48 HOURS IN THE CHYULU HILLS

Chyulu Hills….magical, mystical Chyulu Hills, located between the Amboseli and Tsavo ecosystems. I have always wanted to visit the high-end Ol Donyo Lodge, situated deep in the Chyulus and when the opportunity presented itself at the end of January, I grabbed it with both hands.

Having heard so much about the lodge and the numerous activities one can enjoy there, I knew that I was in for a fun filled, adventure stay. Most importantly myself, and other visitors to the lodge are contributing to the conservation of this magnificently wild area and its animals.

3 magnificent bulls at the waterhole

Getting there was a breeze – a 35 minute flight with Safarilink Airlines early in the morning got us to the Ol Donyo airstrip by 8.30 am, ready for our adventures. Our guide, Jackson (instrumental in getting us to visit the lodge) met us at the lodge and escorted us to the hide, where three large elephants were waiting to greet us. Although we were extremely close to them, and they knew we were there, the elephants were calm and enjoying the cool water at the waterhole. All the water used at the lodge, is filtered and routed to the waterhole for the use of the game that visits the waterhole.

The lodge has 2 hides, one on ground level and one below ground and both offer excellent photographic opportunities. Jackson, being an excellent photographer, also offered us some very valuable tips.

Ground level hide

The managers at the lodge, Abby & Edward, although quite new, are extremely competent and run a very tight ship….nothing escapes Abby’s eagle eye, and they are always on hand to greet every arrival at the lodge, be it new arrivals or guests just arriving from a game drive.

The rooms were a wonderful surprise – each of the suites and villas has it’s own plunge pool overlooking the plains, and a rooftop terrace with ‘star beds’ which can be set up for you.

Plunge pools overlooking the plains

Two of us in the group were given the loan of a professional Canon Camera each (normally inclusive when you pay for exclusive hire of the vehicle), and we whiled away the hours before lunch learning how to use the camera, hopefully getting some wonderful shots of the wildlife below.

Lunch was served in the pool house – a selection of fresh, delicious salads and a delectable dessert and cheese board. Drinks are inclusive at the lodge so while everyone enjoyed a chilled glass of rose wine, I opted for the fashionable Hendricks G & T.

A dip in the pool after lunch, and off we went on our first game drive. We came across lots of plains game, no cats unfortunately, and settled down, drinks in hand, for our first sundowner in the Chyulus. Driving back to the lodge in the early evening, the lodge radioed Jackson to advise him of lions at the waterhole – unfortunately we missed them as they had already left the waterhole by the time we arrived. A quick shower and then dinner served in the wine cellar – a veritable treat.

All of us decided to sleep out on the ‘star beds’ that night, as the stars were particularly bright in the night sky. Lanterns, candles and an open sky awaited us after dinner, but I am ashamed to say that I promptly fell into such a deep slumber, that not only did I miss out on the stars, but also on all the animal noises during the night.

Next day, early wake up call and off we went to the Ride Kenya Stables, to meet the team headed by John & Paul. After being fitted out with chaps and helmets, we mounted our horses and were given brief instructions on how to handle the horse. It did look a little intimidating at first but we soon got the hang of it.

Back in the vehicle, we drove out to the plains where we met up with the horses and set off on a gentle walk on the plains. It was a blissful 60 minutes….walking quietly on the plains, game in sight, with the iconic Mt Kilimanjaro in the foreground.

Soon it was time for a well deserved breakfast under some shady trees, and then back on the horses for the return journey. Jackson picked us up midway and then received an alert from the lodge that a black rhino had been spotted on the plains. There was pandemonium – this was the first time a black rhino had been spotted here in 20 years and everyone wanted to be a part of this historic occasion. All the staff from the lodge came out in the vehicle and we were there too (actually we were just a total of 3 vehicles which indicates how unspoilt this area is) but the shy creature retired into some bushes. We tried getting photos of the rhino but the high temperatures were creating a haze which was showing up on the photos. Big Life Foundation‘s Craig Miller came to see the rhino as well, accompanied by his dog, and it was a very exciting and charged 30 – 45 minutes trying to get a glimpse of the rhino in the distance.

Back to the lodge for another delicious lunch, followed by a dip in the pool and then onto our next big adventure – going into the one of the lava tube caves that crisscross the Chyulu Hills. The Chyulu Hills has the deepest known lava tube cave in the world, and one of the caves, the Upper Leviathan Cave has been measured at 11.15 km – one of the world’s longest caves.

Getting there took us about 45 minutes by car and then a short hike to the entrance of the cave. We were accompanied by a Maasai veteran carrying a rifle and a wicked short knife, and despite having only one eye, was said to be an expert marksman.

Descending into the cool, dark depths of the cave was like entering a another world. There were trees growing out of the lava, and the silent, eerie depths were home to many bats. Thankfully one did not feel claustorphobic as the cave was large and most times you could see open sky at both ends. We came across a few birds but no snakes or other reptiles, though we were all so focused on where we were putting our feet, that we may have missed a few. There were sections where the only way to get down was on the seat of your pants.

Coming out into the fresh, open air has never felt better, and we had to celebrate with the obligatory sundowner, this time the spirit of choice being Musgrave Gin.

Back at the lodge, I decided to try the outdoor shower in our suite, which I dubbed “Star Shower” , after which we had dinner by the pool….truly a magical setting! As everyone was knackered after the day’s events, and we had an early start in the morning, we all decided to sleep indoors – good choice as the beds were super comfy and conducive to a good night’s rest.

Our last breakfast at the lodge, goodbyes to Abby, Edward and the staff with promises to return and then Jackson whisked us off to the airstrip. No sooner had we arrived, when we saw the lights of the Safarilink plane coming in to land. No byes for Jackson…for him it was ‘see you soon’ and then a wonderfully smooth flight back to the city.

I do think I will need a stint at the coast to recover from all that activity.