Breakfast is, very nearly, served. Speckled, rose-coloured scales flash for a second above the lake’s surface in a spray of cold, clear water: a rainbow trout, perhaps four pounds, has finally bitten the fly. Tea steams from tin mugs propped by our feet and firewood is stacked ready to cook the catch right here on the moss-covered pebbles. I try to reel the fish in; not easy with my hands in ill-fitting, borrowed gloves and a picnic blanket around my shoulders. Despite the tutorial from helicopter pilot Hoho Andrew, it wriggles away and the rippling surface returns to glass. I start to apologise but Andrew is frowning at the peak that looms behind us, a hunk of jagged basalt, white-veined with snow and mist. “I need to keep an eye on that cloud,” he murmurs. “It’s not worth taking risks on the mountain.”
We could be in the Alps, possibly, or the Himalayas. And yet, only an hour earlier we crossed the equator – a cheerfully painted roadside sign, groggily registered in the pre-dawn light – and an hour before that I’d been jolted awake by the chainsaw rasp of a leopard passing outside my cottage. Now, we’re 3,810m up Mount Kenya, in the thin cold air and silence of Lake Ellis. Welcome to Laikipia County.
“There are very few times when you can use the word ‘ineffable’, but the north of Kenya deserves it,” says Andrew, as we drink our tea among the yellow pom-poms of tussock grass. That worrisome cloud billows past and the lake turns from gunmetal grey to a slab of turquoise. “It’s fantastically diverse from a climate point of view, a unique eco-system,” he explains, gesturing at plants that only grow up here on Africa’s second-highest mountain, like the towering columns of giant lobelia (the trout, though, were placed in the lake by British colonialists keen on fly-fishing). Even the name for this habitat, the Afro-alpine zone, is wonderfully oxymoronic.
Back in the electric-blue chopper, Walk on the Wild Side aptly thrumming in our headphones, we sweep through the Gorges Valley, a yawning, U-shaped trench carved into the mountain by an ancient glacier, and over the log cabin where Prince William reportedly proposed to Kate. Pristine billiard-table swathes of moorland give way to steep, bamboo and rosewood-covered slopes where black-and-white colobus monkeys sunbathe on branches; lower still, a mosaic of neat red-clay farm plots and the sweeping ranch-land of Laikipia Plateau. This is where Borana Conservancy lies, our “base camp” for this safari-with-a-difference. And even that sits at an altitude of almost 2,000m – higher than Verbier or St Moritz.
Farmer Llew Dyer, a fourth-generation Kenyan who’s pioneering sustainable agriculture within Borana’s 13,000ha, tells me the highland topography attracts more adventurous travellers, often safari veterans branching out from Kenya’s better-known conservancies. “It’s not like the big plains of the Masai Mara where everything is there at once, but that makes it more special,” he says. “You have to investigate; there are nooks and places you can only get to on foot or on horseback. Around every corner there’s something different.”
“The name for this habitat? The Afro-alpine zone”
He’s right: in a single day at Borana, I trundle down helter-skelter hillside tracks on a mountain bike in a cloud of red dust; teeter along a treetop-canopy walkway among 200-year-old red cedars in the Ngare Ndare Forest, on Borana’s south-eastern boundary; leap off waterfalls into the forest’s teeth-chattering, fern-shaded natural pools; and talk composting and cattle on a tour of Dyer’s Edenic farm (Borana operates as a working ranch as well as a wildlife sanctuary).
But along with having all these unexpected offerings, Borana is also home to the Big Five – and then some. In fact, a team from Disney came here in 2017 to research scenery for The Lion King remake, which hits cinemas this month, just as they did for the 1994 original. It’s even home to the real-life inspiration for Pride Rock, a dramatic crag that makes the perfect vantage point to watch the sunset.
I’m following in Hollywood’s footsteps by staying in the conservancy’s eco-luxe Borana Lodge, a cluster of thatched hillside villas almost entirely built out of materials from the conservancy, including old wine bottles repurposed for flooring. The lodge’s take on luxury means returning to your cottage after languorous communal dinners to find a log fire crackling in the hearth and a hot-water bottle tucked under the blanket (altitude means it gets chilly after dark), or a staff member conveniently popping up with a gin-and-tonic hamper for sundowners, wherever you may be in the park.
The safari began the moment our 12-seater plane from Nairobi touched down on the red dust of Lewa Downs airstrip: ostrich, impala and a skittish family of warthogs awaited instead of customs officials or baggage handlers. Five minutes in the Land Rover and I’d ticked several species off my checklist: reticulated giraffe, their brown markings taking a sharper, crazy-paving pattern than the splotches of other species; gerenuk, a type of long-necked antelope; and the thinner-striped, longer-eared Grévy’s zebra. All three are endemic to north Kenya, according to Borana head guide Albert Muchemi: “People come up from the south and think they’ve seen everything, but then get excited about something we come across every day.”
“There are very few times when you can use the word ‘ineffable’, but the north of Kenya deserves it”
We’re eyeballed by a herd of Cape buffalo – 600kg goliaths with a helmet of thick, curved horns. “The biggest killers, after hippo,” Muchemi tells us, before pointing to the hole in the jeep’s door. “But this was a rhino. I got between a mum and her calf. It went straight through.” Next comes the real heart-stopper: a herd of 15 elephants, brushing past our front bumper, the matriarch rolling a brown eye over our rapt faces as she leads the family down to a favourite bathing spot. They sink into the muddy shallows, sending yellow-billed storks and egrets scattering, and scoop up dust with their trunks to fling over huge wrinkled flanks. As for lions, we have to wait until daybreak the next morning.
“Oh, there they are,” Muchemi mutters distractedly into his Thermos of coffee, as if finding nothing more than a pair of misplaced glasses. Suddenly the engine is cut and we sit in heart-thumping silence among tall yellow grass and long shadows, watching a dozing pride of four. We’re close enough to see the silvery scars on the male’s snout, and the woolly strands of his mane. “Where’s Simba?” I joke, thinking of The Lion King. Right on cue, a lion cub springs out of an acacia bush, stage-left, and scampers past our front bumper to pester its mother.
Still, while lions may be king of most safaris, here in the Laikipia Highlands it’s the black rhinoceros that rules. Preserving this critically endangered species has been the life’s work of Llew’s father, Borana owner Michael Dyer. “They’ve been around for 50–60 million years so they deserve a bit of a break,” he jests, before explaining that rhino horn trades at $70–80,000 a kilo – more than gold. Thanks to hunting, the western subspecies went extinct in 2011, while on nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy the world’s last two northern white rhinos are closely guarded.
“In the 1970s, the rhino population had really declined in this part of the world from about 20,000 down to 200. It was a real crisis,” he says. “So, in the early 80s we started to gather together the remaining isolated rhino and put them into a little sanctuary in Lewa [the neighbouring conservancy]. It was like creating a dating agency: gathering them together and letting them get on with it.” In 2013, 21 black rhino were reintroduced, the first time they’d roamed Borana in 50 years, and a year later the border fence to Lewa was taken down.
“We could be in the Alps, possibly, or the Himalayas”
Now, the Lewa-Borana landscape is home to 100 black rhino and 92 white – 14 per cent of Kenya’s population – making it one of Africa’s most successful conservancies. “We’re in a position now where we have a space deficit, which is a nice problem to have. And we haven’t had any poaching incidents in five years.” The solution, he adds, largely lies in paying attention to humans: by supporting their surrounding village communities, from employing 95 per cent local people to building a clinic to sponsoring higher education, the need or desire to resort to poaching has been dramatically reduced.
Keeping this delicate balance in check remains a full-time job for Borana’s 115-strong anti-poaching unit, whose military fatigues and rifles are a stark reminder of the threats – both animal and human – possibly lurking out there. I join a team of three for their early-morning rhino-tracking rounds. It’s not long before we spot prints in the dusty earth, but ranger Rianto Lokoran shakes his head, tracing the outline of a triangular pad and claws with a twig. “Hyena.” Disconcertingly, the next set belongs to a lion. Finally, the larger, three-toed imprint of a black rhino points us in the right direction. Brushing through the open grassland on foot feels both primal and unnervingly exposed, scanning for slinking big cats and listening for warning grunts or growls beneath the cicadas’ hum.
Our next clue is a “rhino latrine”, as Lokoran delicately puts it. And suddenly, there they are: two grey boulder-like shapes, maybe 15m away, feeding with their backs to us. With nothing but parched, tawny grass between us, every noise seems amplified: the snap of branches torn from the bushes, thick huffing breaths as they chew. “When you approach, you should stay downwind,” Lokoran whispers. “We need to get close enough to count the ear notches, that’s how we identify them.” Hoisting his rifle onto his shoulder, he calculates that we’ve found Linda and her adult son Sam. And then: “Ah, she’s seen us.” Linda has turned sideways on, staring us out; the hole stabbed in Muchemi’s car door comes abruptly to mind.
As we beat slowly back uphill, Lokoran reels off more facts about the flora and fauna: “These are whistling thorns – the name comes from the sound of wind blowing through the seed pods… Here, look, are harvester ants gathering seeds. And there’s the ‘German Shepherd’.” I miss a step. The what? He points towards the horizon; it’s Mount Kenya, of course, its two principal summits, Nelion and Batian, poking up like a dog’s pointed ears.
Wherever you are in Laikipia, the mountain is a constant totem, the region’s scene-stealer, a smoky-blue colossus rising above the heat haze and grazing herds, and standing before it, we five figures seem so very small, swallowed in the vast coppery landscape. This is the humbling, intoxicating highlands perspective Llew Dyer says he knows well: “It’s that sudden, big-sky kind of moment, where you’re like, ‘Wow, I can see this ravine, I can see mountains, I can see for 60 miles,’” he continues, still seemingly awestruck after three decades living here. “It doesn’t give up its secrets straight away. But, for me, that’s what Laikipia is all about.”
Wayfairer Travel (+44 (0)177313 8999) offers a six-night, five-day active northern Kenya adventure from $9,240 per person based on two people sharing a room, staying at Hemingways Nairobi, Borana Lodge, The Emakoko, and including a helicopter excursion to Mount Kenya with Tropic Air. Excludes international flights.