Find out about the pioneers of eco-tourism in Kenya, and why El Karama is amazing for families.
31 May 2019
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Are you looking for your first family safari destination or an incredible family friendly lodge? We caught up with Sophie Grant, co-founder of El Karama in Laikipia, Kenya. El Karama is an award winning family run eco lodge, focusing on the preservation of the unique habitat, as well as making meaningful opportunities for livelihood creation in the Laikipia area. Staying in El Karama is all about freely exploring the bushland, creating incredible memories and most importantly, having fun!
What inspired you to build El Karama?
Murray my husband, a sculptor of wildlife bronzes, built the original parts of the lodge from 2006-2009 as an effort to create a steady revenue stream to support the preservation of this amazing habitat and to create employment opportunities for people in the area. He wanted to create a unique and authentic eco-tourism lodge that spoke of the natural beauty of these precious eco systems and that used the natural materials around him in artistic ways.
When I came along in 2009, I could see the huge potential the lodge could have to welcome families interested in connecting with nature, our wild way of life and to help them have adventures in the bush with African wildlife all around them. With Murray’s artistic flair and ability to build and train people and my interest in communicating, cooking and education the ingredients were perfect! 10 years on the team we began with are still with us, we have welcomed guests from more countries I can think of as well as resident Kenyans, which is also very important to us. Our little eco lodge is a real labour of love!
How does a safari experience in Laikipia differ from elsewhere in Kenya?
Laikipia as a region is completely and utterly unique, not simply in the diversity of its landscapes, people and wildlife, but also because of its rich history and innovative outlook to land use. Laikipia is known for its holistic approach to combining livestock ranching with wildlife conservation, tourism and other industries like horticulture and arable farming. Laikipia is also home to some of the world’s most unusual wildlife species including the very rare and endangered Grevy Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe and Gerenuk. We also have the world's highest population of Black Rhino in this region, which attracts guests from all around the world.
The overall privacy and high standards of best practice and management mean tourists visiting Laikipia get largely unfettered views and landscapes, uncrowded experiences that focus on the intrinsic beauty of these spaces. Laikipia is also known for its highly interactive and experiential safaris with adventure elements like camel safaris, rock climbing, mountaineering as well as horse riding and wildlife safaris. Because much of the areas are either private land or carefully managed conservancies, the freedom to walk, ride horses, walk with camels, fly camp, interact in farm lives, homesteads or working businesses are all possible here. The rich social fabric of the Laikipia Plateau also means guests can combine a wildlife safari with a truly unique cultural experience walking with Samburu Trackers in the Northern reaches of the region or learning about medicinal plants from elders.
What are wildlife sightings like?
Laikipia is second to none for its wildlife. A place like El Karama is home to Elephant, Buffalo, Hippo, Leopard, Lion, Cheetah, Reticulated Giraffe, Grevy Zebra, Gerenuk and so much more. There is no typical day here, but the game is generally always around and relatively easy to see in Laikipia. Unlike other regions where guests have to travel up to an hour from their accommodation to find game, here at El Karama, the animals are there from the moment you wake up in and around camp to every outing on foot or in cars day or night. There is always something to see - over 80 mammal species and an unparalleled 430 bird species, the abundance and variety at El Karama and indeed in Laikpiia is very special compared to the rest of the world.
Pressure on habitat and wildlife in Kenya is huge and research now shows that wild animals only live in protected areas such as conservancies, private land and national parks. This reality highlights the increasing value of a region such as Laikipia, which supports a huge number of endangered species in Kenya as well as other animals. The conservation models here are innovative and arguably for now Laikipia is one of Kenya’s success stories. Tourism is a big driver of habitat stabilisation and although that industry alone will not be sufficient to save all of Kenya’s wildlife, it goes a long way to creating employment opportunities, wildlife sanctuaries and viable businesses for communities and the private sector, which overall means only good things for the future of this amazing region!
Who typically stays at El Karama?
We welcome all guests, but in recent years our reputation has definitely been established as a special, homely place for families and multigenerational groups on safari. Our passion for rewilding families and children in particular is unlimited and we have great fun developing activities that will inspire and engage young minds in the bush. It’s all about adventure, engagement and interaction. Because my husband grew up on El Karama, his childhood has provided endless inspiration to me when developing educational actives or fun aspects to bush life for our guests. It’s all inextricably linked as the lodge is our home, we share the chickens and bunnies with our guests and our children pop in and out meeting the visiting children too!
Do you have activities geared specifically for young children?
YES absolutely. We are the first and currently the ONLY lodge in Laikipia to have a Bush School: a kids club designed just for children. Our activities range from mud sculpting with termite clay, making bush crafts, art, baking and cooking lessons in our bush kitchen, fishing, tracking and cast making, setting trail cameras and wildlife monitoring.
Bush school is for children but also for parents, giving them some much needed down time from long haul flights and even some fun inspiration of things to do at home. It’s not uncommon for us to find parents getting involved for the sheer fun of it all!
We also adapt all meals, mealtimes and activities to suit families of different age groups to make sure everyone gets the best out of their safari. As parents to two small girls who adventure and travel widely, we know how important it is to get the mealtimes right and to break activities like game drives down into bite sized chunks for children whose attention span maybe not allow for the adult focus on such things! Kenyans are charming people and there is in every background a love of children, which means that children are constantly looked after and entertained in a natural and unaffected way by the team who enjoy their company.
Tell us about fly camping, it sounds amazing!
Fly camping is definitely one of my personal favourites and has become a real success with our groups and families. The idea of fly camping is traditionally to sleep under light canvas under the stars. Our version of this has been adapted to bring a more adventurous evening to families staying 3 or more nights. Our camp consists of floating tree tents suspended above the ground, that have see through mosquito domes that allow you to lie in a cosy duvet and mattress looking straight up to the sky. We also have beautiful canvas bell tents that can open up to the breeze for those who are slightly less mobile and prefer the ground beneath their feet. We make an open fire and cook out under the stars with the guides, sharing stories and listening to the night sounds of far off lion and hyena. The guests are looked after by their host guide and a ranger for extra comfort!
It’s the most amazing way to slow down and absorb the magic of the bush. Sometimes in the rush of travel preparations and busy lives people forget the precious simplicity of being outdoors, smelling the crisp morning air, a wood fire and a warm blanket snuggling with loved ones. The early morning is my favourite where we sip hot drinks including the gorgeous traditional Kinyegi tea and watch the sun rising over the hills beyond.
We often recommend that guests who like to walk, should walk directly out of their fly camp and carry on back to the lodge after a freshly baked cinnamon roll where they can pick up on showers and the home comforts.
A recent guest who was nervous of camping came back and told me that it had been the best time of her life! I think with all life’s complications and material comforts, getting out into the wilds and understanding how little one needs to be content in Mother Nature is probably the best gift we bush dwellers can share with our guests!
El Karama is on a private working ranch, can guests get involved in ranch activities?
Absolutely, we welcome it. Our theory is that if we can share knowledge and our passion with everyone that crosses the threshold, we will create a network of friends all over the world who understand the value of wild places such as this.
Our best bits are farm visits where guests can visit the baby calves and lambs for cuddles or to learn about our practices, visits to the dairy are also really popular to go and see the milk being prepared. Our organic garden is my pride and joy and we host visits there where guests can see where most of their fruit and vegetables come from and take part in planting seedlings or veg beds with us if they wish! We have a little potting shed area for children so they can dig their own vegetables and take them back for cooking!
We also have wildlife monitoring activities such as our new ranger walk where guests accompany the anti-poaching foot patrol for up to 5 hours to scale the property on foot and learn about how to count wildlife, how to monitor for poaching and other challenges. This activity is ideal for older teenagers with energy and curiosity and other adults who prefer to be out on foot. The rangers enjoy sharing their working life with guests and like our resident guides they have really interesting perspectives on life in the bush.
We and the guides all use trail cameras to collect information on ID’s, behaviour and much more - we involve guests in this activity too so they can monitor game at special sites including inside camp and near their cottages!
Your ‘Farm to Fork’ approach to produce sounds tasty, tell us more.
Wholesome food grown here is a real corner stone of our offering at El Karama Lodge. Guests can pick their own veg, collect the eggs with their children and even learn to cook in our kitchen if they are inclined. We believe that organic food, picked fresh and cooked lovingly makes the safaris even more special. So, guests can expect lots of fresh salads and edibles flowers, colourful, hearty menus with home grown or locally sourced food only.
The kitchen produces its own cordials, herb salts, petal sugars, breads, pastries and desserts all from scratch. We also have lamb and chicken from the farm, eggs from my own homestead set up next to the lodge and beef from a neighbour. Fish is sourced from the edge of the Aberdares - trout - and we do not import or buy anything from further than a 100km radius. This ensures we understand the provenance and most crucially we are supporting our neighbours directly in the businesses they have. Our little diary, a social enterprise project that benefits our neighbours also, produces fresh milk daily. We use this to make our own yoghurt, mild cheeses such as ricotta and curds as well as yummy creamy desserts straight from our cows! Our dairy is a calf friendly dairy, only 48 heifers and the calves are always fed milk first and not separated from their mothers as in commercial operations. The cows go out to graze and are also given home grown hay and Lucerne (a useful source of protein) for those conscious of animal welfare we feel we are operating the most animal friendly option possible!
What has been your favourite moment raising a family and living alongside a working lodge?
The freedom in a wild environment. I was brought up birdwatching, walking and camping by my parents. In fact, I don’t believe I went to a hotel until I was about 10 years old. It was all about adventuring under the stars, enjoying the fruits of Mother Nature and learning about her. Bringing my children up here is a huge privilege because they are free to wander barefoot, their heads are filled with birds and butterflies and a love of the outdoors and their concerns are very much about caring for the land and the people and animals in it. Personally, I love seeing the people who work with us progress in life, to see the habitat protected as much as possible and to see wild animals in their natural space rather than contained or pressured. I also really enjoy meeting guests from all around the world and sharing ideas. El Karama is definitely a vortex for passionate people and we often develop friendships with the people who visit and remain in touch for years to come.
If you had to sum up El Karama in three words, what would they be?