A Kenyan safari that’s tucked away from the herd

From giraffes to gazpacho, the Segera Retreat in Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau offers safari enthusiasts almost everything they could ask for – often before they think to ask for it, Selina Denman writes.

While not the best area for spotting predators, the plains near the Segera Retreat in Kenya provide ample herds of elephant, zebra, buffalo and giraffe. Photos courtesy of Segera Retreat, Wilderness Collection
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I am sitting in a hut made of mud and cow dung. There’s a baby goat huddled in the corner to my left and a puppy nuzzling the back of my legs. Like me, they are soaked through. Mika, the towering security guard tasked with protecting me from marauding elephants, lions and buffalo, is crouched to my right, cradling his rifle. Somewhere in the hut there’s a fire burning; the air is thick with smoke and my eyes are streaming uncontrollably. The only sound is the thud of rain beating down on dry earth.

“Are you OK?” asks Jack, my driver and guide, his face pinched with worry. He needn’t be concerned – I am revelling in the incongruity of it all. “Sawa”, I respond in my rudimentary Swahili. All good.

I had arrived at the Segera Retreat a day earlier. A shaky 12-seater plane had deposited me at the near-deserted Nanyuki airstrip in Kenya’s central-east Rift Valley region, where I was met by Jack. A bumpy two-hour drive took us from the crowded, chaotic streets of Nanyuki, a thriving market town, into the open savannah and grasslands of the Laikipia Plateau, past Masai warriors tending their cattle, gaggles of straggly goats and children frolicking in murky streams.

After countless twists and turns, the retreat revealed itself, emerging slowly, almost shyly, from the bush. There was the odd glimpse of thatched roof above the tree line; a statuesque wine tower reaching for the sky; and then the main, two-storey Paddock Building letting me know I had finally arrived.

Set on 50,000 acres of private ranchland, 1,800 metres above sea level, Segera Retreat is a Wilderness Safaris property and the brainchild of Jochen Zeitz, a former CEO of Puma, Gucci and Saint Laurent Paris, and the founder of The Zeitz Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to sustainable ecosystem management.

Built around the four principles of conservation, community, culture and commerce, the exclusive safari retreat is a collection of eight villas set within a flourishing botanical garden interspersed with sculptural art installations. It’s a magical mix: part luxury spa resort, part New York design hotel and part old-school safari lodge.

I am shown to my private stilted villa by my dedicated villa attendant, Isaac, who over the next couple of days will develop an uncanny knack for anticipating exactly what I need just before I need it. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows offer expansive views over the game reserve, so I can do a spot of animal watching from the shower, desk or bed.

I dwell for a moment on the enormous, entirely secluded balcony, taking in the sumptuous daybed and sunken bathtub. A 4m-high by 5m-wide Opuntia bush begins where the balcony ends, and is the only thing separating my sleeping quarters from the beasts beyond.

Lunch is an early indicator that this is not your average safari experience. Ice cold pineapple and nut gazpacho is followed by a potato pie made from fresh ingredients grown in the Segera gardens. I have spent enough time in Kenya’s gameparks to know that this is not your standard fare. There is no menu; the retreat’s amiable chefs will ask you what you like, what you don’t and what you’re in the mood for, and create tailor-made meals based on your preferences.

My agenda is equally fluid. There is none of the rigidity and limitations of your standard safari – morning and evening game drives with long bouts of nothingness in between. Here, I am spoilt for choice. Spa treatment or gym session? A swim in the pool or a tour of the retreat’s priceless African art collection? Game drive or walking safari? A visit to a local community or a trip to a nearby school that The Zeitz Foundation has helped build?

The traditionalist in me decides to start with a game drive. As we depart, Jack points to an augur buzzard flying overhead. “The Kikuyu tribe believe that if you see the white breast of an augur buzzard in the morning you will have good luck all day,” he says.

“What happens if you seen one in the afternoon?” I ask.

“We’ll have to see,” he responds with a chuckle.

As it happens, the buzzard does not bring me much luck. The area is not known for an abundance of predators – this is not the place to come and see big cats in action – but because of this, it has a thriving herbivore population, offering up huge, healthy herds of elephant, zebra, buffalo, water buck, eland and the reticulated giraffe that is endemic to northern Kenya, as well as over 350 species of bird.

Nonetheless, a day earlier Jack had spotted a couple of lions in the vicinity, so we set off in search. Our mission proves fruitless, but we do see hundreds of jittery zebra, the odd giraffe, a few elephants and a lone buffalo that commandeers the road and threatens to charge every time we get too close.

It is getting dark and the temperature has dropped dramatically by the time we get back. Slightly despondent after my lack of lion-spotting, I trudge back to my villa, only to discover that my tub has been filled with piping hot water and mountains of bubbles, and my balcony is now littered with candles and rose petals. I sink into the water and lie quietly, entranced by the intensity of the stars above and listening to the rustle of God-knows-what just beyond the hedge. The moment is ruined slightly when it starts to drizzle, but I stay put until my fingers are prune-like and my hair is soaked through.

I am woken early the next morning by Isaac, who comes bearing gifts: a platter of fresh fruit, warm muffins and a pair of gum boots. It has rained steadily through the night and as I am due to go on a walking safari, I will need them, he says.

Suitably kitted out, I follow Jack, Mika (and his rifle) out into the bush. Jack is a font of knowledge – showing me the tiny purple flowers that are used by local tribes to cure eye infections and the tree bark that settles stomach ailments; identifying birds by their distinct calls; and pointing to trees that have been ravaged by rampaging elephants.

We follow a course along the gently flowing river that runs parallel to the retreat, before heading up over one of the banks and stopping to take a rest on a couple of sun-bleached boulders. There is a rustle some 200m away and then, out of nowhere, there’s a herd of giraffe staring at us over the treetops, ears twitching nervously. An enormous male lollops towards us, sent out to gauge the threat level, no doubt. I assume we are deemed harmless, because the rest of his friends slowly follow suit, until there are 15 giraffes grazing less than 100m away.

Jack points to a couple of water buck in the distance and suddenly there’s the unmistakable dark grey silhouette of an elephant on the horizon. We circle round and realise that we have stumbled across an enormous herd – I can barely contain my excitement as I count 30 females with their young, weaving slowly in and out of the vegetation.

Dark clouds are gathering menacingly on the horizon when we head out later that afternoon. The plan is to drive to one of the local communities and then walk to where the ranch’s 4,000-strong cattle herd is homed. But we are 20 minutes into our drive and approaching a ramshackle Masai settlement when the rain starts to fall, heavy and unrelenting. Our safari truck, open on all sides, offers little shelter and slides perilously over the slick, muddy track. “We can shelter in the settlement,” Jack suggests, “but I warn you, it will be very smoky.”

And so I find myself in a strange hut in the middle of the Kenyan wilderness, marvelling at the extreme polarities of my African experience. The elderly Masai tribesman whose home we have invaded shuffles over, smiling widely. “In our culture, rain is a blessing,” Jack explains. “He says you have brought baraka – blessings – to his home.”

A fully enclosed rescue car picks us up a short while later. My plans for the afternoon have been ruined but when I get back to the retreat, a smiling member of staff suggests that I have a spa treatment instead. As I lie on the massage table, a therapist kneading my aching muscles, I’m not convinced that it is I who has brought blessings to this beautiful little pocket of Kenya, but I certainly feel blessed to be here.

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