Sitting quietly in a log-pile hide in the heart of Kenya’s wilderness is a soulful experience – one of Kenya’s best safari experiences. Slowly, the game start coming to drink, just metres away from your secret perch. It’s a brush with wild, elemental Africa … outside a game-drive vehicle and yet in complete safety.
Wedged between Kenya’s Tsavo East and Amboseli parks, on the private Mbirikani Group Ranch adjacent to Chyulu Hills National Park, lies ol Donyo Lodge, one of Kenya’s best safari lodges. The land here is one of timeless beauty, presided over by the magnificent summit of Africa’s greatest icon – Mount Kilimanjaro.
My favourite thing here is the ol Donyo log-pile hide. It’s constructed from a mass of dried tree trunks and branches, giving the viewer total protection from bigger game, and yet blending in with the natural surroundings.
The ol Donyo log-pile hide is in a perfect location beside a waterhole, close to the lodge. The region’s young volcanic hills rise from the surrounding savannah, providing verdant sanctuary for myriad wildlife. The lodge and hide sit in woodland on one of these gently sloping hills, with endless views over the plains.
This is a wild corner of Africa where great elephant herds march across the savannah, creatures of all kinds clash in the never-ending fight for survival, and solitary acacia trees stand silhouetted against fiery sunsets.
With Africa’s highest mountain as a brooding backdrop, the views from ol Donyo Lodge are breathtakingly wide. Yet the lodge’s seclusion amid the hills presents guests with an intimate experience, a rare opportunity to be immersed in Kenya’s wilderness. On game drives, bush walks, and horseback safaris, you have the land and its creatures to yourself. But it was the log-pile hide that drew me back again and again.
I first visited ol Donyo’s hide one warm, windless afternoon. The sky was navy blue, not a leaf stirred. We approached it down a long corridor of upright stakes that shielded us from sight. The hide itself was a lean-to, with a roof covered by branches to provide shade, and surrounded on all sides by dried logs and tree trunks.
There were benches and a table where we could lay out our cameras, long lenses and binoculars. We’d been provided with cold drinks and nibbles, so we wouldn’t go hungry. I’d brought along my bird- and animal-identification books, knowing we’d be settling in for a long session of game viewing.
We took our seats silently and waited. I marvelled at the sense of peace that overcame me. There was no sound, other than the twitter of birds. No engine noise from the game-drive vehicle, no conversation. Just the voice of the wilderness. It was a chance to let the animals come to us, rather than driving about, chasing after them.
I trained my binoculars on the nearby waterhole, waiting. After a while, the first animals began to appear in the treeline. A warthog family trotted closer, line astern. Littl’uns with bushy, stand-up manes and aerial tails waded into the water. A jackal, sleek and gliding on light paws, gave them a berth as she approached to drink.
In the distance, a satellite-dish-eared kudu stamped a foreleg in irritation. Measured paces. Pauses. Closer and closer. I held my breath. Then his magnificent head stooped to drink. I aimed my long lens at the white, warrior V painted between his eyes. Water reflections played across his belly, echoing the white signature stripes of his flanks. The camera’s shutter clicked. I’d bagged a classic shot.
As the afternoon wore into evening, the waterhole grew busier. A herd of frisky zebras, lines of dusty wildebeest and rowdy baboons. Next came a Plasticine-limbed giraffe. She was nervous, as all giraffes are when they lower their heads to drink. She spread her legs wide and dipped her neck. Just as lips kissed water, she shot up, dancing away from the water in elegant bounds. After a while, she returned, spread those beanpole legs again … and drank. What a thing of grace!
The elephant made a grand entrance, rushing down to the water. There were trumpet calls, the slapping of big ears on hide, babies dashing ahead of the adults. It was a joyous scene of splashing, slurping and cavorting. As the sun set and the sky turned salmon, the elephant ambled off in jovial groups to slowly disappear among the darkening trees.
A lavish dinner under the stars awaited us at ol Donyo Lodge. It was time to head back. Over appetisers, another guest told me how the hide, and the lodge itself, came about. Evidently ol Donyo’s founder, Richard Bonham, had often flown over this spectacular region. One day, back in the 1980s, he was moved to land his Cessna on the open plains and introduce himself to the local Maasai. That was the first of many meetings, which resulted in the birth of a pioneering, community-conservation, tourism project.
The concept was simple: Richard would bring guests to this remote ranch to participate in safaris, and the Maasai would share the benefits. But nothing in Africa is ever that simple. And so began a lifelong relationship with the Maasai, the wildlife and the game ranch.
I’m so glad Richard made that landing. The ol Donyo log-pile hide experience had been a perfect moment outside time, completely immersed in the heart of Kenya’s wilderness.