The duvet cover is tucked under my chin as I lie in a comfortable king-sized bed watching the sun rise above Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The bed is on a raised platform, swathed with mosquito netting and surrounded by soothing pebbled water features.
My room has few walls and no glass windows; there are no curtains or blinds. In fact there’s nothing between me and the wilderness except the mosquito net. Overhead, a thatched roof is supported by fig wood timber from the surrounding forest. And there are spectacular views of the valley below, even from the bathroom.
This is as close as you get to sleeping out in nature without foregoing essential creature comforts such as environmentally friendly toiletries, bathrobes, daily housekeeping, laundry services and a personal butler.
Past customers include Bill Gates and Donna Karan.
The most remarkable thing about Shompole is that the lodge is virtually in the middle of nowhere, wrapped around the side of the Nguruman escarpment, surrounded by a landscape of grasslands, acacia woodlands, papyrus swamps, mountains and salt flats in a remote part of the volcanic Great Rift Valley in Kenya.
The nation’s capital, Nairobi, is a 31/2-hour drive away. And the closest settlement is a Masai village where its occupants, the Loodokilani Masai, live in mud huts. These Masai entered into a partnership with seasoned safari camp entrepreneur Anthony Russell and are joint owners of the lodge along with the 62-hectare Shompole Group Ranch conservancy around it.
Since 1979 Russell has worked with the Masai to heal this vast stretch of southern Kenya from overgrazing, deforestation and destruction of the ecosystem. The Masai are traditional pastoralists who view predators as a threat to their livelihood. Hunting and killing lions to protect their domestic livestock is part of their tribal tradition.
But now the plains teem with dust-covered wildebeests, hyenas, giraffes, zebras and oryx. The lion population has grown from five to more than 50.
One evening we follow a pack of hyenas to a clearing where our 4WD is suddenly surrounded by a pride of hunting lions. I feel a surge of adrenalin as the lions pace around the vehicle. Their roars raise goose bumps on the back of my neck.
My Masai guide, Jackson, tells me not to be afraid as the pack is merely working up to prepare to hunt. “You’re not on the menu.
The wildebeests over there are much tastier,” says Jackson pointing his spotlight at a small herd. We stay with the lions and watch them stalk and take down an unlucky wildebeest.
Jackson is always dressed in a colourful traditional Masai robe. The next morning, he takes me on a walking safari through a shady fig forest where we spot a troop of chattering baboons swinging among the branches.
I’m concerned about coming across a lion but Jackson knows every centimetre of the forest well. He assures me that this is one area the lions will stay away from.
The lions also keep away from the lodge but, on occasion, a leopard has been spotted drinking from a spring near my room. When bars of soap in my bathroom keep disappearing, I discover the culprit is a cheeky squirrel.
One afternoon, I visit the Masai village where a group of women gather beneath an acacia tree. Dressed in bright Masai colours, the women make beautiful necklaces, earrings and bangles with quality beads flown in from Czechoslovakia. The jewellery is sold in the lodge’s boutique.
Nearby at the local primary school, the classrooms are furnished with desks, chairs and a chalkboard. But the walls are bare. There are no teacher’s aids and the children share text books. I watch two young girls write in an exercise book, one on the left page and the other on the right, with pencils cut into stubs.
The children’s enthusiasm is heart warming. They all wear uniforms but few own shoes. They crowd around me with eager questions about Australia.
On my last day, Jackson takes me on a drive to Lake Natron, a breeding ground for pink flamingos, where Robert Redford and Meryl Streep flew over in the movie Out of Africa. We stop to talk to a Masai man who is cycling across the border to Tanzania.
In 2006 the Shompole project beat 309 entrants from 66 countries to win the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Equator Initiative Award for most outstanding community-driven biodiversity business.
After staying at Shompole I can see why it was chosen for this award. It’s the perfect destination for travellers with a conscience and offers the opportunity to enjoy a luxurious off-the-beaten-track safari experience while helping a local community.
Shompole is currently closed.
South African Airways flies to Johannesburg with connections to Nairobi.