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Active Travels: Kenya’s Natural Splendor at Shompole

Maasai at Shompole

By Steve Jermanok

Helicopter pilots know the soothing effect of music when flying dangerously close to a glacier in British Colombia or that river of lava on the Big Island of Hawaii. Throw on those headphones and listen to some mellow Pink Floyd to quiet those nerves. The calming influence of music is also helpful on a 12-seater bush plane from Nairobi, especially when swallowed up by a big white cloud without the slightest hint of visibility. In place of headphones, I grabbed my iPod and started listening to Van Morrison belt out “Tupelo Honey.”

Thankfully, we were soon flying over the mountains and touching down in the wide expanse of the Great Rift Valley on the Kenya/Tanzania border. The only sign of civilization were thatched-roof huts nestled into the rocky hillside and Maasai villagers waiting for us dressed in their most colorful garb. A short drive later, we arrived at those huts, a mix of white quartz stone floors and the twisting limbs of fig trees that held up the immense palapa roof. In the middle of these huts are king-sized beds and ceiling fans wrapped in large mosquito nets. Each room also has a shower area, toilet, sink, private plunge pool, and sofa that jut out into the arid terrain. One thing that was missing, however, was the walls.

Shompole

Within moments of arriving, I was staring at a pack of baboons running and jumping under a canopy of trees. The air was thick with heat and the sounds of birds singing, including the bright yellow weaver who came over to introduce himself. If you crave a natural setting, one without television, telephone, internet access, and walls, it’s hard to top the upscale African hideaway they call Shompole.

Nestled within a 40,000-acre conservancy, you have no neighbors outside the resort except for the 10,000 or so Maasai villagers who call this place home. Not only is the land owned by the Maasai, but the community has a 30 percent partnership in Shompole and benefits from employment opportunities, fees paid for wildlife conservation, and the sale of all local handicrafts. The more than $3 million US dollars the local Maasai have earned from Shompole since it opened in 1999 has helped with education, clean water initiatives, and protecting the wildlife. In the past decade, the number of lions in the region has increased from 6 to more than 55.

Think of Shompole as your own private game reserve. Wake up in your open-air hut to a cacophony of birds singing as you watch a family of giraffes walking across the valley under the reddish-yellow rays of an early morning sun. After downing several cups of Kenyan coffee and biscuits brought to your hut, you can take a nature walk with the Maasai and learn how different roots and leaves cure their ailments. The aromatic desert beet tea is particularly good for stomach cramps. Then you have breakfast in the bush under the arching branches of a fig tree. The Maasai are also proud to show you their small huts, cattle, schools, wives (plural), and children.

It tends to get hot during the midday hours, so folks retreat back to Shompole to read, play a game of chess, or cool off in the large swimming pool. Later in the afternoon, you go on game drives to see the zebras, baboons, giraffes, and lions. Flamingoes and storks feed in the shallows of Lake Natron, with the volcanoes of Tanzania rising in the background. Unlike the Masai Mara, there are no other Jeeps rushing over to view the wildlife except the one you’re in.

As darkness descends, it’s back to the main lodge for a sumptuous dinner of local meats, fish, and produce, with many of the vegetables farmed at the large Shompole garden. Wash it down with a Tusker Ale or one of the South African wines and peer up at the twinkling stars.  All too quickly you’re under the magical spell of Shompole. And all too quickly your bush plane arrives to bring you back to modernity, where a life’s worth of music on an iPod can’t possibly drown out the sadness of leaving such a special spot.

Rates start at $470 US a night, including all meals and activities. www.wilderness-ventures.com

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