A Retreat Framed Under Kenya’s Picture-Perfect Skies
February 29, 2016
Sometimes you arrive in a place and you just know, instantly, that you are going to get along with it famously. Expectations are met, a sense of wonder envelops you and you feel there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. Segera Retreat in Laikipia, northwest of Mount Kenya, creates this sensation straight away.
Skidding onto the dusty private airstrip set in the midst of a tremendous 22,250-hectare ranch, my husband and I are met by our Segera “family”, who will look after us over the coming days. Cooks, bartenders, guides and butlers greet us with the sort of smiles you find only in Kenya: big, bright, heartfelt smiles that match smiling eyes, warm as an African sunset.
My heart thumps, my spirit soars, and my jaw drops at the spectacle in front of me. To my right is a giant, conical wine tower that houses a vast collection of champagne and African wines. Reflecting Segera’s commitment to preserving the environment, the tower is cooled by solar-generated power and collected rainwater. Beyond is flat, sun-baked grassland, punctuated by fever trees, stretching as far as the eye can see. The air, laced with the faint scent of firewood, is refreshingly cool.
In front of the wine tower is the Paddock House. On the lower level is perhaps the best spot for breakfast in the entire continent: the tables are in the open air, animals graze in the distance and vervet monkeys run amok nearby. Upstairs, in the Explorer Lounge, more legendary wonders await. There, among the leather armchairs, telescopes and map cases – all associated with Africa’s exotic past – are original letters and photographs belonging to explorers, including David Livingstone, or literary greats such as Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen. This is a special little museum in the middle of nowhere.
Up a path to the stables is where I catch my first glimpse of part of one of the world’s biggest collections of modern African art. Video meets photography inside the stables and again, for a moment, I am transported to a big-city museum or a cutting-edge art gallery. A bar to one side has more smiling staff ready to make a cocktail, coffee or anything else a guest might want. Encircled by luxury, with famed art close at hand, and yet surrounded by bush as far as the eye can see, is a slightly disorienting feeling.
Culture is part of the experience. Segera is a wildlife sanctuary focused on what the staff call “the four Cs”: conservation, community, commerce and culture. The retreat is owned by German entrepreneur and conservationist Jochen Zeitz, who established the Zeitz Foundation to promote sustainable projects that balance these four elements.
The walk to the villa turns out to be an adventure in itself. A narrow path leads through the sculpture gardens, which are spilling over with fluorescent pink rhododendrons. At every turn is a surprise. Around one bend is a dipping pool with a thatched bar. Around another, several small military-style statues dot the edge of the path. Our thatched wooden villa is no less impressive. Standing alone, the villa has an impossibly romantic open-air swing bed and sitting area on the lower level. Upstairs, I am greeted by a huge bedroom, open-air Jacuzzi and a long balcony from which to gaze at the wildlife. A greater degree of privacy and luxury is hard to find. Our villa is one of six.
The giraffes must have heard me arrive, as I have only just started unpacking when silently, one by one, they begin to gather at a watering hole. Crouching down or doing the splits, they ease their elegant necks to drink. After 20 minutes or so, 15 have arrived. Behind them, the sky has turned inky black and then, with a rumble, the heavens open. Raindrops pour down, punching craters in the earth. The animals move off and I retreat inside, rubbing my eyes at the wonder of my first day on safari.
That night, my husband and I dine in the wine tower, eager for the next day’s safari. It is a private dining experience unlike any other, but then, that’s what Segera is all about. Everyone is catered to individually and it is incredibly private. In keeping with the retreat ethos, we choose wines from family-owned African vineyards, made with minimal intervention and maximum sustainability. The food is farm-to-table fare. It is fresh, healthy and delicious, with an emphasis on ingredients found locally and produced sustainably.
Our dinner is either grown in the resort’s own vegetable and herb garden, or on neighbouring farms. Fresh trout come from streams nearby and the honey is the result of a beekeeping effort begun only recently. The proof is in the eating. The cooks prepare nourishing meals, served on the most beautiful tableware that would not be out of place in a top restaurant in a big city. I’m again deliciously disoriented by the contradiction of the wilderness against the luxury on offer.
We set off the next day at 9am. Peter, our guide, steers us through the bush, pointing out zebras, vultures and buffalo hidden in the thick vegetation. We’re transfixed by the vastness, the scenery and the abundance of the wildlife.
After about an hour, we stop at a collection of small huts built of clay and grass. The Satubo Beading Group employs women from three tribes: Samburu, Turkana and Borana, hence Satubo. So good are the women at their craft that Vivienne Westwood commissioned traditional designs to be incorporated in her own line of bags and accessories. We meet the staff and buy painted wooden birds and beaded spoons. We learn that Satubo is a Zeitz Foundation community project designed to empower women and promote the sustainable development of rural communities.
Leaving Satubo behind, our open-sided jeep takes us deeper into the bush, passing elephants. We bounce down a rough trail with thick bush on both sides and emerge by a river, unaware of what Peter has in store. We do a double take as a clutch of Segera staffers wave and call to us. They have set up a picnic, the picnic of your dreams. Tables are in place, cushions scattered, binoculars are placed handily and we spend a blissful hour under the African sun, listening to bird song as we are served a three-course lunch.
On the way back Peter stops the jeep and points. In front of us on the dusty road lies a puff adder. It’s motionless but very much alive. “Very dangerous, very deadly,” cautions Peter, wincing.
The picnic is not our final treat. Returning to the resort, we make a detour to a small aircraft hangar. Its doors open to reveal a two-seater plane. The shiny yellow paint gives it away: it is G-AAMY, the Gipsy Moth biplane used in the iconic film Out of Africa, one of the finest examples of movie memorabilia. Zeitz bought the plane at auction in Paris in 2013 and it occasionally soars over Kenya’s landscape, piloted by Zeitz. At dinner that night I leaf through the Out of Africa media pack that Zeitz has collected.
Another surprise waits back at the villa. Our swing bed on the lower level has been transformed into a makeshift berth for the night. A gauzy mosquito net hangs over the king-size mattress and plump pillows. A chalk board reads: “Enjoy your sleep out”. Several lanterns cast a gentle light. We decide to try it, climbing into bed and holding the duvet tight under our chins. Around us are the sounds of an African night: bullfrogs, a zebra braying, the chirp of a million insects and the disconcerting cackling of hyenas. The noise sends us running upstairs to the security of a bedroom with four walls and a proper bed. The next morning, we tell Peter how wimpy we were. He collapses in a fit of laughter.
All too soon, the experience is over. So divine is the Segera Retreat that we depart with a heavy heart, taking with us a real fondness for Peter, our guide, and leaving behind promises to return as soon as possible.