Kalepo Camp

Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy
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Kalepo Camp
Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy

“Far from being a game-drive destination, Kalepo focuses on communities living in harmony with nature, making it refreshingly different to so much else on offer in the bush.

Step far away from the beaten track and escape to this remarkable private bush camp set in 390,000 acres of pristine wilderness. A stay at Kalepo offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the landscapes, communities, cultures and wildlife of this remote and untamed area of Northern Kenya.

Kalepo Camp accommodates up to 10 guests in 5 double/twin ensuite tents

All About Kalepo Camp

“Placing an arrow in his bowstring, a Samburu warrior focuses intently on the target ahead. As he prepares to take aim, rays of golden evening light glint from the silver discs dangling from his brow and a crown of colourful pompoms jiggles in the breeze.

Released with a twang, the arrow sings as it soars skyward, eliciting roars of applause when it then hits a ball of elephant dung on the ground. Samburu’s circumcised warriors are a revered group within their communities. Considered almost superhuman during this rite of passage, should they die their bodies can never be buried, but are left in the bush for a hyena to devour.

Honing survival skills is a daily practice: spear throwing, sprints and rungu (baton) chucking are all games that these warriors have played since childhood. But today looking good is also part of the competition. Preening like peacocks, the men proudly parade their paper Mohicans, beaded headdresses and nipples scarred from flame-heated metal blades. Knee-length striped socks, inspired by a fervent football craze, are a nod to modern trends.

Neither staged nor contrived, this is one of the ancient rituals of Samburu life that I witnessed as a guest at Kalepo Camp, a safari lodge that puts community firmly at the forefront. Settled by former nomadic herders whose ancestors migrated from South Sudan 300 years ago, the 390,000-acre Kalepo Conservancy sits below the cedar-studded slopes of the Matthews Range that rises from the scrubby ochre soils of northern Kenya. Isolated and remote, it is near-impossible to reach from Nairobi, with a lack of roads through the Great Rift Valley, and it is best reached by private charter plane.

“In the north you get that wonderful sense of wilderness where it feels like time has stood still,” says the camp’s owner, Rob Mason, who surveyed the area with his wife, Storm, after hearing that the conservancy – comprising a committee of local villagers – was seeking investors. Driving along the dry Kikwar riverbed (the only two roads in Kalepo have since been built with a tractor), he found a bend “that got me”. A night camping beneath a sprawling fig tree opposite the sacred Kimaning Mountain convinced the unconventional South African couple that it was the right thing to do.

Perched above one of the conservancy’s main waterways, which flows for three months of the year, the exclusive-use camp is a shaded oasis surrounded by riverine bush. Sandy paths through leafy tunnels link five secluded tents whose flaps open on four sides to let in the cool air and amber light – as well as the occasional warthog.

Beneath the spiralling vine of a woolly caper bush, my tent (No 2) has a private outdoor metal bathtub and a hammock, where I lie listening to a breeze ripple over mountains that have been traversed by pastoralists – nomadic herders of cattle and goats – for aeons.

In a communal area a small swimming pool faces a watering hole visited by dozens of baboons and elephants at a time; a private “beach” serves as a lawn for petanque and a lounge is stocked with more varieties of spirits than many Mayfair bars. Eschewing architects and interior designers, the couple built the camp alone; the furniture was made by a local carpenter – yet there’s nothing lo-fi about the place.

“We’ve tried to push the envelope of luxury but keep a bush camp feeling,” Rob explains during a sunset walk along the riverbed, while his seven-year-old son, Angus – an Attenborough in the making – points out spots where elephants have attempted to dig wells.

Water was an especially important factor in selecting a site for the camp as northern Kenya is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. Helped by the local knowledge of elders and a professional water diviner, the couple struck liquid gold, finding an underground source that has been tested and officially declared safe to drink. They have built four wells for the community and regularly fill a waterhole for wildlife. “It goes some way to justifying the water we use in camp,” Rob says.

Our walk ends in a clearing where two blacksmiths are fanning a fire with bellows made from goatskin, so they can melt aluminium pans to make bracelets. These loop the branches of an acacia tree — although a machete and circumcision knife are less appealing souvenirs.

The encounter provides yet another opportunity to learn about the complexities of Samburu culture. Rob explains that a caste system relegates a blacksmith to the lowest social rung and, as such, his sons are always first up for circumcisions with newly crafted blades — an insurance measure for everyone else.

Far from being a game-drive destination, Kalepo focuses on communities living in harmony with nature, making it refreshingly different to so much else on offer in the bush.

“We’ve loved the adventure so far, but it hasn’t been easy,” Storm says later that evening, handing me a mescal margarita before we sit down to a dinner of Yotam Ottolenghi-inspired dishes made with leaves from the camp’s desert garden.

Storm, as her name might suggest, is a force of nature, balancing her time between entertaining guests, training a staff of Samburu warriors from scratch and rushing to treat ailing mothers and children with creams and tablets from a £900-a-month medicine stock funded by the couple. But even she admits that there are days when things are “very, very hard”.

Beyond complicated operational logistics, cultural considerations have posed the biggest challenge. A rule preventing warriors from eating in the presence of women has restricted employment opportunities, while teething problems resulted in a high turnover of staff in the early days of the camp. Opening during the Covid pandemic also stalled progress.

Ploughing every penny they own into Kalepo, Rob and Storm have no budget for big press or marketing campaigns – although word of mouth has already attracted back-to-back bookings from wealthy guests, including Bette Midler.

Eager to share their culture, the Samburu people have also welcomed outsiders into their homes. One morning a staff member, Emmanuelle Lesampei, invites me to his village. Inside the boma, an enclosure that keeps both humans and livestock safe, five domed huts made from branches and sansevieria thatch are covered in a woven patchwork of old T-shirts and trousers. Each hut belongs to a wife of Emmanuelle’s father – the community elder Tembea Lesampei.

Forced further afield by the drought, most warriors are, Emmanuelle explains, in the mountains herding cattle, leaving women and children to milk the goats.

Next door is a house belonging to the “queen of the village”, Tembea’s eldest wife, outside which forked sticks denote the number of circumcised males she has raised. Inside the dark hut, smoke coils from a fire — the symbol of a good wife – and several milk gourds are scattered on the floor. Sitting on a mattress of goat hides I listen to Emmanuelle run through the various headrests used for different levels of society – but as far as pillow menus go, these curved wooden versions look pretty uncomfortable to me.

When the smoke gets too much we leave and continue to the singing wells, where Samburu chant to their cows while fetching pails of water from a hollow dug into a lugga (a seasonal watercourse). Deeper than usual as a result of low rainfall, they have to work harder, and the songs I hear have the tone of a lament.

If the December rains fail, famine is a looming reality, and a need for additional income is even greater than ever. Signing a 30-year lease with the community entails commitment, and the Masons are aware that there is pressure to deliver. Conservancy fees of £130 per day are the highest in the north, but much more is needed to sustain the trust of an 8,500-person population.

“Ultimately we want the community to be self-governing and self-sustaining,” Rob says when I join him for a sunrise bike ride through a valley decorated with pink desert roses and the brilliant flashes of a golden-breasted starling’s wings. “If we can create a situation where people continue to utilise and live in the landscape while maximising the wildlife potential, then everybody wins.” There are plans to raise funding for a medical clinic in a nearby village, discussions about planting agave plants as alternative animal fodder and ambitious ideas to set up a fly camp in a mountaintop cycad forest as a further revenue stream.

On our way back Rob points out a cow with the skin of a recently slaughtered goat around its neck, a sacrificial request for rain, and explains the meaning of Kalepo: the cow that never dries out. It’s an appropriate name for a resilient community grappling with climate change, and a fitting metaphor for a couple who refuse to give up.”

THE TIMES, November 2022

Summary
  • A wonderfully engaging, away-from-it-all, exclusive-use retreat
  • Small, special, personal and authentic, with sophisticated rustic-chic accommodation
  • Hospitable and family-oriented, owner-managed and hosted
  • Spectacular location within the majestic Matthews Range in the heart of Samburuland
  • Enjoy a change of pace and the chance to engage with local people and cultures
  • Experience traditional Samburu ‘Kijiji’ villages, Singing Wells and Warrior Games
  • Visit Reteti Sanctuary – home to orphaned and abandoned baby elephants
  • Healthy, organic and innovative cuisine, gym, swimming pool and spa
  • Accommodates up to 10 guests in 3 double/twin tents and the 2-bedroom family suite
Destination – Samburu and Northern Kenya

tbc

Location – Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy

Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy consists of 850,000 acres of pristine wilderness surrounding the Mathews Range of mountains in Kenya’s remote Northern Frontier District. Its savannah plains and lush mountain slopes are home to elephant, leopard, reticulated giraffe, wild dog and kudu in ever-increasing numbers.

This remote and dramatic landscape is also home to the local Samburu people – semi-nomadic pastoralists whose age-old traditions, including the famed Singing Wells, are as much a part of the fabric of this land as the wildlife.

After decades of poaching, Namunyak Community Conservancy was established in 1995 to promote wildlife conservation and allow the Samburu community to benefit from tourism, while protecting this wilderness and the many wildlife species living on their land.

The following 25 years would see one of the most profound and effective community conservation movements in the world come to life. Elephants began to trust again and recognise that they were now protected and other wildlife followed suit. Today, Namunyak Community Conservancy is a treasure trove of rare and often uncatalogued species.  It is home to the rare and beautiful De Brazza colobus monkey and the IUCN red-listed sub species of the Cycad, Encephalartos tegulaneus.

Namunyak – Samburu for  ‘Place of Peace’ – is recognised as one of Kenya’s most pristine wilderness areas, and the preservation of its landscapes, peoples and wildlife is central to all the conservancy’s initiatives and programs.

Namunyak serves as a critical wildlife refuge for many species and holds important northern populations of reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, leopard, African wild dog, impala lion, greater kudu and many bird species. The conservancy is particularly important for elephant as they move seasonally between the Mathews Range and the Mount Kenya and Ngare Ndare forests, a route they have been using for decades.

Reteti is a Samburu community-owned Elephant Sanctuary with Namunyak Conservancy.  A grass- roots community conservation initiative, it focuses on the rescue, rehabilitation and re-wilding of orphaned and abandoned elephant calves.  Find out more at https://www.reteti.org/

In Detail

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Visitors' Book

“Then we were off to Samburuland, more specifically the Mathews Mountain Range and the Namunyak Conservancy in the Northern Frontier District, where an incredible South African couple hosted us at their luxurious, eco-friendly lodge, Kalepo. We ate delicious fare, drank cocktails 30 feet from elephants, and visited a Samburu village, meeting the local people and learning about their incredible culture. Interacting with the Samburu was truly humbling and a highlight of the trip. Their love of the land, pride, and kindness is something I will never forget.”

“A recent visit up north to Kalepo Camp revealed a marvel of a place, jaw-dropping really, built from the dusty ground up with sweat and tears and sheer hard work by the incomparable Storm and Rob Mason. This is a place of heart with an exceptional sense of place and attention-to-detail. The interactions with the staff and the neighbouring Samburu community and the Samburu ‘warrior games’ will live long in our minds.”

Rates

(tbc)

All About Kalepo Camp

“Placing an arrow in his bowstring, a Samburu warrior focuses intently on the target ahead. As he prepares to take aim, rays of golden evening light glint from the silver discs dangling from his brow and a crown of colourful pompoms jiggles in the breeze.

Released with a twang, the arrow sings as it soars skyward, eliciting roars of applause when it then hits a ball of elephant dung on the ground. Samburu’s circumcised warriors are a revered group within their communities. Considered almost superhuman during this rite of passage, should they die their bodies can never be buried, but are left in the bush for a hyena to devour.

Honing survival skills is a daily practice: spear throwing, sprints and rungu (baton) chucking are all games that these warriors have played since childhood. But today looking good is also part of the competition. Preening like peacocks, the men proudly parade their paper Mohicans, beaded headdresses and nipples scarred from flame-heated metal blades. Knee-length striped socks, inspired by a fervent football craze, are a nod to modern trends.

Neither staged nor contrived, this is one of the ancient rituals of Samburu life that I witnessed as a guest at Kalepo Camp, a safari lodge that puts community firmly at the forefront. Settled by former nomadic herders whose ancestors migrated from South Sudan 300 years ago, the 390,000-acre Kalepo Conservancy sits below the cedar-studded slopes of the Matthews Range that rises from the scrubby ochre soils of northern Kenya. Isolated and remote, it is near-impossible to reach from Nairobi, with a lack of roads through the Great Rift Valley, and it is best reached by private charter plane.

“In the north you get that wonderful sense of wilderness where it feels like time has stood still,” says the camp’s owner, Rob Mason, who surveyed the area with his wife, Storm, after hearing that the conservancy – comprising a committee of local villagers – was seeking investors. Driving along the dry Kikwar riverbed (the only two roads in Kalepo have since been built with a tractor), he found a bend “that got me”. A night camping beneath a sprawling fig tree opposite the sacred Kimaning Mountain convinced the unconventional South African couple that it was the right thing to do.

Perched above one of the conservancy’s main waterways, which flows for three months of the year, the exclusive-use camp is a shaded oasis surrounded by riverine bush. Sandy paths through leafy tunnels link five secluded tents whose flaps open on four sides to let in the cool air and amber light – as well as the occasional warthog.

Beneath the spiralling vine of a woolly caper bush, my tent (No 2) has a private outdoor metal bathtub and a hammock, where I lie listening to a breeze ripple over mountains that have been traversed by pastoralists – nomadic herders of cattle and goats – for aeons.

In a communal area a small swimming pool faces a watering hole visited by dozens of baboons and elephants at a time; a private “beach” serves as a lawn for petanque and a lounge is stocked with more varieties of spirits than many Mayfair bars. Eschewing architects and interior designers, the couple built the camp alone; the furniture was made by a local carpenter – yet there’s nothing lo-fi about the place.

“We’ve tried to push the envelope of luxury but keep a bush camp feeling,” Rob explains during a sunset walk along the riverbed, while his seven-year-old son, Angus – an Attenborough in the making – points out spots where elephants have attempted to dig wells.

Water was an especially important factor in selecting a site for the camp as northern Kenya is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. Helped by the local knowledge of elders and a professional water diviner, the couple struck liquid gold, finding an underground source that has been tested and officially declared safe to drink. They have built four wells for the community and regularly fill a waterhole for wildlife. “It goes some way to justifying the water we use in camp,” Rob says.

Our walk ends in a clearing where two blacksmiths are fanning a fire with bellows made from goatskin, so they can melt aluminium pans to make bracelets. These loop the branches of an acacia tree — although a machete and circumcision knife are less appealing souvenirs.

The encounter provides yet another opportunity to learn about the complexities of Samburu culture. Rob explains that a caste system relegates a blacksmith to the lowest social rung and, as such, his sons are always first up for circumcisions with newly crafted blades — an insurance measure for everyone else.

Far from being a game-drive destination, Kalepo focuses on communities living in harmony with nature, making it refreshingly different to so much else on offer in the bush.

“We’ve loved the adventure so far, but it hasn’t been easy,” Storm says later that evening, handing me a mescal margarita before we sit down to a dinner of Yotam Ottolenghi-inspired dishes made with leaves from the camp’s desert garden.

Storm, as her name might suggest, is a force of nature, balancing her time between entertaining guests, training a staff of Samburu warriors from scratch and rushing to treat ailing mothers and children with creams and tablets from a £900-a-month medicine stock funded by the couple. But even she admits that there are days when things are “very, very hard”.

Beyond complicated operational logistics, cultural considerations have posed the biggest challenge. A rule preventing warriors from eating in the presence of women has restricted employment opportunities, while teething problems resulted in a high turnover of staff in the early days of the camp. Opening during the Covid pandemic also stalled progress.

Ploughing every penny they own into Kalepo, Rob and Storm have no budget for big press or marketing campaigns – although word of mouth has already attracted back-to-back bookings from wealthy guests, including Bette Midler.

Eager to share their culture, the Samburu people have also welcomed outsiders into their homes. One morning a staff member, Emmanuelle Lesampei, invites me to his village. Inside the boma, an enclosure that keeps both humans and livestock safe, five domed huts made from branches and sansevieria thatch are covered in a woven patchwork of old T-shirts and trousers. Each hut belongs to a wife of Emmanuelle’s father – the community elder Tembea Lesampei.

Forced further afield by the drought, most warriors are, Emmanuelle explains, in the mountains herding cattle, leaving women and children to milk the goats.

Next door is a house belonging to the “queen of the village”, Tembea’s eldest wife, outside which forked sticks denote the number of circumcised males she has raised. Inside the dark hut, smoke coils from a fire — the symbol of a good wife – and several milk gourds are scattered on the floor. Sitting on a mattress of goat hides I listen to Emmanuelle run through the various headrests used for different levels of society – but as far as pillow menus go, these curved wooden versions look pretty uncomfortable to me.

When the smoke gets too much we leave and continue to the singing wells, where Samburu chant to their cows while fetching pails of water from a hollow dug into a lugga (a seasonal watercourse). Deeper than usual as a result of low rainfall, they have to work harder, and the songs I hear have the tone of a lament.

If the December rains fail, famine is a looming reality, and a need for additional income is even greater than ever. Signing a 30-year lease with the community entails commitment, and the Masons are aware that there is pressure to deliver. Conservancy fees of £130 per day are the highest in the north, but much more is needed to sustain the trust of an 8,500-person population.

“Ultimately we want the community to be self-governing and self-sustaining,” Rob says when I join him for a sunrise bike ride through a valley decorated with pink desert roses and the brilliant flashes of a golden-breasted starling’s wings. “If we can create a situation where people continue to utilise and live in the landscape while maximising the wildlife potential, then everybody wins.” There are plans to raise funding for a medical clinic in a nearby village, discussions about planting agave plants as alternative animal fodder and ambitious ideas to set up a fly camp in a mountaintop cycad forest as a further revenue stream.

On our way back Rob points out a cow with the skin of a recently slaughtered goat around its neck, a sacrificial request for rain, and explains the meaning of Kalepo: the cow that never dries out. It’s an appropriate name for a resilient community grappling with climate change, and a fitting metaphor for a couple who refuse to give up.”

THE TIMES, November 2022

All About Kalepo Camp

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