WILD WORLD

Check in to a bil­lion­aire fam­ily’s pri­vate wildlife refuge in Kenya.

Elle (Canada) - - Escape - BY CHRISTINA REYNOLDS

t’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 prick­ly­pear-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.)

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 h Ol Jogi’s main house has an open-air din­ing room and ve­randa look­ing out onto a lake (where two hip­pos usu­ally re­side) and a salt lick that at­tracts wildlife around the clock. At the wa­ter’s edge, there’s a sunken view­ing bunker with ground-level win­dows to see it all up close.

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 10fig­ure-in­come club dur­ing your be­spoke stay, with ex­clu­sive ac­cess to the over-the-top liv­ing quarters (see “The In­te­rior Splen­dour”) as well as thou­sands of hectares crawl­ing with ex­otic in­dige­nous wildlife.

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 FrenchAmer­i­can 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 h

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 Mon­go­lianstyle 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.

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 h

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-the­clock 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 less­grazed 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 ope­nair din­ing room at an ap­proach­ing ele­phant herd. “I’m here be­cause there is still po­ten­tial to do things dif­fer­ently.” ■

The ochre-coloured rock for­ma­tions in Ol Jogi’s Grand Canyon are known as the “Mboromoko” in the lo­cal Kiswahili lan­guage.

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