The view from the Mbogo (a.k.a. buffalo) cottage at the Ol Jogi Rach and Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.
It’s my last day in Kenya and I’ve just missed the sunrise, but I don’t really care. The fresh morning air is delicious and bright, and I’m having too much fun playing peekaboo with baby baboons. My guide, Ngatia Kimani, and I have just climbed Baboon Rock, a granite outcropping, known locally as a kopje, that pokes up out of the rolling hills and brush-covered plains of the Laikipia Plateau, Kenya’s densest wildlife haven outside of the famed Maasai Mara.
Hundreds of baboons are lazily perched on the smooth, speckled ledges, warming themselves after a cool night. As we get closer, they scatter toward nearby bushwillow- and prickly-pear-covered ridges but continue to watch us inquisitively. “Pop your head to one side, like you are saying ‘hello,’” says Kimani. “It’s a way to show them you are curious and not threatening.”
I try the movement; immediately, a gaggle of adorably tiny, fuzzy babies, which Kimani estimates are around three months old, mimic the movement, sometimes jumping excitedly and moving a few feet forward and then back. I laugh in delight as I pop my head again and again and the baby baboons respond with equal enthusiasm. It’s a simple yet authentic encounter, and I’m almost ashamed that I have it all to myself on this private excursion into the Ol Jogi Ranch and Wildlife Conservancy’s 23,472 hectares of protected wilderness. (The property is named after a native shrub.)
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Kimani and I had set out about an hour earlier, with the aim of reaching the clifftop by sunrise. (None of the other half-dozen guests I was travelling with were interested in a pre-sunrise excursion, but that was “no problem,” – that’s how customized and personal this experience gets.) But despite the fact that this kopje is only a 15-minute drive from the main house, we didn’t make it in time to see those first rays – we were sidetracked, in the best possible way, by stops to watch a heavily pregnant elephant and her calf forge their way through the acacia scrubland and then about a dozen buffalo halt in their tracks to stare at us intently. “Early morning is a good time to see the animals because they still have the mood of the night,” explained Kimani, a Kenyan who grew up nearby and has been with the property for 20 years, as I gazed at the calm, dewy scene and reflected on my almost unimaginable experiences here one last time.
This is as private – and luxe – a safari experience as you can get: a posh peek into a billionaire family’s cherished getaway and rhino sanctuary. In contrast to most of Africa’s national parks and reserves, there are no rules (beyond the wise, cautious direction of your guides and rangers) confining you to the Jeep at all times and no other safari caravans blocking your view. You are really made to feel like a temporary member of the privileged 10- figure-income club during your bespoke stay, with exclusive access to the over-the-top living quarters (see “The Interior Splendour” sidebar below) as well as thousands of hectares crawling with exotic indigenous wildlife.
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In addition to the 48 endangered eastern black rhinos and 18 southern white rhinos, there are hundreds of rare Grévy’s zebras (which account for 15 percent of the remaining population), known for their “Mickey Mouse” ears, plus lions, elephants, reticulated giraffes, buffalo, several species of gazelle, dik-diks, impalas and wildebeests, among others, that can enter and exit the property freely through 16 innovative rhino-proof “wildlife corridors” in the surrounding electric fence. There’s even an animal rescue centre with a top-notch veterinary treatment and research facility.
It’s all the home base of 34-year-old French-American Alec Wildenstein, and it’s one of his favourite places in the world. A member of the horse-racing and art-dealing family that built its fortune over five generations, Wildenstein, along with his sister, Diane, has been charged with looking after Ol Jogi since his father’s death in 2008. What was once just a private playground and cattle ranch has become an ever-advancing model of wildlife conservation and habitat restoration (as well as a leader in sustainable ranching, in partnership with local communities) that began when his father started the endangered rhino sanctuary in 1980 with one bull.
To supplement the millions of dollars already spent annually on conservation efforts – and to eventually make the property self-funded so the refuge will thrive well beyond his own stewardship – Wildenstein recently opened the property up to guests. (You must book the entire place, which can accommodate 14 people, for an all-inclusive cost of $33,700 a day, or just over $2,400 a person.) “Any income goes 100 percent toward conservation,” he says, pointing out that the lavish digs are a product of a previous time and generation. (His personal style is more REI – the U.S. outdoors brand, his favourite store – meets the occasional minimalistic black Prada basic.) “The whole purpose of the house now is to support the wildlife rehab.”
Quiet and thoughtful, with a hint of a French accent and a glint of mischievousness in his light brown eyes, Wildenstein clearly delights in surprising his guests and surpassing their expectations. If you leave the planning of your stay to him, you might not know what’s coming next, but you definitely won’t be disappointed. “We have a few things to do before lunch,” is all he casually says one morning – before we go feed carrots to two rescued elephants that can’t be reacclimated to the wild and visit a blind black rhino that is being cared for at the Wildlife Rescue Centre. (Last year, the vets there spearheaded an unprecedented international effort to perform cataract surgery to restore the rhino’s sight. It was ultimately unsuccessful due to the nature of the animal’s condition.)
Lunch is at the Top of the World, a spot near the property’s highest point (2,200 metres), which offers up 360-degree views in every direction (except past the mammoth Mount Kenya). A Mongolian-style barbecue has been set up, complete with Cartier safari-themed china. The following day, there’s another surprise agenda: a morning hike through the ochre sandstone valleys of the property’s own Grand Canyon (which is considerably smaller than the U.S. version). Then there’s a no-details-spared tented bush dinner – reached via a candlelit suspension bridge – on an island in the Nanyuki River.
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Another day, after a three-hour morning nature walk along that same river and a visit to a nearby Maasai women’s collective (which the property helps support), we spot an injured elephant while driving back to the main house. It doesn’t seem to be able to walk and is trying to keep its right front leg raised. The property’s wildlife and security manager, Jamie Gaymer, who is accompanying us, pulls out his binoculars to get a closer look at the juvenile bull. With his Kenyan accent, lively sense of humour and “Joe Danger Game Ranger” nickname (affectionately bestowed by his young daughter), Gaymer exudes good-natured charm, perhaps to help lighten the load of his challenging and stressful job, which he takes very seriously.
When he can’t immediately determine the problem, he radioes members of his security team to come back with vets from the rescue centre. Two days later, after bringing in the Kenya Wildlife Service (whose official vet must be present to treat any wildlife), the elephant is tranquilized and a small metal arrow is removed before its wounded leg is disinfected and packed with antibiotics.
After patiently providing updates to guests who keep inquiring, Gaymer is finally able to report that the elephant is doing fine and has returned to its herd. “He probably got too close to a local villager’s garden and they shot at him to keep him away, or for bush meat,” explains Gaymer. “This kind of thing happens too frequently,” he says of the delicate balance between keeping wildlife safe and the local communities’ need to protect their own lives and livelihood.
It’s satisfying to see the situation resolved and the rescue centre’s efforts come full circle, but it’s also eye-opening to see how complex and expensive it can be to treat just one animal. Another example that strikes me is that of a pack of 10 endangered wild African dogs that are living at the rescue centre, kept with limited human contact so they are ready for release into the wild. But because it is difficult to secure the proper permissions and to find an appropriate area where they will not encroach on the existing territory of another pack, the wait has already been five years. “We’re not giving up, though,” says Gaymer.
One of the most difficult challenges for the property (and for much of the continent) is dealing with poaching. Heartbreakingly, this past summer, four of the sanctuary’s eastern black rhinos were killed for their horns, which sell on the black market for more than $73,000 a kilogram. There are not quite 800 of the endangered animals left in Kenya. Ol Jogi already has what is arguably the most state-of-the-art security in the country, with daily checks of every rhino, the use of night-vision technology, tracker dogs, spotting planes and a 130-strong round-the-clock security force that includes 30 armed rangers with Kenyan Police Reserve status.
“Humans have changed the equation and unbalanced this landscape in so many ways,” says Wildenstein. “You have to actively manage the wilderness now to keep it natural.” Today, this is done by using watering troughs (turning them off and on to draw wildlife into less-grazed regions), controlling invasive plant species, using innovative cattle-ranching practices to restore grasses (by packing domestic cattle tightly into safety enclosures overnight, the soil is churned up by the animals – and fertilized – creating ideal conditions for new grasses, reviving desolate patches of land) and providing free educational visits to the Wildlife Rescue Centre to 8,000 local schoolchildren a year – 70,000 have been so far.
“Kenya is still a place where I can make a difference,” says Wildenstein optimistically at dinner one night as we look out from the open-air dining room at an approaching elephant herd. “I’m here because there is still potential to do things differently.”
THE INTERIOR SPLENDOUR
The stained glass: Each of the seven guest cottages features custom-stained-glass windows. I stayed in the Swara (giraffe) suite, where both bathrooms have grazing ungulates on the glass.
The pool house: The pondlike swimming pool has its own island and a mix of sunny and wonderfully shady spots, thanks to bombax trees in full bloom, which are also home to a plethora of birds (with a sweet, soundtrack). Plus, there’s a full hammam spa and an on-call massage therapist.
The table displays: The dining table is always set with a unique centrepiece (Buccellati-silver monkeys beautifully arranged with wildflowers and perhaps a bird’s nest). The china, glasswear and linens are an ever-rotating assortment by Hermès, Cartier, Limoges and more. “You can stay here a week and not see the same place-setting twice,” says house manager Frédéric Chanelet.
The lunches: The family’s personal French chef, Sylvain Bel, carefully creates light but flavour-packed midday buffets – tomato tarts, soft-boiled quail eggs, roasted eggplant spreads, herb and lettuce salads – sourced from the property’s organic garden and chicken coop and deliciously presented in artisanal tajines. Plus, there’s homemade rose-geranium sherbet for dessert. “It’s not a lot of effort,” says Bel, “it’s a lot of pleasure.”
The wine cellar: To top everything off, an elaborately arched underground wine cellar is almost finished, which will house Wildenstein’s 4,000-bottle collection of French wines. It’s accessed via an immense circular bank-vault door. “I might have got a little carried away with that one,” explains Wildenstein with a sheepish grin as he shows me through. And it’s all tucked away behind a hidden panel in an underground tunnel (seriously!) that also leads to a wildlife-viewing bunker.
GO SKY HIGH
Beyond overseeing Ol Jogi, Alec Wildenstein’s other passion is flying bush planes (as well as designing and custom-building them). He has been a bush pilot for more than 15 years – racking up all kinds of high-flying adventures across Alaska and Africa – so it’s no surprise that guests can do some “flight-seeing” of their own via chartered helicopter excursions with a nearby outfitter.
“We can blow your mind with a 30-minute flight in any direction,” says Wildenstein proudly. He’s not kidding. One day, we landed on a river sandbar in the Samburu region’s red-earth savannah; another afternoon, we buzzed the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya, looking down on teal and aquamarine alpine lakes.
Other tantalizing nearby destinations include Lake Bogoria, home to the world’s largest population of pink flamingos, and the Great Rift Valley’s Lake Turkana – the world’s largest permanent desert lake.
KENYA FASHION FIX
Kangas have long been part of women’s traditional dress in East Africa. These rectangular pieces of brightly printed cotton are often worn as wraps and to protect clothing. Many feature a jina, a line of Swahili text with a proverbial message, like “I’m afraid of a lion with its strong teeth but not a man with his words,” and they’re often given as gifts to promote good health and happiness. Get your own kanga (they make great beach cover-ups) at Nairobi’s Kenya Kanga Collection shop or online at kenyakangacollection.com, where you’ll also find pretty sundresses, skirts and travel accessories made locally from a variety of kangas.