Ihad a sleep in Africa? When on safari, expect the nocturnal soundtrack to be loud and lively. The growl of lions, the bark of jackals, the scurrying and rootling of scrub hares, hyenas and bat-eared foxes. But then, at Sanctuary Olonana, set in birdfilled forest above the Mara River near the gateway to Kenya’s Masai Mara wildlife conservancy, there’s the tremendous snuffle-snorts and tuba blasts of wallowing hippos that, after lights-out, when the world is eerily still, are amplified to such a frequency you’d swear the portly creatures were splashing about in your ensuite’s tub.
The collective noun for hippos is a bloat, which is just perfect for the fanciful image of several taking up residence in Olonana’s over-sized bathrooms, fitted with three rainshower heads lined in a row like a carwash and with space for a skating rink. This freshly refurbished lodge reopened in June as the shiny new gem in the crown of Sanctuary Retreats, which operates camps and lodges in Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, and all with strong conservation credentials.
I first visited Olonana more than a decade ago when the accommodation was in simple tents, most staff appeared to be named Philip and a resident old warthog was known as Mower as his constant munching kept the lawns trim. There was big Philip, small Philip and tentman Philip, plus our overland safari driver and go-to guy Philip Koimere, now head of guide training for Sanctuary Retreats in Tanzania. “Named for HRH Mister Duke,” tentman Philip confided when I queried the names.
Now Olonana is almost unrecognisable. The tents are gone, replaced with seriously upgraded accommodation. Set along an undulating rise are a garden pool and 14 freestanding suites of mudbrick and jagged stone with interiors that nod to an African context of earthy bush colours, tribal-patterned textiles in dove grey and charcoal, artwork by local artists and pale timber floors and surfaces. A massive four-poster is draped with swathes of netting; the ensuite is all marble and slate and Hollywood lighting. On a lower level of each suite, a half-moon conversation pit mimics an encircling Masai boma and there’s a river-facing deck with amply cushioned and roofed daybed. The sense of space is generous and full of light thanks to enormous windows and sliding glass doors. But when the sun goes down, an askari, or Masai warrior guide, will appear armed with a spear to escort guests along those darkened, rustling pathways.
The main lodge pavilion is where meals are served and everyone gathers to sit in an arc of director’s chairs for evening drinks beside a boma firepit. It has a dramatic indoor-outdoor feel. A Greenheart tree (Warburgia ugandensis), known for its medicinal properties, juts through the centre and the soft colour scheme is of sun-bleached blues and golds plus jolts of rusty orange in the occasional sofa and cushions. There’s a library room with a terrific assembly of books on east Africa, Masai spears on the walls, gallery-worthy carvings, groovy clusters of filament drop lights and myriad deck areas that swoop and jut over the river.
Staff are given to outbursts of song, especially when a birthday cake does the rounds and the kitchen crew appear with wooden spoons to wave like batons as they join a conga line. Dining by candlelight with matched wines and crisp white linen can be à deux or join fellow guests to swap tales tall and small of wildlife sightings and magical moments in the bush. There’s no such thing as an uneventful day, or night, in the Masai Mara. Susan Kurosawa is travel editor of The Australian.