is heart-stoppingly romantic. The Swahili word angama means to be suspended in mid-air, which is what it feels like up in this picturesque perch where the most iconic scenes of Out of Africa were shot. It seems to float above the wild rugged beauty of the Mara Triangle, the site of the seasonal wildebeest migration.
A refreshing alternative to colonial-style safari excessiveness, the family-run camp is appealingly intimate and pared-back with white interiors, honey-wood floors and mid-century furniture. The 15 loft-like tents feature a wall of retractable glass doors so you can watch the drama outside. Like some secret treehouse peacefulness pervades every space, from its snug well-curated library and sumptuous restaurant-cum-bar at its heart to the sweeping terrace with sunken sofas around open fire-pits.
There are playful nods to Out of Africa scattered all around: the Peter Beard book in your tent or the tiny yellow plane replica in the snug library. The safaris are tailored and you can explore as long as you like and as far as the Tanzania border.
5. Rhino River, Meru National Park
Situated in 80 acres of privately owned wilderness, Rhino River Camp, an eco-chic compound on the edge of Meru National Park, is possibly the best spot in Africa to see wild rhinos. Italian filmmaker Andrea Maggi, who has been chased by water buffaloes and come face to face with big cats, created the space to preserve the dwindling species—it’s more sanctuary than safari camp and home to about 50 white and 30 black rhinos who are protected by around-the-clock armed guards and sniffer dogs.
Surrounded by giant raffia palms and tamarinds, the isolated hideaway is small and exquisite with eight canvas tents raised on stilts and elegantly sparse with rough-hewn furniture and wooden terraces. The stunning pool with a small waterfall beside it gives the feeling of being in a secluded tropical jungle.
Being whisked around the savannahs tracking rhino and exploring dry riverbeds by Samburu tribesmen, who were raised on tall tales of animals and have a deep understanding of the region, only adds to the adventure. Seeing white and black rhinos startlingly close – mothers with babies and territorial males sparring gently – in the primitive arid emptiness is like a scene out of Jurassic Park.
Britt Collins is a freelance writer and an author. Her book, Strays: A Lost Cat, a Homeless Man and their Journey Across America, is published by Simon & Schuster in autumn 2016.
Main image: Pool at Loisaba Tented Camp (Loisaba.com)