Borana Conservancy in Kenya: When conservation, comfort and animal encounters come together

WT Writer
Feb 10, 2022

Sarah Marshall has Kenya’s wildlife pretty much to herself during a stay at an exclusive lodge that takes its comfort as seriously as its conservation

It’s the iconic opening of The Lion King: the moment Mufasa assumes his clifftop throne as an amber sun melts into the tangled bush of his Pride Lands. A similarly heart-swelling sense of satisfaction washed over me as I watched clouds glide across vast plains and the foothills of Mount Kenya, which, for the next few days, I’d have almost to myself.

The outcrop immortalised by Disney is a short drive away, part of the privately-owned 32,000-acre Borana Conservancy in northern Kenya, on the Laikipia Plateau, where skies are big, wildlife is plentiful, and people are few and far between. Only six guest properties are spread across the protected land: the small-scale Borana Lodge and five splendid private-hire homes. I was staying at Lengishu, the last house to be built; no more properties will open in this conservation-focused place.

Arriving after a five-hour drive from Nairobi (scheduled and charter flights are also available), I was ushered through heavy wooden doors to find brocade curtains drawn and a glass of ruby shiraz glinting in front of an open hearth. The sense of warmth and welcome was immediate.

A cheetah sets its sights. Credit|Backdrop Agency

The British owners, Minnie and Joe MacHale, built the property with family in mind. When not rented to tourists, it’s a sanctuary for their extended clan, and feels lived-in as a result. A Wimbledon Centre Court hospitality lanyard dangles from a bedstead, framed photographs of grandchildren fill sideboards, and there’s a carved wooden 1920s chest from Zanzibar — a gift from Minnie’s grandparents. “It was a dressing-up box during my childhood,” Minnie told me.

Discreetly tucked into the hillside, a main house and four thatched cottages feature six bedrooms, sleeping up to 12, and are available only for exclusive use — a trend likely to shape safari holidays in the post-coronavirus world. A team of gardeners, housekeepers and chefs make days effortless. Breakfast can be served on a flagstone veranda, lunch in gardens swirling with sunbirds, and dinner in a cathedral of a dining room.

The choice was mine. I could start the day lazily in the infinity pool and end it with a bush walk — or run — on an undulating track alongside the electric perimeter fence. Activities are also fully flexible, including horse riding or mountain biking along the escarpment, private game drives across the conservancy, and a rare opportunity to track rhinos on foot. Having disappeared more than 50 years ago, black rhinos were reintroduced to the area in 2013.

The same year a fence between Borana and the neighbouring Lewa conservancy was taken down to create a shared 94,000-acre habitat, allowing more rhinos to drift across. Now the population exceeds 200, making this one of east Africa’s most important rhino sanctuaries. Accompanied by Rianto Lokoran, second in command of Borana’s anti-poaching team, I trudged through sticky black cotton mud to join scouts who had been out since 6.30am tracking white rhinos as part of a co-ordinated 24-hour system of surveillance. “We read the ground like a book,” Rianto said, pointing to footprints the size of dinner plates — clues that would allow a story to unfold.

In the distance two rhinos grazed below in the shadow of Mount Kenya. Moving behind mounds for cover, we crept so close I could hear their jaws grinding like millstones; upwind from us, they had no idea we were there. But a capricious breeze quickly ended our spellbound encounter and, sensing danger, they moved on.

Fish Eagle room at Borana Conservancy. Credit | Stevie Mann

There are few safer havens than Borana. More than 100 pairs of eyes monitor the animals, tracking individuals identifiable by a notch in their ears on a daily basis. If one goes missing for more than ten days a search plane is sent out. All this protection comes at a cost, footed mainly by the conservancy. Rather than relying on multiple donors and grants, however, Borana has come up with a more robust, self-sustaining system.

The estate has been divided into nine shares, with five retained by the original landowners, the Dyer family, and four sold to private buyers, such as Minnie and Joe. Each shareholder commits US$100,000 a year to fund the conservancy, and in return has permission to build a property on an allocated plot of land. The dependable flow of finances means Borana has been able to weather the coronavirus storm, and temporary pause in tourism activity, better than most. 

When Michael Dyer came here in 1984, the cattle and sheep farm founded by his ancestors in the early 1900s was ravaged by drought; the land was barren and much livestock had died. He opened Borana Lodge in 1993 and officially formed the conservancy 18 years later. “We live in the most beautiful place in the world. You have to take care of it,” he told me over drinks one evening in Lengishu’s drawing room, where we were flanked by statues of two Amazon warriors. 

Borana has been accredited as a centre of excellence in sustainability by the Long Run, a non-profit organisation setting standards for nature-based tourism, and is on a mission to become carbon-neutral through its use of renewable energy and tree-planting schemes. The MacHales follow the same ethos.

Goshawk room at Borana Conservancy. Credit | Stevie Mann

Lengishu’s electricity is solar-generated, bathwater recycled and used for irrigation, and firewood sourced from sustainable woodland. During construction, the main concern was protecting the profile of the landscape. Any stone removed from the hillside became a key building material for the low-rise cottages, which blur into the valley ridge. “It might sound dotty, but building a lodge in virgin bush, the landscape tells you what to do,” Minnie said. She worked with an architect and was behind the eclectic interior design. “For three years I hunted down pieces. Whether it was at 6.30am at Kempton Park racecourse antique market or haggling for little Burundian chairs in the backstreets of Nairobi.” The look is a quirky combination of stately home and curio store, with vibrant Masai and Turkana fabrics, beds made with teak reclaimed from retired dhows, and a bench from an upcycled dug-out canoe. “I was trying to combine that earthiness and organic feeling of the outside with a certain amount of elegance.” 

Colour continues in gardens decorated exclusively with native plants such as succulent aloe flowers and wiry lion’s ear thistles, whose swaying orange whorls roar faintly in the highlands’ afternoon winds. Herbs are grown for use in the kitchen, but most vegetables are supplied by Borana’s Waitabit Farm, the largest organic permaculture project in east Africa. Dyer’s son, Llewellyn, who owns and operates the farm, took me on a tour of his fields on the eastern bank of the Ngare Ndare River. Speaking animatedly about seed varieties, farming philosophies and a revival of victory gardens (a wartime effort encouraging people to grow their own veg), he was extremely knowledgeable. 

The sun rises over Mount Kenya. Credit | Backdrop Agency

By resurrecting forgotten farming techniques, he’s encouraging surrounding communities to adopt new ways of saving time, money and the environment. A bathtub filled with manure-churning earthworms provides a healthy alternative to chemical fertilisers, for example, while keeping chickens in a field is an effective means of scratching up soil in preparation for planting fruit trees. “Everything is a cycle, but we think in a linear way,” he reflected as we walked around the site. “We take the shortest route.”

There were no shortcuts the next morning when my private guide, Nissa, took me on a long game drive in search of black rhinos, notoriously secretive animals that prefer the cover of bush. We eventually found a mother and calf trailed by a curious, persistent male. Despite her rejections, he continued to spray scent, with blasts more powerful than a garden hose. His bravado demanded an audience, but the only crowds gathered were herds of uninterested cattle and buffalo. Unlike in so many of Kenya’s popular safari sites, queues of vehicles are uncommon on the conservancy, and days can pass without even glimpsing another guest. 

Of course, having fewer eagle-eyed guides on the ground does have its disadvantages, but rangers and scouts on patrol share reports of sightings, and even if animals are sometimes harder to track, they can almost always be observed alone. Uninterrupted, I spent hours watching a lioness cosset her suckling cubs in a cradle of thorny shrubs. Another afternoon I was transfixed by vervet monkeys sucking sap from yellow-barked acacia trees and was able to enjoy the sideshow without pressure from bored, Big Five-chasing passengers to move on. 

A lioness lies low. Credit | Backdrop Agency

Apart from overnight guests, visitors to Borana are strictly controlled, although elephants always have the right to come and go. A stone-wall boundary is used to contain rhinos, but nine corridors and an underpass have been created to allow the movement of migrating elephant herds.

Their loyalty to a route is astounding, with well-hewn footpaths streaking the grasslands and winding all the way to Mount Kenya. I witnessed a matriarch lead a procession through one of the designated gateways, commanding her clan with a baritone rumble and nudging a calf with her trunk. Like a family diligently obeying the green cross code, they even stopped at the road and waited for trucks to pass by.

A public thoroughfare bisects Borana, but community is at the core of the conservancy in more ways than one. Funds are used to support neighbouring schools, and a mobile medical clinic operates in partnership with the government, travelling more than 1,000 miles a month. A livestock to market scheme provides pastoralists with grazing areas and fair prices for cattle, and staff — including Lengishu’s employees — are all local.

A rhino marches on. Credit | Backdrop Agency

The assistance of locals is crucial. Fences and search planes combat poaching, but it’s human eyes and ears that keep Borana’s wildlife safe; community is the first line of defence. Even when one of their calves was killed by lions during my stay, farmers refused to retaliate. Instead, they helped us to find the 22-strong pride.

Strewn across a hillside, cubs rolled in the long oat grass while males with bountiful manes surveyed the horizon. There were no whirring engines or disruptive human chatter. It wasn’t quite Pride Rock, but this was very much their domain.

Returning to Lengishu, I was struck by the absence of any nagging urgency to get back out to the bush — my downtime had proved to be just as uplifting as my experience tracking animals in the wilderness. Opening my curtains to see the sky ignite at dawn, listening to high-pitched sunbirds hover outside my bedroom window, sitting cross-legged on a threadbare rug in front of the fire. When it comes to feelgood moments, Lengishu easily rivals even the best-loved Disney film.