x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Soft landing in a rare wilderness

Feature The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya has begun offering stunning sights from above.

Starting this summer, guests at the Lewa Lodge, located in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya, have been able - for $800 an hour - to soar above the preserve in a biplane.
Starting this summer, guests at the Lewa Lodge, located in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya, have been able - for $800 an hour - to soar above the preserve in a biplane.

A solitary biplane buzzes over clifftops, dipping its wings against the morning sun. We swoop down gorges before climbing into the sky again, and I can barely contain my excitement. I'm in the front seat of a vintage aircraft and at the controls is Will Craig, a former crop duster and co-owner of Lewa Lodge, part of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya. It's 70 years since Karen Blixen wrote about flying in a biplane in Out of Africa, but the experience has lost none of its romance and adventure. Craig points out a black rhino on a hilltop. Until the 1980s, rhinos had been poached to the brink of extinction in Kenya for their horn; this is one of 58 that now populate the park. And to our right appear a group of rare and endangered Grevy's zebras, a quarter of whose world population are found here.

We fly north and the landscape changes sharply to open desert. Monoliths dot the reddish earth ? it could be Utah or Arizona. We drop down and fly between two of these kopjies, catching the sun as it bathes the rock in a rust-coloured hue. And then we are soaring into the sky again. "It's a magical feeling being in an open cockpit isn't it?" Craig calls over the intercom. We bank hard over the Ewaso Ng'iro river, sending a flock of guinea fowl into the air, and follow its wandering course back towards the lodge.

"This area used to be teeming with elephants," Craig tells me. "It would be wonderful to re-introduce them up here." From anyone else, such a comment could be taken as wistful thinking, but for the last 20 years the Craig family have been at the forefront of conservation in Kenya, having turned their family farm into a non-profit conservation reserve with the result that wildlife is now thriving once again within its border.

It is something immediately noticeable as we buzz over a hilltop back towards base. "Look, three white rhino," points out Craig. And not just rhino, but giraffe, zebra, warthog and elephant become discernible in the bush. We dip our wings over the lodge to the waving hands of the other guests about to have their breakfast and come into land on a dirt strip, sending a plume of dust into the African sky behind us.

A bush pilot all his professional life, Craig bought the plane this summer to offer Lewa's guests an experience that no one else offers in Africa. "Did you enjoy it?" he asks. It doesn't require a reply. A horse is waiting for the short ride to a bush breakfast. On the way we pass a giraffe, just a couple of metres away, happily oblivious to us. Underneath an acacia tree a long table-clothed trestle table groans under a feast of fresh food. There are plates of papaya, pineapple and the sweetest Kenyan bananas, breads and pastries and homemade cereals. I settle into my director's style chair and accept the offer of some cooked eggs prepared by a Masai chef. A thought occurs: yes, I could get used to this.

It's not difficult to see why Kenya has always been a priority destination for tourists wanting the authentic big game Africa experience. But last December's political violence following disputed elections, which left over 1,000 people dead, halted tourism overnight. It was a bitter experience for a country that relies on tourism as its biggest income earner. A year on, tourist numbers are back to normal and while tensions remain high, it's not something likely to impact on a visit.

For Craig and family, it's very much business as usual at the wilderness, and that means focusing on community and wildlife projects. His grandfather bought the land at Lewa Downs in 1922 and his parents began hosting visitors in the 1970s. But galvanised by the plight of the black rhino, which hadn't been seen on the land for 10 years, they turned the entire ranch into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 1995. Since then it has set a blueprint across the continent for conservation. Key to its success was in persuading local communities to view wildlife as a valuable economic resource and set up their own projects. The Il Ngwesi Community Lodge was the first of its kind and now brings in up to US$120,000 (Dh440,724) a year from tourism. Not only does it directly benefit the 450 local families; it also takes pressure off the land caused from the overgrazing of cattle, so wildlife has been able to return.

Now, everything in the lodge involves the community. All the furniture is made from Acacia wood that has fallen naturally - usually pushed over by elephant. Collecting it provides an income for remote communities and it is crafted by local carpenters and weavers. It's also very comfortable after a long day of activity. One of Lewa's most charming aspects is the informal family atmosphere, not just among the handful of guests staying at any one time but among the Craigs and Masai staff too. There are set meal times and we're encouraged to mingle and help ourselves to drinks - mercifully, without having to sign anything (although there is always someone on hand).

After a rest in my thatched cottage (which sleeps up to four) and a swim in the lodge's infinity pool, it is time for lunch, a buffet of quiches, locally-grown salads, bean stew, cheese-filled baked potatoes and a chicken risotto. "You're going to need it," says Katonga, looking at the size of my plate. An hour after lunch I am booked for a three-hour trek with him, followed by an overnight camp in the African bush.

When I meet him later he is armed with all the survival tools befitting today's Masai warrior: Simi bush knife, a mobile phone and a .458 Winchester rifle. We set off with the sun still high in the sky and begin with an ascent up a steep escarpment to the north of Lewa lodge. All our provisions for the night-camp are carried separately by camel. The view is the wild rugged Africa of Wilbur Smith: big skies, dusty earth, boulder-strewn kopjies. And later we descend into the wide open grassland of a David Attenborough documentary. A giraffe runs past. It looks like it's in slow motion, thanks to its languid gait. A herd of buffalo appear ahead and we have to tread very carefully around them. It is exciting being on foot. Without the security offered by an SUV one is more exposed, but in a positive way - to the smells and colours of the landscape. And both, as we enter camp at sunset, are a delight to my senses.

No comfort has been overlooked in the camp. I have a proper hot-water shower and my bed has sheets, but it's not ostentatious. Over dinner by a roaring fire I ask Katonga whether he's ever had any close calls in the wild. "Only once, when I was charged by a lion," he tells me. "What happened?" "He got the client." Katonga may be Masai, but he has a very English sense of humour. We rise at dawn. After breakfast he spots a white rhino on the horizon, one of 42 in the conservancy, and we track it for an hour before creeping silently up to observe it grazing. The only sound beside it chomping branches is that of my own heartbeat. It is a small wonder to view so closely, unnoticed, a creature that has been wandering the earth for millions of years.

A hookup with a vehicle is arranged and we head back to the lodge - I have another flight to catch. Unfortunately, it's in an 18-seat Twin Otter and it's to catch my connection out of Nairobi.