The East African - - DISCOVERY -

ASpe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent week­end visit to the Mpala Re­search Cen­tre and Wildlife Foun­da­tion turned out be an ed­uca­tive hol­i­day ex­pe­ri­ence.

The 49,000 acre es­tate is lo­cated in the Ol Jogi Widlife Con­ser­vancy north­west of Mt Kenya, in Laikipia County. An in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned re­search facility, Mpala also fo­cuses on con­ser­va­tion and pro­mot­ing hu­man-wildlife co-ex­is­tence.

The drive from Nairobi to Mpala took about five hours with a stop at Nanyuki town, after about three hours, for a cof­fee break. We ar­rived at Mpala in time for lunch, served at an out­door din­ing area un­der roof shading.

Mpala ranch was pur­chased by Bri­tish set­tler Sam Small in the 1950s. He later be­queathed it to his brother Ge­orge, who then ded­i­cated the es­tate to wildlife con­ser­va­tion and re­search.

After lunch our host took us on a tour of the cen­tre, the li­brary and green­houses. In the com­puter room we watched a live video feed from cam­eras at dif­fer­ent spots within the con­ser­vancy. The cam­eras cap­ture scenes such as hip­pos wal­low­ing in the river and an­i­mals brows­ing in the grass­land.

The cot­tages and ban­das are spread out around the grounds of the cen­tre. I stayed in one of the thatched-roof stone ban­das, a com­fort­able room with two beds and en­suite bath­room. A few me­tres away is the Mpala Ranch House, an old colo­nial-style home over­look­ing the river. Rates start at $80 per day, with daily house­keep­ing and laun­dry ser­vice.

A self-ca­ter­ing camp­site about 2km from the main re­search cen­tre is ideal for campers. Lo­cated on the river­bank, the camp­site has can­vas tents with beds, a tented mess area with fur­ni­ture, and an ablu­tion block.

The meals at Mpala are sim­ple and tasty, such as lentil stew, pasta with Bolog­nese sauce, cur­ries and gar­den sal­ads. Break­fast was eggs, sausage, ce­re­als, toast and sliced fruit. The ba­nana bread served with mid-morn­ing tea each day was fluffy and de­li­cious. You can bring your own soft drinks, wine or beer to have with your meals as the bev­er­age op­tions are lim­ited.

There is a cor­ner book­shelf in the lounge and some evenings they show films. Our group pre­ferred to sit out­doors and chat after meals.

Early morn­ings are a good time for bird-watch­ing on the grounds of the cen­tre. After break­fast we went on a game drive. Mpala also dou­bles as a live­stock ranch and we passed herds of cat­tle as we tra­versed the con­ser­vancy.

The land­scape is a mix­ture of thorn-tree bush­land, dry sa­van­nah and rocky plains. Along the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, the river­ine habi­tat is lush with doum palms and sandy beaches.

On the game drive we saw ele­phants, an­telopes, hip­pos, dik diks and the endangered Grevy’s ze­bras. A hyena ran across the road in front of our ve­hi­cle. Oc­ca­sion­ally wild dogs are spot­ted at the ranch. A high­light was a small herd of greater kudu, the male car­ry­ing an im­pres­sive set of curved horns.

We stopped by the hippo pools and also vis­ited a his­toric cave site in a val­ley. The cave was used as a cer­e­mo­nial site by lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and as a hide­out by Mau Mau free­dom fighters in the 1950s. On the walls of the cave are white rock paint­ings dat­ing back sev­eral hun­dred years.

Mpala is vis­ited by uni­ver­sity stu­dents, sci­en­tists and in­ter­na­tional re­searchers who use the con­ser­vancy as a “liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory” to con­duct field ex­per­i­ments. A grad­u­ate botany student showed us a green­house where she is re­search­ing African queen but­ter­flies. A Kenyan zool­o­gist ex­plained his stud­ies on res­i­dent and mi­grant elephant herds in the con­ser­vancy.

Grevy’s ze­bras and chee­tahs are some of the other on­go­ing re­search pro­grammes.

Prom­i­nent vis­i­tors over the years have in­cluded Kenyan palaeon­tol­o­gists Richard and Meave Leakey, and the world-fa­mous pri­ma­tol­o­gist Jane Goodall.

Pic­ture: Kari Mutu

Pic­ture: Kari Mutu

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