Earlier this week, after a dozen changes of plans and a slightly fraught palming-off of children onto extremely kind friends, my husband and I went away for two nights, to Northern Kenya. This was a busman's holiday for me since the deal is that I now write an in depth piece on the highly swanky and upmarket Sarara Camp for a travel mag. This was only my second travel assignment but you will see why it was worth moving heaven and earth to get there. The place was magical - I would go back again in a heartbeat if funds were ever permitting.
There are only six tents and though the camp is run by experienced white Kenyan safari guides who bring in the dollars and make sure everything is up to standard, it's actually owned by the local community of Samburu people. The deal in this case is quite unique, a beneficial partnership whereby 60% of the camp's profits are given to and managed by the Samburu community, then subsequently spent on community development, healthcare, education bursaries, water etc - while the remaining 40% covers running costs, salaries, vehicles, radios etc, ie the infrastructure of the camp itself. So by visiting you are sort of making a charity donation to the Samburu people whose precarious existence has often in the past been threatened by poachers, invaders and serious drought.
You also might like to know (I love this sort of thing); Sarara was the jumping off point for Wills and Kate on their 'proposal' safari in Kenya (apparently it's true Wills wasn't letting go of that rucksack!) - and Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were staying recently. On a more down to earth level - We were greeted by a tame 2 week old Kudu, went walking with Samburu guides into the hills, did night game drives and spotted leopard, visited a Samburu village, swam in a fresh water pool and ate like kings - so you get the picture. Exclusive, luxury, active and heavenly.
Being waited on at mealtimes by Samburu warriors in full regalia was a unique experience, as were bush sundowners by a camp fire in the floor of a dry riverbed, overlooked (to our surprise) by a malevolent hyena. We saw and tracked leopard really quite close up on 3 occasions which was fantastic for me since after 12 years of living in the E Africa region, I've only ever glimpsed one, maybe two in the wild before and always in the very far distance.
Leopard, looking at me, looking at you
Plus the scenery over the remote and unspoiled Mathews range was breathtaking. Huge tents, hot showers, flushing loos, not another vehicle or tourist in sight.
However, as a travel writer (ha ha ha!) I realise that the occupation has it's ups and downs. I sometimes wonder if it wouldn't be more fun to visit 'incognito', then have the freedom report back at will - however this is unrealistic. I am not complaining - honestly I'm not - but visiting places gratis as a writer has its pitfalls.
1. You can't plan the trip to suit your own timetable. They crop up suddenly and it's necessary to be able to drop everything and go, or else miss out.
2. You get the creeping suspicion that fellow guests might be slightly resentful of your presence (bless them) because after all - they are paying and you are not. Feeling like a freeloader is not the best and however you sugar coat it, that is what you are.
3. You might be in heaven but you're there to work. When all you want to do is kick back and relax, you are frantically reading in-camp info and taking notes, hoping to memorize a lot of stuff too.
4. The person who commissions the piece 'owns' you for the duration of your stay. They want to 'chat' often, show you everything, then make sure you talk to absolutely everyone who has a stake in the place.
On one occasion, the camp manager actually said 'oh good, you've got a notebook with you this time' in rather a meaningful way. I must admit, I bristled.
5. You have to have the confidence & bravado to sell yourself, be self assured, brag about what a marvellous, experienced writer you are and how you are going to write a fantastic piece. (Am really not good at that sort of thing, hate it).
6. Your travelling partner (if you are lucky enough to have one) is required to take a back seat and share your time with the lodge/camp in question. Put it this way, my husband sweetly packed a bottle of champagne on this trip since it was the first time we'd gone away without the kids for 2 years - we didn't open it.
1. You don't have to pay and you may well be staying somewhere out of your normal price bracket.
2. You get to do and see amazing things that, let's face it, you probably wouldn't normally make time for.
3. You get well looked after when you are there, often recieve the personal attention of the camp owner/manager.
4. The travel magazine does the hard work of finding a place for you to go. Don't know about you guys but, even in this digital age, I find that unless a destination has been personally recommended then I am at a total loss.
A case in point, we considered going to Egypt briefly at Easter time, then gave up because we didn't really know where to start organising the sort of holiday we wanted.
3. You can tell everyone about new, fab places to visit (do look at the Sarara website if you dare).
The previous assignment I had was a trip to Mike's Camp in Kiwayu. With only six or so beach huts on a remote island north of Lamu and visitors such as Colin Firth, it was equally luxurious and fabulous again as Sarara, with a quirky style of its own, charasmatic host, certainly a place that you could write home about to make everyone (ie on Facebook) green with envy.
So, as things stand, if you fell into some cash or won the lottery, would like 5 star personal treatment and don't mind flying in small aircraft around the country, I would happily recommend these two lodges/camps as the perfect remote Beach and Bush combination in Kenya for adventurous souls.
The best bit? Neither place had a phone signal for my Airtel phone (although they did have Safaricom coverage), so no one from home was able to report back with dramas related to the kids, the pets or the house. I was blissfully out of contact. Think I'll stick with Airtel for that reason if nothing else! It's rare these days to find anyone ever switching off. Even though I was 'on duty' at the time, I have fab memories of both trips and feel very lucky to have visited. Oh how the other half live!