Snug between Tsavo East and Amboseli national parks in south-eastern Kenya are the Chyulu Hills, which writer Ernest Hemingway referred to as ‘the green hills of Africa’. Snow-tipped Mount Kilimanjaro emerges through clouds just over the Tanzanian border and flat-topped umbrella trees dot the plains.
Here in a patch of woodland is ol Donyo Lodge. It’s owned by Great Plains Conservation, which pays 4,000 Maasai families to lease the 275,000-acre ranch the lodge stands on. This tourism use helps to conserve the land for its wildlife. Some 80 per cent of staff at the lodge comes from the community and about 130 more people work in the conservancy management of the greater area.
But none of this conservation and community work is really obvious to you as a visitor unless you ask the right questions. The focus is more on your experience of luxury (think rim-flow plunge pools, star beds and fine dining) and a clutch of exciting things to do.
1. Go on a game drive
As with any safari, the anchor experience is a game drive in an open safari vehicle to find cheetah, elephants, Coke’s hartebeest, Maasai giraffe, white-bearded wildebeest, zebra, eland, oryx and gazelle. If you’re lucky, you may even see lions or the long-necked gerenuk – called a ‘giraffe-antelope’ in Swahili – with its rear hip joints that rotate to allow it to stand upright to feed on high branches.
2. Hike to explore the geology
The Chyulu Hills are volcanic, with eruptions as recently as the mid 19th-century. At 650,000 to 850,000 years old, they are some of the youngest volcanic hills in the world. If you’re energetic, strike out on a geological hike from ol Donyo to explore one of the lava tube caves, or hike to the top of ol Donyo Wuas for wonderful views and scenery (four hours up and down).
3. Discover Maasai culture
Visit a village with your guide to see how the Maasai live. Duck inside a house through a low door to find two beds covered by calf skin, and a central area with a fireplace and storage space for firewood. It’s a chance to learn how men build the fence around the manyatta and take animals to sell, while women cook, do beadwork, collect firewood, build the house and care for the children. Guests pay US$20 per person, which provides an additional income for the Maasai.
4. Go horse riding
Ride out on horseback into the Chyulu Hills to get close to wild animals like zebras, giraffes and gazelles. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner or a pro, the horses are well trained and the guides will match your pace and experience.
5. Do a guided bush walk
Slow down on a guided bush walk. Without the sound of a diesel engine, you can hear the sounds of the bush. Be open to the wonders of tracks in the sand and other small signs as your guide brings to life what has been going on around you.