The Other Africa
By Laith Al-Kaisy
If you’ve been to Africa, you’ll know how badly it translates to the rest of the world. It is probably the most sensationalised place on the planet, for all the wrong reasons. For those who haven’t been, if you only believe half of what you hear, it’s probably the spurious half. And you know what I’m talking about without having to get Bob Geldof to explain it. Africa, simply, is not what the majority of people think it is: no longer a Conradian heart of darkness, nor an impervious continent of otherness. Indeed, one of the best experiences a westerner can have is to wake up in Africa: treading the dust that founded humanity, feeling the dense, occluding air of a silver dawn, and hearing the elemental sounds of extrinsic fauna. Yep, it’s Africa, alright. Well, Kenya to be specific.
I had been to Africa before, but our friends at Abercrombie & Kent promised something completely different. What could possibly be different, I thought – Kenya is a land that speaks for itself. The things that make Africa great are innate, not contrived, some not even tangible. But oh, how wrong a travel hack can be. It’s all well visiting Africa in your youth and experiencing, first-hand, the paralysing poverty and wheezing water pumps – to stare Third Earth straight in the eye – but the fact is, there is more to Africa than what you see on the news. To see the other Africa – the unfiltered, unfettered, unmediated, optimistic, contextualised Africa – you need to leave your preconceptions at the mud-hut, and you need to do it with joie de vivre. And a credit card.
We landed at Nairobi and travelled north to Laikipia, one of seventy-one districts in Kenya, with a population of roughly 300,000. Laikipia Plateau is one of the last bulwarks of the so-called Romantic East Africa, characterised by vast ranches and teeming savannah. Though it is home to a heterogeneous wildlife, it wistfully nurses some of the world’s most endangered menagerie, too, all sympathetically watched over by Kenya’s namesake mountain. We arrived at Solio Lodge, built at the tail-end of 2010 and located in the recumbent valley between the slopes and peaks of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range. It’s hard to describe the sights without falling into lazy journalistic adjectives and truisms, but what the heck: it’s breathtaking and striking. There, I said it.
Solio Lodge feels like a secret, hushed and runic, with opulent rooms brandishing African artefacts, open fireplaces, freestanding baths, and vast glass viewpoints to watch nature negotiate itself. And yes, I do mean negotiate:
sauntering at eight o’clock in the morning, on the adjacent marshland, were black and white rhinos, kongoni zebras, wily waterbuck and grandiloquent giraffes.
The Solio Gaming Ranch is conducive to this kind of intimation, alongside some of the best cat-viewing opportunities in the region, vaunting cheetahs, leopards and lions. This is privacy from the rest of the world, for sure, but not from Africa. This is the heart of the Earth’s heritage; the world with its lid off. Both feral and immediate, this is the real Africa, with a strange sense of homecoming, echoes of Ray Davies singing ‘Apeman’, and an extreme case of anthropological regression and nostalgia.
And back into the room.
This is the perfect way to start your safari experience: three days in a luxury lodge, with meandering walks through the wildlife, horseback rides, and complete pampering from your hosts. Solio offers the entire gratifying service, which includes some fine national and international cuisine, and a chance to see the area from the heights of a helicopter. And there’s no better way to get a sense of the landscape – its vast contours and intricate topography – than from 5,000 feet in a chopper.
Beleaguered that our stay in Laikipia seemed so fleeting, I was told that our next destination was an entirely different proposition, punctuated by typically western notions of historicism. Think colonialism and the ’85 Academy Awards. Masai Mara is a national reserve, a proper ‘Big Five’ territory: elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalos. One of Africa’s most enduring turn-ons is the danger. Essentially, it’s a Darwinian deliberation: can I eat it, or will it eat me? At Masai Mara, you stop being an invisible audience member and take your place on the stage, both watcher and watched. The Mara was originally a communal land, grazed populously by the Maasai people, until the colonial government decreed it a conservation zone in 1948. (You’ll know the Maasai people, even if you’ve only been to Africa by television. The British still have an imperially romantic weakness for them.)
We’re camping this time, but not camping as you know it. Sanctuary Olonana is the type of barefoot luxury that only Africa can offer. There are colonial connotations, complete with white tenting, assiduous affluence and uncompromising comfort. Sanctuary Olonana also makes sense of all that ecological, sustainable dwelling stuff that, back in Britain, is usually proselytised to the point of anger by leftist oddballs, but is put into practice here without any of the grief or politics. It’s a poignant irony that people in Africa suffer, yet here is a place of progressive living and sustainability. From here, Africa’s ills couldn’t be further away, squatting menacingly over the distant horizon, out of sight but never of mind.
Olonana’s camps are miniature palaces. Indeed, the bedrooms are raised enough to be aligned with the treetops; the shimmering, burnt-orange sunlight is parted by the palms and acacia in its path. From one minute to the next, you are either privy to the ubiquitous sound of nothingness, or orgiastic calls of the wild. Camping was never really my thing – until now. During the night, across the ebony sky, you can play join-the-dots with constellations and shooting stars; ink-blot shadows leap around the wilderness like a species of their own; and the phosphorescent moon follows every move, protecting the land like a military searchlight.
Olonana is essentially a heritage site, owned by Abercrombie & Kent, who incidentally are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year. Olonana is located alongside the torpid Mara River, which also straddles the Serengeti. Adjacent to us is a Maasai village, which embodies every thought you’ve ever had, or reel of film you’ve ever seen, about primeval living. (Unsurprising, really, considering they are among the most photographed people on the planet.) Spending three nights at Olonana allows for a more holistic experience of Africa, its people and their environs. The rawness and excitement here is frankly incomparable, even for a hair-splitting travel hack like me. But I make no apology for my enthusiasm and schmaltz. If you think it’s too good to be true, then stay at home and visit from your armchair. Africa will continue to be Africa without another westerner’s spin on it. Though, to ever genuinely understand the continent with some context, and without 4000 miles of mediation, you need to do it for yourself. And you need to finish up on a beach.
Red Pepper House is a boutique hotel located on Lamu Island, an archipelago off the Kenyan coast. It is a place steeped in Swahili culture: modern architecture is evocative of the old villages, markets bustle with hagglers and trinkets, and the neighbouring port town of Lamu remains a quaint haven undiscovered by tourists and their Toyota Landcruisers. Lamu Town is also a portal to the past, leading to the well-preserved ruins of Tarka, an otherworldly Muslim city uninhabited since the eighteenth century. Red Pepper House, like Lamu Island in general, is recherché and ethereal, providing everything you need for a recovery from the wild: sun for a tan, forestry for walks, champagne to drink, and a personal butler to serve. This place featured in Conde Nast Traveller’s ‘Top 100 Hotels’ this year. But more importantly, it now features in my top ten. You simply can’t beat anaemic-white sands and jungle-green waters.
Speaking of water, we were recommended a dhow trip to Manda Toto. Not expecting much, I boarded the uniquely Arab vessel, which looks typically antiquated and catches the salty breeze in its sole lateen sail. You forget the peace of the ocean; nothing but thoughtlessness and the elements. Until you see a dolphin, that is. And then another and another. And some turtles. And fish. Then it turns into a game of ‘who can spot the most extraordinarily impressive sea life’. Once-in-a-lifetime fish on an equally-seldom trip.
And that is Africa to the rest of the world: anecdotes, opinions and memoirs. Throughout Africa, everyone craves a story: the media, the charities, the tourists. But don’t go for that. Go to experience the things that most people never do. Go to understand that Africa isn’t all ten o’ clock news and David Attenborough. Indeed, Africa is everything you think you want it to be and more. It’s existential and personal. And it’s certainly not what you’ve just read here.