The moon is so bright it lights up the pale hills in the distance. Lying under the African stars, snug in bed above the treetops with nothing but a mosquito net, I feel like I’m sleeping on a cloud. In the stillness, I could hear the rasp of a leopard, the howl of a jackal, the sounds of other wild things on the prowl. These sleep-outs on Loisaba camp’s starbeds — rough-hewn four-posters on wheels — are the stuff of the most seductive jet-setting fantasies. In the evenings, the beds are rolled out from under an open-air palm-thatched tent on a raised deck overlooking valleys stretching all the way to Mount Kenya.
Cocooned on the green hills of northern Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau, Loisaba has made a spectacular comeback after being razed by a bushfire. It’s a shining example of a modern camp, a combination of chic wilderness retreat and conservancy, low-impact luxury without excess. “When it burnt down it was a blessing,” says the camp’s charismatic Italian owner Stefano Cheli, whose father built the original lodge. “It used to be a concrete jungle, a 1970s nightmare.”
Only an hour’s flight from Nairobi, the new Loisaba is a stripped-back, soul-searching place attracting adventurers and dreamers who seek out authenticity in the exotic where lions and giraffes stroll past your tent. The nine simple solar-powered tents, nestled among an oasis of centuries-old trees, are done up with lantern-lit interiors of wooden floors, white linens, local artwork and private terraces with staggering views.
The isolated hideaway sits on a rocky escarpment inside a 56,000-acre conservancy that preserves a critical elephant migration corridor and serves as a sanctuary to one of Kenya’s most stable lion populations, endangered wild dogs and leopards.
At sunrise, our guides lead us across golden swathes of grassland on foot. They are Samburu and Laikipiak Maasai warriors, and carry a sword and gun to save us from charging elephants, big cats or anything large. The afternoon safaris are long and languorous through varying landscapes, a patchwork of acacia woodland and semi-arid savanna. Every corner reveals new surprises: giraffes gliding through the trees like slinky showgirls, antelopes of all sizes going about life on the plains, lions lazing in full view unbothered by our presence.
Deeper through the riverine valleys, we see families of rust-red elephants munching at leafy branches, with babies of varying sizes playing by their side. The camp has its own special big five: gerenuk, oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and Grévy’s zebra — (a beautiful wild horse with big round ears and pinstripe coat).
From behind a thicket of spiky acacia thorns, a flash of a leopard appeared, sniffing the air, and thrillingly dipping in and out of view. This cat with a little bit of mystery, who’d always been in my heart, I most wanted to see.
“There’s an African saying, ‘you don’t see a leopard, it allows you to see it’,” says our guide, while searching through the binoculars at the ghostly feline traipsing through the trees. On the look-out for big cats, we steer off into the grasslands and stumble on a lioness, just barely visible in the tall grasses, watching a herd of unsuspecting zebras. Soon, one of the young males, grazing just yards away, senses her presence and they all sprint away. She returns to her sleepy pride under a patch of shade trees to escape the midday heat.
After breakfast on the veranda edging a cliff face, our smiling guides sweep us off for another adventure. Along with the usual activities of game drives, sundowners and horseback safaris, guests can also participate in Loisaba Conservancy’s hands-on projects. A short drive away from the lodge, the research station and stables are home to a few dozen horses and a handful of anti-poaching dogs. We join the rangers to see a bloodhound in action. These sniffer dogs are flown out to other reserves on missions, from tracking cattle rustlers to gangs of poachers. Wandering through the sea of grasses, the rangers show us fresh lion paw prints and find a zebra leg in a nearby bush.
That night, at dusk on the way back to the lodge, there’s something rustling in the bushes followed by a whooping sound. “It’s a hyena,” our guide whispers, as we glance around warily. Suddenly something emerges out of the darkness and hurls itself against the jeep beside me, sending the other guests scattering. It’s only the owner pretending to be a hyena. Cheli, a second-generation Kenyan who has wonderful stories of escaping lions and buffalos, likes to ensure the safaris are memorable.
From £340 per person, per night and Loisaba starbeds from £210 per person, per night, including full-board safari, conservation fees, all activities and local airstrip transfers.